The Tasman Sea has a reputation for being stormy, a hot spot for low-pressure systems that swirl tightly, giving rise to fierce winds and colossal swells.
Who can forget images of countless Sydney-Hobart sailors embracing in relief and exhaustion after emerging from an oceanic tumult into the refuge of the Derwent River?
Nautical history oozes from the colonial surroundings of the Tasmanian capital’s Constitution Dock, which is flanked by 1830s sandstone warehouses that once stored wool, grain and whale oil but now house bustling art galleries and restaurants.
Strolling through time and tide, you can’t help but ponder the tribulations faced by those aboard fishing boats and yachts moored nearby, some surely too diminutive to weather a tempest. Stacked with crayfish pots, nets and thick ropes, the vessels carry colourful names such as Suicidal Dream, Vagabond, and the wishful thinking of Serenity. So many tales in this port in a storm. So many more on the horizon.
Azamara Journey, in its maiden Australian season, is set to sail from Hobart, bound for New Zealand. Most passengers picked up the cruise in Sydney, the starting point for a 14-night adventure.
Wave height modelling indicates the waters will be lively. A pretty palette of concentric circles on the computer forecast begins with deep red, signifying swells of 7 metres (22 feet) from the southwest, blending to a nice shade of salmon (under 6m) and lemon (5m).
Our captain calmly informs us of the looming conditions and urges those with expensive perfumes and cologne to ensure they are securely stowed. He suggests eating early as “an empty stomach makes things worse”, and for those who are prone to sea sickness to collect free pills from guest services.
“The ship is very stable and we will ride it like a swan,” the captain promises.
Fortunately, the weather system is far enough south that strong winds don’t accompany the generous swell, and skies remain clear. The feeling is one of excitement. Those among the “Azamara family” embrace life and fresh experiences. That’s why they are here. Bring on the high seas and we will sip champagne as we surge through them, they say.
The ship rises and falls almost rhythmically, and guests and staff brace and take measured steps as they wobble about the ship. Passengers settle in to enjoy live music, make new friends, play cards, and share stories of previous cruises. The captain is true to his word and, after feeling like we have been nursed to sleep by a giant, we awake to the most stunning of days.
Azamara Journey weighs 30,277 tonnes, measures 592 feet (180m), and has nine passenger decks. With a carrying capacity of 690 passengers and 408 crew, it is considered a mid-size cruise ship. Its “boutique’’ proportions are a clever point of difference and a guest on his seventh Azamara trip told of his delight at visiting intimate ports and gaining views that those on larger ships need binoculars to see. Seasoned travellers can also savour longer stays in new destinations, and more authentic cultural experiences, including night touring. A company motto is “cruise global, connect local”.
My ocean view cabin, close to the starboard bow on Deck 4, is remarkably easy to find, another advantage of a cosier vessel. There are all the conveniences of a five-star hotel room, including ensuite, mini bar, writing desk, sofa and a decent-size television that I suspect is rarely watched due to the scenery.
It takes three nights and two days to make the almost 2000km journey across “The Ditch”, plenty of time to arrange excursions, relish superb food and wine, have a Swedish massage, take in a few shows and, most importantly, relax. The itinerary includes breathtakingly beautiful Milford Sound, picturesque Dunedin, Akaroa, Napier, Tauranga (Mt Maunganui), and Auckland.
Many passengers are from the US and Europe, and they report having a ball Down Under, playing golf, hugging koalas and learning about colonial times. The Americans ask about cricket, which they find baffling, especially the part where players cease hostilities and walk off for “tea”.
Conversations turn worldly over breakfast, a sunset cocktail, or on exercise bikes in the gym, but politics is approached with caution due to the polarising effect of US President Donald Trump. In the interests of ship harmony, there appears an unofficial truce between rival camps.
Australians, as usual, find each other. They include a retired school principal from Brisbane who knew some of my teachers, a family from the Hunter Valley, and an Italian-born Gold Coaster who belts out a killer version of La Bamba at karaoke.
Azamara Journey, which has a twin called Azamara Quest, was built in 2000 and given a massive makeover in 2016. This saw $33 million spent on redesigning suites and staterooms and adding new spa suites and a scenic poolside dining area called The Patio.
There are six dining options, including room service, and two specialty restaurants – Prime C and Aqualina. The Patio is a great option for lunch, and you can select from a lean and healthy array of fare, such as seared tuna spinach wraps, salmon burgers, and Cuban-style pork sandwiches.
Adjoining is Windows Cafe, which lays out expansive buffets, including everything from bacon and eggs to crispy fried frogs’ legs, sushi, roasts and salads, plus an irresistible spread of desserts.
Bakery treats are available with specialty coffees and fine teas at Mosaic Cafe. You can take these away and find a comfy chair to soak up some sun.
To burn off the calories there is a running track on Deck 10 and a glass-framed fitness centre on Deck 9. Next door is Sanctum Day Spa, where weary bodies and minds are soothed with massage therapies, facials and pedicures.
On-board activities range from dance lessons with Russian champions Anton and Alina to trivia, table tennis and even Wii bowling. There are lectures from touring experts, with topics including Maori Gods and Rituals, Musket Wars, and Will the Monarchy Survive?
Adding to the stress-free holiday is a long list of inclusions, such as standard spirits, wines and international beers, meals (apart from those at specialty dining venues), gratuities, coffee, and shuttle transportation in port. The service is always cheerful and the wait staff intuitive.
Expect surprises such as a pop-up chocolate buffet that Willy Wonka would be proud of, and the dazzling singing, comedic and musical talents of lofty cruise director Eric De Gray.
A stunning day winding through southwest New Zealand’s pristine fiords is forever memorable. With its sheer cliffs, lush forests and snow-capped peaks, this unspoilt region is among the world’s natural wonders.
We also delighted over a stop at the French-settled hamlet of Akaroa, performances from Maori groups and Scottish bagpipers in Dunedin, and a bike ride along the glorious beachfront at Mt Maunganui.
After just a sample of the rough conditions the Tasman can produce, the cruise offered smooth sailing, glorious sunny skies, and a voyage of discovery. This left many guests already planning their next escape.
The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
Azamara Journey returns to Australia for a second season in January. Fares start at $4399 a person, twin share, for a 14-night Tasmania and New Zealand voyage departing Sydney on February 8. This will include overnight stays in Hobart, Dunedin and Napier, as well as scenic cruising through Milford Sound and calls at Akaroa, Picton and Tauranga before arriving in Auckland. There is also a 13-night Auckland to Sydney voyage, and an 18-night Sydney to Singapore itinerary, along with a new 18-night Bali to Sydney voyage departing January 21.
A 14-night cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong, sailing through Thailand and Vietnam, is priced from $3879 a person, twin share, and departs December 9.