Truth be told, a New Zealand cruise was never high on my bucket list. With its outdoorsy, adventurous image, it never enticed me like more urban destinations. But slowly, mysteriously, this distant nation began to exert a gravitational pull among my friends, whose Instagram feeds filled up with its epic, almost hallucinatory landscapes.
That’s how I found myself standing expectantly, early one morning, at the bow of Seabourn Encore, the wind whipping through my hair as we sailed silently through the indigo waters of Milford Sound.
This magnificent fjord within New Zealand’s Fjordland National Park on the country’s South Island is one of the world’s top travel destinations, with close on a million visitors each year. And as the sun rose above razor-edged summits, forming rainbows in the mist of glorious waterfalls, all I could think was, “What took me so long?”
A fellow passenger – a seasoned cruiser who had done this New Zealand cruise many times – told me how lucky I was. Fiordland being the wettest area of the country, he explained, low cloud often obscures this spectacular scene. “But then the climate in New Zealand,” he added with a shrug, “is a bit hit-and-miss.”
That turned out to be something of a prophesy, as tricky weather left us boat-bound twice over the following week. Once when impenetrable fog cloaked the city of Dunedin, and once when the tail-end of a cyclone prevented us dropping anchor at the pretty peninsular town of Kaikoura (excellent, I had heard, for wildlife-spotting).
But what was a little rough weather? After all, we had just crossed the Tasman Sea. This ship runs that amounts to a shuttle service between Sydney and Auckland. Which many guests do it as a round trip. My Kiwi adventure had actually begun in Australia, with stops in Melbourne and Philip Island, where I watched a penguin colony’s sunset waddle from the sea to their burrows. Then came the Tasman, and three days during which the sea – and I – felt very rough indeed.
Arriving with some relief in New Zealand, we visited the remote, sparsely populated Stewart Island and the picturesque port of Picton. The very windy capital city of Wellington, the steaming geysers of Rotorua and the bright lights of Auckland. But the highlight was undoubtedly the truly incredible Milford Sound.
Those aborted port-calls? No one minds being stuck on a luxury cruise ship. Especially on Seabourn Encore, whose crew sprang into action with a last-minute programme of activities. From informative lectures to dance classes – to distract us from the weather. Better still, almost as if they could sense our disappointment at missing out on Kaikoura, a pod of dolphins emerged from the choppy waters, ducking and diving alongside the ship in a magical performance that, at least momentarily, provided us with a nature fix.
Seabourn regulars will be familiar with this level of service. Across its small fleet of four all-suite ships, none accommodating more than 600 guests, there is nearly one staff member per passenger. The experience is more akin to travelling on a private yacht – even more so on Encore, which is the first of two with interiors by the prolific hospitality designer Adam Tihany.
Unfurling over six decks, the 300 suites feature surprisingly large marble bathrooms (with bath); walk-in wardrobes; and a spacious living area with glass doors that open on to a private veranda. The members’ club feel extends to the public spaces. Where acres of polished mahogany, creamy leather and thick, deep-blue carpet extend throughout a cosy coffee shop and library. A delicious spa; and three restaurants, including an intimate Japanese sushi joint and The Grill by Thomas Keller.
My favourite perch of all turned out to be the top-floor Observation Bar, whose floor-to-ceiling windows make it the perfect spot to drink in New Zealand’s spectacular scenery along with your pre-dinner cocktail. That is where I found myself riding out the Kaikoura storm while sipping Champagne and munching complimentary caviar.
“Cruising is the only way to travel,” said the American couple sitting next to me at the counter, behind which a barman performed his mixological magic. “We like Seabourn because it’s intimate, it’s personal, there are unique excursions and the ships can get into smaller ports.”
They were speaking from experience, having cruised with Seabourn on a number of its intrepid itineraries, including Antarctica. “We’d been on other, bigger, ships and it wasn’t until we finally took our travel agent’s advice that we realised you really do get what you pay for.”
The next day I awoke at Lyttelton Port, on the outskirts of Christchurch, to calm seas, blue skies and just the teensiest suggestion of a hangover. The night before, after dining at The Grill – where Thomas Keller’s classic menu features the likes of Dover sole, roast chicken and Caesar salad, all prepared table side – my new American friends and I had accompanied various revellers to The Club, where elegant glasses of champagne had made way for messy shots of tequila.
Fortunately, the crisp morning air proved the perfect pick-me-up as I set about exploring the South Island’s largest metropolis. Known as the most English of New Zealand’s cities, Christchurch suffered terribly in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes which left 186 people dead and wrecked the city’s historic heart.
But don’t be deterred: among the scaffolding and traffic cones there are notable art institutions, artisan coffee shops and the 21-acre sprawl of the Botanic Gardens to be explored. It turned out to be another wonderful day on a fabulous holiday. Next time though, I’ll remember to bring my sea bands.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.