Embarkation was a very busy and congested affair. The logistics were enormous and we thought the cruise company did its best to process nearly 2000 passengers in less than three hours. It was clear that many people had not followed instructions and arrived earlier than their allotted time slot. First impressions of the ship were almost overwhelming. The sheer size of the internal public areas was beyond belief and those impressions increased when we realised that at each end of the ship there were two theatre areas, one of which was as big and well equipped as our city theatre in Salisbury.
The biggest surprise was yet to come (for me) as the allocated balcony cabin was not the cramped and stuffy room that I thought it might have been but a spacious room the size of an average hotel bedroom complete with en-suite. On top of this we opened our own double doors onto our totally private balcony with table and chairs where we subsequently chose to eat most of our breakfasts.
The cabin was looked after by cabin stewards and it is fair to say that their work and respect for our private space was impeccable. We had decided that we would opt out of the automatic charging of tips to our account and we would give a generous tip to key staff at the end of the holiday. The cabin stewards were not aware of this yet this did not affect the quality of service.
We did not try all of the fitness and recreation facilities but made good use of the table tennis. What fun this was particularly as the boat was moving a little when we were playing. The mini-tournaments organised by staff added to the interest. For anyone so inclined the gymnasium was packed with a large range of keep fit equipment. My wife visited the hair salon for a hair cut which was done very quickly and without any care. We also noted a tooth whitening franchise being sold at exorbitant rates and we thought this was quite unnecessary and unwise for anyone to participate.
I had always been suspicious of the means by which cruise companies could maximise their profits by charging exorbitant prices to captive cruisers for their bar drinks. In reality we found that prices were inline with want you might pay at an English hotel e.g. about 17/18 for a bottle of reasonable wine. We did however find that the charges for onshore excursions were very high and you could do better by going ashore and purchasing trips direct from the supplier. However, given the limited time available for each shore trip, it is a pity to fritter that time away dealing with local companies alongside local tourists when you could be seeing the sights. We resolved this by choosing excursions very carefully on the basis of vfm and, for example, in Napier we were totally self sufficient, saved a considerable amount and enjoyed every minute of it. However, in Akaroa, we went on an organised trip to a mountain sheep farm which we could not have arranged on the dockside. The sheep farm experience was enthralling and unique.
Dining was another unexpected treat. I cannot understand my fellow correspondent who alleges that the ship's food was poor. The evening meal was five courses of high quality food, all of it prepared and cooked on board from fresh ingredients. The waiter service was impeccable with clearly dedicated waiters to each table. If any questions were asked by diners about a particular course the waiters would know exactly what was in each dish and gave guidance to each diner as necessary. The overall quality of the meal, surroundings and ambience was the equal of any good restaurant in England and far better than most. Despite this, on Valentines Day we did upgrade to the Steak restaurant and enjoyed specially prepared steak and all of the trimmings.
Lunch and other snack times were catered for by the deck self service cafe being open from 5 am to 11 pm every day with a large choice of food available all day long. Very occasionally this became overcrowded and tiresome. The other food related grumble was the breakfasts served in the restaurants. Passengers were assembled randomly into tables of 8 or 10 and orders taken for every element of breakfast. This was time consuming, tedious and unnecessary. It would have been far better for breakfast to be served buffet style with only special orders e.g. kippers being dealt with by waiters. We only did this once - every other time we had a much lighter breakfast brought to our cabin when we wanted it for enjoying on our balcony as we watched shearwaters skimming the surface of the waves and many other sea birds.
Entertainment on board was plentiful and wide ranging. It would be fair to say that most tastes were probably catered for with a large variety of different acts. Some of the acts were brought on board especially for one night and then disembarked the following day. We did not attend all of the shows and events and none of those we saw felt tired or stale. As already stated the theatres were huge (estimated 300 seats) and some evenings passengers were queuing at the door to get in. Events in the theatres included talks on the next port of call. These talks were sometimes given by erudite locals brought onto the ship especially for the task. For the trip into Milford Sound the guide stayed on board all day for the cruise in the Fiords and gave a wonderful description of what we were seeing. Our trip occurred during dull and misty weather but we were rewarded with a very noisy and spectacular thunderstorm echoing around the fiords.
The service of all staff, without exception, was impeccable. We are not party to their terms of employment but whatever their employer is doing results in motivated and cheerful staff which in turn adds value to the passengers. One hopes that the overall employment package is fair and equitable.
We loved the idea of awaking each morning to find that we had silently slipped into a different NZ port and by drawing back the curtains we had this wonderful view which we had never seen before. Each evening we had the ship's daily newspaper which was full of information for the forthcoming day.
Much more could be said e.g. the nightly disco, child care facilities, promenading, the swimming pools, the outdoor and indoor cinema facilities, the pizza restaurant, the variety of bars, the library, the bridge club, the photographers, the list of excellent facilities continues!
Overall we think that we had a unique and special holiday for a price that really was good vfm. We would not hesitate to recommend this cruise to others and look forward to planning another cruise with the same company in the not too distant future.