New Zealand to Solomon Islands cruise: Adventure cruising in Melanesia on Silver Discoverer

There's a saying that goes something along these lines: You have a problem that's worrying you, then you get a stone in your shoe which takes you mind off it.

So here we are in the South Pacific, cruising the waters of Melanesia. Some of the passengers I befriend are in a bit of a tizz debating whether or not to take anti-malarial tablets as we head towards Vanuatu and the Solomons.

As I didn't bring any such medication, I don't have an option.

One is a doctor from the Gold Coast who gives me three sensible reasons why she's going to pop those pills in the next day or two. Her husband, also a doctor, is not bothering. He's says there's a bigger worry. After his usual morning's web surfing, he's discovered there's a cyclone brewing out east and heading our way. Now I'm all ears. We are, by the way, on an adventure cruise.

January to March is classic cyclone season in the Pacific, but none of this occurs to me as I board Silversea's expedition ship, Silver Discoverer, in Dunedin on a crisp, sunny February afternoon.

Our itinerary is one of the most diverse in this region. Over 16 days we will travel north through 36 degrees of latitude, from the temperate zone to the tropics, cruising from New Zealand to Honiara, steamy capital of the Solomon Islands.

Silver Discoverer, one of the three expedition ships in the luxury brand's small fleet, can carry 120 passengers. But by some quirk or lucky accident there are only 36 of us on board. Outnumbered by the 97 crew, we're treated even more like royalty than usual, and I can never move more than an inch from the buffet without a waiter jumping up to carry my plate, and another forging ahead to open the door to the open deck.

Such is the service as we depart Dunedin - French champagne flowing and canapes galore. Being a small ship we can board right in the heart of town, rather than in Port Chalmers 10 kilometres away to which big ships are relegated. We sail the length of Otago Harbour, passed the city and rural surrounds to the red-capped lighthouse and colony of albatross perched on Taiaroa Head, to the open sea.

It's smooth sailing along New Zealand's east coast; you'd never want to break the spell thinking about cyclones in the tropics. Evening destination talks give us the low down on the following day's port and on the first night there's a Zodiac briefing for those who are new to zipping around in inflatable craft.

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A calm evening gives way to a blissful morning, as we awake anchored in Akaroa, one of those truly idyllic spots where the scenery is breathtaking from any angle. This town of just 630 would now belong to France had captain Jean Francois Langlois arrived to hoist the tricolour just a few days earlier. As it was he was beaten by English captain Owen Stanley, who raised the British flag on August 16, 1840. However, the delightful town, which was actually settled by French colonists in the 1830s but never officially claimed, still has plenty of French flair, notably pretty Rue Jolie that skirts the harbour. In the afternoon we whizz around in Zodiacs looking for Hector's dolphins, seals and blue penguins, with the ship's diving instructor, Scuba Steve, at the helm.

Kaikoura, further up the coast, also turns on good weather for whale-watching. Jumping abroad a local operator's catamaran, we're told that this is one of the few places where sperm whales congregate in big numbers. It doesn't take long for Tiaki and Saddleback, two regular toothed-whale visitors to show themselves, along with a pod of the friskiest dolphins I've ever seen. About 50 dusky dolphins perform aerial gymnastics around our boat like a freewheeling circus act.

It's dawn when we enter the Marlborough Sounds and board the trusty Zodiac for another jaunt - skimming across glassy waters to Resolution Bay. Only a handful of us take this early excursion to walk along Queen Charlotte Track to Ship's Cove, the place where Captain Cook sheltered on four occasions during his first two Pacific voyages. But everyone turns out for the afternoon's outing of a private tour and tastings at Forrest Wines followed by a mini-feast of canapes and accompanying wines in the gardens of the Marlborough Vintners Hotel, just a few kilometres from our dock at Picton.

After crossing Cook's Strait, we arrive at New Plymouth where the city mayor is at the wharf to greet us, along with local press. Cruise ships rarely visit this town, whose attractions include walks through the goblin forest of Mt Taranaki, so once again we get the royal treatment.

We've been lucky to be hugging the coastline for most of the journey, but once we head into the open sea, en route to our next stop of Norfolk Island, things get a little rocky.

Days at sea are spent listening to talks on climate change, birds and fish of the region, Polynesia history and even a slide-show presentation, "Sex and Romance in the Garden" delivered by biologist Damon Ramsey, who knows his enticing title will get us all to roll up and hear him talk about plants.

The expeditions team, led by Frenchman Louis Justin, are multi-taskers driving the Zodiacs and sharing their passions, be it the love of birds of every plumage (ornithologist Malcolm Turner was a favourite speaker) or Polynesian traditions. One night we are treated to a talk on traditional navigation and head to the top deck to lie on deckchairs as Tua Pittman, (a Cook Islander) points out the stars with help from his nifty laser beam.

Landing at and departing from Norfolk Island really brings the crew's skills to the fore. As there are no real dock ships must anchor off shore and it takes a lot of skill and ideal weather conditions to manoeuvre a small tender boat and even a Zodiac (laden with mature travellers) into shore due to the reef and windy conditions. Our morning landing is easy enough, but we cut the visit short by an hour as we must make the short but tricky ride back to the Mother Ship before the big waves roll in. I'm in the Zodiac with Dominic and he tells us to lean into the middle of the craft and hold on tight as he guns the engine and heads out form the island during a lull in the wave pattern. It's an exhilarating ride indeed, but nothing compared to just how difficult it is to get from the Zodiac and onto the Silver Discoverer's landing platform in the boiling seas, with the ship rocking way one and the zodiac the other.

