Diamond Princess Cruise Review by cboyle: SYD-AKL Dec. 14-28 With Pre- & Post-Cruise Tours On Our Own
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SYD-AKL Dec. 14-28 With Pre- & Post-Cruise Tours On Our Own
ABOUT US John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. Our preferred souvenir is a small regional or national flag. On this itinerary, I would be looking for flags from Australia and New Zealand.
We enjoy both cruises and land tours; often our trips combine the two. Many of our cruises have been in the Caribbean but we have also cruised to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean/Greek Isles, Scandinavia/Russia, Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesia, South America/Antarctic Peninsula, the Far East, the North Atlantic (Greenland/Iceland), parts of the British Isles, the Norwegian Fjords, the Galapagos Islands and the Holy Land/Egypt. We have taken land tours to the Netherlands, Canadian Rockies, Mexico (Cozumel), London, France (several wine regions and Paris), China, More Argentina (Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, Mendoza wine region), Chile (Santiago, several wine regions), Hawaiian Islands (Kaui, Maui, Hawaii) and to many parts of the continental USA.
On our trips, we prefer nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.
We are Elite members of Princess' Captain's Circle loyalty program, but have also sailed with Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Costa, Celebrity and Commodore.
ABOUT THE REVIEW
Other reviews give extensive information on the ship, cabins, food etc. Our reviews are not like that; they are primarily a journal of what we did in the various ports, including links to tourist sites and maps. This review also includes information on our 5-night pre-cruise stay in Sydney and 6-night post-cruise stay in New Zealand.
TOUR GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
In general, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other Cruise Critic roll call members, or shared public tours. However, we will take Princess tours when the logistics or cost makes that a better option; we did not take any Princess tours on this cruise. We initially suffered "sticker shock" when planning our private shore excursions for Australia and New Zealand; they cost about twice what a similar tour would cost in Europe. These are the operators we used for this trip:
Sydney, AU: Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours (www.huntervalleywinetastingtours.com.au)
Hobart, AU: Judy Livingston, Eye See Tasmania Personalized Tours (www.eyeseetasmania.com.au)
Melbourne, AU: Jeffrey Richardson, Australia Tourist Guide (australia-touristguide.com.au)
Dunedin, NZ: Elm Wildlife Tours (www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz)
Akaroa, NZ: Ray Shoebridge, A-Class Sailing Cruises (aclasssailing.co.nz)
Tauranga, NZ: Walking Legends (www.walkinglegends.com) (Note: Booked through Hope Kramer at www.shoretours.com.au)
Auckland, NZ: John Meadows, Auckland Wine Trail Tours (www.winetrailtours.co.nz)
Blenheim, NZ: Marlborough Wine Tours (marlboroughwinetours.co.nz)
*Appellation Central Wine Tours (www.appellationcentral.co.nz)
Nomad Safaris (www.nomadsafaris.co.nz)
*Real Journeys (www.realjourneys.co.nz)
(*Note: Booked through www.everythingqueenstown.com)
REVIEW OF THE CRUISE
NOV 30 (THURS) - DEC 7 (FRI) PRECRUISE IN THE SF BAY AREA
We flew from RDU to SFO nonstop on United a week before the cruise. There we visited our son, DIL, and two granddaughters before they all departed for TX to spend the holidays with our DIL's extended family.
DEC 8 (SAT) DAY LOST TO INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE
DEC 9 (SUN) - DEC 14 (FRI) PRECRUISE IN SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
John and I arrived in Sydney mid-morning on Sunday (Dec. 9), jumping ahead 16 hours from EST and 19 hours from PST. Fortunately, we managed to get a good bit of sleep on the plane. After taking the airport train (www.airportlink.com.au) to Circular Quay, we checked in at the Marriott, which we booked with Marriott Rewards points. This hotel is only two blocks from Circular Quay and convenient to almost everything (at least for people who walk a lot). Because the room was not yet ready, we left our bags at the bell station and freshened up in the "Early Arrivals" suite. We wanted to take it easy this first day; the main goal was to get some sun and exercise to reset our internal clocks. Unfortunately, the day was overcast, cool and quite windy, with a good chance of showers. Nevertheless, we set off to explore the Sydney waterfront (www.therocks.com/sydney-Getting_Here_and_Around-Maps.htm).
First, we walked over to the Quay to find the Celebrity Solstice docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal (OPT), where she would stay for 2 more days. The Quay is also a hub for the various ferry, water taxi and tour boat operations in Sydney Harbour. While John got a few photos of the Solstice and the harbor, I exchanged my voucher for our iVenture/See Sydney Cards (seesydneypass.iventurecard.com/sydney-tourist-attractions). There are a number of packages available; we chose a 3-day card without transport. These cards turned out to be real bargain, especially because I had bought them back in August, when there was a special winter sale (3-day card for the price of a 2-day card); we ended up using admissions that totaled more than twice the price of the card.
We walked along the waterfront parks, past the OPT towards the Harbour Bridge. This is "The Rocks" (www.therocks.com), an old section of Sydney not unlike the French Quarter in New Orleans, except with colonial Georgian architecture instead of Spanish and a bit more gentrified. It is a warren of shops, pubs and restaurants. We went to Mass at St. Patrick's (www.stpatschurchhill.org), a tiny old church that has Mass every hour on Sunday morning. It is so small that we actually received Holy Communion right in our pew.
After Mass, we found an access stairway (at Cumberland St. and Cribbs Lane) to the Harbour Bridge pedestrian walkway and walked across to the pylons on the north side. From here we had great views of the harbor and the Sydney Opera House on the other side. We also attracted the attention of a bored and gregarious bridge security officer, who wanted to discuss American westerns with us (he is a big John Wayne fan). After escaping from that discussion, we continued on Cahill Walk, the elevated pedestrian walkway that goes from the bridge all around the Quay to the Opera House and the Royal Botanic Gardens (www.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/welcome/royal_botanic_garden). The gardens are free to visit, except for the Sydney Tropical Centre.
Once at the gardens, we continued along the waterfront to Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, a ledge where a 19th century Governor's wife used to enjoy watching the harbor activity. This area also has several viewpoints with the opportunity to capture both the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the same photograph. The gardens themselves are well worth a visit (in fact, we returned on another day) and are well signposted and labeled. Although there are several self-guided walking tours provided on the gardens' web site, it is fun to simply explore at leisure. We especially enjoyed the succulent garden and seeing the unusual plants and trees from other parts of Australia.
After all that walking, we were starting to wear down. We had eaten three meals on the flight and were still not very hungry, but knew we should eat something. Everything is very expensive (to us) in Australia, so we had planned to pick up some of our usual picnic items at a Cole Supermarket, which was supposed to be only a few blocks from our hotel. However, in our jet-lagged state, we were unable to locate it and resorted to getting sandwiches from a Subway. Back at the hotel, we got our room key and found that our luggage had already been taken to the room. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to stay up past 7:30 p.m.; John managed about 1/2 hour more.
