New Zeland, Milford Sound

ly

 

(Recently posted in Escape)

we are in Norway,” a passenger exclaims as our cruise ship glides between towering cliffs carved by glaciers during the Ice Age.

The breathtaking vision of fjords at New Zealand’s majestic Milford Sound is not the only surprise.

It’s the height of summer and the temperature is 4C, but it feels closer to freezing due to the bracing breeze. A European visitor is standing tanned and relaxed in khaki shorts, loafers with no socks and a short-sleeved shirt. His wife is wearing even less.

I’m not sure how they are able to speak without chattering teeth. I’m almost hypothermic, despite being cocooned in a ludicrously expensive jacket borrowed from my elder son, who said it was critical to him surviving a school camp at Mt Barney near the NSW-Queensland border.

The European iceman and his ice queen reach for a steaming beverage offered by a crew member. It’s real hot chocolate, seemingly reduced from the richest chocolate bar on the planet and forged into sugar lava.

media_cameraThe extraordinary scenery of Milford Sound.

We are experiencing a sensory overload aboard the boutique ship Azamara Journey during its maiden season to Australia and New Zealand.

All hands are on deck to see the Sound, which technically is not a sound – a wide inlet from the sea – but a deep, narrow waterway framed by soaring almost vertical cliffs.

As our impervious-to-cold northern hemisphere friend pointed out, this makes it a fjord.

The scene is so beautiful, Rudyard Kipling referred to Milford Sound as “the eighth wonder of the world” during his visit in 1891.

In the shadowy pre-dawn light, the water is like ink and the rocks lurch over us as giant, jagged silhouettes. After two days of ocean sailing across the Tasman Sea from Hobart, the first land we see is the starkest and most hulking of landscapes. We huddle at the bow on the 10th and highest deck, waiting for the sun to climb and illuminate the geological marvel.

media_cameraAzamara Journey in New Zealand.

The conditions – chill blasting aside – are superb. In the Land of the Long White Cloud, there isn’t a wisp in sight. And this is one of the wettest places on Earth, averaging 7m – that’s right, metres – of precipitation each year. Its record is 559mm in a day. The mariner’s nemesis, fog, is also common, but we’re clear as a bell. The weather gods have smiled upon us.

The sun’s rays pierce holes between peaks as we inch deeper into the wondrous waterway. The only sounds are a low humming of the engines.

This World Heritage-listed site, known as Te Wahipounamu (Maori for “the place of greenstone”), is part of Fiordland National Park. It winds for 15km inland from the Tasman and includes forests of red, silver and mountain beech, as well as conifers and ferns. You can see barren chasms where the harsh weather has created massive landslides. Passengers gasp at waterfalls, and cameras click to preserve the magic moments.

media_cameraOne of the many waterfalls to be found in Milford Sound.

The mountains, the result of seismic upheaval more than five million years ago, soar to the heavens, with the highest, Mitre Peak, rearing to 1692m. It was named for its resemblance to the headgear worn by bishops. There’s also The Elephant, at 1517m, and Lion (1302m), which looks like a gargantuan Simba’s head.

Another treat is snow, in February, on the loftiest points. Further into the Sound there is a voluminous waterfall that Captain Johannes Tysse announces deserves closer inspection. “We will do a pirouette so everyone can see,” he says.

This is a prime example of the flexibility of the Azamara Journey – a mid-sized cruise ship with 690 passengers and about 400 crew – and the willingness of staff to deliver the most memorable of experiences.

We are doing much better than Captain Cook, who, on his first visit in 1770, thought the location looked too dangerous so he stayed well clear.

media_cameraAzamara Journey pool deck.

With the weather holding, our benevolent skipper alters the day’s itinerary. We will visit not one, not two, but five sounds. As well as Milford, we take in Thompson, Doubtful, Dusky and Breaksea.

The rare treat brings a halt to all interior pursuits. Even members of the experienced multinational crew rotate short breaks to witness the rare spectacle. “This is why we go cruising,” says a female American passenger. “It’s the best way to see the world.”

For Australian passengers, it provided Norway-esque delights much closer to home.

The writer was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.

media_cameraWaterfall in Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park.

ESCAPE ROUTE

NEW CRUISES

Azamara Journey will return to Australia for a second season in January. Fares start from $4399 a person twin share for the 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 to Akaroa, Picton and Tauranga before arriving in Auckland. Cruises also include a new 18-night Bali to Sydney voyage via the west coast of Australia departing January 21. This will offer maiden calls to Exmouth, Perth, Bunbury, Albany, Esperance, Kangaroo Island and Adelaide. A 14-night Sydney to Auckland trip, a 13-night Auckland to Sydney voyage and an 18-night Sydney to Singapore itinerary are also on offer

Auckland, New Zeland

No matter what clients are looking for in a vacation, Auckland probably has it. Outdoor activities? Check. Relaxing beaches? Check. Wine travel and culture? Check and check.

Auckland is the most populous city in New Zealand and is also the country’s financial hub. The downtown area has a bustling array of bars, restaurants, and entertainment while the outlying parks, beaches, and islands are a natural escape.

Flights from Sydney are around three hours while flights from Los Angeles are near 13 hours. The long-haul flight from the continental United States might be a turn-off to some clients but once they’re there, they will be glad they made the trip.

