Sounds so enticing

Caroline Gladstone discovers New Zealand's unique ports and beautiful bays.

Rugged up in the early-morning light, coffee cup in hand, I stand 10 decks above the dark waters of Milford Sound, staring at massive cliffs bathed in low clouds. Our vessel, the 90,000-tonne Celebrity Millennium, has entered New Zealand's best-known fiord at 7am and for the next two hours cruises the 22-kilometre waterway, manoeuvring as close to the cliffs as the captain will safely allow.

We pass the thundering Stirling Falls, see fur seals lazing on rocks and, as we round a misty bend, spy another big white ship ahead of us. But we keep our distance; there's no need to hurry a day's scenic cruising through magnificent Fiordland National Park.

Thousands of people visit Milford Sound every year, jumping aboard little boats, but few manage to see three sounds in one day from the comfort of a cruise ship's decks, restaurant, whirlpool spa, private balcony, gym treadmill, or wherever else onboard they choose to spend the day.

Later, we cruise into Doubtful Sound, a serene wilderness three times longer and 10 times larger than Milford, and to Dusky Sound, the largest of the fiords. This remote landscape, carved by massive glaciers, is the piece de resistance of a New Zealand itinerary. Although I've visited New Zealand many times, I'm amazed at the sights encountered on a 14-day cruise. For starters, I had never heard of Akaroa, a gorgeous former French colony, nor did I know there's an active volcano smoking away in the Bay of Plenty.

Cruises to New Zealand usually last about 14 days and most are round trips from Sydney, with occasional departures from Melbourne and Brisbane. Others are 14-day one-way jaunts between Sydney and Auckland, all following similar itineraries. Main ports are Fiordland, Dunedin, Lyttelton, Wellington, volcanic White Island, Tauranga and Auckland, while some will also feature Akaroa, Picton, Napier or the Bay of Islands.

Dunedin

Ships dock at Port Chalmers and a shuttle bus takes you to town for about $NZ5 ($3.80) each way. The town centre houses St Paul's Cathedral and a statue of Robert Burns, a fitting symbol for this former 19th-century Scottish settlement. City sightseeing tours (about $NZ20) organised at the visitors' centre include impressive stone Victorian buildings such as the railway station and Larnach Castle. You'll pass Baldwin Street, reputed to be the steepest in the world, old-style pubs and you can later visit breweries. Look out for the gannet colony on the headlands as you cruise out of port.

Akaroa/Lyttelton

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Ships alternate calls between the ports of Akaroa and Lyttelton, on opposite sides of the Banks Peninsula on the South Island. Both ports can be branching-off points for visits to Christchurch, a distinctly English-looking city of lovely gardens, heritage trams and Edwardian-style punts on the Avon River. Popular tours include the TranzAlpine train ride across the Canterbury Plains to Arthur's Pass.

Akaroa is a gem and many passengers opt to spend the day there rather than venture to Christchurch. The port town has a clutch of historic buildings, waterfront bistros and streets with French names. Tours include wildlife cruises in search of Hector's dolphins - the smallest of the species - fur seals and penguins.

Picton

Ships arrive through the majestic Queen Charlotte Sound. Tours from Picton include visits to Marlborough wineries to sample the region's classic sauvignon blanc, made famous by the Cloudy Bay label.

Wellington

The capital of New Zealand clings to hills surrounding a brilliant harbour. The Te Papa museum, showcasing Maori culture, and a ride on the red Wellington Cable Car from Lambton Quay to the Botanic Gardens, are highlights. Easy day trips further afield explore the Wairarapa wine region and the seal colony at Cape Palliser.

Napier

An art deco-style city rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake, Napier is my favourite New Zealand town. Walking tours led by guides dressed in classic Roaring Twenties garb are a treat. Visit the fascinating museum to see the before-and-after earthquake display and the history of the art deco movement. A dozen wineries are nearby, including the beautiful Mission Estate.

White Island

This active volcano smoulders and bubbles away 48 kilometres off the coast in the Bay of Plenty. The island is two kilometres in diameter and rises 321 metres above sea level. Most ships will spend two hours circumnavigating it.

Tauranga

This port is the jumping-off point for visits to the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, an hour away by road. Sulphur fills the air, geysers shoot fluid hundreds of metres into the sky, lakes and mud pools boil and spurt.

Mount Maunganui

It's the name of both an extinct volcano and a holiday resort town just a few hundred metres from the port at Tauranga. Treks around the mount itself, swimming in ocean rock pools and soaking in the Hot Salt Water Pools, are the things to do here.

Bay of Islands

This beautiful bay in New Zealand's Northland region, named for its 150 islands and rock formations, is steeped in Maori history. The first inhabitants arrived in the 10th century; the Waitangi Treaty was signed here in 1840. Wildlife-spotting cruises and fishing trips are popular, while the township of Russell has elegant buildings and restaurants galore.

Auckland

Some cruises end here, in New Zealand's biggest city. Tour options include sailing on the harbour and day trips to Waitomo Caves.

The writer travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.

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