On Monday (Dec. 10), we managed to go back to sleep after we woke up at 3 a.m. and get several more hours of rest. Today we would start using the iVenture card, beginning with the earliest-opening attraction, a tour of the Opera House (www.sydneyoperahouse.com/whatson/essential_tour_2012.aspx). Again, the weather was overcast, windy and threatening rain; it was also much cooler than on Sunday. Our tour guide was interesting and informative and the building itself is magnificent; unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the performance venues. After the Opera House, we planned a jet boat ride. However, the operator was not following its posted schedule and we did not want to wait around for the first tour. Instead, we headed back to the Harbour Bridge to do the pylon climb.
Susan Rawlings, an Australian native and the Cruise Director on several of our other Princess cruises, had recommended visiting the Pylon Lookout (www.pylonlookout.com.au/Visitor_frs.htm) instead of climbing the bridge cables. Although the pylon is not as high as the peak of the bridge (87 m vs. 134 m), the views from the top of the pylon are quite good and you are able to take 360-degree photos. The bridge climb does not allow any photos during the climb and costs 20-30 times as much as the pylon climb. We did see several groups doing the bridge climb.
After getting more great photos from the Pylon Lookout, we walked to Darling Harbour (www.darlingharbour.com/sydney-Getting_Here_Around-Maps.htm). This is another major tourist area, with many shops, restaurants, museums and other attractions. Smaller cruise ships can dock here and a Costa ship was in port. We walked across the pedestrian/monorail Pyrmont Bridge to the Australian National Maritime Museum (www.anmm.gov.au/site/page.cfm). This museum has a great outdoors section with tours of naval vessels. There are a destroyer, a submarine, a patrol boat, a replica of Captain Cooks' ship Endeavor, a 3-masted schooner and many small boats. For us, this was the best part of the museum. There was also a small lighthouse (sadly, not open for climbing) and many exhibits (including a boat made of beer cans) in the museum. The museum shop sold small Australian flags.
After the Maritime Museum, we crossed back to the other side of the harbor, stopping for an expensive gelato (1 tiny scoop for AU$4.95). Next, we visited WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo (www.wildlifesydney.com.au), where we saw wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, a huge crocodile and many other Australian animals. After that, we toured the SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium (www.sydneyaquarium.com.au), where we saw aquatic creatures such as sharks, rays, dugongs (like a manatee) and many tropical fish. There is also a platypus exhibit but disappointingly they were hiding.
It was now late afternoon and we were wearing down again. We decided to visit one more sight on that side of town, the Sydney Tower Eye (www.sydneytowereye.com.au). The tour includes a short 4-D movie about Australia and 360-degree views of Sydney from the observation deck at 268 m above street level. On the way back to the hotel, we finally spotted the Coles Supermarket (www.coles.com.au) we had been looking for yesterday. It is on the corner of Liverpool and Pitt in the World Square shopping center (www.worldsquare.com.au/directory.asp). The entrance is below ground and diagonal to the corner, which is why we could not spot it when we came from the opposite direction. Anyway, we picked up a 1/2 roast chicken, some wine, salads, granola bars, and pastries. The chicken was especially tasty --- flavorful, juicy and with a delicious sage bread stuffing. Tonight we managed to stay up a little later.
On Tuesday (Dec. 11), we had planned to take a ferry to Manly and spend the morning hiking and biking there. However, the weather was still unsettled, so we decided to stay in Sydney and take it a little easier. First, we returned to the Botanical Gardens to see the Fernery and simply wander the lovely grounds until the Museum of Sydney (MOS; www.hht.net.au/museums/mos) opened. The MOS has a nice exhibit with models of all the ships in the First Fleet, which brought the first convict-settlers to Australia. Entry to the museum is an all-day ticket, so we left after a short time to make another stab at the Oz Jet Boat ride (www.ozjetboating.com). This time we were successful in getting the tour and enjoyed a high-speed ride with exciting spins. Even though you are given a waterproof parka, you will get your head (and maybe more) soaked; we were glad we had left our shoes at the dock and rolled up our pants legs. During the slower parts of the ride, the driver pointed out various sights, such as a house used in the movie "Australia" and one used as the model for the dentist's office in "Finding Nemo."
After returning to the hotel to dry off, we visited the Sydney Observatory (www.sydneyobservatory.com.au), arriving there just in time to miss the time ball drop at 1 p.m. On the other hand, we did not know in advance that there even WAS a ball drop until we got there. There are small gardens surrounding the Observatory and a fascinating (to us) display of old astronomical instruments and telescopes. A major part of the exhibits is dedicated to the measurement of the Transit of Venus. The ground and exhibits are free, although the iVenture card includes some late-afternoon sky theater shows. We opted to skip the show and return to the harbor for a sightseeing boat tour.
The Magistic harbor tour (www.magisticcruises.com.au) was on a large catamaran and much more sedate than the jet boat ride. However, it actually was wetter because it started to rain as we boarded and we chose to brave the upper "sun" deck. With our ever-stylish Mississippi State and Colorado Silver Mine Adventure plastic ponchos whipping loudly in the gusty wind, we retraced the same route as on our morning ride, with the exception of seeing the underside of the Harbour Bridge decking. On the upside, the wind dried out the ponchos so we could stuff them back in my messenger bag and return to the MOS. At the Museum, we viewed a good exhibit on the early relationship between the British and the First People. As is typical, this included lots of fun diseases for the First People and lots of land grabbing by the colonists. The MOS also has some interesting old movies about Sydney from the early 20th century, including one on the building of the Harbour Bridge. We were starting to get a little sick of hearing about the Harbour Bridge. We then headed back to the grocery for another delicious chicken and some provisions (cheese, pate, olives etc.) for the next evening, when we would be returning late to Sydney.
On Wednesday (Dec. 12), we got up early (still no problem for us) for the 3-hour train ride to the Blue Mountains National Park (www.environment.nsw.gov.au/nationalparks/parkhome.aspx?id=N0004); we found it interesting that the roundtrip ticket to Katoomba was less expensive than the one-way ticket from the airport. In Katoomba, we used our iVenture card for the last time for tickets on the Hop-On-Hop-Off Explorer Bus (www.explorerbus.com.au). The ticket clerk made some excellent suggestions about our hiking plans that saved us time, energy and money while allowing us to see more of the park. After a great day of hiking (www.wildwalks.com/bushwalking-and-hiking-in-nsw/blue-mountains-katoomba/) along the Jameson Valley rim to see the famous Three Sisters rock formation and hiking down into the valley along two waterfalls, we took the Scenic World (www.scenicworld.com.au) cable car out of the valley. Although the iVenture card offers a discount on combo tickets for all the Scenic World attractions, we decided to skip them. We caught the Explorer Bus to one more waterfall before riding back to Katoomba. While waiting for the 2-1/2 hour train (less waiting time between trains and hence the shorter overall time) back to Sydney, we found a Vietnamese bakery selling "French sticks," so we bought a baguette to have with our cheese and pate, as well as some pastries.
