I need to preface this by saying that this was our third cruise on Celebrity's Century and our second in a space of four months. We had last been aboard with our best buddies Bob and Judy in Alaska in September 2011. You can read that review at http://web.mac.com/jimbellomo/Alaska_2011/Welcome.html . So we were very familiar with the ship and her crew. We have another cruise booked on her for November 2012 so you can tell we like her.
Actually what we truly like is her crew. We have never met such a wonderful, energetic, hard-working group of people anywhere. And those who had been on when we were in Alaska welcomed us back with open arms.
A quick report on Century's condition. If you are not familiar with Celebrity Cruise Lines, Century is their oldest ship. She is also their smallest. She carries only 1850 passengers and that's just perfect as far as we are concerned. In fact, if she carried less, we might like it more. But she is a good size for us.
She is old though and it shows in a few places. Nothing I said in my Alaska review had changed other than the location where we boarded her. She stills needs some minor repairs in the Rendezvous Lounge and some windows replaced in Reflections but other than that, she is a clean and well taken care of ship.
Our cabin was a Concierge cabin, 9215. It was just behind the aft elevator bank on the 9th deck. We love this deck as it is two floors below the buffet/spa/gym and two floors above the Martini Bar/Michael's Club/Theater. Since I try never to use an elevator on a ship, this is perfect for me. Century cabins are not huge but this one is well-apportioned and has great storage. The bathroom is typical and it was great to get here after living out of a suitcase for three days and unpack for the duration. The beds are adequate. Even though we have been aboard before, I found the shortness of the bed to be a distraction this time. Not sure why. We always order an egg crate mattress pad for Kathleen due to her hip and even though our travel agent (not our regular one) had forgotten to request it, Edy (see below) had it on the bed by the time we turned in.
Our cabin attendant was named Edy (that's him in the pic with Kathleen) and we can honestly say he was the best we have ever had after all our cruises. Not only did he make us amazing towel animals, he was always available to say hello, to ask if we needed anything or just to open our door for us if he saw us coming, carrying something. It was the perfect level of service. He didn't overpower us with service but he was there when we needed him. And he was truly an artist when it came to the cruising tradition of towel animals. We have had those left on our bed before but he went above and beyond. So much so that I devoted an entire page of our photo albums to his. You can see them by clicking here.
Embarkation was smooth. We took a taxi to the pier, dropped our luggage at around 11:30 am. We were only in line to clear Customs and get our sea pass card for under 30 minutes and had we noticed there was a separate line for Elite guests (those of us with more than a certain number of Celebrity cruises) we would have been on even faster. Once aboard, we went to the Sunset Bar on deck 11 aft and had lunch from the buffet. Century still has trays in her buffet which I greatly appreciate. I don't like making multiple trips to get food, drinks, etc. so I love my trays.
By 1:00 pm they had released the cabins (which amazed us since when we arrived there were still people disembarking) and we went down to drop our carry ons. We also found our dining assignment (main seating) and went to check out the location of our table. Darned good thing we did. Our (NOW EX) travel agent had put us at a table for two even though we had clearly requested a table for at least six if not eight. Thankfully we were able to find the maitre'd and get changed to a much better located table for six. It really wasn't that hard to do as so many people want tables for two. Our feeling is that we eat dinner every night by ourselves most of the year and when we vacation, we love to meet people. This gives us a chance to meet more. But this was the last straw with our current travel agent. He is now gone! (I should explain that our long-time TA had switched agencies after we booked this cruise with her and could not take the cruise with her. The guy who replaced her promised he would take care of us to the same wonderful extent that she had but no dice. He fell down on too many fronts. Thankfully our next cruise is back with her.)
After getting the dining snafu straightened out we walked around the ship looking for others from our Cruise Critic group and crew members we knew from earlier cruises. After doing this for a short time we stopped by the room again to find that our luggage had been delivered so it was time to unpack. Did I mention this was the smoothest embarkation ever?
