A last minute New Zealand cruise, just prior to Christmas 2017, saw us not only witness the natural beauty of this exquisite Island nation, and catch up with some long lost best friends who had moved away... but the new friends we made onboard, are now friends for life, and we have some exciting new holidays already planned with them over the next few years.
Meeting the Holland America ship 'The Noordam', in Auckland, had us flying in the day before, just so we could have a quick look-see before we boarded the following day. It has become a thing we do now - arrive early, maybe a day or two before our ship leaves - No use flying to another country, only to miss your ship due to untimely flight delays or missed connections. We've both been here a few times over the years, so we were happy to just mooch around, looking very much forward to boarding our ship the next day.
Lining up at the Auckland Cruise Ship Terminal, which kind of looked reminiscent of an ancient shearing shed, Trev, in all his childish wickedness, tried to get me to play a game with him - new identities for the trip! OMG, really? I can't lie my way out of a paper bag! Anyway, we decided that when we get asked onboard,
"So, where are you from?", we decided to (try to) answer:
"Oh, we live on an island off the Great Barrier Reef...." Technically right, so not lying. It's just the world's biggest island. Just a bit of fun.
It was a long queue.
Another gorgeous sail away sunset for us, as we headed on our voyage south, but not before sampling a few cocktails to get us fully into holiday mode. :)
First stop: Tauranga
This is the Port you call into if you wish to see the famous Rotorua, and all it's thermals wonders, hot springs, boiling mud - and rotten egg gas!
Being in NZ, doesn't feel much different than being at home in Oz, (very comfortable I mean), so instead of booking expensive shore excursions off ship, we decided to wing it and just hire a car from the Port, and head off to explore on our own. I really wanted to see the thermal activity, so we drove the short hour to 'Hells Gate', (not far from Rotorua), passing some glorious countryside along the way. No wonder Peter Jackson chose his home country to film Lord Of the Rings - everywhere you look reminds you of somewhere from Middle Earth.
It's just lovely.
You can take your swim suit and have a dip in the thermal mud pools...apparently they have fabulous healing properties.
We didn't bother, but probably should have!
Next stop: Napier.
This friendly little seaside town was rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1931, and hence it is renowned for its 'Art Deco' styled buildings that line the main street.
They often have folks dressed up in attire from days of old, with brass music playing amongst their vintage cars.
Photo credit: Tim Whittaker
On a sunny day, it's a lovely place to amble, which is exactly what we did, all the way to the National Aquarium, which is located conveniently right by the seashore. It looks really small when you first enter, but it's deceptive - there really is a lot to see, including a tunnel you walk through as the sharks and rays swim over your head, and a gorgeous little cove with the most adorable fairy penguins.
It's great just making things up as you go along.
This is turning out to be a nice, relaxing holiday, as quite often we go so hard we feel like we need a rest when we get home!
Next stop: Wellington.
If any of you are LOTR geeks, (AKA Lord of the Rings fans...), you might like to see our Wellington/LOTR tour. Another full free day, this time in the Nation's Capitol, so we went to the information centre in town, and booked a half day LOTR film set tour. This didn't include the amazing Weta Workshop, the studio of Oscar winning Richard Taylor - the genius behind the costumes and makeup effects for many movies, including LOTR. I got to go through this facility quite a few years ago, (before they really held public tours), when a close friend of mine was working on the movie 'Kong' there, and she invited me over for a Weta Workshop Cast and Crew Halloween party! (Even Adrien Brody popped by. :)
I couldn't wait, as I was a fledgling makeup artist myself at the time, it was like going to the Oscars! So much talent there. So if you ever get the chance to go to Weta, you must!
Anyhoo, moving along! :)
We visited many of the film locations, but to be honest, you'd never recognise them now, as everything had been removed, and much of the scenery had been enhanced digitally, but it was really cool all the same, being there, and hearing the guide's inside stories as she had been an extra in the film.
We saw many of the sites, but my favourite in the film, and here, is the area which had been Rivendell, and it has been renamed that, officially. People used to get lost trying to find it via mud maps and serviette drawings, but now it is sign posted, so fans can find their way.
This arch was in the film so, true to form, we put our hands up to don the little woollen capes the Hobbits wore, and the look was completed with a plastic sword.