On Thursday (Dec. 13), we took a package tour to the Hunter Valley wine region with Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours (www.huntervalleywinetastingtours.com.au/tours-from-sydney.shtml); this involves a 2-hour drive each way. There were only eight people in our group including a retired couple from the UK, two students from Germany and a honeymoon couple from Korea. We visited five wineries and tasted at least 50 wines. The wineries were: Savanna Estate (www.savannahestate.com.au), Wynwood Estate (www.wynwoodestate.com.au), Tempus Two (www.tempustwo.com.au), IronBark Hill (www.ironbarkhill.com.au) and James Estate (jamesestatewines.com.au). While driving from winery to winery, our driver stopped at a field where we could see wild kangaroos lounging in the shade of some large trees. We also had a cheese tasting at the Smelly Cheese Shop (www.smellycheese.com.au) and a chocolate tasting at the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company (www.hvchocolate.com.au). Lunch was at the Bluetongue Brewery Cafe (www.bluetongue.com.au/Brewery-Cafe.aspx). John and I were the only people who included the "gourmet" lunch option in our tour, so there was a separate table reserved for us. This is supposed to be a shared lunch, with each of the platters shared among three people, so it was a lot of food. Because it was just John and I, we asked for some of the antipasti to be packed up so we could have it later for a supper/snack. We did buy a couple of wines, but the overall quality of wines from this region was only average. The main attraction of this area as a wine destination is that it is close to Sydney.
As we returned to Sydney over the Harbour Bridge, we could see the Diamond Princess docked at the OPT. Later in the evening, we walked around Circular Quay to the Opera House side so we could get photos of the Diamond Princess with the Harbour Bridge behind her. The Diamond Princess was disembarking passengers from the last cruise tomorrow morning; we would be embarking later in the afternoon.
DEC 14 (FRI) SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: DEPART SYDNEY 8PM
On our last day in Sydney we slept in a bit as our internal clocks seemed to have adjusted to this time zone. After checking out from the Marriott and leaving our bags at the bell station, we walked back to Circular Quay and through The Rocks to the steps up to the Harbour Bridge walkway. We got some good photos of the Diamond Princess with the Opera House in the background.
After that, we walked over to the Lord Nelson Pub (www.lordnelsonbrewery.com) for some ale; John got a pint of the Victory Bitters and I got Nelson's Blood. These were both excellent and the pub was suitably picturesque. It must be very popular because all of the larger tables were reserved for lunch (we sat at the bar). After enjoying the beer, we walked around the waterfront for awhile before heading back to the Observatory in an attempt to watch the 1 p.m. time ball drop. Although this is supposed to happen every day, today it was preempted by the Observatory staff's holiday luncheon; no one was available to drop the ball!
Disappointed, we retrieved our bags from the Marriott and walked over to the OPT to embark the Diamond Princess. Check-in was quick and we were soon aboard enjoying a slice of pizza to tide us over until dinner at 8 p.m. We had "Anytime Dining" and opted to dine at Sabatini's tonight rather than brave the first-night chaos in the dining rooms. As usual, the food was excellent. I had the artichoke souffle, soft shell crab and veal chop; John substituted the seared tuna for the souffle. Sail away was also at 8 p.m., but we had a window table to enjoy the lights of Sydney as we sailed through the harbor and off to Tasmania.
DEC 15 (SAT) AT SEA
Today gave us a chance to relax and rest after our busy days in Sydney. We went to the port talks for Hobart and Melbourne; the port lecturer had lots of good information for those who wanted to DIY. The Cruise Critic Meet and Greet was held later in the morning; we had about 30 of the roll call members in attendance but no officers or cruise staff. In the afternoon, we watched "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" on the stateroom TV. This evening was the first of three formal nights and the Captain's Welcome Aboard Cocktail Party. We also attended the evening productions show, "Piano Man."
DEC 16 (SUN) HOBART (TASMANIA), AUSTRALIA
Today we had arranged a private tour for us and another couple from the Cruise Critic roll call with Judy Livingston from Eye See Tasmania Personalized Tours (www.eyeseetasmania.com.au/Page24.html). When we walked out of the port area, we found Judy waiting for us, wearing her signature purple garb and ready to go.
Fortunately, the other couple is also light on their feet, so we were able to see much more than we had originally anticipated. We started with a drive to Mount Field National Park (www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=3589) to see the famous Russell Falls and also Horseshoe Falls. According to a sign along the trail, glow worms can be seen in the dense gully forest leading to Russell Falls. We didn't see any glow worms, but we did see a pademelon (it looks like a tiny kangaroo) foraging on the forest floor. After viewing the waterfalls, we were able to hike part of the Tall Trees Trail; on that trail we saw another pademelon with her joey.
From the park, we went to the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (www.bonorong.com.au), where injured or orphaned animals are rehabilitated or raised and (when possible) returned to the wild. Here we could get "up close and personal" with wombats, koalas, and kangaroos. We also saw the famous Tasmanian Devil, as well as native birds, snakes and lizards. We tried to hand-feed the kangaroos but the cruise ship tour buses had already been there and the 'roos were too full to eat another bite. However, they let us scratch them on their throats. One of the kangaroos had a joey in her pouch but the joey did not want to show his/her face to us.
After Bonorong, we drove to the picturesque village of Richmond (www.richmondvillage.com.au), which has many 19th-century buildings from the convict era. We drove past St. John's Catholic Church (the oldest Catholic Church still in use in Australia), the picturesque Richmond Bridge (built by the convicts and the oldest bridge still in use in Australia) and the historic Gaol (jail). We stopped for lunch in a park along the Coal River, where Judy served us a picnic that included many products from her garden and chickens including fresh boiled eggs, homemade relish, pickles, and cookies (biscuits in Australia!).
Following lunch, Judy took us to a cheese tasting at the Wicked Cheese Company (www.wickedcheese.com.au) and a wine tasting at the Puddleduck Vineyard (www.puddleduckvineyard.com.au). The weather had cleared, so she squeezed in a trip to the top of windy Mount Wellington (www.wellingtonpark.org.au) for some fantastic views. She ended the day with a brief city tour of Hobart (www.discovertasmania.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/15861/Hobart_City_Centre.pdf), which took us to the areas that our ship's port lecturer had said were the "don't miss" sites in town.
Judy was a fabulous tour guide and more. She is incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the Hobart area and loves showing off her country. She even gave us each a bag of hard candies, pens, bookmarks and notepads as a Christmas gift at the end of the tour. We highly recommend her. Visit Hobart with her and bring her something in purple - definitely her favorite color!
We returned to the ship just after the performance by the "Tasmania Police Pipe Band & Dancers" had started. We always enjoy seeing local talent although it was a bit disorienting hearing "When the Saints Go Marching In" played on the bagpipes.
DEC 17 (MON) AT SEA
This morning, we tried to keep up our exercise program by walking 45 minutes on the Promenade Deck. Although we had been on the lookout for sea life during the walk, we did not see anything until we returned to the cabin. John happened to look off the balcony and spotted a pod of dolphins racing to hunt for fish stirred up by the ship's wake. After getting cleaned up, we went to the port lectures for Dunedin and Akaroa. After dinner, we saw comedy magician, Scott Davies, being careful to sit where John would be unlikely to be picked as an assistant.