Where to Stay

The Delamore Lodge on Waiheke Island is just a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland. The property has only four suites and a two-bedroom apartment. Where it lacks in size, it makes up for in luxury.

The Delamore Lodge delivers views of the Hauraki Gulf at almost every turn and all rooms have a patio and rain shower that overlooks the water. For a more social setting, guests can take in the views in the heated infinity pool or private gardens that have a variety of plant life and work by local artists.

Meals and complimentary pre-dinner drinks and hors d’oeuvres can also be taken outside. The property has its own private wine cellar that offers a variety of award-winning local wine.

For the guest that wants to make a grand entrance, the hotel has its own private helicopter landing site (just five minutes from Auckland). There are also private boat charters exclusive to guests of Delamore Lodge.

Waiheke Island is located just off the coast of the mainland and is the second largest island in the gulf. There are a variety of beaches from family oriented to clothing optional. It also has dozens of vineyards and is often referred to as New Zealand’s, “island of wine.”

Hauraki Gulf // Photo by Avi_Cohen_Nehemia/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

For clients who would rather be in the center of the city, Hotel DeBrett connects High Street’s hip bars and restaurants and Shortland Street’s business area.

The boutique luxury hotel is located just blocks from Albert Park, the Auckland Art Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Square, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

There are 25 rooms and suites ranging from a classic single king-sized room to a split-level loft suite. Rooms are designed in art-deco fashion and include funky furniture and colorful 100 percent handwoven New Zealand carpets.

Guests can choose from three dining locations: Debretts Kitchen offers gourmet seasonal menus in a relaxed setting and features a high glass atrium ceiling and fireplace; while Housebar and Cornerbar both offer small bites and a range of cocktails, wines, and beers. Cornerbar sits on the main street and attracts a healthy night-life scene.

And for those who want a little of everything, Sofitel Auckland, an Accor Hotel, is located right on the water, but is still close attractions in downtown. Guests can easily walk to many of the local wharfs as well as Victoria Park, New Zealand Maritime Museum, and Wynyard Quarter which offers more than a dozen restaurants.

There are 171 rooms, many of which offer views over the Viaduct basin. All the rooms have private Juliet balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize the view.

The hotel also houses a restaurant, bar, and al fresco café, as well as an indoor heated pool and fitness center.

Keep a look out for The Ritz’s first New Zealand property, set to open in Auckland in 2019.

What to Do

Auckland averages in the low to mid 70s in the summer and upper 50s in the winter, making it a great place for outdoor activities. One of the most popular things to do is to kayak to Rangitoto Island, which houses a large volcano. Visitors can make the trek to the summit usually in around an hour. And from there, they can take in clear views of the region. Auckland Sea Kayaks also does multi-day, full day, and sunset tours.

Mount Eden is the highest of Auckland’s mainland volcanoes. Visitors can climb or bike up to the 196-meter-high summit to get amazing views of the city.

Also worth checking out is One Tree Hill, where sheep and cattle graze next to the city’s largest volcanoes. The 83-meter volcano has three craters and a lava field. Located just over eight kilometers from downtown Auckland, the expansive park has picnic areas, BBQs, and playgrounds, making it a great afternoon picnic outside of the main city.

View from the Sky Tower // Photo by AsianDream/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

There are also plenty of indoor activities to do if trekking up the sides of volcanoes isn’t what your clients had in mind for vacation. If they still want views of the city, the Sky Tower offers just that. The 328-meter-high building towers over the city and houses more than a dozen dining locations and bars as well as a casino.

For those who want an adrenaline rush, the SkyWalk lets visitors take in views while walking around a platform just over a meter wide 192 meters up. Visitors walk around the buildings pergola while strapped into a full body harness. If that’s not enough, the SkyJump lets visitors base jump by wire from the building.

For something a little calmer, there are several museums to choose from including the Auckland Museum, which focuses on Kiwi history (especially natural and military) the Auckland Art Gallery.

And don’t forget the beaches. There are beaches in the city as well as just outside. Mission Bay is close by and offers a relaxing sandy beach and beachfront walkway with restaurants. Or if you’re willing to travel a bit for some great surfing, Piha is a black sand beach that’s less than an hour from downtown and is one of the most popular places in Auckland to catch some waves.

Where to Eat

Chef Sid Sharawat has been creating fine-dining Indian cuisine since 2015. His restaurant, Cassia, offers upscale-but-traditional Indian fare that he describes as “modern Indian.” According to the website, “Sid marries his creative culinary skills with the traditional dishes he has grown up with in India – classic spice and flavour combinations reworked with contemporary and local New Zealand ingredients.”

Cassia was recently awarded the 2017 Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year, for the second year in a row, and gained Two Hats in the prestigious Cuisine Good Food Awards for 2016. Sharawat’s first restaurant, SIDART offers international cuisine and is considered one of the best high-end restaurants in the city.

Another great option is the French Café, considered one of the best restaurants in the world. It boasts a number of awards, including Trip Advisor’s 2016 Traveler’s Choice Awards for fine dining, taking the top spot in New Zealand and number 19 in the world. It was also included in La Liste’s roundup of best restaurants in the world.