I do not usually write cruise reviews but as this B2B was such a major trip I decided to go for it. I did quite a bit of research and booked private tours for the majority of ports so decided to share my experiences. I was travelling with my DH and our friends, a married couple, and we are all from the UK. This will be more a port review than a ship based one as there are plenty of those.
We flew into Auckland via Dubai and were late due to weather problems. I had booked a B&B in Auckland, Eden Park B&B, and it was fantastic. We stayed four nights as we wanted to see some of Auckland and the surrounding area before we joined the ship. Staying in the B&B was like being with friends. The hosts are fantastic and make you so welcome. Homemade cake to go with tea & coffee and an honesty bar with wine and beer to name a few of their welcome touches. There are only four very comfortable bedrooms and it was the perfect place for us to stay.
Our first full day we booked a tour of Waiheke Island with Christine of See Waiheke Tours. What a brilliant start. We caught the ferry across and enjoyed a 30 minute scenic journey before we arrived on the island. The island is so pretty and Christine knew where to take us to see the best views, ever more glorious bays and of course wine tasting. I should say at this point that our group's main interests are bird watching, wildlife, scenery, history etc. The majority of these were well taken care of on Waiheke with lovely wine as a bonus. We visited three wineries and had lunch at one of them on a vine covered terrace looking out at wonderful views. Christine herself is great company, with an obvious love of her island and we all enjoyed the day so much that she stayed with us longer than originally planned.
The following day we collected a hire car and drove to Muriwai to the Takapu Refuge Gannet colony. It was lovely to watch the gannets with their chicks of varying sizes and we were lucky as the prevailing wind kept the smell to a minimum! We strolled along the nearby surfing beach and paddled in the sea but were horrified a few weeks later when we heard of the tragic death of a surfer to a shark attack on that very same beach.
Our birder had read about Ark in the Park, a conservation project in the Waitakere Ranges, so we drove the scenic route we found on the map and also used info previously downloaded and arrived there successfully. There was a boardwalk through the Kauri forest and it was a lovely place to visit. We did hear the bird song and had a couple of sightings but most of them were hiding that day. It is a beautiful area and well worth finding. The giant Kauri trees are magnificent.
Our last full day in Auckland was spent driving in the North Auckland area. We crossed the harbour bridge and visited Takapuna, the Sunday market and the beach before driving back down to Devonport. Here a very helpful local told us to go to North Head and after a walk around Devonport we drove up there and enjoyed the wonderful views over the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and watched the sailors enjoying the Bank Holiday weekend. North Head is one of the many extinct volcanic cones in the Auckland area and we also enjoyed a visit to Mt Eden close to our B&B.
On embarkation day we dropped our luggage at the port and then strolled around the waterfront and harbour area for a few hours and watched some of the many events taking place for the Auckland Anniversary Day Regatta. We decided it was time to join the ship and went to join the queues. Once we were through the long line for security, check in was quick and we went on to Solstice to start our five week journey.
We have been on Solstice and several of her sister ships before and everything was as we remembered. Solstice was looking good and our welcome was as warm as ever. Most of our bags arrived quickly so we could unpack and we were soon ready to start our mammoth journey.
The next day we arrived into Tauranga and left the ship at 10.30 as planned. I had booked a tour to Rotorua with Carlton Tours and Warren , our guide, was there to meet us. We had a group of 10, gathered from this board, and we boarded our comfortable mini bus and set off. The day included a visit to Kiwi 360, a kiwi farm where we learnt about the fruit growing process and were able to taste wines and jams made from the fruit. Warren worked in the industry for years so was an expert guide here! We moved on to Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre in the thermal valley in Rororua and saw a performance of traditional songs and dances before Warren led us to the thermal area to see the geysers. His expertise was invaluable as he knew the timings of the geysers and we saw the full glory of a couple of geysers spouting boiling water high into the blue sky. We enjoyed a late lunch by Lake Rotorua before a scenic drive back to Tauranga. Carlton were a good company to deal with and Warren was an excellent guide. Our port times in Tauranga were unusual as we arrived late morning and did not sail until 9pm so he had to work around our times to make sure we were at the correct places for the performances. We had to forgo a visit to Okere Falls, just having a quick glimpse as we drove past, but this was not the fault of the tour company but a problem with our schedule.