DEC 18 (TUE) MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: 7 AM to 3:30 PM
For today I had arranged a private tour with Jeffrey Richardson from Australia Tourist Guide (australia-touristguide.com.au); we were joined by three ladies from the CC roll call. We all wanted to do a wine tour of the Yarra Valley, but the Diamond Princess' early arrival and departure times and the 10 a.m. opening times of most of the cellar doors made this difficult. However, Jeffrey suggested that we start early and tour the Dandenong Ranges before heading to the Yarra Valley for an abbreviated version of his usual tour.
Despite the forecast of overcast skies, it was a beautiful sunny day; it was cool in the morning but warmed up nicely by the afternoon. Jeffrey was waiting for us at the appointed 7:15 a.m. meeting place (just outside the port gates) with a comfortable 10-seater van and his dog Max. It took over an hour to escape the Melbourne metropolitan area and enter the mountains. Part of the region is a national park. We drove to SkyHigh (www.skyhighmtdandenong.com.au), a lookout near the top of Mount Dandenong, for great views all the way back to Melbourne. Then it was on to the Yarra Valley (www.wineyarravalley.com)!
The first winery was Rochford (www.rochfordwines.com.au), where we tasted six wines. It was immediately obvious that the wineries we would visit today would outshine the ones we visited in the Hunter Valley or Tasmania! We also visited Giant Steps/Innocent Bystander (www.innocentbystander.com.au) and Yering Station (www.yering.com). All had very nice tasting facilities and equally nice wines. Yering Station was especially good and we tasted 20 different wines there. We also tasted some cheeses at the Yarra Valley Dairy (yvd.com.au). On the return trip, Jeff took us through some nice neighborhoods of Melbourne. Max thrived with all the petting he got from our group!
Tonight we saw a comedian/singer, Maggie.
DEC 19 (WED) AT SEA
We would be crossing the Tasman Sea for the next two days. The sea was choppy and it was quite windy (12 ft waves and 56 kt winds) but that just rocks us to sleep; we also got some rain. There was no walking on the Promenade because that deck was closed due to the bad weather; we tried to walk on the Sun Deck but the strong winds at the bow made that too difficult. However, the first thing we had to do this morning was to attend the immigration and biosecurity inspection needed to enter New Zealand; that went quickly. We went to another port lecture (Windy Wellington) later in the morning and to the Princess Grapevine wine tasting in the afternoon. This evening we enjoyed another production show, "I Got the Music."
DEC 20 (THURS) AT SEA
Today we had the Most Traveled Passenger luncheon. Apparently we just barely made it, since we sat with the head of Human Resources. The food was excellent, as usual.
DEC 21 (FRI) FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK, NZ: 7 AM to 5 PM
Today we were officially in New Zealand, although we did not dock or anchor. We spent most of the day sailing through the Fiordland National Park (www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland or www.fiordland.org.nz/About-Fiordland/default.asp). We started at the northern end, with Milford Sound and the weather was rainy, overcast, cool and VERY windy. We were very glad to have our wind jackets and pants (I needed a fleece shirt under my jacket) but some people were strolling around in shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. Our scenic cruising was accompanied with commentary by a park ranger on the history, geology and ecology of the park; the commentary was broadcast to the open decks and public areas.
Milford Sound has a very narrow entrance and was similar to the Norwegian Fjords, with waterfalls cascading down all the cliff sides. Most of these waterfalls are transient but we also saw year-round falls such as Stirling and Bowen Falls. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see the top of celebrated Mitre Peak. Nevertheless, the views were uniformly stunning! When we reached the end of the sound, we turned around and went out the same way. As we exited the fjord, we saw Southern Fur Seals on the aptly-named Seal Point.
The ship continued south along the coast of the park, past the entrances to other fjords, to Thompson Sound. This and the other three fjords we visited were much wider and did not have as many waterfalls as Milford Sound. However, now the sun was breaking through the clouds intermittently. Instead of turning around in Thompson Sound, we sailed around Secretary Island and exited through Doubtful Sound. We planned to return to Doubtful Sound during our post-cruise visit to Queenstown.
Next we sailed further down the coast, into Breaksea Sound, around Resolution Island and through Dusky Sound. The Park Ranger pointed out a number of sites, such as Astronomer's Point, that related to Captain Cook's voyages in the 1770s. He also noted that several of the islands in this area are now pest-free sanctuaries for native species endangered by animals (especially stoats) brought to New Zealand by the Europeans. As we exited Dusky sound, we passed Five Fingers Peninsula; these jagged rock pinnacles do look like the four fingers and thumb of a person's hand (at least from some perspectives).
Tonight was the second formal night, the Captain's Circle Cocktail Party and the production show, "Words & Music."
DEC 22 (SAT) DUNEDIN (PORT CHALMERS), NZ: 8AM to 5:30 PM
Today we took a great wildlife tour on the Otago Peninsula with Elm Wildlife Tours (www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz/our-tours/cruise-ship-shore-excursion/cruise-ship-shore-excursion). This was a shared public tour and a number of other people from the ship had signed up independently (including the couple who toured with us in Hobart). From our confirmation email, we expected our guide to be standing beside an Elm vehicle in the private tour area. However, when we arrived at that area, we were told by another Elm guide that our guide was looking for us out on the dock. We were escorted to our vehicle and waited there for the rest of the group to arrive. The Elm staff had only tiny logos on their black shirts so they were a little difficult to spot; apparently we walked right past them. If you don't spot them on the dock, simply continue on until you see the vans.
Port Chalmers is completely on the other side of the Dunedin Harbour from the Otago Peninsula. It is only possible to cross the harbor by boat and there are no ferries; we had to drive down one side of the harbor, through Dunedin and up the other side of the harbor to Taiaroa Head (www.visit-dunedin.co.nz/map.html). The drive actually did not seem that long because of the beautiful scenery along the way. This part of New Zealand is intensely green and the road provided great views. Our driver and guide, Rachel, was a font of information about the expected animals and also pointed out the many different types of birds along the way. She also pointed out several points of interest, such as the ornate train station and Baldwin Street (the world's steepest street), as we passed through Dunedin.
Our first stop was at the Royal Albatross Center (www.albatross.org.nz). First we saw a short movie about the Royal Albatross, then we took a guided walk to the albatross nesting area viewing observatory. Although the colony numbers about 200 albatross, only a handful were present today and none seemed to feel like flying. There were many other seabirds however. While we were taking the tour, Rachel picked up our box lunches, which we ate on the way to the next site.
The next stop was at Elm's private conservation area. We walked down to a blind where we were treated to great views of a fur seal rookery, with males fighting, pups playing and females trying to get some rest. After we climbed back to the top of the bluff, we could see a Yellow-eyed penguin come ashore on the sandy beach below and promptly disappear into the vegetation. Another came ashore a bit later and remained on the beach, seemingly "on guard" for the rest of our visit. We also saw a Hooker sea lion come ashore.
