A brilliant 14 night Christmas cruise around New Zealand from Brisbane. The overall experience was very enjoyable, we met plenty of nice people throughout the cruise, had fun to all hours and made quite a few friends. The destinations were really interesting, NZ is a very beautiful place and the Sun Princess is a very nice ship. We had great weather on all but one day, Sun Princess handled the Tasman really well and we never ran out of things to do. In fact, there were plenty of things we never got around to doing.
Our party is a family of 4, two parents, an adult son and a mid-teen daughter. The drive to the Hamilton wharf from the Gold Coast is always right on one hour, we park at Portside Parking who are always really good and make things easy. Check in was easy too, we arrived an hour or two earlier than scheduled so we didn't need to queue at all and we only seemed to wait about 15 minutes prior to the usual Customs rigmarole. I think we were on board by about 11:00 am for a 4:00 pm sail-away. This seemed a little quicker than the same time last year with P&O but it really depends on how many people arrive at the terminal at particular times and when the scheduled departure time is. We had a very similar quick wait boarding a P&O cruise last April so I don't think it's dependent on the carrier.
I've been comparing the Sun Princess to P&O's Pacific Dawn which we have sailed on twice to New Caledonia and Vanuatu in the last year. Sun Princess is about 10% bigger (GT) but similar to Pacific Dawn in many ways, probably because they were both built by Fincantieri in Italy. However, Sun Princess is a more interesting layout, the atrium is much grander and stretches from Deck 5 up to 8. It also has sweeping staircases and two panoramic glass lifts. It also feels a bit wider but both have an identical beam of around 32m. Sun Princess was a bit cleaner than Pacific Dawn, especially in the buffet (Horizon Court). This buffet area felt twice as big and it's at the front of the ship. I had read many reviews where comments were made about the rusty hull and anchor stains on Sun Princess. Yes, this was true at the time of boarding. But I noticed when we were berthed in Auckland that two guys were painting part of the hull from a gantry. I didn't think much of it until later in the cruise when reboarding at another port that the whole hull seemed to have been freshly painted. Sun Princess also felt very stable in the 7m swell we encountered midway from Brisbane to Auckland. The waves were square on to the starboard side, the captain reported that they were long waves (14 sec period) so the movement was slower and less noticeable than the smaller, shorter wind waves. It felt quite comfortable, perhaps the stabilisers were working overtime ... who knows? One gripe which many people mentioned was the temperature in most areas. Although it didn't personally bother me, the air conditioning was very warm but nothing could seem to be done to adjust it. Interestingly, it felt quite cool on the occasions that I walked through the casino!! Do they want people to feel comfortable in here? Overall, it appeared to be well maintained and clean. No wear on any carpets as I've so often read, maybe some have been replaced. I was looking out the window while on a treadmill in the gym and noticed that one of the horizontal lower rails around the rear deck outside the gym had rusted through completely. That said, the gym was very well equipped and in a fantastic position looking over the stern. The outdoor cinema on the top deck (Movies Under The Stars) was a great feature but not well attended, probably due to the cool weather at night. The only issue was the volume was a bit high making conversation difficult.
DINING / FOOD
Our dining was in The Regency on deck 6, late sitting of 7:45. Although we had selected a table of 4 with our travel agent, we were put on a table of 10 the first night. Not that this is an issue but is was an odd shape and not easy for conversations. I was waiting to speak to the Maitre D who was getting a hard time from some miserable old coot who wouldn't give up. After he left I politely sided with the Maitre D, saying that some people are never happy. I then very politely requested us being moved to a table of 4 from then on, after much head scratching he found us a table. The meals in the dining room were superb, I love fish and I was never disappointed. The soups were nothing special but still nice. The desserts looked and tasted amazing and we always got our requested hot chocolate following dessert. Our waiters often tried to tempt us with seconds, or suggested we try two different main courses if we couldn't choose! There wasn't much waiting between courses, I'm sure we had four courses one night in less than an hour. We occasionally ate in the buffet, while the standard was really good there wasn't a lot of variety from day to day. But who would complain, nobody would have nearly the same choice at home! Naturally, there was self serve tea, coffee, water and lemonade. It was described as American homemade style lemonade, 1 part lemons, 20 parts sugar and a screwed up face! The coffee took a little getting used to, I found that adding a bit extra hot water made it more my style. On the promenade deck they served free soft serve ice cream most days plus free milk & cookies and popcorn during movies. On the rare occasion that I bought drinks they were often cheaper than on land.
