We flew to Sydney 2 days before sailing to give us time to check out the sites and catch up with friends. The shuttle bus dropped us at the door of our accommodation, which we booked as a Mystery Deal on Wotif. The Radisson Hotel and Suites, 72 Liverpool Street, is 10 minutes walk from Darling Harbour, George Street and right on the monorail route. The hotel was spotless and very comfortable and the staff were great. I recommend it.
At about 1030 on sailing day we dropped our bags at the big tent at Wharf 5 and checked in. The check in procedure was painless and fast and although boarding didn't start until 12 mid-day there were a lot of people waiting so we caught up to some of the others in our group before wandering into the city to purchase some refreshments to take aboard. Yes, we could take on a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer each. When we returned to the wharf about 1pm, we went straight through customs and were aboard by 130pm.
We were in cabin E329, forward, starboard side on deck 6. The location was a bit further forward than I would have preferred but it proved to be very handy to the Atrium, where so much of the action was happening, shopping, bars etc. The other advantage was the relatively small number of cabins on this deck which meant less competition for the laundry facilities and less traffic.
We departed Sydney on time and were soon under the Harbour Bridge and sailing past the Opera House with the Rhapsody of the Sea berthed at Circular Quay. The Captain cautioned us to stay on good terms with our cabin partners as the ship was choca-block full with over 1900 passengers. 60% of the passengers were in the 70+ age group. Most were as fit and active as us but there were a couple of motorised wheelchairs/scooters and walking frames to manoeuvre around.
Sail-away was a quieter affair than we had experienced on the Pacific Sun in 2008 but we had to get organised for the first seating for dinner anyway so it wasn't an issue.
At dinner we joined our travelling companions. One couple are our neighbours in Townsville while the other 2 couples hailed from Newcastle and Coffs Harbour NSW. Our Waiter, Teddy and Assistant Waiter, Antonio were two of the nicest most accommodating guys you would care to know. They made each dinner really enjoyable and greeted us like long lost friends if we happened to miss a night.
On the third night we had the first of two formal evenings. Plenty of photos and jibes about the blokes in their dinner suits as well as the genuine compliments about the ladies and their outfits. All in good fun. I hired a suit through the Princess web site to avoid having to pack one. The suit was delivered to our cabin and the measurement tool made it easy and the suit fitted perfectly.
The Master of the Ship was Captain Graham Goodway. He came across as a very competent man with a dry sense of humour and a quiet wit and kept us well informed with a midday broadcast each day and warnings about rough seas etc.
Bay of Islands (Sunday 21 Feb. Day 3) On the crossing to the Bay Of Islands we encountered swells of 3 - 5 metres but having been pre-warned we were well dosed up on Avomine and therefore, handled the conditions without a problem.
Arriving at the Paihia in the Bay of Islands on Sunday morning there was a slight delay tendering passengers to shore due to a Big Cat cruise having difficulty securing to the ship in order to transfer passengers for a tour. These things happen at sea so we enjoyed the show while they sorted it out then we got our chance to get aboard the tenders for the 10 minute trip to the jetty.
We were met with complimentary coaches to the township, perfect weather, blue sky, 25 degrees and friendly, welcoming locals. There was a market in the park beside the visitors centre and almost every business was open. We wandered through the market and along the main street before finding an internet cafe which sold NZ sim cards. The lady in the cafe couldn't have been more helpful and assisted us to get the card registered and charged up so we could give our kids a na na, nah, nah, nah call.
After lunch of fish and chips and a beer ($14NZ) we had a walk along the waterfront and watched the coaches discharge their cargo of tourists (Did we look that ragged? Probably not) and back packers (definitely not) before catching the shuttle bus back to the jetty. Some people went to the memorial at the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. They reported that there wasn't much to see and questioned the cost of $20 to enter the site. Others caught the ferry to Russell and reckoned it was good value.
If the remainder of the cruise matched our experience in the Bay of Islands it was going to be a great trip.
