Cruise clues: what you need to know
I'm not sure I was the best person to go on a cruise. I'm not a big fan of crowded spaces, slow shuffling walks, loud Americans... but on the flip side I can vege out with the best of them, love a good buffet and really enjoy being on or in the ocean.
Our trip on the Holland America boat . . . boat? Or ship? I can't remember which is the correct terminology . . . our vessel, the MS Volendam, started in Sydney and took us to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Stewart Island, Port Chalmers, Akaroa and Wellington. You can continue up the North Island to Napier, Tauranga, Auckland and the Bay of Islands before returning to Sydney but we got off in Wellington, which is probably a good thing. Cabin fever and all that.
So, is it worth doing?
The thing I loved the most was seeing New Zealand from a distance. Unlike flying, where you peer out the window and pick out the biggest landmarks, cruising gives you views of the coastline that are sometimes obvious and other times confusing. What's that? Is it the Catlins coast? There's something wonderful about seeing your country from sea the way Kupe, Abel Tasman or James Cook once saw it.
Highlights were Doubtful Sound, more so than Milford; Stewart Island, which was remarkably beautiful - on a fine day you could confuse it with Bay of Islands; watching the southern coast of the South Island disappearing into the sunset amid a cacophony of bird life including muttonbirds and albatross; a glorious day to ourselves in Otago, escaping Port Chalmers to a hire car, the farmers' markets for a decent coffee and the indulgence of a fabulous lunch at Fleurs Place at Moeraki. That's one of the good things about cruising - you get to a port and have the whole day to do anything.
On board, the greatest strength is the nearly 24-hour availability of food. You can eat yourself silly at any of the ship's many feeding parlours - from top-notch restaurants to an excellent free- for-all buffet.
The greatest virtue of a week- long cruise is that you take your hotel room with you. Each day you open the curtains to a new place without having to pack and unpack - it's bliss, especially I imagine, if you have kids. Everyone we spoke to loved this hassle-free way of travelling. That and the fact everything is paid for up front so there's no restaurant bills or taxi fares.
There's loads to do and even though we laughed as we perused the daily itinerary on the first few days, we did end up in the dance lessons, on the tennis court, and winning a highly prized Holland America pin as the brainiest team at the pub quiz.
The seven books we took on board came home mostly unread.
Unless you lock yourself in your cabin there is no escaping the fact you're stuck on the floating equivalent of a densely populated small town. Now small towns are great but not when your neighbours are constantly in your face, pushing past you to get to the buffet, talking loudly in the library or making inane comments in the elevators like the old American fellow on the day we arrived at Stewart Island.
"What the heck do you think there is to do in Stewart Island?" he said to his wife in a heavy Texan drawl. "Go to the museum and watch the paint peel?" Or his countryman banging his cane at the omelette station and yelling, "Mr omelette man, where are you Mr omelette man?"
The thing with cruises is that they were invented in America and Americans are the greatest users. But they're not the rich, elite Americans Knut Kloster and Ted Arison envisioned when they built the first cruise liner in 1960s Miami.
These are middle class, elderly, loud Americans who, it seems, have a sense of entitlement and an under-appreciation of anything beautiful or subtle.
In your small floating town, they are neighbours you cross the street to avoid.
On the flip side, the Sydney-NZ- Sydney cruise attracts a lot of Australians and, as time goes on, Holland America expects Aussies to vastly outnumber Americans - which is a good thing, for while our cousins from the koala kingdom are loud and brash, next to loud and brash Americans they are entertaining and fun.
To make sure you get full value for money, you can eat from dawn to dusk and, to be honest, the food was pretty good. Then there is the most indulgent high tea, which we forced ourselves to try in the lovely two-storey grand restaurant.
Movies run all day at the cinema but be aware of those folk who nip in for an afternoon nap.
There are nightly musical extravaganzas in the theatre, if that is your thing.
To deal with the guilt of all the unavoidable overeating, there's a well-equipped gym where you run on a treadmill with Doubtful Sound on full display.
But really, a cruise is an opportunity to do nothing. Find a deckchair and joe-out, as we used to say in Dunedin in the 1980s. Read seven books in seven days if you so desire. Though it must be said that on a trans-Tasman crossing you'll do most of your reclining indoors as this route is not exactly the tropics. (Hint: I bought a merino hoodie on Stewart Island in December.)
If you love a good natter there's no shortage of people to talk to and no shortage of really interesting folk with plenty of time on their hands and a willingness to share their life stories. It's a would-be novelist's paradise - there's characters for Africa.
OK, someone has to say it. Costa Concordia. Yes, there's always the fear you could have a Titanic moment and go down in the middle of the cold ocean or run aground on rocks. But unlike the poor folk on the Costa Concordia, the first thing we did on board was go through the life boat drill. It's kind of annoying but in the wake of recent events, a reasonably useful exercise.
I do have my doubts, however, about whether the majority of our fellow passengers - the septu- and octogenerians - were in any state to race to the lifeboats in case of emergency. It's a big ship with a slow-moving population and if anything did happen a lot of people would struggle to get to safety in time.
Having said that, it was obvious our skipper was no Francesco Schettino. He seemed the embodiment of calm, more interested in making sure we had a good history of New Zealand and didn't miss anything on display out the many windows.
In fact, the closest we came to any panic was the morning we slept in and missed breakfast. Luckily lunch was only a few minutes away.
* Michael Donaldson was a guest of Holland America Line.
Sunday Star Times