We tendered in Akoroa on South Island at our next port of call and we made good use of our priority tender tickets and left the ship promptly to walk about the very pretty town and admire the English style cottage gardens. I had booked a boat trip with Coast up Close and this was due to depart at 10.30. The boat was tied up next to the area where we tendered so was easy to find. Tony the skipper was very friendly and we were pleased at the size of the boat. There were only about 18 of us onboard so plenty of room to walk about and see the scenery and wildlife easily. Tony was good company and came out from the wheel house frequently to give us information about the area, the birds, the seals etc. We saw fur seals on the rocks with their new pups, Little Blue Penguins, Hector Dolphins swimming with the boat, numerous sea birds and wonderful clear turquoise waters and the beautiful scenery of the caldera of Akoroa. The smaller craft was able to go close in to the rocks to see the wildlife and Tony is a local man with an extremely intensive knowledge of the area. Speaking afterwards to others who made the long bus trip to Christchurch and were disappointed, I am so glad that we had such a good day in these beautiful surroundings and did not go further afield.
Our next port was Dunedin and the ship docked here at 7am. I had arranged another group of 10 to tour with Iconic Tours. We left the ship promptly and waited for John our guide. We did have to wait half an hour and I found out later that the company had heard we would be late due to sea fog. In the event we were not delayed and I did receive an apology from Kim, the owner of Iconic Tours. John was a great guide and gave us an orientation tour of Dunedin before heading out to the Otago Peninsula and Larnach Castle. Here we chose just to visit the lovely gardens. The castle is open to visitors but we were mindful of the other attractions in the area and chose to carry on. We drove on to Penguin Place to view the Yellow Eyed Penguins. They are very cute but an endangered species and it was fun walking through the hides and peeping at the birds. Our next visit was to the Royal Albatross breeding Colony on Taiaroa Head, which is practically next door. That was very interesting and both places give you very good information about the birds and the breeding programs before nyou view the birds. John drove us back to Port Chalmers, the dock area for Dunedin, via the scenic route and all through the day was an expert wildlife and bird spotter and was always happy to stop at scenic viewpoints for photo opportunities. He was a very knowledgeable guide and gave us all a great day in Dunedin.
We spent a day cruising through the Sounds before moving on to Australia and here we were provided with information over the speakers from the pilot who was guiding us through the narrow channels. We were lucky to have no rain and the sun did break through now and then so we were able to appreciate the lovely scenery. We have visited the Norwegian Fjords previously and I do think that they are even more magnificent but that is a personal view.
Our two days across the Tasman Sea were smooth and uneventful and we awoke early on our first day in Sydney to a wonderful view of the Opera House from our balcony. Solstice was in a wonderful prime spot in Sydney Harbour. We left the ship after breakfast and walked through the city and found the Town Hall. I had read about a free walking tour that started at 10.30 and sure enough a young lady in a bright green Tshirt turned up and led the fairly large group that had gathered on a very comprehensive three hour walking tour of Sydney. It was a brilliant start to our visit as we now had an overview of the city and had learnt a lot along the way. We tipped her generously, as this is the way she is paid, but were dismayed at the very small amounts we noticed other people handing over. The walk is free for goodness sake! As we finished right by the ship we popped back on for lunch before we caught a ferry at Circular Quay, next to the ship, for Manly. This 30 minute trip gave us a good view of the harbour before we arrived in Manly. We visited the surfing beach and enjoyed the seaside town atmosphere before enjoying welcome drinks. We then found a lovely coastal walk beside the sea where we strolled along and chatted to a few other walkers. We caught the ferry back and walked in to The Rocks, the historical area beside Circular Quay and visited a pub for fish and chips. Delicious. The pub was the Lord Nelson and is a micro brewery. The men approved the beer so that was a well chosen spot. We walked back to the ship watching the bats circling over head. They are big and I was convinced they were birds at first.
Our second day in Sydney dawned bright and clear so we walked to the steps our guide had shown us the day before and gained access to the Harbour Bridge. We walked right across on the pedestrian walkway and admired the views before we went back to climb the Pylon Lookout. We had decided on this as a much better alternative to the bridge climb. We paid $8.50, senior rate, for this climb and the bridge is about $250!! Another advantage is that you can take your own camera in the pylon but not on the bridge climb. Also, if I am honest, I could not have done the climb anyway! The Pylon Lookout is well worth it and the height of the lookout at the top is almost the same height as the bridge.
After lunch we walked around the outside of the Opera House and then into the Botanical Gardens. They are wonderful and you are encouraged to walk on the grass and hug the trees! My camera was well used that afternoon as I am a very keen gardener and was in heaven. We all loved Sydney and were delighted that we had chosen to stay on here for three days at the end of the cruise so more of Sydney later.