Although we had a similar sized 4 berth cabin to one on Pacific Dawn, the bathroom and layout were very pokey on Sun Princess. Our room was an ocean-view on Deck 5 port side (Plaza 330) which was just forward of mid ships and very handy to the atrium and lifts/stairs. There didn't seem to be much wardrobe space for 4 people and you almost needed to stand on the toilet to dry yourself, the bathroom was that pokey. A similar room on Pacific Dawn was laid out with a walk-in type wardrobe with more hanging space and the toilet was tucked away to one side, not in the middle of the bathroom! Even with the air conditioning set to maximum cool it still felt a bit warm. Our steward made a request and not long after, someone from engineering came to adjust the vents and change the filter. This seemed to help quite well.
I would estimate that about 80% of the passengers were classified as geriatric. If you did an inventory of the cabins housing the 2,000 passengers, I reckon there would have been 300 wheelchairs, 500 walkers, 600 sticks and 10 portable ventilators! While this isn't an issue, the passengers we befriended (the 18 -- 60 year olds) of which there was only about 20 of us, didn't seem to be catered for very well. The teens and kids had their club activities so we didn't often see them but it seems that Princess catered predominantly for the elderly passengers. For example, every night in the atrium the same poor guy playing piano and singing (I bet he wished he was dead) had to sing the same music-hall and WWII era songs while the oldies sat around singing and tapping along, taking up all the atrium seating including coffee shops and bars. When this wasn't taking place, the public areas and atrium were like libraries, they weren't buying drinks, just sitting reading and 'shooshing' anyone making any noise. Many seemed very grumpy and impatient and seemed pissed off if an able bodied person happened to be in a lift! P&O seem to have more 'all ages' entertainment like laser shows and circus performers. Another issue was that the teens were allocated the Shooting Stars disco until about 10 pm most nights and then there was often karaoke. So it wouldn't be until 11 pm or so before our lot could have a good time in the disco. So by the time they wrapped it up at 2 am, everyone's keen to keep enjoying themselves but needs to be awake for another port day in 4 -- 5 hours time.
I only really dealt with our waiters and our steward. I very rarely spoke to concierge desk staff. Generally, they were helpful and polite although some of the eastern European staff had difficulty understanding Australian English. Everyone else had no problem. What I didn't like was that during the first few hours after we boarded in Brisbane, we were approached and pestered at least 5 or 6 times by waiting staff to hassle us into buying drink cards (e.g. unlimited soft drinks for $6.95 per day). Perhaps they get good commissions from these sales to make up for the pittance they are actually paid. Our room steward was very helpful and polite. He seemed to clean it quite well although the bathroom could have been done a little better. We always had a fresh bucket of ice left in the fridge to put into our water bottles and it was always pleasant to return to the cabin in the evening after the sheets had been turned down and a couple of chocolates on the pillow. Both our waiters were very welcoming, helpful and polite. Our main waiter was very entertaining, funny and cheeky, remembered our names etc. Our junior waiter was quite shy but eventually felt more confident to talk openly with us as the cruise went on.
