A cruise aboard the Majestic Princess is an exercise in wonderment, writes Doug Laing
The details of this tour are simple, starting from the flight from Napier to Auckland, and despite the delayed arrival of the rest of the party by air from Australia, getting another flight later in the afternoon to Great Barrier Island.
The 10-days spanning the end of January and the start of February as usual provide great weather. But this summer has excelled itself and cruising down the East Coast from Auckland to the southernmost point of the South Island, hanging a right, a few hours cruising the Sounds around Fiordland and then hanging a left for Sydney is done with barely a ripple on the briny.
It's not the only wonderment. Imagine being in the middle of nowhere cruising at 16-18 knots, sitting on the top deck with just the dark sky and a million stars for a view but watching another star like Freddie Mercury reincarnation Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody on a screen big enough, and loud enough, to work in any major New Zealand sports stadium — and it's up full volume without a single neighbour to worry about.
Imagine watching on the same screen, from beside the bar or from a deckchair in the bright early afternoon sun, the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams fight out Superbowl 2019, live from Atlanta, Georgia. It was like watching from a floating grandstand. It's a good cruise, the well-travelled man and his wife tell me the next morning when we pass during breakfast in the World Fresh Marketplace. Well it was until the LA team lost.
Imagine, too, wondering, bereft of any lurching and broaching, how Princess Majestic — more than the length of three football fields — might cope with the 3m swells forecast for Fouveaux Strait, only to find that the sophisticated extendable stabiliser wings are doing the trick to the max.
Majestic Princess ploughs on — majestically. It's time, after a hard day's work — Yeah, right — to open the slider to the balcony and rest back in deck chair with a toastie from cabin service, a cup of coffee and a view across the sea, where the only movement seems to be the light of a fishing boat in the distance.
"Boring," says one workmate back in the reality of the office a week or two later, unable to imagine how one might find it anything else with just the blue of the ocean, the horizon and the sky for company for entertainment for 10 days. "You have to be there," I reply.
Being there started on Great Barrier Island where knowledgeable guides set the standard for the Local Connections tours over the next few days. We get a good look at Great Barrier Island before dusk and then settle into Trillium Lodge, where dinner is enjoyed with a view to die for. An hour or so of being enlightened about the wonder of galaxies from our Dark Sky Sanctuary is followed by a night's rest in a suite that's also to die for, followed by breakfast in the same lounge, with another tdf view.
The morning is taken up with a fishing trip, where the fish are small, to the less fortunate of us. But they are biting enough to guarantee that no matter who gets the luck, there will be ample for lunch back at Great Barrier Lodge.
From there it is the flight back to Auckland, and a drive into town to board the Majestic Princess, moored at King's Wharf but appearing as if it's parked in Queen St.
After dining we sample the deck to watch Auckland City and then North Head disappear into the night, appearing to move further away to the west, when it is we who are voyaging to the east, and then to the south, bound for Tauranga.
We berth at Mount Maunganui and are soon on our way to Rotorua to visit Te Puia Spring, thronging with visitors. The return to the Mount features a stop at honey giant Comvita and then a kiwifruit orchard, intriguing even for the average Kiwi as the Local Connections tour schedule shows what would prove to be its well-thought-out variety.
Reboarding Majestic Princess, we head for a full day at sea, rounding East Cape, and sailing well out off the Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay coasts as night falls.
For future reference, it's worth remembering this was January 30: the weather is perfect, and the ocean is so smooth that the seabirds tracking our ship can do so in a straight line, centimetres above the water yet never touching it. We are soon joined by young dolphins.
Wednesday is Wellington, where we go first to Mt Victoria, where the view is spectacular on one of those morning's the capital can dish up when it wants to. We can see the old National Museum, and the Basin Reserve away to our left.
We then head to Te Papa, where even the guide is part of our history, being one Roger Gascoigne, former television presenter and show host. We go to Zealandia ecosanctuary, a part of Wellington I never knew existed and, after lunch in the city, drive to Weta Workshop in suburban Miramar, where if you weren't on Google Maps you'd run a good show of missing it altogether, given its lack of outward pretension.
The day's real adventure was the drive in the van back to the ship, our guide deciding that just to be safe we may as well avoid the heavier traffic by taking the trip around the bays. Simply, it didn't work, and after some quite anxious moments we arrive portside only minutes after Princess Majestic should have been sailing. We wave to those waving and cheering from their balconies on board. I ponder how Wellington traffic had just become a tourist attraction.
We sail overnight to Akaroa, which inspires some memories of my previous voyage on this route, aboard Union Steam's Maori with a school trip in May 1968, a month after the Wahine Disaster.
Since the Christchurch earthquakes and the damage at Lyttleton, Akaroa has become the default berth for the region, albeit a berth in the channel with transfer by tender to the village where there have been calls for cruise visits to be limited to one a day for a community overwhelmed by the influx.
It is an absolute wonder watching the fish 'n' chip shop cope, but it does as cruisers who can have anything they want to eat on the ship, enjoy the novelty of unfolding the plain white wrapping of the Kiwi takeaway. They find any clear space they can to gorge on battered tarakihi or hoki, and chips, tossing tidbits to the educated birdlife who perform occasional aerobatic swoops to snatch morsels in flight.
It's Saturday when we reach Port Chalmers and after a brief look at the architecture of the university city, we head for the outer reaches of the Otago Peninsula and the quite surreal conservation project, Natures Wonders, where we find Perry Reid, himself one of nature's wonders. He owns the farm on Taiaroa Head, he shears the sheep, he guides the tours, he's fished the coast, he drives the eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle up and down the hilly tracks as some sort of thrill-ride, and patrols the 4m-high predator-control fences and guards the rare wildlife on the coastline with an iron-fist approach, as if it is his own life that depends on it.
Yellow-eyed penguins on the distant beach, fur seals lolling in the rock pools, and cormorants flourish in a remarkable environment; unimaginable — if you are not there.
The rest is plain sailing, Fouveaux Strait, finally seeing Milford, Dusky and Doubtful Sounds I knew only from calendars and photos printed on Christmas biscuit tins.
Crossing The Tasman is like a drag race, albeit with obvious limits on the speed, as Majestic Princess joins a number of other liners heading west for two days' voyage.
An early-morning arrival in Sydney, gliding past the Opera House and berthing at Circular Quay as the city and its people wake, is another moment of wonder before we head back to reality — the airport for a return flight home.
This is all without acknowledging the trappings of the cruise itself, the Majestic Princess boasting a large range of restaurants and bars — the Crown Grill, Harmony Restaurant, Concerto, Le Mer, Chopsticks Noodle Bar, Lobster Grill and Hamburger Bar — to name a few.
Breakfast is where you may sidle up to anyone, ask if the seat next to them is free and make a new acquaintance — invariably on this cruise, it's people who are not fond of a man called Donald Trump. It's a part of the conversation but, more engaging perhaps is what people have learned over a few days about how to cut the hard and crusty strips of bacon and open the individual plastic sachets containing cereals.
At one point my bacon splinters and lands in the plate of a businessman from Utah, who has half or more of the family on the cruise as well. "Aah, pigs do fly," he says. A morning or two later, my rice bubbles are spread across the way and my new breakfast acquaintance, looks at me and says: "Umm, pop?"
There was a way to open the sachets; I found it somewhere in the middle of the Tasman Sea and thereafter I found some glee in noticing there were some who still hadn't solved the problem.
Modern cruise liners are outdoing each other with every new hull and rivet, but the glass seawalk, now fashioned by a few, is another wonder, where looking down on the waves, and looking at people looking down at the waves, is simple time-filling entertainment.