Next, we walked down to the beach, skirting the penguin. We went to a blind at the other end of the beach and watched hopefully for more penguins but without success. We then headed for another blind further up the hill. Along the way, we saw the nesting burrows of the shy Little Blue penguin, the world's smallest. Rachel said she could see them but either my eyes are too bad or I am not experienced enough at seeing penguins in their dark burrows. Anyway, we had better luck at the upper blind where we saw a Yellow-eyed penguin with her chick and another penguin standing by a fence.
On the return journey, Rachel took a different route so that we could see more of the scenery before returning to the ship. It was a beautiful day and we saw lots of wildlife. However, if you take this tour, be aware that it requires lots of walking up and down steep hills to blinds to watch the animals. Elm does provide four-wheel drive vehicles for part of the distance if required by less mobile people. You still need be in moderately good shape to do this wonderful tour.
DEC 23 (SUN) AKAROA, NZ: 8 AM to 5:15 PM
Akaroa harbor (www.akaroa.com/maps-transport/activity-map) is the flooded crater of an extinct volcano. Over the years, soil from the slopes of the caldera has filled the harbor, so the water is not very deep and there is no dock that can accommodate a ship as large as the Diamond Princess. This was our only tender port and it took an hour for us to get ashore after the ship anchored.
We did a dazzling wildlife cruise with Ray Shoebridge on the Manutara (aclasssailing.co.nz/index.html)! This was another shared tour, so we were joined by four other people. Ray is clearly in love with Akaroa and with his sailboat. He gives you the opportunity to help steer the boat and to help spot wildlife but he is the expert in both areas. We saw fantastic numbers of the small Hector's dolphins as they cruised along with us right under our bow. We also saw a few shy Little Blue penguins as they bobbed in the water. Ray also pointed out other different types of sea birds. He tantalized us with his sighting of a Southern Right Whale the day before but we had no luck today. This was a thoroughly enjoyable tour and we would highly recommend it to anyone interested in wildlife or beautiful sail boats.
Before and after the tour, we did a number of hikes in and around Akaroa using guide brochures John downloaded from the Tourist Office web site (www.akaroa.com/maps/walking-tracks/akaroa). We visited most of the main sites, including a late 19th-century lighthouse, which we could climb (only two stories). Another hike took us high into the hills above town, which gave us some great views of the harbor. Although the day started out overcast and cool, by afternoon it was sunny and hot. This was the first day that we felt it was necessary to shower and change clothes before going to dinner; the show tonight was a comedian/pianist, Bayne Bacon.
DEC 24 (MON) WELLINGTON, NZ
Today we did our own tour of Wellington for a total of NZ$7; that was the cost of the Wellington Cable Car (www.wellingtoncablecar.co.nz) for the two of us. Princess was charging $15 RT for a shuttle from the ship to a department store near the cable car station, but it was an easy 20-minute walk. The cable car ends at the Wellington Botanic Garden (www.wellington.govt.nz/services/gardens/botanicgardens/botanicgardens.html). There is a path marked with flowers painted on the sidewalk that leads back down into town. We took that, with a couple of side trips into some of the specialty gardens. At the bottom of the gardens is a large rose garden with many varieties that were unfamiliar to us; after some searching, John found his all-time favorite rose, Double Delight. There was also a large greenhouse filled with huge fibrous begonias and tropical plants. Leaving the gardens, the path leads through the old cemetery, Bolton Street Memorial Park. A particularly poignant grave marker memorializes 5 children from the same family who died from diphtheria from December 21, 1876 to January 1, 1877. The path ended at the parliament buildings.
From there we walked to Te Papa (www.tepapa.govt.nz), the national museum, through the main shopping area and Cuba Street, a trendy arts/dining/shopping area. Te Papa is controversial because it contains so many New Zealand cultural treasures, yet it sits on land reclaimed after it was uplifted from the harbor by an earthquake. The museum provides an overview of New Zealand's history, geology, wildlife and culture. Of primary interest to us was the display of a Colossal Squid, the largest ever caught. We were mostly attracted to artifacts, such as a cannon from Captain Cook's ship, Endeavor, and the Maori canoes rather than the more expository exhibits. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.
After exploring all 6 floors of Te Papa, we were ready to get out in the open air again. We decided to hike up Mount Victoria for its panoramic views. The walk to the peak is about half on city streets and half through city parks. When we reached the park section, we not only saw signs indicating the path to the peak but also signs pointing to "Lord of the Rings" filming locations. While we were checking our map to see whether any of those locations were marked on it, a woman on her way to the grocery asked whether we needed any help. When we explained that we were looking for LOTR filming sites, she asked us whether we had time for an impromptu tour. It turned out that she had gone to Duke and still had family in North Carolina; when LOTR was being filmed (all filming was done at night), she and her husband had dressed in black so they could sneak in and spy on the filming. Anyway, she spent at least 20 minutes showing us where scenes like "The Road to Bree" were filmed. After that, she headed off to buy crackers so her family could go tramping and we continued on to the peak. The lookout atop Mount Victoria does indeed have terrific views and we took a break there before heading back down to the waterfront.
We had considered taking a bus to the Weta Cave, which is a museum and gift shop selling memorabilia and art related to movies made by Peter Jackson. However, it was getting late and we were getting tired. On the way back to the ship, we passed the theater where "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" had its world premier on December 12. The entire city is decorated with banners and huge posters featuring characters from the movie. Even Te Papa had an exhibit of the three trolls who turn into stone in "The Hobbit." Although we are great Tolkien fans, it was not possible to fit a viewing of the movie into our day in Wellington. I spotted a New Zealand flag in the window of a convenience store and quickly bought it.
Tonight there were two Christmas carol services and a number of Christmas-themed parties, movies and other activities. We sang some carols and went to the production show ("Do You Wanna Dance"), but all our walking left us too tired to stay up until the Midnight Mass.
DEC 25 (TUE) MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS, NZ (SCENIC CRUISING): 11 AM to 4 PM
This morning, we attended Mass in the Princess Theater, complete with a singer and pianist from the cruise staff. There was also an interdenominational service, a Family Holiday Fun Fair and a visit from Santa Claus for the children. Of course the entire ship is decorated for Christmas with trees, garlands, and wreaths everywhere. The atrium had a huge display of gingerbread houses and two life-sized (gingerbread?) Santas. Each cabin even had a spray of greenery and ornaments in its mail box.
If today had not been Christmas, we would have made a port call in Picton, NZ. Instead, we cruised slowly down the beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound, turned around at the end of the fjord, and sailed back out. John and I picked up some snacks from the buffet and enjoyed them and the gorgeous scenery along with a bottle of sparkling wine on our balcony. It was a lovely, peaceful, sunny day.
DEC 26 (WED) AT SEA
Today was another pleasant day at sea. In the morning, we attended the culinary demonstration followed by the port lecture for Auckland. The lunch buffet had shrimp both sauteed with herbs and garlic and boiled/steamed with cocktail sauce. We acquired a large number of shrimp, which we devoured on our balcony with another bottle of excellent wine, watching the sea go by.
