Cruising Fiordland offers vistas and experiences land-based tourists can't match, writes Natasha Dragun.
An icy wind whips over the bow of the ship, where a few hundred people huddle with coffee and cameras, swapping between sips and snaps as the sun glances the top of the Llawrenny Peaks. The ocean glistens like it's blanketed with mercury, only broken when seabirds gliding over the surface occasionally swoop for fish. Captain Yannis Berdos slows Celebrity Solstice as we reach Dale Point and begin to enter Milford Sound, New Zealand's jaw-dropping South Island fiord, famously referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling.
We've spent two days crossing the Tasman Sea from Melbourne and Sydney, and our first land sighting couldn't be more breathtaking. Sheer cliffs rise 1200 metres on either side of Solstice; waterfalls thunder from the top of forest-carpeted canyons, their spray almost reaching the ship. Snow-capped mountains are enveloped by low-slung clouds - a perennial feature in this part of the country, regarded as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world.
We're hoping for a dolphin sighting, or even to glimpse an elusive Fiordland penguin as we drift through the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. Instead, Berdos points out New Zealand fur seals basking on boulders in the morning sun, and tells us about the immense covering of black coral trees below the water's surface.
It's easy to see why close to 1 million people visit Milford Sound every year, most of them arriving on foot via the fabled 54-kilometre Milford Track. But an increasing number of travellers are taking in the scenery as we are - from the comfort of a deck chair aboard a cruise ship. And it really is a spectacular vantage point.
Later in the day, as we move through Doubtful and Dusky Sounds - home to one of the southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins - I retire to the balcony of my cabin, where room service and a glass of rosé prove to be the perfect complement to the drama unfolding before me.
Unlike Milford Sound, Doubtful and Dusky are not accessible by road, so the only way to properly see this part of the world is by cruise ship. It's certainly becoming a popular sea route, but on our early December sailing on to Dunedin, Akaroa, Wellington, Tauranga and finally Auckland, Solstice doesn't see another soul.
When she was floated in 2008, Solstice was the largest cruise ship ever built in Germany, with a capacity for 2900 guests to bed down in staterooms and suites across 15 floors. Larger ships with more trimmings have since come on to the market, but Solstice remains one of the most comfortable ways to travel.
In addition to a spacious balcony, my stateroom comes with a flatscreen TV, en suite bathroom and minibar; some larger suites also have niceties such as Bulgari amenities, pillow menus and private butler service. There are plenty of diversions, including a casino and theatre, dedicated glass-blowing auditorium, a sprawling fitness centre and spa (the headed, tiled loungers are a nice touch), plus workshops and lectures on everything from pilates to cooking the perfect steak.
There's also a sprawling manicured lawn on the top deck, which features real grass and comes with its own groundskeeper. There's a putting green and bocce facilities; or you can just kick your shoes off and order a glass of wine. And then there are the shore excursions.
"We try to throw in something a bit different," says Barbara Kenny, the ship's shore excursions manager. "And we always work with the best operators."
There's a dizzying array of activities on offer, from kayaking Sydney Harbour and biking around wild New Zealand countryside, to train and helicopter rides and food-and-wine tours. You can spend as little or as much as you like on ship-organised shore excursions. "Or you can organise something yourself," Kenny says. "Many guests do this. But the benefit of our tours is that we ensure you're back in time for the sailing."
After docking in Dunedin, at Port Chalmers, the vast majority of the ship jump into coaches and head off to check out the region's penguins - the Otago Peninsula is home to breeding areas for the Little Blue and the rare Yellow-eyed penguins. I head in the other direction and join a cycling tour with just two other people.
Our ride takes in some of New Zealand's most dramatic countryside, its volcanic origins precipitating rugged ranges and vast carpets of emerald grass. We stop for homebaked ginger snap cookies and coffee out of a thermos on a wind-swept beach, and spend an hour scouring sand dunes for seals, sea elephants and sea lions known to inhabit the area.
Having worked up an appetite, my first stop back on board is to find food. Thankfully I don't have to go far. Solstice has a whopping 17 restaurants, bars and cafes. You can eat for free every meal, should you wish. But the ship also features specialty-dining restaurants, serving up French, Italian and pan-Asian fare for a surcharge. If you're an AquaClass guest, you also have exclusive access to Blu, a specialty restaurant dishing up "clean cuisine".
With close to 2900 people on board, the amount of food that the ship goes through on an average seven-night cruise is astounding: 10,300 kilograms of beef, more than 12,000 bottles of wine and champagne, 19,200 litres of beer, 2300 litres of ice-cream, and 1100 kilograms of coffee. (On a tour through the galley I'm told that Australian cruisers drink twice as much alcohol and go through 10 times as much coffee as American passengers.)
And although there are some 700 Australians on Solstice, the vast majority of people I meet are American. Soaking up the sun on the Lawn Club one afternoon I meet the Elder family - a 60-something husband and wife from North Carolina travelling with their young granddaughter.
"This is our 143rd trip with Celebrity," they tell me.
"We thought we'd be one of the top Celebrity customers. But we're not even in the top 10. There's some guy with 220 cruises under his belt. Can you believe that? I know, we should probably try other lines. But we just love the service that Celebrity offers."
It's a sentiment I hear repeated at the dinner table and beside the pool day after day. And it's one that I begin to echo: one evening dining on my own I'm entertained by a waiter/wannabe magician while enjoying my meal; having mentioned to my cabin attendant that I miss my pooch, I return to my room to find towel-art of a dog left on my bed at turndown.
These small but memorable touches are perhaps no surprise, given that the staff-to-guest ratio is almost 1:2 - the 1256 crew on board represent some 60 nations.
"The industry has changed a lot since I started captaining," says Berdos, who has been heading Solstice for 3½ years.
"It's a lot more accessible, and people are becoming more demanding in their expectations of what a cruise ship should offer.
"I've been with Celebrity for more than 19 years, and one thing that has not changed is the company's dedication to service. I'm encouraged to be hands-on and mingle with guests, and the crew are extremely well trained."
It's a recipe Celebrity Cruises are finding so successful they've announced plans to bring sister ship Celebrity Century to Antipodean waters in 2014/2015 to join Solstice.
Together, the two ships will offer 27 cruises in the region, a 50 per cent increase on the previous season.
"Cruising gets into your blood," Kenny says. "It's addictive, and I can't see myself doing anything else."
The writer travelled as a guest of Celebrity Cruises.
Celebrity Solstice docks in Sydney and Melbourne on its cruises from Australia to New Zealand. If you want to enjoy the reverse voyage, Air New Zealand flies from both Australian cities to numerous ports in New Zealand. See airnewzealand.com.au
Celebrity Cruises will host 27 cruises around Australia and the Pacific in 2014-2015. Fares for a 12-night New Zealand cruise start from $1472, including meals at select restaurants. Specialty dining, some entertainment, shore excursions and beverage packages not included. Phone 1800 754 500 or see celebritycruises.com.au