Food was excellent. If you cruise you know that much of cruising is about the food. Just to set the stage, Kathleen and I ate most of our breakfasts in the Aqua Spa Cafe, our lunches (when on the ship) in the buffet and all but one dinner (when we got back to the ship too late) in the main dining room. Century has the original Murano alternative restaurant but we had eaten there many times before on previous cruises so we decided to skip it this time. And we don't do room service so we can't give you a report on that either.
All that said we were very pleased with the food on this trip. As I mentioned we made our way forward to the Aqua Spa Cafe that is located right outside the spa on deck 11. They serve "healthier" cuisine for breakfast and lunch. We stuck with our normal breakfast food of yogurt and granola and a banana for Kathleen. Always there and always good. After eating in the Spa cafe we would head down to the Reflections Lounge for a speciality coffee drink in the Elite reception. We are glad that we had this reception as it saved us a bunch of money on coffee drinks. Of course X does provide free coffee but it is the one place where they fall down. Their coffee is and has always been BAD!
Lunch in the buffet/grille was also just fine. I ate a lot of pizza, roasted veggies, burgers and sandwiches. Stuff I rarely eat at home. All were good. No complaints.
Dinner in the dining room was also good (not great, just good) with the usual cruise fare. Got my yearly quota of escargot, shrimp cocktail and all the other normal cruise stuff. We wound up with a table for six with four Aussies who were great fun. It seemed as if two of us were always gone each evening. Helen and Andrew and Katherine and Fred (who we called "the Captain" as he closely resembled the captain of the Titanic in the movie--that's him in the pic so you can judge) did Murano multiple times and we missed dinner one night when we got back late from Napier and another when we were asked to sit at the Captain's Table. That's always fun. You can see everyone else's pics in the Century People photo album. I should also mention for the benefit of fellow cruisers that there were three formal nights on this cruise, the nights we were in Tauranga, Dunedin and the second sea day between NZ and Australia. I took my suit and not my tux and there were about 10% of the men in tuxes so I felt right at home. We actually saw someone turned away from the dining room on formal night who tried to dine in just khakis and an izod-style shirt.
Service was outstanding! That's why we cruise with Celebrity. The service. And so far we have NEVER been disappointed by Century. Every member of the crew that we had contact with treated us famously and took excellent care of us. I want to make a special point to send a huge thank you to our incredible cabin attendant Edy, our waiter Edwin, his assistant Ruth, the best assistant maitre'd ever Jayson who we had made friends with on our previous trip on Century (that's the three of us at left). We also were thrilled to find Korina Murphy still at her post as Captain's Club hostess. Korina took such great care of us even though she had a huge group of Elites on board, she made us feel very special. Jayne in the Martini Bar became our special friend as we seemed to wind up there every night.
How about some miscellaneous notes. Just things we want to mention. I hit the gym every morning at 6:00. Two things need to be improved. One is that they need to set an opening time and stick to it for everyone. The posted time was 6:00 am but many times I would have to wait until 6:10 or 6:15. And then when they finally opened and the group waiting patiently outside got in, we found that there were people inside who had somehow snuck in. Secondly, I used to use the treadmills but my knees can't take that anymore so now I ride a stationary bike for an hour a day. But the gym on Century had two bikes when I was onboard in September but one was always broken. On the first sea day I went to the gym only to find one bike---THE BROKEN ONE! WHAT??? Fix it or buy new ones.
We wish we could give you a review on the onboard entertainment but we only went to one show, a comic-magic show that was "cute." We only went because our buddy Jacqui had wound up on stage at the first show and told us we had to go to the later show. We skipped the rest of the shows. They had a pianist, the aforementioned magician, a juggler, a Rod Stewart impersonator that everyone complained was "horrible" and three full stage shows that we had seen on previous cruises so we did what we do best in the evening on cruise ships: socialized with friends.
Disembarkation was maybe our easiest ever. We had put our big luggage out the night before and after I had risen early to take pictures as we entered Sydney harbor, we ate breakfast in the buffet, got our carry-ons and headed to the Elite disembarkation lounge (Murano restaurant), said goodbye to Korina, got off the ship and were in a taxi on the way to our hotel by 8:15. We heard later that people who did not get off until after 8:45 ended up waiting hours for a taxi. We left our luggage at our hotel, walked to the nearby train station, boarded the HoHo bus and did about half of one route, got off near the ship again and there was still a very long line waiting for cabs. This was well after 10:00 am. A word to the wise...get off early!
