Isobel Marriner discovers the lovely life on board the Seabourn Encore.
So little time, so much on the wish list. See more of the country. Visit relatives scattered around different parts of the land. Take a high-end cruise for an extra-special treat — after all, everyone deserves a little pampering.
Then along comes a golden opportunity; to journey around New Zealand on Seabourn's luxury cruise ship, the Encore and tick, tick, tick. Isn't it serendipitous when everything comes together ?
It's a grey day when we reach the wharf, but things brighten up with the first glimpse of our ship; the Seabourn Encore is sparkling white; small, but elegantly formed.
We are greeted at the gangway by solicitous crew with umbrellas, ready to protect us from Auckland's late-summer drizzle and to give anyone in need a helping hand up the slightly steep ascent. Some of our fellow passengers are frail and appreciate the attention.
A smiling gentleman introduces himself with a warm handshake: "Hello I'm Chris, the deputy cruise director; we're so happy to have you on board." It's a personal touch that straight away makes you feel like a special guest.
Inside, the lobby is opulent-nautical, gleaming polished wood and glass, with eclectic treasures dotted about, from Ming-style vases to modern art.
The ship carries about 600 passengers, so there are no endless, confusing corridors and we are quickly outside our room, conveniently beside a lift lobby.
The suite is spacious and tasteful. the veranda is deep, there's a huge, comfy bed with crisp white linen and a heaping of pillows. And a bottle of champagne, chilling in an ice bucket.
As well as a walk-in wardrobe, there are loads of louvred wood cupboards to stow possessions and on opening them we find the first of many thoughtful touches: an atlas, because I always need to know where I am, and a book of short stories about the sea — perfect for dipping into on a lazy afternoon.
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The bathroom is movie-star glamorous, in marble with double basins and a huge mirror. As well as the full-sized glass shower there's a bath, thick white towels and Molton Brown toiletries, in a signature Seabourn scent, Samphire and Eucalyptus.
A wide smile greets us and Diogo tempts us to a prosecco at the Sky Bar, with its lofty view back over the pool deck to the Encore's huge glass dome. The sun comes out at last and we watch the city fading into the distance, the islands of the Gulf pass by. The Sky Bar is destined to become a favourite haunt, not least because of the friendly ministrations and excellent glass-filling techniques of Diogo, who is from Lisbon, and his colleague, the delightfully named Diamond, from Albania.
Our first visit to The Restaurant is a gracious affair: we are led to our seats on the arm of a waiter, like Very Important People. The napery is spotless, as is the attentive service. There's a nautical, yacht club feel with marine-blue glassware matching the tasteful light fittings, which could very well be Murano.
Dinner begins with breadsticks, crispy, buttery and melt-in the mouth. Fresh dough is thrice-rolled by hand each day, the chef explains on a galley tour. No wonder a couple at an adjacent table manage to devour three glasses full before starting their meal.
Food is an important consideration on any cruise and there's no shortage of choice here, starting, of course, with breakfast. The Colonnade serves a lavish buffet — with all the trimmings from cereals to European cold meats, cheeses and fish; fruit salads, cereals and yoghurts and a hot selection including dainty baked eggs served in teacups, and a tasty corned beef hash. If that's not enough, there's also a table service menu of omelettes and eggs benedict (of course) and the coffee comes with a deft pour and a cheerful 'good morning".
If you have overdosed on breakfast, Sushi is the perfect place for lunch. Inside this cocoon of calming neutral decor and Zen-like ambience you can enjoy bento, served on a hot stone, with miso soup, salad and pickles; it's an antidote to overindulgence. Dinner at Sushi features a selection of sashimi or nigiri created as you watch by the Japanese-trained chefs and on formal nights, the venue hosts a Japanese "kaiseki" banquet.
At the Thomas Keller Grill — the celebrity restaurant — my sole was filleted at table by a charming young waiter, and accompanied by a degustation of wines from the reserve list, served by an equally charming sommelier. At Earth and Ocean, a popular outside venue on the pool deck, dining is al fresco, choice by romantic lanternlight. And if the weather turns cooler, you will be offered a huge, warm blanket to wrap yourself in.
Our first stop is the Bay of Islands. There's large complement of New Zealanders on board and although many guests disembark to discover the Far North, the ship is so hard to leave, and moored in such a perfect spot in the middle of the bay, we decide to stay put. We find a quiet place to rest and read on the Encore's lower stern deck. With a small pool and two Jacuzzis, it's the perfect spot to sit, soak up a little sun and relax, watching yachts ply across the water, and gannets and herons glide and dive. There are drinks in the cooler, towels laid on loungers, even sunscreen and tiny towelettes of lens cleaner provided, while stewards discreetly inquire as to your desires. We lie back and don the supersize sunglasses; it's like being on your own superyacht.
Days at sea are busy, busy, busy. There's so much food to eat, so many interesting people to talk to, so much delicious coffee from the crack squad in the cafe at Seabourn Square. We need a break and head to the gym, expecting a few bikes and weights, given the size of our ship, but it's a spacious, well-equipped room with state-of-the-art modern machines. There's no need to worry about bringing anything except yourself; chilled bottled water is waiting in the entrance along with cupboards stacked with gym towels. The spa next door has all the usual delightful treatments but there's also an emphasis on wellbeing: meditation and relaxation classes are featured, you can even learn the secrets of Tibetan singing bowls.