This evening was the last of the 3 formal nights and dinner included escargots and broiled lobster with prawns. We had started to worry that there would be no escargots because there was supposedly a worldwide shortage earlier this year and many people had reported on Cruise Critic that Princess was no longer featuring them on the menu. Happily, the escargots are back and as good as ever. After dinner, we went to the final production show, "Born to Be Wild," which was new to us. After that, we had a couple of drinks at the Captain's Farewell Cocktail Party before retiring to rest up for our next port.
DEC 27 (THURS) TAURANGA, NZ (Mount Maunganui): 8 AM to 6 PM
For our ship's port day in Tauranga, we wanted to visit the thermal areas around Rotorua. I had difficulty finding a company that offers such day tours, so Judy Livingston (of Eye See Tasmania Personalized Tours) suggested that we contact Hope Kramer at www.shoretours.com.au. Hope was able to connect us with Walking Legends (www.walkinglegends.com).
Today the ship managed to dock early at 7:30; unfortunately, our guide from Walking Legends was not scheduled to meet us until 8:30. However, Brad arrived at 8:10 and we were off on our tour to the geothermal areas around Rotorua, about 1-1/2 hours from Tauranga. Although I had advertised this tour on our Cruise Critic roll call, I did not get any takers, so it was just John and me. This was all for the best, however, because we move rather quickly and were able to see more than if we had had others to slow us down.
Our first stop was at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (www.waiotapu.co.nz). This park is rather touristy and the major attraction is the Lady Knox Geyser. Although this geyser has a natural 24- to 36-hour cycle, it is forced to erupt every day at 10:15 a.m. by being shocked with detergent. Although this is more than a bit hokey, it echoes the original discovery of the geyser that occurred when convicts tried to wash their clothes in a hot spring. We happened to be there on time for the eruption, but don't feel shortchanged if you miss it; the more natural areas of the park are much more interesting. After seeing the geyser erupt, we went back to the main part of the park. Brad described the hot springs, terraces of mineral deposits and bubbling mud pits as we moved along. Since we are avid walkers, he allowed us to pace ourselves and we had time to walk all the trails. Despite being clogged with large tour groups (some from the ship), this park was very interesting to us. As we exited, we stopped at an especially large boiling mud pit.
The next park, Waimangu Volcanic Valley (www.waimangu.com), was nicer in several ways. First of all, it was less crowded because the big tour groups were now at lunch. Secondly, the setting is more natural as you walk down the wooded valley and discover one geothermal feature after another. Again, we walked down as many trails as possible; only one trail was closed, but Brad said it did not pass anything of any real interest. There is a bus service in this park, but they do not run very frequently. We walked back from the furthest point to the visitor center without seeing a bus going in that direction. Both Wai-o-tapu and Waimangu are smaller than Yellowstone's thermal features but still interesting in their own way.
Because we were such good children and didn't tarry at the two geothermal parks, Brad also took us to the Okere Falls Scenic Reserve (www.rotorua.nz.com/okere-falls.aspx) where we hiked for an additional half-hour or so to see the river, several small waterfalls, small caves and a trout pool. This river is popular with rafters and kayakers. The area is quite lovely and it would be thrilling to do a rafting tour here. On the way back to the ship, Brad drove through several Tauranga neighborhoods to show us some of the city highlights. We highly recommend Walking Legends and especially Brad as a driver and guide.
After we returned to the ship, we cleaned up and had a nice dinner. We eschewed the show (a repeat of the comedian/pianist) in order to pack everything for disembarkation tomorrow. This was so distressing that both of us needed sleeping pills to drop off to sleep.
DEC 28 (FRI) AUCKLAND, NZ: DISEMBARKATION
This morning, we got ready and awaited our scheduled disembarkation time (8:30 a.m.) in the Platinum/Elite/Suite lounge. Disembarkation went unusually quickly because we had already gone through immigration and customs formalities before we entered Fiordlands National Park; we were off the ship by 8:00 a.m. We proceeded to the steps of the Hilton Hotel, which is contiguous with the cruise ship terminal, to await our guide, John Meadows, from Auckland Wine Trail Tours (www.winetrailtours.co.nz). Unfortunately, the forecast was for rain and we had some on and off all day.
John arrived at the appointed time and we headed off for our "Waterfalls and Wines" tour (www.winetrailtours.co.nz/waterfalls.htm). We started off with the "Waterfalls" part. First we drove through the lush subtropical Waitakere Ranges Regional Park to the Arataki Visitor Center (regionalparks.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/aratakivisitorcentre). Normally, we would have been able to see the Tasman Sea and city panoramas but the rain prevented that. It was a similar story at the Pukematekeo Lookout, where John had hoped to show us a coast to coast view. The weather had improved by the time we reached Karekare Regional Park. We first walked to a beautiful waterfall and had the odd experience of seeing doves positioned there for an upcoming wedding! We then went for a beach walk where John showed us the magnetic nature of the black ironsands. Karekare Beach is one location where "The Piano" was filmed. John explained how the beach had gotten much larger since then but the path to the beach, the headlands and the small offshore island are still easily recognizable if you watch the movie.
Now it was time for the "Wines" part of the tour in the Kumeu wine region (www.kumeuwinecountry.co.nz/index.html). John first took us to lunch at Soljans Estate Winery (www.soljans.co.nz) where we had a delicious lunch along with a wine tasting. We went to three more cellar doors: West Brook (www.westbrook.co.nz), Matua Valley (www.matua.co.nz) and House of Nobilo (nobilo.co.nz/contact.html); the Nobilo cellar door also features other Constellation Brands, such as Kim Crawford and Selaks. In addition, John discussed several other wineries as we drove through the area. Everyone at the cellar doors knew John and welcomed us as friends. We highly recommend touring with John Meadows for a thorough consideration of the wineries around the Auckland area.
We had arranged for John Meadows to drop us off at the Auckland domestic airport after our tour for our evening flight to Blenheim (www.cityofblenheim.co.nz). John (my husband) had decided on the Two Trees Lodge (www.twotreelodge.co.nz) for our two nights in Blenheim based primarily on their excellent reviews and the fact that they would provide transportation to and from the Blenheim airport. Our flight was delayed but since we had told Glenda and Andy Evans our flight number, Andy knew this and was there waiting for us as we arrived. Glenda and Andy only have three rooms but really go out of their way to provide professional lodging; they also provide amazing friendly and flexible service. Our room was really nice and their laundry facility was especially convenient. If we return to this area, I hope we can find a vacancy at the Two Trees again!