All in all it was a marvelous cruise. To us the best part was the service we received, the ports we visited and the friends we made. We have met so many wonderful people cruising and most of them through the Cruise Critic website on the roll call for this cruise. If you ever cruise, head to Cruise Critic and check for a roll call for your cruise. The people we met there are wonderful. We also met some great people during the Elite breakfast and cocktails each day. As I mentioned earlier, we are booked on Century this coming November and we can't wait to get back aboard and head for Hawaii.
I have decided to include our pre-cruise stay in Auckland and our post-cruise stay in Sydney as ports of call.
Our embarkation port for our cruise was Auckland, New Zealand and we had decided to fly in two and a half days early so we could explore a little before we embarked on our cruise. We are glad we did. There is no way we were going to fly all that way and not spend a little pre-cruise and post-cruise time.
Auckland International Airport is one of the easiest airports we have ever been in as far as arriving in a foreign country. It's a small airport and getting off you are greeted by what have to be the friendliest customs agents in the world; making jokes and efficiently getting us through with a minimum of hassle. I can say that from landing to customs to baggage pickup to ATM to just outside the door and boarding a shuttle to our hotel was less than an hour. And to our hotel, less than 90 minutes total for all of it. Amazing.
We can suggest that to get into the city, you do as we did and take the shuttle. It's much cheaper than a cab and they store your luggage on trailer pulled behind the shuttle which is a great idea. Makes it so much easier for them to get your bags when they get to your hotel. Cost was less than $40NZ for both of us together.
Our hotel was the Celestion Waldorf Apartment Hotel, located within walking distance of downtown and the port but just off the beaten track enough to cut down on any noise that sometimes comes with either of those. When we arrived it was way before check in but they had a room ready for us and it was a very nice room. The name says "Apartment Hotel" and they are serious. It was a complete efficiency apartment with a bedroom, bathroom, spare room with a couch (that we used to dump our luggage in) living room and kitchenette. The service was good, the room was clean and if we had any complaints or a warning there would be two. One, we were on the 12th floor and hadthe worst water pressure ever. It just piddled out. I should add that other fellow cruisers who were staying in the same hotel but on a lower floor had great water pressure. Secondly, be careful if you stay there. There is tile in the bathroom and the kitchen area (as well there should be) and the rest of the room is carpeted. But there is steel moulding that runs around in between them. Whatever you do, don't step on either of these in bare feet. YIKES! That hurts bad.
As soon as we got settled into the hotel, I had to go to a camera store to purchase a new lens. On the final minutes of our flight I wanted to take pics of the New Zealand coast as we were landing. As I was taking my 18-200 Nikon lens out of its case, the lens hood snagged on the inside of the case and, without much effort, it broke off the front part of the lens making it fairly unusable. Since this was my main lens I was going to shoot three weeks worth of photos with, this was a catastrophe for a photo nut like me.
So that meant I needed to get to a camera shop to either get that lens repaired or replaced. I found two excellent shops within walking distance of the hotel and left Kathleen to get settled and set out on foot. To make a long story short, both told me it was a fairly easy repair but had to be sent to Nikon to do it and would take 2-3 weeks. So that meant buying a new lens. Neither store had my current Nikon. Both were back ordered on it for months due to the floods in Thailand where the Nikon factory is located so that meant buying a different lens. Normally I would spend weeks researching before I bought a new lens. But one of the stores was WONDERFUL. I soon found out that was just the way people were in New Zealand. He sat me down at his computer, told me to go to any photo review site I wanted to and read reviews on the Tamron 18-270mm zoom that was the nearest to my 18-200 Nikon that he had. All the reviews were great so I bought the lens. Thankfully it was less expensive than a replacement Nikon would have been and to top it off, I like it better. My first thought had been to repair the Nikon lens when I got home and then sell the Tamron on E-Bay or Craig's List. But now I have decided to repair the Nikon and sell it. All pics taken for this trip were taken with the Tamron unless specifically noted. The only other cameras we had were Kathleen's point and shoot and our iPhones.
