Cruising: The ship that rocked

By Edward Rooney

Edward Rooney charts a course to the bottom of South Island and across to Australia on one of the busiest cruise ships afloat.

The Celebrity Century takes you on a 12-day journey from Auckland to Sydney. Photo / Supplied
The Celebrity Century takes you on a 12-day journey from Auckland to Sydney. Photo / Supplied

Hemisphere Bar, level 12 of the Celebrity Century. We are a few nautical miles into the Tasman Sea and I am levitating out of a comfy armchair as the vessel drops from a large wave.

Up here at the front of the ship, one level above the bridge, the movement is exaggerated. Paintings hover horizontal before slapping back to the walls. The ceiling panels crash and rattle as the vessel shudders and groans into the trough of a wave, then rises again.

The wrap-around windows reveal little more than darkness. The "little more" is an occasional slash of foam on the glass. It is impossible to tell whether this is the waves striking our lofty perch or this is rain.

Tonight in the bar, it's album appreciation hour and Elvis Presley huskily croons "... treat me like a fool ..." from his 1956 sessions at Sun Studios. I close my eyes and savour a mouthful of Scotch and dry as the lounge bar reaches zero gravity on the crest of a wave. I'm waiting for my favourite track: "Well I heard the news, there's good rockin' tonight ...".

Aboard the Celebrity Century, every part of the journey is accompanied with the kind of touches that Elvis would have appreciated. Earlier in the day, I had soaked in a Jacuzzi tub atop the pool deck in the open air cathedral of Milford Sound. The walls of the mountains loomed so close they almost appeared to connect overhead. Any chance of enjoying the majestic setting in peace was disrupted by my 8-year-old son thumping the button for more jets every six minutes.

Twelve days from Auckland to Sydney, via the Bay of Islands, Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Akaroa, Dunedin, Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sounds and Melbourne. A band of Filipino musicians called Canonics performs relentlessly. Their country set in the Rendez-Vous Bar with a sole dancer supported by a zimmer frame was a standout show.

The highlights of a cruise are exclusive and unique to each passenger. There is little point in insisting on a must-do list as passengers will find their own crazy times. But assuredly there will be many. There is two staff for every passenger and during this voyage we become friends with our stateroom attendant Georges, who makes up our room twice a day and leaves far too many chocolates on our 8-year-old's pillow. If we're caught crossing the borders with this much confectionery, we'll need an import licence.

In the Grand Restaurant each night, our waiter Domingos patiently explains the bewildering array of food on offer. Black cherry consomme is outlined step-by-step until - realising our blank faces - he declares: "It's a fruit soup." It tastes incredible.

An extended group of South American passengers - we call them The Kardashians, as the girls have beehive hairdos and giant sunglasses - erupts into singing every night in the restaurant. It's all good, raucous fun.

At six each morning, cruise director Ian Creswell is broadcast on Channel 15 in our stateroom, outlining some of the 36 special activities for the day, followed by another 30 for the evening. The full programme is posted under our door during the night. Sixty entertainers perform onboard. Will Martin sings for two nights at the Celebrity Theatre. We opt for Rod Stewart impersonator Morgan Kent and wallow in the cheesy silliness as he prostrates himself on stage and weeps over the loss of "Rach".

When our son is not keeping the jets going in the Jacuzzi, he is negotiating to return to the Fun Factory. At his first session, he decorated a T-shirt with the words "Happy holiday" and he's utterly sold on the kids' programme. Every day has a different theme, including a "Kia Ora New Zealand" day with a game called "dingo, dingo, koala". We have to bargain hard to persuade him to join us for dinner with Domingos.

Health and fitness doesn't go out the porthole, either. Leg stamina is improved by the constant rocking and there are morning classes for stretching, yoga and core strength, plus fab ab sessions in the afternoon. The fitness centre on level 11 has bicycle machines facing forward of the ship so you can bike all the way across the ditch if you want to.

Meals are served around the clock in the Island Cafe on deck 11. Fresh pepperoni pizzas are still coming out of the ovens at 12.30am. But after the first couple of days, the appetite settles down and we end up eating slightly less than back on shore.