Auckland (Monday 22 Feb. Day 4) A beautiful city and harbour greeted us as we sailed into Auckland. We berthed in front of the Hilton and a classy set of units beside it. Strangely, on the balcony of one of the units was a life size inflatable pig wearing a sailor's cap. Maybe it was a message?
My first impression of Auckland was of its similarity to Brisbane with many well preserved early buildings still in use alongside the new high rise developments. The city had a relaxed feel about it and it wasn't obvious that this is New Zealand's largest city with 1.5 million people. Although we were in the city centre at 10 in the morning there was no rush or bustle.
As we drove through the suburbs later in the day I could see a lot of weatherboard homes, with decks and big yards which added to the impression that I could have been in Brisbane.
We took the Auckland Wine Trail shore tour which visited the Nobilo, Coopers Creek and Soljans Wineries. All three wineries offered tastings of their product. At Nobilos we were offered up to 10 different style wines in half an hour or so which was more than the group could take in, both in quantity and information.
Coopers Creek was a bit more low-key with half a dozen different styles of whites and reds. Obviously the Sauvignon Blanks and Pinot Noirs featured heavily being the most prolific styles in NZ. They are not bad at all.
At Soljans Estate we were very fortunate to meet the current owner who took us on a tour of the operation before the tasting. He was a wealth of information and was absolutely passionate about his craft. We were able to watch the bottling of their sparkling wine and look through the storeroom full of casks while he explained the process for maturing wine in the barrels. Following the tour we sampled some of the product, of course, including the vintage port which was my favourite. Then a very well lubricated group of cruisers set off back to the ship. Thank goodness for coach drivers.
As we left Auckland the tugs did their dance.
Tauranga (Tuesday 23 Feb. Day 5) At Tauranga we met Kevin, a school teacher and friend of one couple in our group, who was our guide for the day. We hired a couple of vehicles and Kevin took us on tour of the Rotorua area, the Blue Lake and Green Lake, Mount Tarawera, Lake Tarawera and the Buried Village as well as the thermal areas in Rotorua itself. It's a pity that school groups no longer visit the Mount Tarawera volcano due to the costs imposed by the traditional owners. When the cost of access gets out of reach, culture, history, students, the environment and the owners of the land all suffer.
Rotorua didn't look any different from any other medium sized city until we got into the thermal areas where the hot springs and the interesting aroma let us know it was different. Kevin told us of a couple of unfortunate accidents involving the discovery of previously unidentified hot mud pools by people falling through the crust into the mud. We made sure we stayed on the pathways. The city is obviously very tourist oriented and can be expensive. By doing our own thing we saw everything we wanted and more at a fraction of the cost. It was a great day and having a local as a guide gave us a different perspective.
Napier (Wednesday 24 Feb. Day 6) What a city. Beautiful Art Deco and Santa Fe style buildings, lovely main street and shopping centre, magnificent beach front gardens and pavilion, friendly locals and even a vintage car display and jazz band on the wharf to welcome us.
Again, the weather was perfect for our visit. We were dropped off at the beach front by the shuttle bus and given directions to the museum where the story of the 1931 earthquake unfolds, explaining how this special city was created. The locals are justifiably proud of their city. Unfortunately we were a week late for the festival but we could see the effort they had put into presenting the city at its best.
My wife found some boutiques in the main street were having an end of season sale and I managed to get a pair of shoes I had been looking for in Australia without success. The exchange rate made it easy to take advantage of the specials.
Napier is definitely on the list of places I want to visit again.
Wellington (Thursday 25 Feb. Day 7) The wind was blowing and the rain was threatening as we docked in Wellington and we thought we were in for a rugged day, however, by the time the ok was given to go ashore the sky was clearing although the wind was still living up to its reputation. It happened that the Sun Princess' sister ship the Dawn was in port as well and we tied up nose to nose.
