Cruising in New Zealand is an increasingly popular option for Australians, and for plenty of good reasons. Try stunningly scenic countryside, thriving wine and food cultures, its proud Maori heritage, and a diverse collection of laid-back towns and attractive cities. Plus, our neighbours across the ditch are a friendly lot. What's not to love?
The Kiwi cruise season generally runs between October and April, with the favourite months to visit being December, January and February, when the weather is (usually) warmer. About 40 ships are expected to visit this summer, ranging in size and style from Royal Caribbean's 4180-passenger megaship Ovation of the Seas to Ponant's luxurious 184-passenger expedition vessel Le Lapérouse.
Most cruises depart from Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane on itineraries of 10 or more days. P&O Cruises operates short round-trip cruises from Auckland between April and September; some expedition cruises visit the South Island on the way to the subantarctic islands, while others call at less-visited spots such as Stewart Island and Kaikoura.
Ships dock in the heart of Auckland, and New Zealand's biggest city is blessed with natural attractions as well as art galleries, museums, shops and restaurants. Wine lovers should head to pretty Waiheke Island, a 40-minute ferry trip from the port, while keen walkers can hike on a variety of scenic coastal or forest trails.
One must-do in the idyllic Bay of Islands is a guided tour of the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, to learn about colonial and Maori history. There are also dozens of adventurous activities on offer, including kayaking swimming with dolphins, parasailing and paddle-boarding.
Tauranga's Mount Maunganui is a popular beach-holiday town and the departure point for road trips to geothermal Rotorua. As well as seeing Rotorua's famous boiling mud pools and dramatic geysers, you can bask in a thermal spa and take part in a traditional Maori welcome ceremony in the whare tupuna meeting house.
Both Gisborne and Napier are renowned for their wines. The first Polynesian canoes landed in Gisborne 800 years ago and you can board a 22-metre replica to learn about the early navigators. Napier's gorgeous art deco architecture is its main claim to fame.
In Wellington, the national Te Papa museum is, deservedly, one of the city's most visited sites, but the compact capital also serves up great coffee and craft beers. Stroll down Cuba Street for contemporary art galleries, shopping, and cool bars and eateries. Wellington is also a top spot for day trips to The Lord of the Rings locations – or you can walk to the forests on nearby Mount Victoria, which was the setting for Hobbiton Woods in the movies.
Picton, set at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, is the gateway to the Marlborough wine region, which achieved international fame with Cloudy Bay's sauvignon blanc after the winery was established in 1985.
Since the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, French-accented Akaroa has been the cruise port for Christchurch, about 90 minutes' drive away. Who can resist a harbour cruise to see rare, miniature Hector's dolphins at play?
Fodor's guide calls Christchurch one of the top 52 places to visit in 2020. Taking a leisurely ride on a punt on the Avon River is a lovely way to see the Botanic Gardens or the inner city's revitalised river precinct.
Dunedin, on the Otago Peninsula, has a long-established Scottish heritage and its carefully preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture even includes a castle, Larnach. Shops sell kilts and other tartan products, bars serve locally brewed single malts and young buskers play bagpipes.
Wildlife tours on the peninsula are outstanding. The rugged area is home to rare birds such as the northern royal albatross, cute little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, as well as fur seals, which can be observed close up.
Unless you're a devoted tramper, sailing through Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound is the best way to see the magnificent alpine scenery of Fiordland National Park. Rainforest carpets sheer cliffs and dramatic waterfalls plunge from great heights.
There is a good reason for this: Milford Sound is one of the world's wettest places (it averages 6400mm of rain a year). So don't be disappointed if it pours – it will only add to the dramatic photo opportunities.
WHICH CRUISE IS RIGHT FOR YOU?
Make the most of your sail around New Zealand by picking a ship that suits your lifestyle.
If your family enjoys on-board activities as much as going ashore to explore, the way to go is a big ship packed with kids' clubs, resort-style facilities and entertainment for all age groups.
Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas is the biggest, newest megaship to cruise around New Zealand, and fun things to do include sky-diving (in a simulator), surfing the 12-metre surf simulator and driving bumper cars.
P&O Cruises operates numerous family- and budget-friendly cruises from Sydney and Melbourne, as well as short round-trips from Auckland. Pacific Adventure joins the fleet in October 2020; five-berth cabins, racing water slides and an adventure park add to the family appeal.
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jewel has interconnecting cabins, a kids-only pool, sports deck and plenty of activities. The Haven, a private "ship within a ship" complex with luxurious accommodation and its own pool and restaurant, gives multi-generational groups the best of both worlds: access to all the big-ship fun as well as a five-star escape.
Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Splendor has two New Zealand cruises on its 2021 run. Family-friendly features include water slides, minigolf, breakfast with Dr Seuss characters, and a basketball court.
Grown-ups looking for a more sophisticated experience can choose from a growing collection of small, mid-size and ultra-luxurious ships.
In the latter category – in which fares include everything, including drinks and gratuities – are Seabourn Encore, Silversea's Silver Muse and Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Explorer. None of these ships carries more than 750 passengers, so book well in advance.
Azamara's Azamara Pursuit and Oceania Cruises' Regatta each accommodates about 680 loyal, well-heeled passengers.
The larger Viking Orion is a 930-passenger adults-only ship that is one of Viking's new ocean-going fleet. They don't claim to be in the luxury category but are stylish, contemporary vessels, and a raft of inclusions make them good value.
Celebrity Cruises' "modern luxury" ship, Celebrity Solstice, has proved so popular that the line is sending sister ship Celebrity Eclipse to join it next summer; Solstice will continue to cruise out of Sydney and Eclipse will be home-ported in Melbourne.
More Aussies sail locally on Princess Cruises ships than any other line. Next season, it will have six ships in our region: new Royal-class vessels Regal and Majestic Princess (home-porting in Sydney and Auckland), Sapphire Princess, which arrives in May 2020 for a year-long stint, plus Sea Princess, Sun Princess and Pacific Princess.
Cunard's stately Queen Elizabeth returns to local waters in November for four months; highlights of its New Zealand voyages include overnight stays in Wellington and Auckland.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 1.