AUCKLAND (18th December 2011)
This was the only rainy day we experienced on the whole cruise and our day in Auckland was a great experience. The ship berths adjacent to the CBD and it's only two or three blocks walk into the main shopping strip in Queen Street. After a few hours looking around the shops we walked up to Sky Tower to get a good look at the city. We decided to do the high tea for NZ$30 each which included admission up the tower. The tower entry is about NZ$25 so the high tea package in the revolving restaurant was good value. We had to wait for about an hour for a table as we hadn't booked but they had decent free Wi-Fi and we amused ourselves in the shop on the lower level which had plenty of motion picture artifacts from Lord of the Rings and Avatar etc. The lifts up the tower to the restaurant (187m from memory) only take about 18 seconds. The view was amazing and although it was still raining we could see to the horizon. We were served our drinks but for some reason, our food wasn't served but all the tables that were seated after us were munching away. After about 40 minutes I politely complained and about 10 minutes later the cakes and sandwiched appeared, beautifully presented and delicious. The manager very kindly discounted the fee to only NZ$15 (AU$11.50 approx) each for the trouble. We then went down one floor to the observation deck with the glass floors to take some more pictures then headed back to the ship, a casual 10 minute walk. We had a quick look in The Ice Bar on the wharf but decided not to go in as it wasn't cheap for 4 of us and we weren't too sure about the ship's departure time. P&O are really clear about 'last person aboard' times, but nobody on Sun Princess even mentioned it when we disembarked earlier in the day. Auckland has a magnificent harbor, not too different to Sydney but more spread out. I went for an hour long jog around deck 7 during departure so I got a really good look at the harbor.
TAURANGA (19th December 2011)
Although the port is called Tauranga, the ship berths in the suburb of Mt. Maunganui, well away from the container port and about 4 kms from the heart of Tauranga. The options for transport into Tauranga were bus, tour or taxi but many opted to wander around Mt Maunganui, a pretty place with nice beaches, hills to climb, harbor and esplanades. A few reviews suggested renting a car to go to Rotorua to look at the thermal areas. The iSite tourist information place was right on the wharf. A representative from a car hire company was in the iSite. The smallest car they had left (as we disembarked late) was a Ford Mondeo wagon for NZ$145 (approx AU$111.50) for the day. The cheapest tiny car they offered was NZ$125, so I thought the price was fair. Their shuttle bus took us around the corner to their office to sign the paperwork and they gave us maps and brochures etc. The drive to Rotorua was well signed and took just over one hour. We were told to go to Kuirau Park on the north-western side of the town where there were plenty of thermal pools to look at free of charge. Unbeknown to us, we started at the southern end of the park where the crappier, more dormant thermals were. It's best to start at the northern end where there's more activity. Nice park, lots to look at. We drove back to Tauranga for a quick drive around the waterfront area and then topped up the car. I was very surprised that it took almost 39 bucks worth of fuel when we'd only driven about 140 kms in a small 4 cylinder. Then again, the price per litre was about NZ$2.06 so to fill the car equated to around AU$30. After returning the car, we took a quick climb up the mount at Maunganui, it took about half an hour, great views and photo opportunities, lots of steps ... not for the unfit. From the base of the mount it's only a 10 -- 15 minute walk back to the ship along the harbor beach. Like we do on the Gold Coast, there were plenty of locals taking SUPs (Stand-Up Paddle boards) out for a paddle here.
NAPIER (20th December 2011)
The place was flattened by a major quake in 1931 and rebuilt predominantly in art deco style. However, the main street we walked down was not unlike Jetty Road in the Adelaide beachside suburb of Glenelg, plenty of art deco there too. So it wasn't much of an eye-opener. The ship arrived at around 12:30 pm which meant that it was only in port for 5 or 6 hours. This was a welcome relief as we had a chance for a good sleep-in! Probably due to port security and for safety, free buses transport passengers from the ship to the esplanade (about 5 minutes) in the centre of Napier, just outside another iSite. The bus driver provided a running commentary about the history along the way. We didn't want to waste much money on tours etc so like most people we just wandered down the main street, looked at plenty of shops and strolled around a few more streets. We also called into the Woolworths supermarket (called Countdown in NZ) for a few items and made our way back to where the buses pick-up at the iSite a couple of hours later. It's a pretty town and some of the locals are dressed in 1930's clothing, there's a few vintage cars driving about the place and the odd Dixieland jazz band playing in the street to entertain the tourists. I guess these are operated by local volunteers, the chamber of commerce or tourism groups. I was very impressed with the NZ attitude towards tourism, they do it really well, plenty of information is available and everyone's (iSite staff, bus/cab drivers, retail staff etc) very friendly and helpful. Back on the wharf, several vintage cars were lined up complete with more people in period clothes, another band and a local ice cream company's caravan. It was like a scene from Boardwalk Empire!
