Cruising Middle-Earth

Remarkable ... Princess Cruises' Sapphire Princes in Milford Sound.
Remarkable ... Princess Cruises' Sapphire Princes in Milford Sound. 

Special New Zealand feature

It's a land of dramatic landscapes which inspired J.R.R Tolkien's mythical world, and Joanna Hall finds cruising New Zealand is a great way to experience the country's ethereal beauty.

As the cruise ship edges closer to the waterfall, the sound of water crashing into the icy fiord below increases in intensity. At a height of 200 metres, the waterfall is one of the biggest in the national park and the ship drops anchor close enough for the waterfall to drown out most conversations and throw spray on to those who have ventured out on to the deck to take in the remarkable scene.

Behind this, and all around us, is an untouched wilderness where towering mountains plunge into a freshwater sound, where icy water pours off the hillsides in dramatic waterfalls, and where jagged, snow-capped peaks tear through the rain clouds in search of sunlight.

Located on the south west coast of New Zealand, Milford Sound is part of a stunning alpine region called Fiordland. Technically it's a fiord, not a sound, or a steep-sided inlet created by glacial erosion, as well as one of New Zealand's most popular natural attractions.

Our day-long cruise of Milford Sound marked the beginning of a 10-day New Zealand journey which opens up a world of natural wonders and reveals a vibrant culture which really defines a proud nation. After our exploration of Fiordland, the Seven Seas Mariner stopped at five New Zealand ports of call spanning both the North and South islands.

Cruising the South Island is an exercise that involves scenery of a grand scale and the towns and cities possess a relaxed, and often understated, charm which provides a contrast to the spectacular landscapes. Dunedin, South Island's second biggest city with a population of just over 120,000, is a real throwback to New Zealand's colonial heritage with Scottish Edwardian architecture scattered around its streets.

Christchurch, further to the north, has a similar youthful exuberance although this is a distinctly “English” city on the surface. It's the biggest city on the South Island, although it's still a calm and laid-back place, and it's here that the narrow Avon River meanders through grassy river banks lined with willow trees, beautiful gardens and stately buildings. Young gentlemen from the Edwardian era (local students) push punts through the tranquil setting for the romantically inclined and this could easily be a snapshot of a languid summer's afternoon in Oxford or Cambridge.

The North Island is no less alluring, and its cities have really emerged as cosmopolitan and worldly places in the past decade or so. The nation's capital, Wellington, at the bottom of the North Island is the geographic centre of New Zealand but it's spent most of its life well and truly in the shadow of the likes of Auckland and Christchurch. These days it's laying claim to being the “hippest” place in New Zealand and with good reason, and not just because several glossy style magazines have proclaimed it so.

Set against the backdrop of a mountain that drops quite dramatically into the ocean, with terrace houses perched on the slope, Wellington has been called the “San Francisco of the Southern Hemisphere” and while this may be a little fanciful it does give the place an attractive physical aspect that most cities simply don't have. Its cultural delights, of which there are many, belie the fact that this is a city that's out to have some fun.

On our final stop, at the surfer's paradise of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, we were able to witness another of New Zealand's natural wonders - Rotorua's famous geysers.

Whakarewarewa is one of Rotorua's most active thermal areas and it's a bizarre landscape of bubbling mud pools, hot springs and steam, stained with a myriad of different minerals. The star attraction is the lively Pohutu geyser, a crowd-pleaser which erupts around 20 times a day, shooting a deadly combination of water and steam into the air, sometimes as high as 30 metres.

Early next morning we docked in Auckland, New Zealand's “city of sails”. It was time to leave our pampered paradise and get back to reality. In less than a fortnight we'd cruised the Tasman Sea, visited some historical cities, seen some diverse landscapes and got up-close-and-personal with a few of New Zealand's many natural wonders, and we'd only barely scratched the surface of what the country has to offer.

Cruising New Zealand

The New Zealand cruise season runs from November to April, and many of them start and/or finish in Australian ports. NZ is also increasingly being added to world cruises, and as part of repositioning voyages. Here's a selection of some cruise lines which visit the region.

Coral Princess Cruises (www.coralprincess.com.au)

Seabourn (www.seabourn.com)

Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com)

Holland America Line (www.hollandamerica.com)

Princess Cruises (www.princess.com)

Silversea (www.silversea.com)

Regent Seven Seas Cruises (www.rssc.com)

This series of articles has been sponsored by Tourism New Zealand

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