Joanna Hall finds the scenery picturesque on board and off while cruising on Radiance of the Seas.
IT WAS seven in the morning as we threw open the curtains of our stateroom. Although it was gloomy, with low grey cloud enveloping much of the landscape, Milford Sound was beckoning.
It was the first land we'd seen for nearly three days.
Tucked away at the bottom end of the South Island, Milford was one of three "sounds" we were cruising through that day, the others being Dusky and Doubtful.
It had been three years since we'd ventured into this spectacular part of New Zealand, however, and I couldn't help but wonder if the "wow factor" would be as strong. Stepping onto the chilly deck, it was.
As Radiance of the Seas slipped into its sapphire-blue, glassy waters, the overwhelming landscape revealed itself; an untouched wilderness with towering mountains plunging into a freshwater sound, icy water pouring off the hillsides in dramatic waterfalls and jagged, snowcapped peaks tearing through clouds in search of sunlight.
By midday we were in Doubtful Sound, less dramatic than its famous neighbour, perhaps, but equally enthralling and famous for wildlife including fur seals, penguins and whales.
By 4pm our day-long jaunt through the Fiordland sounds was over and Radiance of the Seas was steaming south, then north, to our first port of call.
We had joined the latest Royal Caribbean ship to venture Down Under for a two-week exploration of New Zealand, a round trip from Sydney. Launched in 2001, Radiance of the Seas underwent a major makeover last June before calling Australia home for the southern hemisphere summer.
It has an impressive list of facilities appealing to families and cruise fans of all ages.
The ship bears all the hallmarks of a modern liner, with interesting artworks and a trendy interior design. It also has excellent facilities for children, decent shopping opportunities, entertainment options and plenty to keep adults as busy as they choose.
Food lovers, in particular, will appreciate the wide variety of culinary venues. Besides a two-level dining room and casual buffet, seven new options were added in the makeover.
The Japanese-inspired Izumi, Chops Grille and the Mexican-themed Rita's Cantina all incur a surcharge but are worth the money.
By day, you can get a made-to-order salad at the Park Cafe in the Solarium, or a hot dog on the go from the Boardwalk Dog House.
Staterooms were also upgraded. Ours was a large ocean-view room on deck three just above the waterline. Although it was a tad compact - the bathroom in particular - it was nicely appointed with mod cons, plush furnishings and elegant accents of gold and royal blue.
After a bumpy two-day Tasman crossing, which Radiance handled easily, we headed to the first of seven ports of call on the North and South islands.
First was Dunedin, dubbed the "Little Edinburgh" of the Pacific, which might be the second-largest city on the South Island but is undeniably sleepy, with heritage buildings on every corner.
Next was Akaroa, the picturesque French and British settlement sitting in the heart of an ancient volcano, possessing plenty of easy-going charm, even on a rainy day.
As we docked in Wellington, however, the weather took a turn for the better. For us it was an opportunity to swap a workout in the ship's substantial gym for walking, including a climb to the Botanical Gardens awash with spring flowers and a steeper hike to the top of Victoria Mountain for its panoramic views. En route we took rest stops at cafes to take in the local vibe and on the way back meandered along the waterfront from Oriental Bay by way of the Yacht Harbour and Frank Kitts Park, to Pipitea Quay.
A brief stop in the art deco outpost of Napier was next on the itinerary, then a full day in Tauranga, which had been under the media spotlight since October last year thanks largely to the stricken MV Rena tanker. We embarked on a day-long excursion to Rotorua, the highlight being a visit to Whakarewarewa, one of the region's most active thermal areas.
Our final stops included Auckland, where we explored the CBD with a spot of shopping to avoid rain showers, and the Bay of Islands. The latter was set to be a highlight rounding off the cruise but was abandoned due to approaching rough seas and high winds.
Three days later, back in calmer waters, we docked in Sydney's Circular Quay.
Radiance is a welcome addition to the many ships plying local waters; it is a glossy, modern vessel catering to many types of cruisers, with the benefit of taking on our notoriously fickle seas well.
Its itineraries, as well as its facilities, are attractive.
In just two weeks we visited several historic cities, climbed a mountain, saw diverse landscapes and got close to some of New Zealand's many natural jewels. For much of the cruise, the "wow factor" was as strong as ever and the Bay of Islands can wait for another time.
The writer travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Get on board
A 14-night New Zealand Explorer Cruise, a round-trip from Sydney with various departures between November 17, 2012 and February 20, 2013, is priced from $1895 a person for an interior stateroom to $2645 a person for a balcony stateroom. 1800 754 500, www.royalcaribbean.com.au.
When on board
Radiance of the Seas carries up to 2531 guests.
Bars include the English-style Quill and Compass Pub, the Champagne Bar, the elegant Colony Club and the Viking Crown Lounge with its floor-to-ceiling windows and fantastic views.
There is a Royal Babies and Tots Nursery for ages three to six and a family pool area with a water slide.
Facilities include a day spa and fitness centre, a rock-climbing wall and an adults-only solarium with an undercover pool and bar.