DEC 29 (SAT) BLENHEIM, NZ
Today we enjoyed a tour of the Marlborough wine region (www.wine-marlborough.co.nz/wineries/wine-trail-map). We arranged for the "Winery Workout" tour with Marlborough Wine Tours (marlboroughwinetours.co.nz), which included a guided tour of the Yealands Estate (www.yealandsestate.co.nz) winery facility, a tasting and a drive through their vineyards. After the Yealands tour, the two of us were transferred to a van along with one person doing a half-day tour and eight people doing a full-day tour. We then had an excellent lunch and tasting at Wither Hills (www.witherhills.co.nz). After that wetasted at four more wineries: Seresin Estate (www.seresin.co.nz), Framingham (www.framingham.co.nz), Giesen (www.giesen.co.nz) and Wairau River (wairauriverwines.com). We ended the day with a chocolate tasting at the Makana Chocolate Factory (www.makana.co.nz).
Although we had a good time on this tour, what we received did not agree very well with the tour description. The Winery Workout was advertised as geared to people who were particularly interested in the history of the Marlborough wine region and in getting a peek behind the scenes into winery operations. The tour was supposed to go not only to a modern winery but also to the Auntsfield winery, the original winery in the area, for a tour of their historical facility and lunch at the Brancott Heritage Center. We were disappointed that we had to deviate from the advertised schedule but this was probably due to the fact that our tour was on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's Day. We would have been slightly happier knowing of the possible difficulties ahead of time but our guide Eric did his best to accommodate a van full of people with different agendas as to what they wanted from the tour. The only other slight complaint about this company is that they were routinely slow on email responses.
DEC 30 (SUN) QUEENSTOWN, NZ
After a good night's sleep at the Two Trees Lodge, Andy drove us to the Blenheim Airport for the flight to Queenstown. Once in Queentown, we caught the Conectabus (www.connectabus.com) and got off at the Copthorne Apartments stop. From there it was less than a block to our hotel.
John chose the Alexis Motor Hotel (www.alexisqueenstown.co.nz) based on its outstanding reviews and it's easy to see why everyone likes it. It's located about a ten minute walk from the heart of Queenstown (www.everythingqueenstown.com/maps) but enough outside the hustle and bustle that it's very quiet at night (and this even included New Year's Eve - but we were close enough to be able to watch the fireworks from a balcony and sheltered from the rain). We asked the proprietor, Kelly Bray, for a recommendation on good seafood and he gave us two choices. One was a fairly expensive but highly rated restaurant. The other was a seafood shack on the Marine Parade that was cheap but really good. He didn't even know the name (it's Aggy's Shack) but knew it was a great deal. He was right! The Bray's rooms are spacious, clean, and ours included a spa tub. The view from our front window was of The Remarkables and the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu. From the kitchen window (kitchen has cook top, refrigerator, sink, and microwave) we could see the gondola up to the Skyline Complex on Bob's Peak. Not bad for a budget location. There is a charge for local calls and we had to make five to confirm or change tour reservations. We went to the office to settle the bill and they said it's only NZ$2 so forget it! What a great place and what great people! Note that they provide 30 min. of free internet per device per 24 hrs. This means that your best strategy is to log on early and at the same time each day.
After settling in at the hotel, we set out to find some seafood. It was easy to spot Aggy's Shack on Marine Parade by the crowds. We ordered the fish and chips, steamed green-lipped mussels and two oysters (NZ$4 each!), which was a huge amount of delicious food. Next, we scouted out the Alpine Supermarket (www.foursquare.co.nz) on Shotover Street for later reference.
Now that the food situation was well in hand, we walked over to the Skyline (www.skyline.co.nz/queenstown) and took the Gondola to the top of Bob's Peak. Although the skies were overcast and threatening rain, we had great views of the entire area from the gondola and the viewing platforms. We watched someone reluctantly ride the swing at the AJ Hackett Ledge Bungy & Swing
There are a number of trails at the top (www.skyline.co.nz/queenstown/walking/) and maps are available at the Skyline Information Desk. We followed the self-guided interpretive walk along the Luge track, then climbed the Lower Ridge Track up through the pines before emerging onto the ridge above Bob's Peak. This is the area used by paragliders (none today, with the bad weather approaching) and has panoramic views of the lake and the mountains. As we descended, we turned onto the Loop Track and followed it out through the trees to the Ben Lomond Lookout. As we meandered along the trail back down to the Skyline building, it started to rain and we had to pull out the ponchos again.
After taking the Gondola back down, we stopped at the grocery for provisions and headed back to the hotel, passing the Queenstown Gardens. After relaxing with some wine and snacks, we went for a walk along the Frankton Walking Track to enjoy the beautiful views of the lake and mountains and the approaching sunset. Now it was time to get some rest for tomorrow.
DEC 31 (MON) QUEENSTOWN, NZ
Today we had an excellent wine tour with Penny of Appellation Central Wine Tours (www.appellationcentral.co.nz). The Gourmet Wine Tour (www.appellationcentral.co.nz/Daily_Wine_Tours.htm) took us to the prime pinot noir region of Central Otago (www.cowa.org.nz/wine-maps.html). Penny provided a good commentary about the history of the region as well as information about the wines. Because our visit was on New Year's Eve, the wineries were packed and Penny was trusted enough by some of the wineries to be allowed to pour our wines and to describe them to us.
The bus picked us up right on time at the hotel. We had nine people on our tour and this proved a manageable and compatible size. We headed out of Queenstown towards the Kawarau Gorge with its towering cliffs and rugged hillsides; the gorge is notable for the volume and fast flowing nature of its water. Features in the gorge include the Goldfields Mining Centre and the small historic Roaring Meg power station. During the drive, Penny told us about the early pioneering history of this rugged region. We also passed the historic Kawarau Bridge, the location of the original bungy jump by AJ Hackett, near the turnoff for Chard Farms (our final winery stop).
Our first winery stop was in the Gibbston Valley at the Gibbston Valley Winery (www.gibbstonvalleynz.com) where we had a tasting in New Zealand's largest underground wine cave. Then it was on to Bannockburn where we had a tasting and a cheese plate at Carrick Winery (www.carrick.co.nz). After that we headed to Cromwell and visited two wineries there. Along the way, Penny pointed out some highlights of Old Cromwell Town and the Cromwell Fruit Sculpture. Next were a tasting and a wonderful lunch at the Northburn Station (www.northburn.co.nz). That was followed by a tasting at Aurum (www.aurumwines.co.nz). Our final tasting was back in the Gibbston Valley at Chard Farm (www.chardfarm.co.nz). Before heading up Chard Road to the winery, Penny pointed out the site where the Argonath, or Pillars of the Kings, scene in LOTR was filmed. Chard Road is extremely narrow and winding but we managed to find a spot to pull off and watch a bungy jumper dive from the Kawarau Bridge and splash into the frigid river far below. The cellar door at Chard Farm Winery was so crowded that Penny was allowed to take our group down to the barrel room and conduct our tasting there. The Central Otago wines definitely lived up to their reputation with Aurum being particularly impressive. We even got to meet the winemaker there!
Later we enjoyed a bottle of sparkling wine from Yering Station with our snacks to celebrate the New Year. Unfortunately, it had been raining steadily all evening and we decided that it was not worthwhile to go downtown to see the fireworks at midnight. However, we got a pretty good view of the fireworks (and some shelter from the rain) from the hotel balcony before turning in to get some rest for tomorrow's adventure.
