Magnificent Fiordland compensates for a rough start to a voyage, writes Pamela Wade
The Aussies were having a laugh after their stroll around Picton.
"See the sign on that fish and chip shop? They spelled it with i's instead of u's!"
Cue much hilarity and quips about the Newzild accent — all delivered in full-strength Queenslander Strine.
On a cruise from Auckland to Sydney, Australians will always be a hazard; but there were, unexpectedly, hardly any Kiwis on this maiden Downunder 16-night voyage of the Azamara Journey.
As it happened, it was perhaps as well: rough autumn weather throughout much of the New Zealand sector had me feeling personally responsible for everyone's disappointment.
Boarding at Wellington, I was relieved at least to have been spared the storm that prevented the scheduled call at Tauranga — and left Captain Johannes Tysse with a deep distrust of both our weather and marine metservice.
"I have lost all faith in Kiwi weather forecasters," he announced cheerfully in his morning greeting.
"From now on, I rely on Siri! Listen: Siri, what will the weather be like today?"
And so, until we lost cellphone contact in the Tasman, that was his routine.
For my part, my faith in the captain's navigation skills was shaken on seeing the onscreen tracking of our overnight route from Wellington to Picton — via Palmerston North. But that, it turned out, was simply a detour to allow the wind to drop before we took on Cook Strait: our comfort was the prime consideration. Due warnings about "motion in the ocean" were delivered when necessary with advice to take precautions.
Bedding down in an ocean-view stateroom midships on Deck 4, I had an easy ride, far less affected by the waves than those in the fancier accommodation higher up and forward. The ship has just undergone a major refit and my room, while unarguably snug, was pleasant and comfortable, especially since I spent most of my time in there soothingly rocked asleep.
Days and evenings on board were spent in the many public areas: enjoying a good flat white in Mosaic cafe, side-stepping the dogged walkers on the sun deck , easing down to horizontal on a sofa in the book-lined Drawing Room, or trying in vain to snag a front-row armchair in the sunny Living Room overlooking the bow. These places were bagsed early each day, guarded with steely sideways glances and a conspiratorial "Save my seat" request whenever nature called.
The passengers were mostly Baby Boomers-plus, so there were a lot of stiff hips and much stonewashed denim; but also interesting stories to be shared at the optional mixed tables in the dining rooms. The majority of my 686 fellow travellers — the Journey is a mid-sized ship — were American, then Australian, British, Canadian, German and others, all keen visitors to New Zealand and eager to see what they could.
The company's slogan is Stay Longer, Experience More, and that, plus a quite remarkable loyalty to the line among the 300 repeat cruisers on board, is why they chose Azamara.
We had a day and a half in Wellington, for instance, where this cruise's Az-Amazing event took place: an energetic and friendly Maori concert after hours in Te Papa, with time afterwards to visit the Gallipoli exhibition.
Picton benefited from Kaikoura's post-earthquake inaccessibility with a two-night stay, allowing both land-based excursions and explorations of Queen Charlotte Sound.
As with all cruise ships, it pays to do your homework with regards to excursions: here, I would have done better to go privately to the marvellous Omaka Aviation Museum, and take my time, rather than to be rushed through then whisked away to a brewery and chocolate factory.
Even Azamara's staunchest fans admit that the excursions are expensive: later in Dunedin, my Taieri Gorge Railway outing cost $199 instead of the $91 I could have paid directly. The packed lunch they supplied was good, but not that good.
Akaroa was grey and blustery, the Journey dragging its anchor despite laying out 300m of chain, and the tender taking passengers for their Christchurch excursion battled through clouds of spray. But finally, thankfully, Dunedin served us a stunning day and the railway trip was glorious, as was the sailaway from Port Chalmers on a calm, sunny evening, the nesting royal albatrosses on Taiaroa Head clearly visible. Dining on the Pool Deck as the sky coloured, I basked in the other passengers' praise of the scenery, and crossed my fingers for the grand finale.
Creeping around the bottom of the South Island in the night, morning brought a green and silver detour through first Dusky, then Doubtful Sounds, the mist-draped beauty of rock, bush and birdcalls lost on Captain Johannes, who took the opportunity to promote the Journey's cruise through his native Norway: "Like this, but with pretty, colourful towns!"
Milford Sound put him in his place. The towering peaks, sheer cliff faces, graceful waterfalls, tenacious bush clinging to the rock: it was spectacular under a blue sky, and the jostling at the railings was fierce as everyone tried to record it for back-home boasting.
Two blessedly calm days crossing the Tasman were filled with gleefully patronising all of the Journey's seven eateries, dipping into the gym and spa, not dipping into the pool or casino, trying some art, touring the kitchens and bridge, and enjoying the various concerts and lectures put on in the Cabaret Lounge: the American professor talking about New Zealanders' image of themselves was spot-on.
Hobart brought sunshine, modern art, history and women convicts; and a further day's sail took us to Sydney's unarguably dramatic and photogenic entrance, spectacular even on a dull day. And that was that: for me, the cruise was over.
The most dedicated Azamara fans, though, were staying on until Singapore. Others had already booked their next three cruises on the ship. The Journey is their elegant sea-going holiday home, a comfortable and familiar medium for exploring the world's delights. Except for Tauranga, that is.
Details: Azamara Journey offers four local sailings in 2018, from Bali to Sydney, to Auckland, back to Sydney and on to Singapore. Auckland to Sydney departs on February 22 for 13 nights and fares start from $6499 pp, twin-share. Prices include meals, selected drinks, entertainment and gratuities.