After being dropped off by the shuttle bus the first stop was the National Museum (Te Papa) with six floors of displays including a Pompeii exhibit. Entry was free to the general museum while the Pompeii exhibit was $15, but worth it.
There is too much to take in over a few hours but the Massive Squid is a must see. We met one of the staff who gave us a short history lesson about the transition from the old museum to the new. He had been there for 27 years and loved to have a chat.
After leaving the museum we called in to Mac's Brewery for a cold ale. Just the thing to refresh us in preparation for the cable car trip to the top of the mountain.
When we found the ticket office for the cable car there was a line of 100 or more people waiting but the line moved through quickly. The trip up the mountain isn't long but it is spectacular. A couple of clowns walking up along the tracks added to the interest. They got the message from the driver.
Once at the top we had a walk around the observatory and decided to walk back to the city through the gardens. The walk takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on what interests you. The Lady Norwood Rose Gardens are worth a stop. They were not at their best when we called in but it wasn't hard to imagine how they would have looked a few weeks earlier. The gardens in general are excellent with more colour than we see in the warmer northern parts of Australia.
The path from the top is well marked except at the bottom end where the best route was unclear. We found another couple of passengers from the Dawn Princess who were lost. Between us we managed to make our way back to the city centre. It didn't take long to find a pub for another beer to replenish the fluids after the walk.
Wellington, the Capital, is smaller than Auckland in population but seemed much more crowded and busy. It felt more like Sydney to me.
As we were about to depart Wellington, Captain Goodway advised us that the Dawn Princess would sail first. After a short delay we were then told that the authorities would let us sail first so the Captains of the respective ships used their horns to give each other the appropriate send off. With most of the passengers on both ships on deck waving and cheering at each other it was a noisy departure.
Christchurch (Friday 26 Feb. Day 8) We docked at Lyttelton at 0800 and took the shuttle bus into Christchurch. It dropped us at the city centre near the Information Centre.
We had booked a shore tour to visit the Tamaki Heritage Village but the tour was cancelled due to lack of numbers so we did our own thing.
From here we could board the trams which take a loop around the city stopping at all the highlights. The ticket is good for the day giving you a hop on hop off service with a tram coming along every 5 - 10 minutes. The tram tickets cost about $25 but a combination tram and gondola ticket was $35. We purchased the tram ticket before we realised the saving but we were able to upgrade the ticket later at the Station Square ticket shop with the assistance of a very helpful staff member.
Christchurch is in my opinion, the most beautiful city in NZ. The gardens with the Avon River winding through them, the old buildings and the trams all give the city a very special feel.
Once we had seen some of Christchurch we got off the tram at the Casino stop and walked 200 metres to the bus stop where we caught a bus (No 28 I think) to the Gondola Station.
The Gondola Station is on the road back to Lyttelton. The bus ticket cost $2.80 return and was good for 2 hours which is plenty of time to get to the Gondola Station, take the trip to the top of the mountain, get some photos and browse the shop before riding back down to catch the bus back to Christchurch.
The views from the top of the mountain back to Christchurch and over Lyttelton, where we could see the ship, are spectacular. You will have your photo taken as you leave the bottom station. The pack of photos, CD etc will be ready when you come back and will cost $30 if you want to purchase it. A bit of a gimmick I know but we won't be doing it again, for a while anyway. At the top station, take the six minute ride through the tunnel and learn some of the local history. The cost is included in the ticket price and it's worth a look.
After returning to Christchurch we had a pint (called a handle) and some lunch at the Holy Grail Sports Bar and watched the Canadian women's ice hocky team defeat the USA in the Winter Olympic finals. That's a rough game. Almost as bad as the post Christmas sales.
By 3.30 we were foot sore and ready to catch the shuttle bus back to the ship. The line of passengers waiting for the bus stretched for about 200 metres so we had to wait for a while. Apparently the buses were busy with school runs that time of day. It gave us time to watch the tourists in the square anyway.