To exercise the grey matter, Seabourn hosts "conversations", or lectures, on topics pertinent to the cruise. Guest lecturer Barry Dreyer backgrounds us on the history of Norfolk Island from pre-European and colonial times, whetting our interest with his story of the unearthing of early Polynesian adzes and waka on the island. Seabourn's Ventures team — experts in adventure tourism — contribute their knowledge to these conversations too. Ornithologist Joe Cockram has hints on how to spot and identify the birds we might see along the way. Tua Pittman, from the Cook Islands, is a master of traditional Polynesian navigation and takes us on our own voyage of discovery, learning how the almost-lost art was rescued and reinvigorated.
We've booked a hike with the Ventures team on Norfolk Island and order room service for breakfast, (delivered on the dot, by a single waiter hoisting an enormous tray of fruit, eggs benedict, toast, preserves and steaming jugs of coffee) but early on it's clear that the wind and sea gods aren't playing ball. It's not unexpected; Norfolk is a difficult place to land at the best of times, and we're catching the tail of some heavy weather.
Before too long, the captain confirms Norfolk is a no-go, the safety of the ship and passengers must come first. But at least there's a chance to catch a glimpse as the island and see whether we can spot some of the birdlife we have been finding out about. And just on cue, as we step outside, two masked boobies are shooting the breeze just alongside the veranda.
We'll be sailing in a straight line from Norfolk Island to Milford Sound — I know this because I'm checking the chart on the TV's Bridge channel — there are also channels with up-to-the-minute movies, operas, news, music, but this one is my favourite. There is a bit of what a friend calls "tippy uppy downy" from the sea, but nothing to be alarmed about — and we're later told by an officer on the bridge that one of the Encore's quirks is that sailing on her is particularly smooth.
One night we share a table with cruise director Chris Harley. A veteran of the stage himself, Chris is gentle and modest, not at all the usual out-there cruise ship master of ceremonies, but it fits perfectly with the tasteful tone of this trip. Harley is justifiably proud of his lineup of artists, who include Katei, a dynamic young violinist from Australia who has the audience in rapture with a repertoire stretching from electrifying renditions of the classics, through Nirvana, to the theme song from Game of Thrones. Then there's the Sandman, New Zealander Marcus Winter, who takes beach play to an art form, drawing stories in the sand with nimble fingers, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack.
Musical evenings are lifted out of the ordinary by the Seabourn Singers from the exciting "Tim Rice" collaboration that includes favourite songs from the shows, with a video narrative by Rice himself. And performances by this talented troupe are not limited to the theatre: one memorable evening we enjoy bubbles and caviar on deck, serenaded in serenaded in operatic style as we sail out of Wellington.
By the time we reach Milford Sound, the weather is perfect. The Sound has put on one of its best days; it's warm, the sea is calm and, remarkably, there's no mist hiding the majesty of Mitre Peak. We head off with Karlina, a marine biologist from the Ventures team, who manoeuvres her Zodiac close to the sides of the Sound so we can appreciate its size and scope from sea level. Sadly we don't spot penguins today but there are seals basking on rocky outcrops and Karlina "treats" us to a shower under one of the waterfalls.
From then on we visit a new port each day. At Stewart Island we anchor in Golden Bay and make the short hike over the hill — and several decades back in time — to the township. We enjoy parcels of super-fresh blue cod from the local food truck, and watch local youngsters ready their dinghies for fishing.
Dunedin turns on a brilliant day. Port Chalmers is prettily olde-world, with Iona Church suitably framed at its centre, as we make our Sunday-morning approach. Here we join another Ventures tour, to a sanctuary outside the city. Orokonui is a revelation; modelled on Wellington's Zealandia, it is an oasis of regenerating forest among farmland, a haven for birdlife. Ship's naturalist Oscar and ornithologist Joe are there to help point out our feathered friends (and possibly keep us on the straight and narrow: there are more than 300ha of bush to get lost in). Although we spot only the tail feathers of a kea scrabbling through the leaves, our walk is punctuated by outpourings of liquid bellbird song.
And there are more birds on hand as we leave port. Farewelled by albatross wheeling over the peninsula, we are treated to a spectacular sunset that doesn't fade until we pass the spit at Aramoana and head back out to sea.
Kaikōura hoves into sight with the iconic picture-postcard view of its awe-inspiring ranges; they are evidence of the immense natural forces and we try to work out from memories of an earlier visit what havoc the big quake has played with the landscape. But the mood in the town is still down-to-earth and welcoming.
In Nelson, Wellington and Mount Maunganui we meet up with far-flung brothers, daughters and dear ones. New Zealanders make up the largest complement of guests aboard the Encore this trip and, talking to them, we discover many others are also enjoying the chance to meet up with family and friends in such a unique way.
Meanwhile in Gisborne, Chef Joseph takes us on a guided tour of the farmers' market. He's there to select local delicacies for another Seabourn special event, a artisan-style feast to enjoy as the whole crew comes on deck for a final salute. We follow Chef among the stalls where he inspects and chooses salmon and organic blackberries, cheeses and pears, formulating and explaining his menu on the hoof. We wander happily, sampling crunchy watermelon, and fresh juice from those tangy Gisborne oranges, but then the thought returns that our journey is drawing to a close and with one more day to go, the slight panic of actually having to leave the ship is starting to set in.
That final farewell from the crew is met with heartfelt applause; fellow guests agree that one of the best "luxuries" of this trip has been the warm and genuine care and attention that has been lavished on us by these lovely people.
It certainly is hard to say goodbye. But I have a head full of truly fond memories and there are three big boxes ticked off that wish list.