One of the more difficult decisions for a first cruise in Australia and New Zealand is choosing an itinerary to visit all the ports you want to see. Don’t worry. You can’t. Unless your time and budget are nearly unlimited, these countries are far too big for one visit.
Better to do what I did in November — choose a cruise that includes some ports you probably will not see during a land visit to either country, then plan pre-cruise and post-cruise stays to explore further.
One itinerary, which worked for me, is to cruise between Sydney, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, on a ship that spends a majority of time in New Zealand waters. My cruise visited ports on New Zealand’s South and North islands, including sites more accessible from sea than from land such as Milford Sound and remote breeding grounds for seabirds and penguins.
With additional jaunts out of Sydney and Auckland, I managed to cover a lot of territory in less than four weeks — two of which were on a cruise ship, with the added benefit that my bedroom traveled with me.
With its fjords, diverse outdoor activities from bungee jumping to fishing and kayaking, wineries (think pinot noir and sauvignon blanc), Maori cultural villages, and the geysers and steaming mineral pools of Rotorua, New Zealand promises exciting opportunities for shore excursions.
Itineraries vary somewhat by ship, and choices are increasing as North American cruise lines continue to base additional ships in Australia. Next winter (summer Down Under), you’ll find ships from Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Holland America, as well as ships based in Australia and New Zealand for a limited time (such as Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea and Crystal) and ships that generally are marketed to passengers outside North America (such as P&O).
My 12-night voyage on Celebrity Century out of Sydney began with Hobart in Tasmania, the island once infamous for housing prisoners dumped in the wilderness. You can tour the old prison and get a close-up view of a Tasmanian Devil — not a comic book creation but a real carnivorous marsupial.
After two days at sea from Tasmania, we cruised through Milford, Doubtful and Dusky Sounds on New Zealand’s southwest coast. Aboard ship, we spent the morning watching the wonders of nature in the three fjords, carved out of mountainous rock by glaciers. The ship floated to the end of Milford Sound — known for its reservations-only, three-day hiking path from hut to hut — then turned around and cruised back to sea.
From the port of Dunedin, where the rural hillsides look much like rocky, sheep-grazing Scotland, birding tours reach the mating grounds of the Northern Royal Albatross and another for the rare Yellow Eyed Penguin. Both give birth on protected grounds of the Otago Peninsula. From the port of Napier, home of a huge collection of art deco buildings, a shore tour takes passengers to the mating grounds of gannets at Cape Kidnappers, an hour’s drive through the countryside from port — and worth every minute.
The 1,800-passenger Celebrity Century stopped for a full day at Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. It’s an easy-walking, good-shopping city on the water, with seafood restaurants and cozy bars. Downtown is only 15 minutes from the cruise ship docks, so I put on my walking shoes, glad I skipped the shuttle bus. Don’t miss the free Te Papa museum on the waterfront, worth several hours for strolling its six floors of artifacts, art and colorful descriptions of the stories of the geographical beginnings, exploration, population and cultural mix of New Zealand, largely English and Maori.
At the port of Tauranga, the most popular shore excursions head to Rotorua for the soothing hot springs, dramatic geysers, and Maori cultural village. Rotorua is reason enough for some people to journey to New Zealand.
In Auckland, the Century unloaded its passengers, about half from North America, and headed back the same 12-night path to Sydney. Auckland is a cosmopolitan city, with ferry service to nearby islands, including Waiheke, an easy day trip with serious wine-tasting possibilities and souvenirs of olive oil and honey with medicinal quality.
Beyond Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand is a relatively new route for big cruise ships, so be prepared with patience (and an umbrella) for occasional glitches.
I encountered two wet and windy, nasty weather days that happened to coincide with two rather remote ports, the only ones where the ship was required to tender passengers ashore. One was at Akaroa, a poorly equipped temporary cruise port used during reconstruction in Christchurch following the earthquakes of 2011. The other was at Bay of Islands, site of the first European colonial settlements and a favorite getaway for New Zealanders. Both are on my list for a return visit. David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com