Following Norfolk, it's another full day at sea as we cruise towards Melanesian waters.

This is when the cyclone, which I later discover first formed on February 7 and which some passengers have been rumbling about for a week, becomes a reality. Cyclone Winston which was heading south as most cyclones do, has done a complete about-face (a loop to loop in fact) and is how heading west into our path. When we visit the bridge Captain Vincent confirms this news but he says, with luck, we won't come within 400 to 800 nautical miles of it but we will experience some serious swell.

Later that day, Louis delivers the bad news. We will have to drop Tanna, the volcanic island, from our itinerary. We were going to be driven up the slopes of this active volcano in four-wheel-drives to sit and watch it splutter and explode from a safe distance. I'm really disappointed; I thought this would definitely be the cruise highlight. But we can't go because the swells will be fierce and getting in and out of the Zodiacs will be a nightmare, the captain says. Others are happy about this, and secretly, well, so am I.

But as we're on an expedition ship with plenty of manoeuvrability Louis promises he and the crew will come up with an alternative. In the meantime, we enjoy days in the Isle of Pines and Lifou, and hear the bad news that Winston has struck Fiji and struck it hard.

Tanna is replaced by Port Vila, and I think "ho hum", but it turns out to be an eye eye-opener. As it's a public holiday in the capital, the Silversea crew works hard in league with the shore operators to rustle us up a last-minute itinerary. At the city's cultural centre, we meet one of the famous figures of Vanuatu, Edgar Hinge or Matasangvul, who is a master at sandroing (sand-drawing), as the art is called in the Bislama language. Using one finger he makes a continuous line on an imaged grid in a sand tray, rendering a picture of a turtle without lifting it once from the tray.

Later we are driven around town to see the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Pam, which hit the island in March 2015. There are still dozens of houses without roofs, damaged buildings and a car crushed under a tree and left to decay.

We passengers are lucky, and we know it. Cyclone Winston, we learn during a talk given by the ship's climatologist Claudia Holgate, is the strongest ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere and the second fiercest in the world after Hurricane Patricia, which hit Mexico last October.

Safely out of harm's way we round off the voyage with a journey along Paradise Lagoon to swim in one of the blue holes of Espiritu Santo and watch ancient tribal dances in the islands of Ambrym and Santa Ana.

Sixteen days and some pretty choppy seas later, we are delivered to Honiara on a hot and super-sticky morning.

Our comfy hotel has air-con, an inviting pool and solid ground beneath our feet. But there's a certain yearning among the small group of us that congregate at the pool deck that afternoon. We know Silver Discoverer is pulling out again, this time heading to Micronesia via Sulawesi where passengers will witness the total solar eclipse. This time 90 passengers are on-board, most of them keen astronomers and even a couple of astronauts to boot. The ship's dark blue hull and white frame slips by, about a kilometre out to sea. A couple of us wave, wishing them fair weather and smooth seas.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

silversea.com/expeditions

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies to Dunedin, via Christchurch. Air Solomons and Qantas fly from Honiara to Sydney, via Brisbane. Airnewzealand.co.nz; Qantas.com; solomonairlines.com

CRUISING THERE

Expedition ships Silver Discoverer and Silver Explorer travel the world from Antarctica to the Artic and everywhere in-between (including the Kimberley) on 10 to 18 day expeditions. Third ship, Silver Galapagos, explores those islands on seven-day cruises all year round. The Dunedin to Honiara 16-day cruise is expected to scheduled again in 2018, although programs have yet to be released. Fares include all meals, beverages (including alcohol) and excursions. Wi-Fi is extra.

The writer travelled courtesy of Silversea Expeditions.

Five more Silversea Expeditions cruises

If you like it chilly and fancy a trip to the High Arctic, then get in quick as places are limited on Silver Explorer's itinerary departing Greenland on August 22, 2016. The 18-day cruise is a roundtrip from Kangerlussuaq, in south-west Greenland at the head of a fiord of the same name. The adventure packs amazing icy scenery (plenty of icebergs and glaciers), wildlife and calls into isolated villages in Nunuvut, the massive territory of northern Canada. From $26,050 a person twin share.

Closer to home is a 14-day expedition from the tiny island of Koror in Micronesia to Cairns, via Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait islands. Silver Discoverer will visit remote areas in PNG including Kopar Village, and the hot springs of Fergusson Island. In Tufi passengers will be transported along the Kwapurina fiord with local villagers as their oarsmen. Departing September 20, 2016, the expeditions costs from $17, 50 a person twin share.

Silver Discoverer heads out of Cairns on October 4, 2016, on a 14-day expedition to Balikpapan (Borneo) though the Coral Sea and Indonesia. Calling at some of the best dive spots in the world, guests also explore the Top End with calls at the Tiwi Islands and Seven Spirit Bay in Arnhem Land. Fares from $18,450 a person twin share.

Silver Galapagos spends the entire year exploring those islands located some 900km from Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Two different seven-day itineraries are offered – the western and the north-central, which can be joined for a 14-day cruise and a chance visit most of the 19 islands in the group. Land and sea iguanas, huge land tortoises, sea lions, red-legged crabs and blue-footed boobies are among the fascinating creatures that inhabit these remote parts. Seven-day itinerary from $9350 a person twin share.

Following the current sold-out Kimberley season, Silver Discoverer returns to the region from late March to May 2017 for six itineraries between Darwin and Broome (and reverse). Ten-night cruises are priced from $11,750 a person twin share in an explore suite.

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