(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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