Cruise New Zealand: See Great Barrier Island's dark sky sanctuary and Maori culture

Late afternoon, and the streets of nearby Auckland are jammed with commuter traffic. But we are up, up and away, flying in a small plane to the sparsely-populated Great Barrier Island.

It's the first stop on Across the Ditch, an imaginative program that offers guests sailing from Australia to New Zealand a unique series of Kiwi experiences, both on and off the elegant ship, the Majestic Princess. The cruise line wants visitors to learn about Maori heritage, to participate in traditional customs, to visit "places less travelled", with the help of local, expert ambassadors. To turn a port call "into a real, cultural experience".

Where better place to start than on Great Barrier Island? As the brochure says, "Prepare yourself for something special, a taste of uncivilised, untouched and authentic reality."

Take a step back in time. Go under the radar, off the grid. See "free-range children" at play. Roam an island run on solar power. Chat to the locals who routinely leave keys in their cars when going away. Or help themselves to food from the communal vegie garden.

Within minutes of a bumpy landing – mysteriously on the grass rather than a nearby tarmac strip – we are away on our voyage of discovery. It is led by locals Benny Bellerby and Norm Winger men, like most on the island, of many jobs. Benny explains that, in their many different ways, everyone on the island works; every one of the 1100 population, in theory, has a role to play in maintaining the island's green, healthy wellbeing.

We climb mountains. Visit windy canyons. Check-out several pristine beaches. All free of snakes and mosquitos. Spot the remains of long-lost industries such as mining, logging, whaling and fishing, increasingly for recreation.

Indeed, much of the following morning will be spent by members of our small group – or, at least, the hunter-gathers among us – fishing, primarily for scrumptious snapper and kingfish.

Meanwhile, it is time to head up the hill, to our lodging for the night, the elegant yet homely Trillium Lodge, looking over the bay to Coromandel or the bush or stunning mountains. But wait, don't plan to have an early night-cap and go to bed! Arguably the best sights, the day's biggest attractions, are about to be revealed in night skies suddenly cleared of heavy, dark cloud. Cometh the starry skies and cometh the expert Deborah Kilgallon, of the wittily titled Good Heavens Dark Sky Experiences, one of only five dark sky sanctuaries in the world. And the only island.

Rugged up in heavy blankets, warmed by regular cups of hot chocolate, we spend more than an hour being guided though heaven's highlights: the stars, the satellites, the meteors and space junk. Orion. The orange glow of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. The Milky Way. The Southern Cross. The big and little dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, containing the sparkling diamond of Sirius, brightest star in the sky. Well, it is only 8.6 light years away. And so on into the night! Needless to say, the Dark Sky Experience is among the "highlights" of what was to be a spectacular, memorable, round trip, ending back in Sydney.

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There were many more to look forward to as, next morning, our group flew back, over seas dotted with dolphins and whales, to join the Majestic Princess. To its ultra-comfortable, high-tech beds, stunning choice of cuisines, amazing choice of amusements and its list of up-coming attractions at stops such as Rotorua/Tauranga, Wellington, Akaroa, and finally Dunedin.

As the ship's daily guide "Princess Patter" reports, Tauranga is a Maori word meaning "place of rest" though you wouldn't have guessed it such were the crowds. Described by guides as "a geo-thermal wonderland at the heart of Maori culture", Tauranga offers "jaw-dropping scenery and thrilling excursions".

Hereabouts is where the Lord of the Rings movies recreated the home of the Hobbits, a taste of the "world's best honey", the Tamaki Maori village and some of the Southern Hemisphere's largest geysers, mud pools and natural hot springs. And, if you are lucky, glimpses of New Zealand's national bird, the increasingly-rare flightless kiwi.

In keeping with Princess Cruises' policy of tapping into the knowledge of local, experts, our group is welcomed to the Te Puia Maori village by community leader and local ambassador Sean Marsh with music, dancing and barbecue. Marsh takes us on a tour through the village, among geysers and into museums and workshops where expert artists and artisans pass down traditional Maori carving skills to eager trainees.

We move on to share a Kiwi orchard experience, including a testing session of different fruitsand, later, a similarly tasty Avocado Orchard Experience. By then, it is almost 6pm and time to return to the ship's luxurious comforts. And, of course, to the exciting prospect of visiting other ports, other places to see as we steam south to Wellington, Akaroa, Dunedin, Port Chalmers and, on the way back home to Sydney, the spectacular landscape of Fiordland.

Each has its own unique attractions each presented and interpreted by local experts. As the opening edition of Princess Patter explains, "The ship is dedicated to travellers whose journeys are launched by an unquenchable thirst for discovery. It's a curiosity about our world and those with whom we share it."

The ship comes back to Circular Quay with many happy customers. Bumping into a couple I had met on the ship, I asked if they had enjoyed their holiday. "Yes," they replied. Were they going home now? "No," they replied, "in fact, we're getting straight back on the boat and doing the return trip to Sydney. There are so many more things to do and places to see."

TRIP NOTES

John Huxley was a guest of Princess Cruises.

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CRUISE

Princess Cruises has a number of round trip 13-day itineraries to New Zealand departing in 2019 from Sydney and Melbourne. Prices from about $2900 twin share for an interior stateroom. See princess.com

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