When you are looking for a trip to fill a few bucket list items, this one will do nicely. My wife and I had a number of things we wanted to do in our travels, and going to Australia and New Zealand were near the top of our list. Not just for the travel (24 hours in the air going and 17 in the air coming back - not including layovers), but to see a little bit of the countries and meet the people were a few of our bucket items. Seeing the wildlife and giving a koala a "hug" was near the top of my wife's Australia and New Zealand lists. Looking at the Southern Cross, penguins, kangaroos, and kiwis were included in my list. We checked them all off.
We started our trip from China. China, Texas that is. Then it was a short drive to Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, Texas to start the journey. We had been warned to arrive three hours early given that it was an international flight and you had to have your "visa" in order to board a plane to Australia. We had obtained ours via the internet several months earlier and we were set to go. We booked to fly premium economy via Qantas. We found out that our first and third legs going to Perth, Australia would be in economy as there was no premium economy available on those two legs.
After a pretty tight and crowded flight (aboard a Bombardier CRJ-700 (CR7) V1) from IAH to LAX, I was ready to get off of that plane. It was a bit over 3-1/4 hours, but at 6'4" in height, there was insufficient seat room in the economy class rows. Ouch, my knees were sore. You have to change terminals on arrival at LAX to catch the international flight. We flew to LAX because I wanted to fly on an Airbus A380.
Qantas was the first airline that has weighed our carry-ons. I had my cameras, lenses, and medications along with electronics and other items I did not want in checked luggage. I was over their 7 or 8 kilogram limit. But they handled it well. I was asked to place some of the items in bags they provided and then I took those with me onboard. The premium economy on the A380 was great. I would book it again if I took a flight of eight hours or longer without even giving it a second thought. I might have to blink if it was four to eight hours, but I would lean toward paying again. It was 16 hours and 50 minutes from LAX to Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne, being a port of entry, you should give yourself at least 2 ½ to 3 hours to clear through Australian immigration and customs. Even though this was an intermediate stop, we had to go through immigration, collect our bags, go through customs, recheck our bags, and make it to the next flight. We were told that this was just a short movement of luggage, but don't believe that one. Give yourself some time to get around the airport. Currency changing in the airport is expensive. We chose to use a credit card that did not charge for the exchange. We went to an off airport exchange in Perth to convert USD to AUD. No exchange fees. But you did have to shop the rate.
Melbourne to Perth is a 4-hour plus trip. But at least it was on an aircraft that had some leg room. We arrived on a Thursday before the cruise’s Saturday departure to have a look around Perth and the Swan Valley. The general look of the vegetation was similar to the Hill Country of Texas and out toward San Angelo. Dry. The Swan Valley had a lot of wineries and irrigation. It was a bit greener. The people of Perth we met and talked to were all friendly. Be aware that the prices of meals can get pretty pricey... even in the Hungry Jack (Burger King). We visited the Caversham Wildlife Park in Whiteman Park Great experience with kangaroos and koalas. While it was a "mere" 24 kilometers from downtown Perth, it took 50 minutes to drive there. If you are used to covering land in a hurry, ala Texas, get ready to at least double all of your driving times. The drivers around us were all very courteous. We drove over to the Indian Ocean and waded in (bucket list), but it was cold water.
While we were in Perth, we stayed at the Fraser Suites. They are a first rate group of people. We had a great room overlooking the Swan River. We were on the 17th floor. The view at night was simply gorgeous. The late afternoon and early morning views weren't half bad as well. Saturday morning saw a number of skulls and boats being rowed by teams. The river was calm and peaceful.
On Saturday we brought our rental car to the lot in Freemantle. Embarkation didn ot have any "speed lines" for suite guests or Diamond Club members. This was different than our prior cruises and not what we have come to expect from RCI. After checking in to get our Sea Passes, we officially began our "cruise vacation" onboard the Radiance of the Seas. We had been on a sister ship and had the general layout in our minds. Normally we stayed in interior staterooms on the 7th or 8th decks. However on this cruise, our 40th wedding anniversary, we wanted a balcony and after a few rounds of change that room, ended up in cabin 1034 (a grand suite). What a great room. After having spent so many nights in 154-176 sq. ft. rooms, being in a Grand Suite (387 sq. ft., balcony 93 sq. ft.) was really an experience in cruising. You could dance in the room, literally. The balcony was great. It had two upright chairs, a lounge chair, and a small round table. Given that we were going to be on the ship for 17 nights, we thought we would use a balcony. We did. I saw a few whales, dolphins, seals, and penguins from our balcony. We had constant seabirds with the ship throughout the cruise.