On the road to/from Lyttelton there is a tunnel through the mountain which all traffic passes. It's about 3 kilometres long apparently and takes a few minutes to travel. Interesting for those of us who don't live in capital cities with under river or harbour tunnels.
That evening at dinner another couple in our group told us they had joined a mini-bus tour at the wharf after leaving the ship. They paid as they boarded and had a great day seeing all the sights the ship tours promised and more, for half the cost of the Princess shore tour. I think it was called Discovery Tours. It pays to check the locals but more on that later.
Dunedin (Saturday 27 Feb. Day 9) We docked at Port Chalmers at 0800 as predicted and as soon as we could we disembarked and made a dash for the I Site set up at the wharf to book tours of the Cadbury Factory and Speights Brewery in Dunedin.
As the Cadbury factory doesn't operate on weekends the tour is shortened to 45 minutes. Due to this, I would rate the weekend tour as average only, and they don't miss you when you purchase something in the shop. I was glad we hadn't booked the tour through Princess as I would have felt I hadn't received value for money.
By booking the Cadbury tour ourselves at a cost of $12NZ we saved $57 on the cost of the Princess tour, and that would have been in $A. and all the sights mentioned in the Princess tour outline are within easy walking distance of the factory and city centre for most people. The historic churches and the railway station are very impressive and the farmers markets at the railway on Saturday morning have to be seen.
The Speights Brewery tour was another story altogether. It was excellent and exceptional value at $20 NZ each, booked at the I Site at Port Chalmers. Keith, our tour guide was a real character with a love for his job and an in depth knowledge of the brewery and the brewing process. We toured the brewery from top to bottom, literally. After the tour we were given half an hour to sample as many of the 6 beers as we wanted, straight from the tap. This is a must do tour for anyone who enjoys a beer or would like to know how beer is made by the natural method. Book early to avoid disappointment as the tours fill up very quickly.
As we arrived early for the 12mid-day tour we called in to the Speights pub beside the brewery where we purchased a sample taster of 6 x 200ml Speights beers for $14NZ. After the tour we returned to the pub for lunch of lamb shanks and vegies, fish and chips and bangers and mash and another beer. All this cost $70 for 4 people and the meals were more than any of us could eat. In all, booking the Speights tour direct and organising our own lunch probably saved us $80 each.
Another couple from our group took the train trip to the Taieri Gorge. They booked at the railway station and took some sandwiches, fruit and drinks with them. They saved $150 each compared to the Princess tour and they were on the same train as the Princess passengers. The only difference was the Princess tour group sat in the dining car and were served lunch.
If you are prepared to do a bit of research and don't mind organising your own itinerary ashore, it definitely pays to compare the shore tour prices against the cost of booking local tours and attractions direct or over the net. The savings can add up very quickly.
Dunedin is a pretty city but feels a bit cramped compared to Christchurch. The city centre is a nice spot to sit and have a coffee and watch the world for a while and there are plenty of pubs in which to sample the local brews, as you would expect.
Milford Sound (Sunday 28 Feb. Day10) We were scheduled to go into three sounds in the Fiordland National Park but due to the tsunami alert for the Pacific and 4 -5 metre swells and high winds, Captain Goodway elected to play safe and bypass the first two before attempting to enter Milford Sound, depending upon weather and the tsunami threat. He kept us well informed of developments throughout the day and we were able to enter the Milford Sound at about 2pm.
Words can hardly describe the beauty of this special part of New Zealand. The rain was falling but that only added to the magic of the mountains rising up to 7000ft or over a mile (in old money) into the sky. The waterfalls, rivers and mists made it easy to imagine what the Sound would have looked like before mankind found it. This would have to be the highlight of the entire cruise for me.
