Keely Allen finds her sea legs on a family adventure.
From the moment we boarded the Golden Princess, we knew we were on the wrong ship.
Of the 2500 passengers, my two sisters and I were among a handful under 35, but that didn't deter us from making the most of our eight-day voyage from Auckland to Sydney.
Two months ago, my US-based stepmother wrote to ask if we'd like to go on the cruise with my parents and grandparents. "How can you say no to a cruise," we thought with palpable excitement already building; especially when it meant spending time with our family and experiencing Aotearoa through their eyes.
Elizabeth, Kaity and I have lived in New Zealand for 10 years and it was the first time our American family would be in "our world". Although I'm a New Zealand citizen and think of myself as a Kiwi, I haven't ventured south of Wellington. The thought of exploring Akaroa, Dunedin and soaking up the sights of Fiordland with my family, all within a week, was too great an opportunity to pass up.
With our bags packed and a bottle of wine each stowed in our checked luggage, we readied ourselves for our first cruise. I swiftly learned not to refer to the ship as a boat, listening as Kaity was lectured while we boarded among avid cruisers.
Following days of tumultuous spring weather, the sunny Auckland day made the halls of the ship feel humid.
We navigated our way to the interior stateroom the three of us would share, my sisters claiming the double beds while I took the top bunk that folds out from the wall above.
Bringing our suitcases inside, we frantically changed into our togs, desperate for a swim.
After finding our way to the pool deck, disappointment set in as we discovered the pools were drained with a blue netting covering them, dashing our hopes of relief.
Before we could continue our grief for the pools, which would not be filled until the following day, my grandmother whisked us up to Deck 15 where a surprise gift was waiting.
My mother, sisters and I were presented with spa treatments at the Lotus Spa using the "10, 20, 30" deal, where you choose three treatments for 10, 20, and 30 per cent off respectively. Spa manager Sophia was incredible, helping the four of us with our decisions and offering the use of the exclusive spa facilities any time we wished.
I chose the Seaweed Wrap and Massage, a facial, and the Fire and Ice mani-pedi, which I peppered throughout the sea days.
After dinner in the Horizon Court buffet, we experienced our first cruising entertainment, a singer and a comedic, musical impressionist. Despite their talent, they were not the most exciting performances I'd seen, which I chalked up to our being much younger than the typical on-board audience.
From the first night, the entire cruise experience felt simultaneously fast and slow as I balanced my newly established routine and attempts at relaxation between exploring the ship and on-board talent. Following our first stop in Tauranga, where I tried to put my travel insurance to good use, narrowly escaping a broken wrist trying roller skating, we experienced our first sea day.
Late into the evening, as we sat in the Explorers Lounge auditioning for the Voice of the Ocean competition with our supreme karaoke skills and a little red-wine encouragement, the effects of the open seas took hold. The ship began to sway, gently at first, as we sailed away from the New Zealand coastline.
That night, as my consciousness began to fade, rocking to sleep in my elevated bunk, I realised something: while my sea legs were firmly intact, my sister Kaity was not one for the cruising lifestyle. I woke periodically through the night to the creaking of the ship, levitating with each crest before gravity took hold. My poor seasick sister on the bed below startling the cabin awake. "Oh my God," Kaity would exclaim. "It's only 2.30am. I thought it was time to get up."
"It won't be like this the whole time," I consoled, repeating what our cruise-experienced family had said to us. "Just go back to sleep and it'll be better in the morning."
It turned out that advice was a lie.
We soon discovered the remainder of the voyage would have us swaying and stumbling through the halls as the ship made her way to each port, set to worsen still over the upcoming Sydney-bound sea days.
As a newbie cruiser, I thought the experience would be relaxing as the ship glided to each destination. Although it was an adventure and we all had a wonderful time, it was anything but smooth. I wasn't sure whether it was the southern spring weather or the sea itself. Relief was only granted as the ship reached each port and allowed us to disembark to explore the South Island.
Our second port was Akaroa, where we took a tender to traipse around the nearby shops.
The tender trip was anything but for my mum and sister, making the former ill.