Once I had the new lens I was headed back to the hotel and Kathleen joined me and we headed back downtown. We decided to go to the Skytower (Auckland's highest landmark) so I could take pictures from the top. What a HUGE disappointment. Once we paid for a full pass to all levels and went up the elevator we found that there was no place you could go to take photos without taking them through the glass that made up the sides of the tower. And that glass was dirty. In contrast, the Space Needle has a deck where you can take open air pics. The least they could do is clean the glass. I got pics, but nothing I really liked. The Skytower is also in a kind of seedy part of town.
After descending from the tower, it was almost dinner time so we headed down the hill to the waterfront area to find someplace to eat. We had been eating fairly fancy food on Cathay so we decided to go for a burger. We settled on a very unmemorable restaurant with a view of the yachting museum and Kathleen had a burger and a beer which she liked and I had a burger and margarita which was the worst margarita I had consumed in years. It tasted like it was made from a mix. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant but it was so bad, I can't.
We were exhausted from the trip so after dinner we headed back to the hotel where we both slept 10 solid hours and needed it.
The next day we had decided to take the Auckland Explorer Hop-on/Hop-off bus (HoHo) around Auckland and after a Starbucks breakfast we were at the first stop (The Ferry Building) in time to take the first bus. The tour is a good one and if you start with the blue tour, you will cross with the red tour at the Auckland Museum. We rode without getting off (nothing really interested us) to the Museum and switched busses there to the red tour that went through Auckland's outlying suburbs. Except for seeing the stadium where the All Blacks's play rugby (New Zealand is rugby CRAZY!) this part of the tour was fairly uninteresting as well. When we finally rejoined the blue tour back at the museum, the 2nd stop was our favorite part of Auckland, the suburb of Parnell. Parnell bills itself as "Auckland's Creative Quarter" and it is a wonderful and quaint area of shops and bistros that we truly enjoyed walking through and spending money in. We can highly recommend the one shop we found quite by accident (as it is off the main street) named The Elephant House. It had an amazing selection of native crafts, great souvenirs and the Kiwis who ran it were hilarious and fun. It was a great shopping experience. After that it was time for lunch. Parnell is filled with great places and we settled on a tiny Italian place called La Bocca. They had some lunch specials that looked great (one with grilled calamari for me) and a superb selection of New Zealand wines. Again, this is another place we can recommend highly for lunch. We really wished we had found Parnell and been able to go there the previous night for dinner as there were so many excellent restaurants we would have liked to have tried that would have been better than the touristy stuff near the waterfront.
After lunch we jumped back on the HoHo bus and finished the blue tour winding up in the Wynward Quarter. From there (after stopping for water and gelato due to the temps in the warming sun) we walked back through the Viaduct Harbour, across the waterfront and back to our hotel. The photo at the top of the page was taken in the Wynward Quarter on some enormous chaise lounges they have installed. Suffice it to say, Kathleen needed the rest here. It had already been a long day...and we had evening activities planned.
We had plans for the evening so we needed to shower and get ready to go to dinner with 8 new friends we had met through our Cruise Critic thread. Many of them we would be doing shore excursions with later on the cruise. We had made plans on line to meet at a nice (but touristy) restaurant in Viaduct Harbor. The dinner was fun (the food was just "alright" for the price) and it was great to meet these folks we had been corresponding with for so long. After dinner, it was a cab back to the hotel so we could pack in preparation for our embarkation on Celebrity's Century the next morning.
The next morning I was up way before Kathleen so I took my camera and headed to the waterfront to give my personal welcome to Century, one of our favorite ships. I was amazed at how close I could get to take pictures considering how protective we are in Seattle. I could almost walk up to Century's bow and touch her.