WELLINGTON (21st December 2011)
Wow, a beautiful city. I can see why it's often compared to San Francisco or Vancouver. The large harbor is surrounded by hills and mountains covered by leafy suburbs. It appears that every house would have incredible views! It's easy to imagine being there in winter with a dusting of snow on the distant peaks. The ship docked adjacent to Westpac Stadium, only a km or two from the CBD. I believe that some people walked into town, it didn't look far but it may have been an indirect route getting in and out of port security. The bus fare into town was NZ$5 each way per person, so it would have cost us NZ$40 (AU$31 approx). We opted for a cab which ended up being about NZ$16 in and NZ$18 back (about AU$26) without the waiting. Two representatives from the local cab company were at the wharf, the called it for us and were very friendly and helpful with ideas on what to do. I'd read a few cruise reviews about catching the cable-car up to the lookout and then walking back down through he botanical gardens, which we did. The cab dropped us right outside the cable-car terminal (sort of in the foyer of an office block/arcade) in Lambton Quay. The fair was only NZ$3.50 each for the 5 minute ride up the hill. At the top we took a few photos of the view of this glorious city, had a quick look around the cable-car museum (free) and then decided to walk back into the CBD though the gardens. A guide from the botanical gardens was handing out maps and giving directions. The pathway down was quite steep but very picturesque. The gardens are superb, very European in the design and species. There were plenty of vantage points again for more pictures as we made our way down to the Lady Norwood Rose Garden. We had plenty of fun here as the fountain is full of crazy ducks, ducklings and pigeons! More photo/video opps! It was interesting to see an historic cemetery overlooking the CBD in the gardens. We crossed over the freeway and back into the CBD to the beehive (Parliament House) where we caught a cab back to the wharf (a few sore knees in our group)! The weather was beautiful again, sunny and cool with a slight breeze. I spent an hour or so on the top deck for a nap in the sunshine and cool breeze. It's also a very pleasant and picturesque sail-away from Wellington and out into Cook Strait. I couldn't recall how wide the Strait was so it was interesting to see the South Island in the distance as we left the harbor mouth.
AKAROA (22nd December 2011)
This was the only tender port during this cruise. I read that the Cruise Council decided to not use Lyttleton for the remainder of 2011 following the Christchurch earthquake in February and Akaroa was the close-by alternative. The decision was apparently due to the priority of cargo ships and incomplete reconstruction of the cruise ship terminal. The tender process was via a ticketing system but it was followed by a long wait (approx 45 minutes) in one of the dining rooms. P&O do this much more efficiently on Pacific Dawn. The tender ride was only about 10 minutes to the wharf. A few people were offering sailing tours of Akaroa harbor and swimming with dolphin trips etc. Akaroa is a very pretty place, the huge caldera providing a safe and picturesque haven for boats. I hope it's extinct! We wandered around this compact village, checking out the coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops. We had lunch at a place resembling an Alaskan Whorehouse from the gold rush, very nice fish and chips. Although, I asked for some water and the waitress replied "Sparkling or Still". I said 'Still' but perhaps I should have said 'Tap water' as she eventually poured our water from a nice looking bottle that ended up having a $12 price tag ... ripped off! We walked along the shore to the little lighthouse, taking some more shots along the way. To go inside and climb up the two flights was just NZ$2 and the chap gave us a 5 minute history of it. The balcony around the top was a good vantage point to take some more footage and pictures of this beautiful harbor on an equally beautiful day. There was a 20 minute wait on the wharf in the warm sun to board the next available tender. Sailing out of Akaroa harbor (like most harbors in NZ) featured beautiful scenery and from the front deck we could see a few dolphins playing in the wake.