Fun facts: The ornately carved bedhead that Frodo slept under when he woke in the bed at Rivendell after being rescued by Arwen, sold recently at auction for $3 Million. WOW. Also, all those Rivendell waterfalls, are real, but from Milford Sound, and repeated digitally 53 times.
Okay, one more stop, the famous "Get off the road" scene, where the hobbits jumped off the path as the Ringwraithe turned up on his black horse.
OK, geek/nerd/fan time over, we had fun.
(We chose not to go to Hobbiton, as we'd like to go there with our kids one day.
We'll save that one for later.)
Our guide was fabulous, and hopefully I'll remember the 'off the record- behind the scenes' goss she told us. It was brilliant.
That was thirsty work, must be time for a cocktail. Man, these included drink packages are diabolical. ;)
Next stop: Picton.
Another pleasantly surprising day lay ahead...little did we know when we casually headed onto the shuttle from the ship into Picton, that we were about to catch a newly restored steam train!
Luck had it, that when we arrived into the sleepy little town, not knowing what to do - we noticed there was a train at the station, and we could hear some 'big band' brass music. So we wandered over, with the idea that if anything, we could just catch a train somewhere through the countryside for a few hours. Well - not just any train, a steam train no less, that had only been running for a few days, so the ship didn't know to offer this as an option.
A four hour round trip, and a restaurant for lunch in the famous Marlborough Wine region - what's not to like?!
It was brilliant, and Trev, the train lover, was having a blast. We spent most of the time standing in the area between the carriages, watching the cows all scatter as we chugged past, and seeing the steam floating over our heads was pretty cool, as was going through the tunnels whilst the driver sounded the horn.
The train stops at Blenheim for a couple of hours, so we made our way to a lovely place for lunch, the Saveur Cafe.
It sits right on a picturesque stream, so it was a perfect location to taste some amazing fried Camembert and gorgeous NZ Sauvignon Blanc. Now it's my turn to be in 'foodie' heaven!
After all this, we still had another 2 hours on the train back to Picton!
What a great day, and highly recommended if you ever get there.
The train only leaves once a day, so make sure you check the time, and perhaps even book ahead.
There were some people onboard the ship quite disappointed when they realised what they could have done that day.
Next stop: Akaroa (near Christchurch)
Since the great Christchurch earthquake in 2011, you can't berth in there as the dock is damaged - still, at 2017.
So ships call into the tranquil port of Akaroa.
We were fairly early into town, so we just walked up the pretty main street and hung around, had coffee, took photos, until the rental car (the post office/hotel) opened.
We eventually were able to hire a car - as we didn't have a booking, and they had to see if there was one available. Trev got a "no cars available" from the guy at the desk, so I popped in and got a "yes, we have one!"
Haha, one for the girls!
Off we headed towards the normally snow capped mountains in the distance, however, it's summer now, and its going to be over 30 degrees today, which is crazy hot for this place, even the bitumen later in the day, started to melt. Hilarious. :)
It ended up being a fairly old little rental car, and after a couple of hours, we got to the base of the mountains, and as the elevation rose, so did the temperature on the car's engine.
We suddenly felt a LONG way from the ship, so we decided it was best not to push it up any further.
Never mind, it was a scenic drive, and on our return trip, we stopped at a glorious spot overlooking the water, and enjoyed a couple of bevies before heading back to the ship.
We have spent a lot of money on previous cruises doing various shore excursions...and whilst in some places, we feel they are essential, here it was so nice just doing our own thing.
We didn't head to Christchurch, just happy seeing the countryside instead.
Another fabulous, easygoing day.
Next stop: Dunedin.
Last stop in New Zealand, as from here we cruise the Fjords (Sounds), and then head to Tasmania.
Guess what? There's another train ride to take!
This time, the famous Taieri Gorge Railway.
Another happy day for Trev!
(And me too of course.)
We got ourselves over to the very beautiful Dunedin Train Station...
... and boarded, not a steam train this time, but none-the-less, it will be scenic ride as we head into the highlands, crossing many bridges and going through quite a few tunnels, some with only a few inches clearance - I had to be quick taking this pic!
It was another great experience, plus, the time of year we were there, the hills were covered in these gorgeous yellow flowers.
Back to Dunedin, to enjoy a city tour by coach, which was included in the train ticket price...so cool!
