Cruising Fiordland: Sounds fantastic

By Bryce Johns

Bryce Johns marvels at the beauty of Fiordland's triple crown.

The view from the MS Volendam cruise ship as it tours Fiordland. Photo / Supplied
The view from the MS Volendam cruise ship as it tours Fiordland. Photo / Supplied

How bizarre. I'm about to head into one of the most remote and beautiful parts of New Zealand while jogging on a treadmill.

It'll top off a tremendous day.

The cruise liner MS Volendam reached Aotearoa after a bumpy couple of days crossing the Tasman - and the first place we hit was Milford Sound.

It's the reason my partner and I have taken the trip. Neither of us has been to Milford, or Stewart Island, the second stop. I'm closer to 40 than 50 (just) and have never looked likely to make it that far south. I don't enjoy tramping and the drive from big-city Auckland has always been too daunting.

Although there's now talk about tunnels and new roads into Fiordland, for me it was better to find a way to get into New Zealand's geographical jewel that was a bit more fun yet still an exotic holiday.

That's how the two of us have become rarities - Kiwis touring their own country on a foreign cruise ship. The Volendam has 2000 people, including staff, but fewer than 20 of us are New Zealanders.

Thankfully, after just one day back in our territorial waters and the crossing from Sydney, we can say the cruise idea was the right call.

We enter Milford Sound before 8am and, despite it being December, it is freezing. But even with clouds hemming us in, it is clear we are in for something special from the moment we enter the mouth of the fjord, Dale Point.

The clouds have caused some angst in the foreign contingent, the ones who fear their views will be blocked and have no idea of how rare sun in the Sound is.

But as we move into the 15km channel, the clouds start to dissipate. Not for us any of the rainfall that makes the venue one of the wettest in the world (the mean annual rainfall is close to 7000mm). In fact, the further we get in, the more the clouds evaporate and for a few minutes at least, the sun comes out.

It makes the sheer walls that tower above the ship, some as high as 1200m, even more impressive. And the hanging valley high above at one point is a miracle in the sunshine.

The ship's captain seems to know all the best spots and we get remarkably close to the rocks in some parts, particularly to view a couple of the waterfalls that cascade year-round. Thankfully this tour is pre-Costa Concordia and no one gives a thought to any potential disaster.

The Volendam's crew come around to hand out hot croissants and hot chocolate as we stand well-rugged-up on the deck. This is the luxury way to tour the Sound. The sights are everything they are cracked up to be.

Barely an hour later we are steaming out of the Sound and en masse the tourists head inside. It's straight to the buffet - cooked breakfast with multiple servings of all types of food, healthy or otherwise.

With a full belly and having woken early to get the best viewing spots, it's time for a little doze in the cabin before reappearing on deck as we head into the second of the Fiordland National Park's triple crown, Doubtful Sound.

This time, we are at the front of the ship, not the back, enjoying the panoramic views of the more open Doubtful Sound. It's still cold and the dozens of people around us are hunkering down in jackets, hats and in one case even a dressing gown - but no one is moving inside, these views are what everyone has come to see.

Doubtless Sound is different from Milford, but no less enjoyable. We tour its three arms and find there are not quite the number of jagged razor-backed mountains but plenty of untouched hills and intense greens of native forest. We see only one other boat, a Department of Conservation ranger.

As we head back out to sea an hour or so later, we're peckish again and it's time for a bit more sustenance before we reach the day's third highlight, Dusky Sound. A small helping of roast, with crispy spuds, a small curry and to finish an ice cream in a cone.

I'm feeling guilty now so after a bit of reading in the deck loungers around the pool, I'm heading for the gym as we approach Dusky.

Don't worry, I'm not going to miss any of the action. The gym has the best view in the house - it's right at the front of the ship, two levels above the captain and the helm, and one above the popular Crow's Nest bar. It is glass fronted, offering excellent views whether you're on a treadmill, cycle or rowing machine.

We've only been on the boat three days but the food and booze is endless and sweating out some of it while looking at a part of New Zealand most Kiwis never get to is satisfying in the extreme.

The cruise through Dusky Sound is no quick jaunt, however. A sprinter would never last. After 30 minutes' jogging I pull back to a walk, so reluctant am I to tear myself away from the view. In front of me, couples are still huddled together, peering over the railing. The sun is out but apart from us sweat-hogs no one is warm.