DUNEDIN (23rd December 2011)
The ship berths about 10 kms north of the city at Port Chalmers. Apart from it being a significant container port, the town and surrounding hills are ..... once again, very pretty (notice a trend!). You could easily just walk around Port Chalmers and up some hills to vantage points but like most people, we used the buses into Dunedin which were only NZ$10 each return. The trip into the CBD takes about 15 minutes along the pretty estuary, lots of green rolling hills, fir and poplar trees etc. After a quick lap of a few block the bus drops passengers in the heart of the CBD in the Octagon (square). They clearly advised that the last bus leaves from the same point at 5:00 pm. We saw a sign showing directions to the iSite but when I couldn't find it I asked a police officer who politely told me where to go! We grabbed a free map at the iSite shop (they love giving away free maps) and walked around the corner to Cadbury World. We spoke to some people we knew from the cruise who were leaving CW after doing one of the tours. They said it wasn't anything spectacular, especially if you've seen a chocolate factory before. So we went inside the shop, bought some stuff (it was actually very cheap) and then wandered around the displays detailing the history of the factory, the chocolate making process and watched all the animated puppets etc. Perhaps this is what you get with the short tour and we simply walked right in! Anyhow, another fine moment was actually eating a Moro bar (not easy to find in Australia, but my favorite) in the actual factory. We then wandered around the corner down to the train station, very impressive with the historic Celtic architecture. Had a quick look around the inside of the train station, very ornate with plenty of stained glass etc but not quite the size grand central! Then we wandered back to the octagon and had a quick look at the markets. There was an amazing soap stall, all the soaps looked and smelled like real cakes! We walked up George Street to find a decent NZ quality rain jacket. In one of the stores we heard on the radio that Christchurch had just had another quake measuring 5.8, a bit scary as we were about 30 kms away from it yesterday. Hurried back to the Octagon (we weren't spooked!) to get the bus back to Port Chalmers. Even the security guy who gets on the bus at the port to check IDs and passports etc was having a laugh with the passengers, they all seem very chilled out and chatty in NZ. A highland band was on the wharf to pipe the Sun Princess away. Departure up the estuary out to see was very serene and magical, cars sounding their horns and people waving from the coast roads as the ship went past, people on beaches waving and shouting 'Merry Christmas'!
DUSKY SOUND (24th December 2011)
I was really looking forward to the scenic cruising in Fjordland National Park. It was overcast with very light rain as the ship slowly entered Dusky Sound at about 9:30 am, quite cold ... especially for summer. I thought it was quite impressive (not having seen Milford Sound yet), clouds clinging to the higher peaks, very mystical and still. Several pods of dolphins showed themselves again. The ship turned seaward out through Breaksea Sound and headed north along the west coast. We would arrive in Milford Sound at about 3:30 pm. On the way up there, I saw three seals leaping out of the water just of our port side, then the first site of snow on the trip, in the distance at the end of the fjord as we passed Doubtful Sound.
MILFORD SOUND (24th December 2011)
The ship slowed to about 2 knots as it quietly entered Milford Sound's still waters. The mountains either side were massive and quite close. By now the sun was shining and the water looked a deep blue colour. At the end of the fjord in front of us, plenty of snow was visible on the peak (Mt McPherson I think). Plenty of smaller tour boats from the town were sailing past, dwarfed by the mountains rising from the sound. As we slowly headed inland towards Mitre Peak lodge in the town, a few waterfalls came into view. These were huge and quite spectacular. By this stage, on the northern side of the fjord we could see up a valley to the snow capped Mt Pembroke which apparently has a permanent snow-cap/glacier. About an hour after entering, not far ashore from the town and adjacent to the inland wall of Mitre Peak, the ship slowly turned around to head back out to the Tasman. Then the wind picked up to a gale but the weather was still fine. Some areas along the handrail of the front deck became vacant so we got a good vantage point at the snowy peaks and waterfalls on the way out, needless to say ... I filled up the camera's memory very quickly. Even after we left Milford Sound, a few nautical miles out to see the mountains looked amazing, plenty more snow caps visible and long white clouds clinging on.
Great cruise, great destination and a great ship. I would definitely cruise with Princess again.