Milford Sound to Sydney (Sunday 28 Feb. - Wednesday 3 Mar. Days 11-13) The Captain warned us before we left Milford Sound that we could expect 5 -6 metre swells for the next day or so. We started taking Avomine again and had no sea sickness or discomfort to speak of despite the noticeable rolling as swells came at us from two directions. The ship changed to a more northerly course than planned to avoid the worst swells. Great work on the part of the Navigator. As we got closer to Sydney the swells lessened as anticipated to the point where the last 12 hours was like sailing on a pond. I had to look out the window to make sure we were still moving at one point.
We had our final formal evening on the 1st March and the ship celebrated New Year again (because we could) with balloons and streamers and the accompanying dancing and revelry.
On the last day we went through the usual process of packing and leaving our suitcases outside the cabin for collection. Our duty free purchases were delivered and last minute gifts picked up at the on board boutiques.
New Zealand New Zealand does tourism really well. The country recognises the value of tourism to the economy and they know how to make tourists feel welcome. The reception at every port was first rate and the hospitality of the people we encountered never failed to impress us. Anyone wanting a lesson on how to look after tourists and encourage them to come back could take a lesson from the Kiwis.
The ship When it comes to the ship's vibe it seems to me that the attitude of the crew, staff and officers mirrors that of the Captain of the ship, therefore, if the Captain maintains high standards in his dealings and communications with the passengers, so do the crew and staff. This certainly seemed to be the case on the Sun Princess where we found every member of the ships crew we came into contact with to be well trained, friendly, helpful and polite.
While I understand the ship is scheduled for a refit in the next couple of months, there were no obvious signs of excessive wear and tear in our cabin or in the public areas we visited. Everything was kept clean and the glass lifts, hand rails on the stairways and timber and hard surfaces were kept shining.
Our cabin Our cabin was not huge but had everything we needed. We could have made more room by having the bed split into 2 singles but being 188 cm I prefer the larger bed. The window was around 900 x 900 mm so we had plenty of natural light. Our Cabin Steward was Tony from the Philippines. Nothing was too much trouble for Tony. He serviced our cabin at least twice a day, sometimes 3 times and helped to make the cruise very enjoyable for us. He is a great ambassador for Princess.
Service The waiters in the Atrium Bars were attentive but not pushy and were always ready with a suggestion if we couldn't decide what we would like.
In the dining room, Teddy and Antonio provided our table and those around us with top class service and had a joke and a laugh with us on every occasion we dined there.
The Horizon Court Bistro staff were very efficient and quick to offer us a drink, tea or coffee whenever we sat down and cleared the table as soon as we finished eating. The standard of hygene was first class with a crew member greeting diners at the entry and directing them to the hand sanitiser before they entered the bistro. I didn't hear of a case of gastro and by half way through the cruise I noticed people were also using the hand sanitiser as they went back for seconds and desserts.
The Pursers Desk staff always had a smile for us, often after dealing with less than totally polite passengers.
I personally couldn't fault the service we received or the attitude of the crew and staff however while on the shuttle bus to Christchurch I heard one passenger complaining about the service and saying she would never cruise again. I can't understand how having someone make the bed and clean the bathroom each day, cook and serve meals and clean up afterwards and give constant attention and endless entertainment options is not up to anyone's standards.
No doubt there are some things are not perfect at times but I am sure the attitude we adopt is the most important factor to our enjoyment of the experience. If we go looking for fault we will find it. As they say, if life serves you lemons, grab the tequila and salt and get busy.
We had cruised once before on P&O's Pacific Sun and one other couple had cruised on the Pacific Sun and Pacific Dawn and the QE2. The other two couples had never cruised before but we all agreed that this cruise exceeded our expectations for service, comfort, food and entertainment.
I would recommend any ship under the command of Captain Graham Goodway and we found the Sun Princess, the cruise experience and New Zealand's hospitality to be entirely enjoyable and great value for money.
Food I give the food a rating of 8/10. The standard was very good whether we ate in the dining room, the bistro or in the pizzeria and there was plenty of it. The Bistro was open 24/7 but I couldn't find room for more food after dinner. We didn't try the steak house. The only things I saw on the menu which I wouldn't care to try were the Tilapia and the Catfish which are generally considered to be vermin where I come from. Obviously that's not the case elsewhere so each to their own taste.