To sum up our visit to Auckland I would have to say that we just weren't that impressed. In New Zealand we liked Wellington better. It's much more enjoyable to visit. Maybe if we had gone out to some of the outlying islands we would have liked it better as some of our fellow cruisers did. But those sounded like they were pretty much wine tours like we were going to do in Napier so we passed. But as it was, the area covered by the HoHo bus and that was within walking distance of our hotel, was very touristy with jacked-up pricing and tacky, touristy shopping. If we return to New Zealand (and Kathleen says we must) then Auckland will just be our point of entry as there was so much more we LOVED about this incredible country.
I should also say that in retrospect, we did visit Auckland first and finished this trip with a visit to Sydney, Australia which would make most other cities pale in comparison. My advice to you would be to go there, spend lots of time in Parnell and make your own comparisons.
Bay of Islands was supposed to be our first actual port of call but two things stopped that from happening. First, the Bay of Islands is a tender port. For you non-cruisers that means there is no pier for the ship to tie up to. The ship lowers two or three lifeboats which act as tenders to take the pax (passengers) to the port. And those "tenders" don't do well in rough seas. They are very safe for rescue or emergency operations but when it is an optional situation, a big storm can cancel a tender port. That's what happened to us. About 10:00 am on the first full day of the cruise, there was a general announcement that we would be having a sea day and proceeding directly to Tauranga, our second port of call. To be honest, looking out at the sea, we were glad they made that decision. It would not have been fun in the tenders. We had arranged a private tour with Mt. Classic tours but their policy is that if your ship can't get into a port, you get a full refund. So that's what happened. More about Mt. Classic when we get to Tauranga.
This is a good place to talk about how we prefer to do shore excursions. If at all possible we will not take ship based shore excursions if we can avoid them. It's not that X has bad excursions, it's just that when you go on a ship-based excursion, you are with at least 40+ people on a bus and you only go as fast as the slowest (or often rudest) person on the tour. We are prompt types and it drives us nuts when people who are with a group show up to everything 15 minutes late.
So we book our own and we try and book with friends. Sometimes this is easy because we are already traveling with friends but if not we make new friends we can tour with on the aforementioned Cruise Critic (CC). In the case of this trip we didn't know anyone before booking the cruise. But we met a bunch of like-minded travelers on CC.
On this trip we were kind of following the advice of my good friend, the "God" of shore excursions, Mike Preisman, who had sailed in these waters a few years back. Unfortunately he did not do all the ports we had done so we were on our own in a few places. And it had been a few years since he and Carol did the trip so some things had changed.
Our next stop was Tauranga. Mike's recommendation here was a really full, day-long tour with six other CC buddies. We booked a tour with Mt. Classic tours (the same company we also booked for Bay of Islands. When we got off the ship in a pouring rain (blowing sideways) we were met by Russell, a great part-time tour guide with Mt. Classic. Ian, Mt. Classic's owner also stopped by to make sure everything was as planned.
Our guide Russell was a school teacher when he isn't doing tours during his summer vacation. That's him on the left with Kathleen. He was OUTSTANDING! Probably the best guide we had on the entire trip. He was on time and we jumped into the very clean and well-equipped van and were off for our tour.
We started with a drive along the coast through Tauranga heading out to Kiwi 360, the home of all things kiwi (the fruit.) On the way Russell told us all about NZ and the Tauranga area. At Kiwi 360 we had a chance to sample lots of kiwi products (the fruit itself, liqueur, wine and so much more) as well as seeing kiwis growing on their vines. I had no clue that's how they grew. They were delicious. Of course we also took a few minutes to pick up the first of our suitcase full of souvenirs.
Once we had bought what we wanted and seen the kiwis in the wild, Russell herded us back in the van and we were off to Te Puia, New Zealand's premier Maori cultural center. Te Puia is a wonderful place. At one stop we were able to see a Maori cultural show, boiling mud pools, shooting geysers, steaming vents, and demonstrations of Maori carving and weaving. To find out more about Te Puia, click their grayed name to go to their website. We spent almost two hours at TePuia and to be honest I could have spent more. It is a truly amazing place.The Maori cultural show was outstanding and a lot of fun as some of the folks in our party got to get up on the stage and try out the Maori dancing. Check out the pictures of that part of the trip by clicking here to get to our Tauranga photo album (with descriptive captions).