We did not really look around in Freemantle. Our first port that we toured was at Esperance, WA. It was a small town, but those who went into town had a nice time. We took the ship's tour to the Cape Le Grand National Park. We had the opportunity to stop at two white sand beaches and the WA re-creation of Stonehenge. It was a full scale replica of England’s Stonehenge as it would be if it were completed. An interesting look as cattle walked around in the nearby fields.
With the exception of a few brief times and as the Radiance crossed the Tasman Sea, we were in constant view of the coasts of Australia or Tasmania or New Zealand. This was quite a difference from Caribbean cruising.
In Adelaide, SA we rented a car and drove up truly twisted and winding mountain roads to the Gorge Wildlife Park. If you want to hold and “hug” a koala bear, this park has set times when they make some of their koalas available for visitors to hold and feed leaves to them (bucket item for wife). The koalas are well cared for and protected by the keepers. This was a fun trip. Again, make sure you understand if you are going to drive around in this area, it takes substantially more time to drive from place to place in Australia in the locations we were driving. The ship docks at the end of a rail line to the northwest of Adelaide. Give yourself time to get back to the ship… or get ready to find your way to Melbourne in two days to rejoin.
We then headed to Melbourne SA. We took another ship excursion that included riding on a narrow gauge steam train called “Puffing Billy”. This was a good sightseeing run through the local countryside. We enjoyed this as well.
It was then out of Australia and across the Tasman Sea. We were told that our crossing was quite unusual in that the seas were almost “flat” for this area. No complaints from us on calm seas. It made for enjoyment watching the sea and listening to books on tape. It was relaxing and tranquil.
When we arrived at New Zealand, it was via our entry into Milford Sound. This is one of three “sounds” that the ship entered on our way to Dunedin, NZ. A few passengers were let off for their excursion overland through the Southern Alps to rejoin the ship at Dunedin. The sounds were beautiful with occasional glimpses of the snow capped peaks in the “Southern Alps”. It was a truly great time to have a balcony room. The port side was the best side for touring the sounds. It kept you looking toward the snow capped mountains.
We arrived in Dunedin, NZ and once again took one of the ship’s excursions. This time we went to a farm to ride the 8-wheeled Argos to a couple of beaches. We did this as a lark just to do something different. We were taken to a couple of beaches to view New Zealand fur seals, yellow-eyed penguins, and a small fairy (or blue) penguin. It was fun. The bus driver took us on a trip along the ridge of the main hill overlooking parts of the bay system and other farms and coastlines.
We then traveled to Akaroa, NZ. This is a port that is about 50 -60 kilometers from Christchurch, NZ. We took a ships tour to a Maori show in Christchurch. It was entertaining. We ate at the wildlife preserve where the Haka ceremony was conducted. Then it was off to drive around downtown Christchurch to see some of the destruction from the 2011 earthquake and a brief look into the botanical garden. They are still building and condemning damaged buildings. It was a hard hit for Christchurch.
We then headed back to Akaroa to rejoin the Radiance and head to Wellington, NZ. The ship stayed in Wellington until midnight. It had been a long time since we had been in a port after dark. It was a change. Plus, it was not that many hours to sail to the port of Picton, NZ the next day. In Wellington, we took an excursion that started out at a botanical garden for morning tea. We then headed on a detour and watched a graduation play by a local class of a college students studying Maori culture. It was not part of the planned tour, but it was interesting. We got to see another Haka dance.
Then it was back to Wellington for the city and maritime museum. This was a nice museum. From here we went back to the ship, changed gear and returned to downtown Wellington to shop for souvenirs. We noted that the stops on this cruise were lacking in the traditional Caribbean “tourist shops” that carried junk souvenirs. We had to hunt for a few magnets and postcards. There were some nice shops in Wellington for jewelry and Maori crafts.