JAN 1 (TUES) QUEENSTOWN, NZ
For New Year's Day, we had planned to take jet boat/funyak tour along the Dart River. It was still raining but we put on our swim suits, fleece and rain gear and headed to the meeting place for the tour (1/2 block from our hotel). When the bus arrived, the driver told us that the rain of the past few days had resulted in above flood-stage water levels in the Dart River; our tour was canceled!
Disappointed, we returned to the hotel and started going through our tourist materials looking for an alternative. It was still early enough in the morning to book a half-day 4WD tour with Nomad Safaris (www.nomadsafaris.co.nz). We asked for the LOTR tour (Glenorchy - Tour B) that followed along much of the same route as the jet boat tour. However, our driver/guide Jim arrived and told us that the Glenorchy tour would be basically wasted due to the rain and clouds obscuring the mountain vistas. Instead he devised a hybrid tour combining a couple of other half-day trips his company uses (Wakatipu Basin - Tour A and Skippers Canyon Tour). He provided an excellent commentary and provided us with a wonderful serendipitous tour of this gorgeous part of New Zealand. It was a pleasure to see how he and his company were able to provide a flexible response to what could have been a wasted day. He illustrated parts of his discussion with a book about LOTR filming locations and this was so good that we ended up buying a copy of the book! We highly recommend Nomad Safaris both for their professionalism and for their flexibility in responding to bad circumstances.
As we left Queenstown, we stopped for views of The Remarkables, which were used as various mountains throughout the trilogy including the Misty Mountains. Jim pointed out Deer Park Heights, which was used for the refugees of Rohan and the Battle of the Wargs scenes. Next we headed to the Kawarau Gorge to see (again) where the filming took place for the Argonath; we also got to see another bungy jumper. Next we drove to Arrowtown where the loss of The One Ring at Gladden Fields was filmed. Jim pointed out some of the sights of Arrowtown, such as the Chinese Settlement. From here we followed a historic gold mining road up the Arrow River and crossed the river to get to the Ford of Bruinen. Because of the swollen rivers throughout the Wakatipu Basin, this was unfortunately the only time we actually got to go off road.
From Arrowtown we traveled past Coronet Peak to the entrance of Skippers Canyon, where we had a stunning panoramic view of the Wakatipu Basin. We then took rugged Skippers Road that was hacked by hand into the sheer cliff sides of the Shotover River Valley; some spots along Skippers Road were featured in LOTR. As we drove through this dramatic scenery, Jim pointed out numerous named rock formations and the damage that gold mining had done to the landscape. We stopped alongside the raging Shotover River (at the Skipper Jet departure point) for some welcome hot chocolate and cookies. As we returned to Queenstown, we crossed the Shotover River near the Shotover Jet base; their dock was completely submerged by the torrent. On the way back, we stopped at the Nomad Safaris office to pay for the tour (and to buy the LOTR filming book) before proceeding through Queenstown to the hotel. The streets were jammed with traffic as holiday revelers tried to leave town.
After being dropped off back at the hotel, we took a walk through the Queenstown Gardens and along Queenstown Bay to a point opposite the gardens. Then we went to The Bakery Queenstown (www.queenstownbakery.co.nz) to pick up some sandwiches for our all-day tour on Wednesday. Now we decided that it was time to visit Aggy's Shack again. We had hoped to split the "Seafood Meal" but Aggy's was out of several items. Instead, we shared the "Fish of the Day": two big Orange Roughy fillets and a giant pile of chips for NZ$20. We took it back to our room to enjoy with a wonderful bottle of Pinot Gris from Arum.
JAN 2 (WED) QUEENSTOWN, NZ
Today was our full-day Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise with Real Journeys (www.realjourneys.co.nz). John had debated whether to do this tour or the one to Milford Sound. We had sailed in both fjords during the Diamond Princess cruise. One the one hand, we had sailed almost to the end of Milford Sound and through less than half of Doubtful Sound. On the other hand, the road to Milford Sound was supposed to be even more spectacular than the road over Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. However, it was fortuitous that he chose Doubtful Sound because the road to Milford Sound was closed yesterday because of all the rain and was not supposed to reopen until 11 a.m. today (we never learned whether it had actually reopened).
In any case, this morning we were picked up by a taxi (included in the tour price) and taken to the bus stop. Because it was still raining, the taxi driver was nice enough to let us wait in the taxi until the bus came. During the 2-hour drive to Manapouri, the driver pointed out points of interest, including some filming spots for LOTR and "The Hobbit." Getting to Doubtful Sound is an adventure in itself. With no direct road access, the only way you can to get to Doubtful Sound is by a cruise from Manapouri followed by a bus ride over Wilmot Pass. During the 45 minute cruise across the Lake Manapouri, the captain pointed out sites of interest. Despite our normal inclination to defy the elements for better views, we elected to remain in the cabin and hope that the rain would lessen on the return trip (it didn't). However, rain and fog is to be expected in Fiordlands NP.
After reaching the West Arm of the lake, we docked near the Manapouri Power Station and boarded busses for the drive over Wilmot Pass. The drive passes through the dense Fiordland rainforest and there are several nice waterfalls. At the top of the pass there is a lookout with an alleged view of Doubtful Sound; we did not even stop because of the rain and fog. As we approached the end of the road, we could glimpse the Lady Alice Falls.
Eventually we reached the Deep Cove Wharf and boarded the catamaran Patea Explorer for a 3-hour cruise through the fjord. This was what we came for and we were glad we had dressed warmly, with fleece shirts and pants under the wind jackets and pants, warm hats and gloves. Because the wind suits are only "rain resistant," we topped everything off with the plastic rain ponchos. We may not have been fashion plates but we were generally comfortable staying outside for the entire cruise.
And it was definitely worth staying outside on the top deck! Even in the rain and fog, the scenery in Doubtful Sound is stupendous. There was commentary pointing out landmarks and providing information about the varied wildlife. While we did not see any fur seals or penguins, we did see bottlenose dolphins in two sections of the fjord including some that swam right up to the boat. We sailed the entire length of the fjord to where it joins the Tasman Sea. However, we could not go out into the open sea because of the high winds. As the day went on, however, the weather conditions improved and we even got a bit of clear sky.
On the return trip over Wilmot Pass, it was even clear enough to stop at the lookout and view Doubtful Sound glistening far below. Then it was back to Lake Manapouri; we ate our sandwiches and the rest of our snacks during the cruise. We arrived back at the hotel tired but happy. Today was especially rough on our trusty plastic ponchos; we decided that they had finally reached the end of their usable life and sadly discarded them.
JAN 3 (THURS) QUEENSTOWN, NZ
Today we woke up to a surprise. Overnight it had snowed at the higher elevations; The Remarkables and the other mountains surrounding Queenstown were gorgeous with their peaks covered in snow. Although the clouds kept moving in and out, we were able to get some great photos from the hotel. We again caught the Connectabus (this time at the Copthorne Hotel/Millenium stop about 2 blocks from the hotel) back to the airport for o Less
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