It is known as a 'University Town', with a heavy emphasis on Biomedicine, which is what our daughter was studying at the time. She'd love to come here, as she loves the cold!
It also has the steepest street in the world, and the crazy Uni students still take up the dare as to who can last the longest in a wheelie bin from the top. NB: kids have died doing this!
So that's it for land based NZ time. Now, its off the cruise the gorgeous Doubtful, Dusky then Milford Sounds, before we brave the Tasman Sea and arrive in Hobart.
Also, it's time for some great laughs with our new buddies, Pete and Shaz - the four of us like peas in a pod, laughing, drinking, and planning new adventures in the years ahead. (As I write this in 2019, we have already caught up with them in England - its on the Abu Dhabi to London holiday blog, as well as we are leaving in 4 weeks to meet them in Paris.) Never underestimate the value of making new friends whilst cruising...you already have the love of travel in common!
Some seriously good times already had, and many more to come!
Next: Cruising the Sounds Of The South Island.
We actually didn't have Milford Sound, officially on our itinerary, just Doubtful and Dusky Sounds. This I was unaware - I had assumed any ship would have to do Milford;
the best one of them all.
Anyway, as we cruised through the first two, the mist and rain got worse, and it was such a shame, but, apparently, typical for the area.
The Captain announced that the forecast was for clearing weather ahead, so he set course for Milford Sound, which was actually a few hours north. We were SO very appreciative!
And boy, what a treat we had in store for us. Due to the morning rain, we had waterfalls left, right and centre, and gorgeous blue skies above. It couldn't have been scripted any better. A picture paints a thousand words. Enjoy.
Now, it's time for those in need to pop those seasick tablets, as the Tasman Sea can be quite 'adventurous'! We have a two day crossing before arriving in Hobart, Tasmania, where we'll be catching up with some dear friends, who moved down there a year or so back. We miss them terribly, and we get a whole day and most of the evening in Hobart, so they are meeting us as soon as we arrive in port. Woohoo!
Let me just say, WE LOVE HOBART!
In fact, we love Tassie, fullstop.
It is a fabulous place to visit, so compact compared to the rest of Australia, and the convict history, as well as the natural scenery and animal life, pretty much, is hard to beat.
We came here in 2005, when our kids were much younger, hired a car and drove around for 10 days, following a pictorial map, and just stopping anywhere of interest...particularly where there were penguins!
I could go on and on, maybe I should do a separate blog, if my memory serves!
This stop is just for the day, and the main thing for us, is to see our friends, and their fabulous new digs they had bought in downtown Hobart. They had the entire day planned for us, bless them. We were in good hands, and the ship arrived in port at 8am, and didn't sail till 11pm... so we had loads of time.
Hobart is so accessible on foot, and our mates met us at the famous and delightful Salamanca Markets, which for them, is probably only a 15 minute walk from their house. We had a LOT to catch up on, the four of us could talk underwater with mouthfuls of marbles. We had also planned for a drive down to the historical town of Richmond, which is famous for its beautiful old stone bridge, (a favourite for bridal parties and Instagrammers...), as well as it's pie and lolly shops!
Did I mention lolly shops? Mmmmmmmm, chocolate....
That evening we went to THE best restaurant, The Rock Wall, in Salamanca... Seriously, an 'Oh wow' place to go. It's packed ALL the time, so make sure you make a booking if you go. And, trust me, if you like eye fillet, order it with the coffee rub. I hesitated, and didn't, but have had it there since, as it's A M A Z I N G!
Probably the best meal we've had on the entire trip.
What a brilliant day with our dear friends, and we finished off with a drink at the repurposed old IXL Jam Factory on our way back to the ship, as it is located right by the docks. Keep an eye out for 'Sammy the Seal', who lives on the waterfront and gets plenty of fish from the local fisherman, and tourists.
It's so nice just to walk everywhere, we think our friends have made a great decision to move to Tassie. We'll just have to pop down there every year to visit them!
Next stop: Melbourne.
A brief stop here, we feel like we're on our way home now!
We caught the shuttle into the city, which is actually quite a ways from the Port of Melbourne, and thought we'd do something we haven't done before, and go to the National Art Gallery, and maybe a tram ride around the city. The gallery was fabulous! Lots of modern art, Picasso, as well as my favourites, the Renaissance Masters!