The next morning we were in Picton, NZ. This was the only port where we made a trip to a winery. We could have gone to any number of wineries at all of the preceding port stops that we had made. Not being big into wine, we ventured into other excursions. A few friends made a winery at every port. They enjoyed this. Well, we made it to the Marlborough Valley. It was a huge stretch of grape vines, wineries, farms, and producers. Our group went to the Spy Valley winery. We took a tour of a very modern facility. They grow their own grapes and produce wine solely from their own grapes. It is family owned. They selected four wines for us to sample. My wife, not being a drinker, and I found the same wine to be very tasty and have been looking for it in the US since our return. I may have found some, but until I get a case or two, I will keep it to myself. Sorry, my wife really liked it. Their other wines were not to our liking. This is not to say they were bad, we just did not like them as much.
The ship then headed for Sydney, Australia. The crossing saw a little bit of rain and cloudiness. The swells were running a bit larger than the first crossing due to a weather front. However, it was still very tolerable. We had been in worse in the Caribbean. Sydney was a beautiful city. The ship docked right across Circular Quay from the Sydney Opera House. It was a great location to view the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge.
I didn’t mention life on the ship itself as I wanted to do that in one place. We enjoyed the ship, the crew, and the entertainment. The Captain was probably the most outgoing and friendly captain we have come across on any trip. He took part in the Liar’s Club contest. He was walking around the ship and visible a lot. We talked to him several times and he was engaging and funny. We hope to see him again in the states. Our Cruise Director, Bobby Brown, was also pleasant and congenial. We spoke to him almost every evening following the shows in the main theater. He has a great sense of humor. We look forward to seeing him again.
Speaking of entertainment, this ship had probably the best line of dancers we have seen on any RCI ship. They were all very talented and did a great job. They were full of energy and let the passengers know they were having fun on stage. The singers included two very talented singers. The other two singers weren’t that bad either. They all had fun entertaining. Some of the other talent brought onboard was outstanding. We did not miss bout one show in 17 nights. We had a bit of trouble with understanding one comedian, but it was a language difference. We speak English, and he was English with a heavy accent. Our Australian dinner mates did not have a problem understanding him. We should have asked them to translate for us.
We had a great table in the dining room. We were next to the Captain’s table and we had a great group of table mates. One couple from Tennessee, one couple from the Sydney area, one couple from the Gold Coast of Australia, and one couple from Texas. We had a great time exchanging tall tales, bear stories, and fish tales. We looked forward to the great companionship every night at dinner. We were almost always one of the last tables to leave the dining room. We wouldn’t mind cruising with any of them again. It was a hoot.
The meals included a lamb course at every dinner. This was understandable given the passengers were mostly Australian and English (UK). I would have liked to have seen a few more variations on beef dishes, chicken dishes, and even pasta dishes rather than the standby four on the everyday menu. We were limited by not eating lamb. Of note was that one of the meals involved kangaroo. It was actually very good. Our Sydney friends accused us of eating “Skippy”; however, I just scratched behind my ear a little and hopped on my way. We enjoyed the meals and dining experiences with others.
As a suite passenger and a Diamond Club member, we had access to two separate concierge lounges. We really enjoyed being able to come in before dinner each evening for drinks and canapés. The staffs in these areas were very cordial and helpful. Refreshments were first rate. We love the Diamond Lounges that are showing up on even the smaller RCI vessels as they come out of overhaul.
Getting off of the ship was easy. We were staying an extra night in Sydney so we caught a cab to our hotel. It was the Sir Stamford Circular Quay. This is a very nice Hotel. We were in a suite that was spacious and comfortable. It was also within walking distance of the Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay (ferries to other harbor locations), and botanical garden. We enjoyed our brief stay in Sydney. We caught the double-decker open topped bus that went through Sydney on one route and on the second route went out to Bondi Beach. We took both. You can get off and get on as often as you please. It had earphones to listen to the recorded tour information. Note to self, if you do this again, put on your sunscreen. The next day we were off to the airport and on the return flight to LAX and then on to IAH. We left at 3:00 pm on November 27 and got to Houston at 6:15 pm… November 27. Warp speed, nope…just major time changes. It took about 17 hours going back home.
We hope to be cruising again in the near future. RCI is still one of our cruise lines of choice.