Hobart, Tasmania, was the next port and here we booked to join a tour with Eye See Personalised Tours. Judy Livingston, the owner, was our driver and is a very pleasant , capable lady with a penchant for purple clothing! She set off for the penal settlement of Port Arthur, quite a long, bumpy drive at times, and got us there as quickly as she could. The ship was sailing at 4.30, quite an early departure so we had to be mindful of this and not linger unnecessarily. We enjoyed her guided tour of Port Arthur which was followed by a lovely home produced picnic lunch at a nearby designated area then on to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary for our first encounter with kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. The sanctuary is a charming place and it was fun to feed and pet the roos before we had to leave to get back on time. It would have been lovely to see more of Hobart itself but the time constraints imposed by the ship schedule made this impossible. I do sometimes wonder why these early sailing times are necessary but I am sure there is a good reason.
The Captain announced that we were going to encounter heavy seas and indeed the next day was a bit bumpy! The ship had to slow down due to the conditions and that meant we would be late arriving in Adelaide. In the event that was just part of the story. Solstice is the largest ship to have docked at this port and it was her maiden visit. After a wonderful greeting from the local people and songs and cheers there was an anticlimax. The gangway and the ship did not line up! The Captain had to move the ship about 5 metres to enable the shore gang to line up the gang way and at last we had arrived. The big downside to this was that the entire 2800 complement of passengers all wanted to disembark at the same time. It took us about an hour and a half to leave and needless to say there were many mutterings amongst the passengers.
Here we had an excursion booked with Bums on Seats. Luckily they were still waiting and we were extremely fortunate to have the services of Ralf as our driver guide. He had to throw away the planned itinerary but gave us a great day. We drove around Adelaide, visited the Botanical Gardens, went koala hunting in the trees outside the city, visited Hahndorf, the German settlement half an hour from Adelaide and then came the bonus. Ralf has a friend with a private kangaroo sanctuary. He took us there and we were able to cuddle the orphaned joeys in their cloth pouches, bottle feed some of them and then feed the older kangaroos with weetabix biscuits in the fields outside. We all loved that experience and we then went on to drive through the Adelaide hills, see the vineyards, the views from Mt Lofty and then a drive through the seaside resorts on the way back to the port. We heard there had been long queues to reboard the ship but we missed those and walked straight on. I did hear that other groups had not had such a good day but we were extremely fortunate.
After another sea day we arrived in Esperance. This was another tender port and again we used our priority tickets and left the ship on an early tender. I do know that the tender process has many faults and there were delays but we were lucky. The excursion booked here was with Esperance Eco Tours and Mark was waiting beside his Land Rover. We were going to explore the beaches in Cape Le Grand National Park so this vehicle would be necessary. The beaches here are amazing with pure white sand, officially the whitest in Australia after official tests have been carried out, clear turquoise seas and emerald green islands in the bay. We drove miles along the beach and eventually stopped for refreshments in Lucky Bay. Tea on a beautiful deserted beach, what more could you ask for? There were a few wild kangaroos in the shade but as it was a hot day we only saw a couple. We saw the traces of the Brumbies, the feral horses that live here and run along the beaches in the early mornings, but we were there too late in the day. Mark is an expert on the Aboriginal culture and the history of the area and enthusiastic about his surroundings and he gave us the benefit of this knowledge in an enthusiastic manner. On the drive back along the beach to Esperance he told us he was taking us to a viewpoint but to stay in the car. He proceeded to drive up a 46 metre incline to the top of a rocky outcrop where we did indeed have a wonderful view of the area. None of quite believed what we had just done! It was incredible. The ride back down was even better! We went back into town for lunch and then met Mark again for a drive to the other side of Esperance. There is a Great Ocean Drive which we took with frequent stops to look down at the gorgeous beaches on this side of town. They seemed to go on forever. We finished the day with a drive through the historic region of the town and heard about some of the history of the old buildings that we saw. We arrived back at the port area to find queues for the tender but they were not too bad and we were soon back on the ship. The sea had become very choppy during the day and the ride on the tender was like a fairground ride. I am sure that the crews on these tenders had to work very hard that day to ensure the safety of the passengers and top marks to them and less complaints about the waiting times would be welcome!
The last port of this first cruise on the B2B was Albany. Solstice was only here for the morning and in fact longer in port would have been welcome. Albany has much history and there is a guided historical walk to follow with many places to visit along the way with very small admittance charges. The townsfolk got up early, provided free shuttle buses and really welcomed us to their town. We enjoyed walking around visiting the Brig Amity and gaol amongst other attractions and thought that Albany was charming.
This was the end of cruise number one. We enjoyed all the ports for different reasons and were very lucky with good excursions and guides. It is definitely worth advance research to find out what there is on offer, especially when visiting the other side of the world on what may well be a one off visit. I hope this is not too wordy but it is a first attempt!