Eventually I've had enough. A jog back to the room, a quick shower and I'm at the back of the ship, mojito in hand, as we depart Fiordland for the last time.

It's getting colder as the sun sets and only two random Australians with a taste for expensive single malt whisky are left braving the elements with us as the view disappears.

It's times like this you don't mind Aussies for company - particularly when they're gushing about your country.

Knowing another 7am wake-up call awaits for our Stewart Island visit, it's back to the cabin for room service, only slightly sozzled. You don't want a foggy head for a once-in-a-lifetime stopover.

Not all cruise ships that travel around New Zealand get to Stewart Island. It has no infrastructure, so it can only take one cruise liner a day, whereas there were two in Milford Sound during our visit.

Stewart Island is also the first venue on the cruise where passengers can depart the ship and, knowing that means a crush as the punters, most of them not the quickest on their feet, queue to get off the ship.

We head for breakfast first and have a free run in getting into the lifeboats to be ferried ashore by the time we're finished.

As we pull into Oban, population something like 400, hundreds of people stream up a steep hill, either in vans or walking at various speeds. The invaders have arrived.

Through the cute wee township, we head out to take in some of the views at the myriad attractive beaches dotted nearby. It is a nature lovers' paradise. Some tourists go out on boats and return with great action shots of dolphins leaping out of the water and yet others tour rare bird colonies.

If you can stand the isolation, it would be well worth hanging around.

A queue for fish and chips from the well-stocked local, a pint at the well-worn pub and a walk to some of the great vantage points in the township and it's time to join the march back to the Volendam. Some of the locals have put out chairs at their gates to allow the older ship visitors to have breathers as they make their way back. Time to savour one last look at the unspoilt view over Halfmoon Bay - it's one of the highlights of the day, and of the trip.

With the two cruise highlights done for us, we can sit back, relax and enjoy the ship as it heads up the east coast of the country, stopping at Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington, Hawke's Bay, Tauranga, Auckland and the Bay of Islands, before the return to Sydney.

You have to use the facilities well. A massage in the spa is hugely relaxing; all five restaurants deserve our patronage; all six bars need visiting but the casino doesn't get too much of our moolah (it can't have got much of anyone's ... the older punters seem to hit their beds early.) And though they can be a bit Hi De Hi, the daily games and competitions - from quizzes to quoits - are great fun if you're willing to be uninhibited.

But it's the memories of that great southern scenery that will linger. The best jog I've ever had.

Cruise dos and don'ts

Do:

* Check what alcohol you can take, and what you're allowed to bring on at stopovers. It'll cut your bill.

* Take an orientation tour. Great prizes are on offer on opening day if you pop in for a visit to various parts of the ship.

* Take warm clothing. It's a ship, and no one ever sunbathes at Milford.

* Take a book, you'll finally have time to read it, though there is a library too.

* Try two-for-one martinis at happy hour.

* Check the price of ship-led excursions with what you can book yourself.

Don't:

* Think all food and drink is free. Even lattes cost extra on some liners. And most ships have a fancy restaurant where you have to pay extra.

* Try lobster smeared with processed cheese.

* Be afraid to ask for a seasickness pill if they are offered. It means you'll probably need one.

* Rush into buying photos from the on-board camera people. The quality is great but you'll get stung on price.

Top five cruising tips

Debbie Christian of Cruiseabout Parnell shares her top five tips on how to get the most out of a cruise:

1. Keep some local currency on hand to use in small towns and villages. Many are not set up for credit card payments.

2. Even at the height of summer the sea nights can be cool or windy. Pack light sweaters, wind breakers or wraps so you can make the most of the tropical nights.

3. Pack an adapter and a multi-board plug to allow for all of your different electronics.

4. Take part in at least one shore excursion. They are well planned and can enhance your cruise experience - you don't always see everything when you're doing your own thing.

5. Try something new. Whether it's rock climbing, mini golf, yoga or even a computer class - all ships offer a variety of experiences.

Further information: Contact Debbie and the team at Cruiseabout in Parnell on 0800 22 11 00.

Bryce Johns cruised courtesy of the Holland America Line. The price per person for a 14-night Sydney-to-Sydney cruise is in the $2600-$3300 range, including port charges and taxes.

- Herald on Sunday

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