Drink Prices Drink prices were reasonable. Beers ranged from $4.50 to $9.00 and spirits and cocktails between $6.00 and $10.00. The least expensive wine was around $22.00 a bottle or $7.00 a glass. There was a fair selection of Australian, US and Italian wines. We didn't buy a soda card but we did purchase a coffee card which gave us 15 coffees for $45. The coffee in the Atrium was the best.
Duty Free We purchased our duty free alcohol on the ship. The prices were as good as those I saw at the duty free shops in Sydney. The perfumes weren't particularly cheap, apparently, and the jewellery and watches were not of interest to us.
Entertainment The entertainment was mostly of a high standard. The dancers were very good and put in great performances in less than ideal conditions on a couple of nights. The vocalists, Nicole Wolf and J. Michael Beech were equally good and had a very good repertoire ranging from the 50s and 60s up to current numbers.
A special mention must go to the exceptional orchestra led by Steve Lee. Their tribute to the Rat Pack and to the Piano Men, Elton John, Billy Joel and others was outstanding.
Each day a quartet of violinists, a pianist and a cello player performed in the atrium and in the evenings two entertainers gave the piano on level 7 in the atrium a work out. These performers were a favorite of the more senior passengers who set up camp in front of the piano each evening.
We soon realised that if we wanted to catch the 815 show we had to be seated in the Princess Theatre by 730 or we wouldn't find a seat. This was probably due to the average age of the passengers who seemed to prefer an early show and dinner then bed. If we couldn't find a seat we could usually get one at the later show or the next night if the show was repeated. By 1130 each night the ship was noticeably quieter and the Shooting Star nightclub bar was practically deserted most nights.
There was also the usual bingo, trivia and music quizzes, lectures and demonstrations for anyone who wanted to be involved. Of course the Casino was an ever-present attraction with the easiest access of any area on the ship. We made a small donation.
Going ashore Disembarking at the various ports could sometimes be challenging. Despite requests from the Captain and shore tour desk, not to queue in the public areas until called, passengers often choked the atrium and stairs. We soon realised we were better off sitting back with a coffee and waiting for the log jam to clear. We were never delayed for long and didn't miss anything by waiting.
Shore Tours We booked the wine tour in Auckland and the Tamaki Heritage Village in Christchurch.The wine tour was worth the $69 each and we enjoyed about 20 wines at three wineries.
Unfortunately the Tamaki Heritage Village tour was cancelled due to lack of bookings. The same tour had been available in Rotorua but we had no way of knowing that the Christchurch tour didn't have the numbers while in Rotorua so we didn't have the opportunity to swap.
Tipping and gratuities It is a shame that the cruise lines pay their crews in such a way that they must rely on tips and gratuities to make a reasonable living to support their families who many don't see for 9 months at a time.
Our Cabin Steward Tony told us he had been working on ships for more than12 years. He worked a split shift with 11 hour days for 9 months without days off and then goes home for 3 months before the next 9 month contract.
One of our drinks waiters had not seen his first child who was 3 month old. He had been away for the birth, Christmas, his wife's and his own birthday and was one month off the end of his contract.
They keep in touch with their families by internet and phone as and when they can and are paid $50 per month and $1400 at the end of the 9 month contract. They also share the automatic gratuities along with the other crew who work behind the scenes and have little or no contact with passengers.
If passengers remove the gratuities from their account the cooks, cleaners, porters, deck hands and those other people we never come in contact with, get no extras, making their wage pretty miserly. Knowing the remuneration arrangements, I had no problem leaving the gratuities on our account. They equate to the cost of one drink each day and I figure if one less drink improves my health and the life of a crew member at the same time that's not a bad thing. I also have no problem giving a personal gift to the people who make our cruise special.