Each shore visit is a huge exercise. At port, the Celebrity Century disgorges passengers into tour buses to vineyards or Hobbit villages. We opt for all-day strolls around the towns of Mt Maunganui, Napier, Wellington, Akaroa and Dunedin. The pavement undulates under our feet as our sea-legs mock our attempts to walk on dry land. Shore visits are an opportunity to drink beer other than the bland American lagers on the ship and to find some fish and chips. After four days at sea, we were ready for a bundle of newsprint full of battered cod and spuddies.

We also smuggled our laundry ashore at Wellington to pay $12 for a load of clothes - washed, dried and folded at a Mt Victoria laundrette. It's a much better deal than the US$5 per shirt deal on the ship. But laundry is about the only outstanding expense. Food is included in the fare, complementary bubbles and even shots of spirits roll out every now and then, and the bar prices are similar to those you'd encounter in New Zealand. Room service is free.

Celebrity Cruises does appear designed for American tastes. The wine list is heavy on the old countries and New Zealand and Australian wines are sniffed at suspiciously by the wine waiter. Staff, are from everywhere and, helpfully, their name tags note also their origin. Georges is from Manila and Domingos from Goa. Captain Isidoros Karamaounas is Greek.

Everyone seems to be aboard for a good time. The Fortunes Casino hosts Texas Hold 'em tournaments, tango classes are on with live classical strings in the Cova Cafe and there's Macallan Malt-tasting in Michael's Club. Elvis wouldn't know where to turn his karate moves. Priscilla could be at the "Guess the carat weight" contest in the Boutique shopping centre, at the Fabulous 50s party with the Canonics in the Crystal Room, or watching Crazy Stupid Love in the cinema.

Out in open seas on this boat that rocked, there's every chance of rougher waters. The best indication of a pending roll is the presence of more paper bags in the stairways and bathrooms. My tip for a panacea is the Tasman Blush cocktail - gin, strawberries and mint.

Mid-Tasman Sea we find out the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia has come to grief in the Mediterranean. We switch off the TV in the stateroom and head on to the promenade deck to play shuffleboard. Heading into the incredible calm of Bass Strait, a meteorite arcs through the hazy sky; dolphins cavort in the oily brine; and huge seabirds lazily traverse the twilight. Arm and arm, we stroll the outer deck to meet Domingos and our friends for dinner.

Approaching solstice

After just 18 months on the Australasia circuit, the Celebrity Century will this summer make way for the newer and much larger Celebrity Solstice. The Solstice can carry more than 1000 extra guests compared with the Century - 2850 in total. It will visit New Zealand ports from December.

Celebrity Cruises managing director for Australia and New Zealand. Gavin Smith, said Celebrity Solstice would offer a modern style of cruising previously available only overseas. Guests would be able to choose from a range of 12-18-night cruises in Australia and New Zealand, sailing from Sydney, Auckland and Fremantle.

Smith said Celebrity Solstice brought a number of "firsts" to local cruising, including the Lawn Club, with one acre of freshly manicured real grass on the upper decks; a glass-blowing studio; and 85 per cent of its cabins have their own private balconies.

Edward Rooney, his partner and their son travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

Family cruising Top 5

Jaimie McDonald, of Cruiseabout Takapuna shares his top five tips on how to get the most out of a family cruise:

1. Use the Kids' Clubs - they're a great source of entertainment for the kids, and allow parents to relax.

2. If possible, make an open seating reservation for the restaurants so you can have dinner slightly earlier than the normal times. This is great for younger families and also lets you get to the after-dinner shows earlier.

3. Consider taking walkie talkies. They are a good way of keeping in contact as you can't get cellphone reception when you are too far from land. Otherwise, organise meeting times and places.

4. Most cruise lines accommodate up to four people in a cabin but if you need extra space, request interconnecting cabins.

5. You receive an activity planner in your cabin each night and I recommend ticking off what you would most like to do. It's a good way to plan and compromise so everyone has fun.

* For more information on cruising, contact Jaimie and the team at Cruiseabout Takapuna on 0800 22 11 00.

- Herald on Sunday

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