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A big surprise at sea

GUY WILKINSON
Last updated 16:57 22/11/2012
Sun Princess
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BY GORGE: Taieri Gorge Railway near Dunedin.

Sun Princess
PEAK PRACTICE: Mitre Peak in Milford Sound.

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It's still early when a knock on my cabin door stirs me from my slumber. "Good morning, sir," says a waiter rolling past with a fully laden trolley.

Stumbling in the darkness, I watch bewildered as a decadent spread is laid out before me: Chilled champagne, smoked salmon with cream cheese, fruits and clotted cream, baked pastries and coffee. I'm confused. Hadn't I ordered breakfast for one? Has my cabin been mistaken for Keith Richards's?

Ripping open the curtains, I recoil as brilliant sunlight floods the cabin. Last night's torrential rain and raging seas have given way to still waters, blue skies and the majestic spectacle of New Zealand's Milford Sound fiords.

Wearing sunglasses and a fluffy white dressing gown, I saunter onto the balcony with a glass of chilled champagne. In the water below, a small pod of bottlenose dolphins races the ship. The air is crisp and silent. Waterfalls cascade from towering granite rock faces, their peaks dusted with snow. For a moment, all my rock star fantasies are fulfilled.

Until now, I'd never set foot on a cruise ship. To be honest, it never appealed. But small moments like this are slowly chipping away at my resolve. I'm a few days into a voyage around New Zealand's coast aboard the Sun Princess.

At the time of its launch in 1995, it was the world's largest cruise ship. Weighing more than 77,000 tonnes, it's heavier than the QE2, equivalent to 137 fully laden Airbus A380 super-jumbos.

As you might expect of a ship of this magnitude, the facilities are astounding. It has four outdoor swimming pools, five whirlpool spas, eight restaurants, seven lounges and bars, a casino, a computerised golf centre, health spa, gym, theatre and much more.

Each day the vast program of on-board activities is listed in a newsletter known as the Princess Patter, posted to your cabin. There are movies, dance classes, fitness seminars, wine-tasting sessions, golf tournaments, art auctions, trivia and even ping-pong competitions. It's all designed to ensure boredom is virtually impossible, though looking around, it seems many are content with a novel and a good martini.

Though it's all very impressive, I had pretty much expected this from a modern cruise ship. What I hadn't anticipated is the sheer number of activities to choose from. In the tiny town of Akaroa, about 75 kilometres from Christchurch, I opt to swim with dolphins.

Leading us offshore in a small motorboat, local guide Laura Hansen scans the waters with a pair of binoculars. It's freezing and the landscape is blanketed with fog. Off the port side, Hansen spots movement. It's a pod of Hector's dolphins. When we pull up beside them, I'm reluctant to jump overboard; these are hardly the tropical waters of Maui. Even through my very thick wetsuit the sea is cold enough to prompt a visceral howl, but the initial torture is worth it - a dozen Hector's dolphins soon surround me.

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I spend almost half an hour splashing around surrounded by them, close enough to touch. Recognised as the world's smallest dolphin species, these creatures are now on the same endangered list as the Bengal tiger and the giant panda and there are thought to be less than 7000 left in the wild. It's a privilege to have this experience and it's not one I would readily have associated with being on a cruise ship.

There are other noteworthy port excursions. In Dunedin, I ride the vintage Taieri Gorge Railway through gold rush country. Rattling over towering viaducts, we navigate some seriously hairy terrain, the track frequently teetering on the edge of near-vertical cliff drops plunging hundreds of metres down into the mighty gorge.

With broom weed plastering the entire countryside an explosive yellow, it has to be one of the most scenic rail journeys in the country. Back on board the ship, evening meals are an event.

After a stiff Scotch or a cocktail at the Rendez-Vous bar, I head to the Regency Dining Room where the a la carte, three-course menu varies each night. Dishes range from grilled salmon or pork to vegetarian options such as spinach and ricotta ravioli or wild mushroom soup.

Overall, the food is pretty good. If you're looking to take the standard up a notch, though, you can head to the Steakhouse on the upper deck for a nominal surcharge.

Night-times are a mixed affair. In the Vista Lounge, there are musical comedy routines involving mime sketches, puppets and audience singalongs; it's not all to my taste but then it was never really aimed at a guy in his 30s prone to more raucous live musical offerings.

In the 550-seat theatre there are varietal shows including a '50s Grease-style production that warrants admiration if only for the performers managing to stay on their feet during rough swells. My personal favourite is Movies under the Stars, where you can enjoy outdoor screenings on deck, staring up at the mammoth open-air cinema screen, beer in hand. On my final night, I'm watching Daniel Craig in a cowboy hat shooting at aliens when my mind begins to wander.

It occurs to me I've enjoyed my week aboard the Sun Princess much more than expected. While the financial value of mainstream cruise packages may always appeal to families and an older demographic, it's definitely a holiday you can tailor to suit your own personality.

A cruise is exactly what you make of it.

Trip notes

Princess Cruises offers a range of 14-night round-trip cruises to New Zealand   until March 2013, with fares from $1399 a person, twin share.  princess.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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