The remainder of the day saw us and 2000 others file in and out of the gift shops, cafes and craft market, invading the small town to the displeasure of the locals in the Four Square. We acted as impromptu tour guides, explaining the nuances of New Zealand, advising when something was overpriced (nearly double the supermarket price for honey) and aiding in picking presents for the remainder of our US-based clan. Our family was awestruck at the beauty of New Zealand, the greenery surpassing their expectations as they attempted to draw similarities between our climate and Washington state.
The following day, we were startled awake bright and early by the jarring sounds of the ship docking in Port Chalmers. The afternoon's mission was simple: find our father a New Zealand brewery. A quick search saw us seeking out Emerson's.
Upon disembarking, we found few options to travel from the port to Dunedin. We stepped in line with fellow tourists queuing for the only shuttle bus available to the two ships in port.
We learned the shuttle company, IDNZ, charges tourists $20 each for a return trip, regardless of currency. With no ATM in the building, my parents considered forking out their US dollars. The staff, two Kiwi lads who couldn't have been older than 20, claiming the conversion rate was 1:1, only changing their tune when they learned my sisters and I were from Auckland. Outraged by the impression this would give to international visitors, we left the building and phoned a Blue Bubble cab to accommodate our group.
Our driver, Salim, was charming and helpful, offering to show us some sights on our way to Emerson's, which we politely declined, keen to save it for the trip back if we had time, and arranged for him to pick us up later.
After lunch and a few brews, we haggled with the manager for one of the coveted beer taster glasses not available in the gift shop, sweet talking our way into getting a mug with Dunedin on it for my dad. With multiple bagged beer glasses in tow, we walked 10 minutes in the beautiful South Island sunshine to the central shops where we continued our quest for Kiwi keepsakes.
Cutting it close to our embarkation time, we phoned our trusty taxi to take us back to Port Chalmers. As we clambered into the large van, our taxi-man Salim transformed into our tour guide. He gave a running commentary of the sights as he drove us to the famed Baldwin St for some tourist snaps before taking us on a scenic journey back to the ship.
My South Island experience felt complete when we reached the highest point, allowing us a clear, breathtaking view of the city.
On our return to the ship, we were not surprised the total for our little tour saved us nearly $30 compared to the shuttle — complete with a personal guide.
The next days flew by in a flurry of spa treatments, spin classes, Broadway-style shows, decadent dishes in the Donatello dining room and non-stop quality family time. The final night before our arrival in Sydney was the most memorable of all.
We were on a first-name basis with all the staff members who anticipated our odd requests at each on-board venue, delivering lemon wedges, peanuts, cocktail olives and even maraschino cherries as we sat down. They were there to see to our every request, with the most accommodating being our dinner waiters.
At the final family dinner, we overheard boisterously celebrated birthdays as the waiters sang to fellow diners. I joked to our waiter, Emerson, cheekily asking him to pretend it was my birthday, not believing he would actually see to my little charade. In minutes, he returned with a candle-lit cake and seven waiters who began belting out the birthday song. It was a true testament to the Princess staff's eagerness to create an unforgettable holiday experience.
The final entertainment experience saw us in the front row of the Voice of the Ocean competition, where my mum and sister Elizabeth made the finals. They were both bundles of nerves. The Princess Theatre was packed, more than 1000 filling the seats and others standing in the aisles.
Elizabeth enchanted the audience singing Black Velvet by Alannah Myles, visibly shaking as she talked with the host and judges following her standing ovation.
My mum appeared confident on the surface as she channelled Cyndi Lauper with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. After a tense 10 seconds of audience voting, the cruise director announced my anxious, yet gifted, sister as the winner of the Voice of the Ocean — complete with a plastic trophy to take home. Elizabeth's courage turned out to be the highlight of the whole cruise experience.
As I disembarked in Sydney the following morning, I reflected on my first family cruise.
Although it was obvious my seasick sister wouldn't take to the cruising lifestyle anytime soon, I decided I'd give it another go with a few changes: a stateroom to myself, a shorter cruise and one aimed at a younger demographic.
Although I didn't quite fit in with my fellow passengers, it was the wonderful staff, cheerful, carefree nature of other guests and being surrounded by my family that made it an unforgettable experience.
For information on Princess Cruises sailings between Auckland and Sydney, go to princess.com