Confessions of a cruise ship virgin
I'd always been pretty sceptical about cruising.
While I realised there are far worse things than travelling about in a floating resort, having someone else organise everything for you for a change, it hardly seemed adventurous.
Much of the thrill of travel, I was convinced, comes from planning your own perfect journey, losing yourself in the alien backstreets or backcountry of your chosen destination and having the freedom to wander wherever you like without worrying about making it back to the ship on time.
But when the opportunity presented itself to join the Azamara Journey's maiden voyage around the North Island, I couldn't pass it up. I was intrigued to find out what life aboard a luxurious boutique liner was like.
Would it be full of ancient Americans gorging on bland down-home fare from the buffet, stopping every so often to be herded like polo-shirt wearing cattle around each port stop? In some ways, it kind of was. But it was so much more: from the moment mum and I set foot onboard we encountered pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise.
Sipping on welcome glasses of Champagne, we settled in to the first of many oversized meals in the elegantly casual Windows restaurant.
Unable to resist the piles of locally-sourced seafood, roast lamb, fresh salads and desserts at the buffet, we immediately became the cliched gluttonous cruise guests. Perhaps we're just simple creatures after all: satiated stomachs equal satiated hearts.
Docked in our hometown of Auckland the first day, we felt no need to explore, so dedicated ourselves to exploring the ship, from the lavish-looking restaurants to the equally opulent "drawing room", spa and casino.
Sprawled on double-bed sized sunloungers that evening, complimentary margaritas in hand as we took in performances by award-winning Pacific Island and kapa haka groups, we had to admit we were both cruise converts (with the already expanding waist lines to prove it).
And then the storm struck. Waking in the night to the sound of something crashing off the desktop, we peered out our cabin porthole to a wall of swirling water. It was like peering through the window of a washing machine. When it was finally time for breakfast, we staggered along the halls to the stairwell, unsure whether our unsteadiness was a consequence of the storm, the addictive margaritas or both.
The rocking and rolling did little to dull our appetites (we couldn't get enough of the salmon gravlax and scrambled eggs) but others were visibly sickened; the line outside the medical centre for free pills ever lengthening.
When we reached the Bay of Islands, I spontaneously booked the only tour to the Hole in the Rock that would get me back on time, realising seconds later, as another torrential downpour hit, that it probably wasn't the best day to be heading out in an inflatable speed boat.
The rain felt like an onslaught of tiny arrows as we surfed surprisingly large waves. It would have been exhilarating if I hadn't been afraid of my phone flying off the edge. But even grey skies don't dull the beauty of the bay. Sky TV founder Craig Heatley's glass-walled 'bach' on Moturoa Island is still one of the most envy-including sights I've set eyes on.
The storm prevented us from visiting Tauranga so we spent a day of enforced relaxation at sea before heading to Hawke's Bay and Wellington. We took advantage of Azamara's longer-than-usual port stays, exploring on our own rather than shelling out for the overpriced excursions. Wherever we wandered though, the generous buffets were never far from our minds, drawing us back for lunch and the odd snack.
Evenings were spent enjoying wine, tapas and live music in the "living room" with its floor-to-ceiling windows showing off coastline that must look much as it did before humans made it there. The oversized armchairs enhanced the sense of being older Kiwi versions of Alice in Wonderland; naive souls transported to a world where the comical and nonsensical soon became the norm.
Mum and I were guiltily slogging it out in the gym when we cruised into Wellington and spotted a pod of dolphins hurtling toward the ship, ducking and diving in a vision of pure happiness. Suddenly, they were everywhere, escorting us into the capital like aquatic Azamara staff. Show over, we made the most of our last cruise supper before reluctantly leaving the cosy bubble that had been our temporary shelter from the big, bad world. Turns out a life (or at least a week) of floating and eating isn't so bad after all.
More information azamaraclubcruises.com
Cruising there A 14 night Tasmanian and New Zealand voyage, departing from Sydney on February 8, 2018 on Azamara Journey. Prices start from $6129 for an interior stateroom. A 10 night Arabian Gulf and Emirates Cruise, departing Dubai on November 14, 2017 on Azamara Journey. Prices start from $3813 for an interior stateroom. Cost includes alcoholic beverages, barista coffee, gratuities and self service laundry. See azamaraclubcruises.com for more information.
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.