We jumped back in the van and headed off to the Rotorua Museum located in the Rotorua Bath House in the Government Gardens. It was a beautiful building in a beautiful setting. We were inside and toured a great photo exhibit in the west wing for about 35 minutes before a fire alarm went off and the entire building had to evacuate. Including us! We waited outside (with everyone huddling under the awnings as it was raining pretty heavily) until the fire dept. arrived and cleared the building. But by the time we got back in all we had time to do was to retrieve our backpacks and head off for lunch.
Our lunch was at the wonderful Fat Dog Cafe in Rotorua. What a wonderful place for lunch. And since we were all starving to death (this is sarcasm---we are on a cruise) we welcomed the amazing lunch they served. We had reservations and a table for our group was booked and it's a good thing as there was a line for food and for tables. We were served the GREAT food quickly and chowed down.
After lunch we were off to the part of the tour I was most looking forward to, a jet boat trip on the Springloaded jet boats up the Kaituna River to a secluded canyon. We had done a jet boat trip on our Panama Canal cruise in a mangrove swamp in Acapulco. This one was BETTER! Not the boat ride, both of those were wonderful but this one had amazing scenery and didn't smell like the sulfur fumes in the mangrove swamp. We loved this trip. It's short and sweet and if you do it, do it last as you will get wet. If you have never done this and you are going here---DO IT! It's the best ride ever. Better than anything at Disneyland.
That was our planned day but due to Russell's outstanding herding of the group we had extra time before we had to get back to the ship so he took us on a very beautiful drive along the coast, past a Maori settlement, a gorgeous waterfall that we walked into and his favorite fishing hole. All the time regaling us with what life was like in New Zealand.
We arrived back at the ship in plenty of time and Russell wished us well and we were back onboard for our first formal night. Looking back on this trip, there is not much I would change. Russell was outstanding but I will note that Mt. Classic's pre- and post-cruise service left much to be desired. E-mails were not answered promptly, in one case not at all until I had to ask my friend Mike to get Ian to answer us. (Because Mike's travel website is so well read, he gets results others don't.) And after the cruise we had to wait three weeks before we were finally reimbursed for the cancelled Bay of Islands tour. In contrast, when our shortened Melbourne excursion caused a refund to be issued, it happened within 24 hours. That said, I would probably book with Mt. Classic again but you have to stay on top of them.
Next stop---Napier. We left Tauranga right on time and arrived in the port of Napier on time as well, 11:30 am, a very late arrival. This was the one port I had not booked the excursion for our group. Our new friend John Milton had. He did a great job putting together a city tour combined with a winery tour that would take us from noon until well after 6:00. This was fine since Century didn't leave until 8:00 pm. We were picked up promptly and were off to the short tour of the city. We had about 45 minutes in Napier which is a rebuilt city following a massive earthquake in the 1930s.
Since that was the era of art deco, Napier is an art deco city. Beautiful buildings and people dressed up in 30s outfits with 1930s era cars in perfect condition. And the weather was perfect! We loved it. But we didn't have enough time. We were in the world-famous Hawkes Bay wine region and we needed to get on the road to get to four wineries and three wine tastings. If I had my druthers today, I would skip the first winery we went to and I would have spent more time in the city but that's just hindsight. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we had a great time.
On to the capital of New Zealand, Wellington. In Wellington the ship docks almost downtown. We did not have a tour of any kind planned here because some members of our Cruise Critic group did something that no one has ever done on all our cruises...they invited us to their house.
Our cruise had a BUNCH of both Kiwis and Aussies on board. Some of the North American and European cruisers thought that was unusual but we got it. It was just the same as our four trips to Alaska. We just wanted to cruise and this was one that was nice and close. We were lucky enough that we had a family of three Wellington residents on board, The Astrocats (that's their Cruise Critic screen name, not their real names.) About a month before the cruise they asked all of us if we wanted to take a tour of Wellington with them and then come to afternoon tea at their home. Well we had heard that Kiwis were the most friendly people in the world, but having 24 people to your house that you haven't met yet, that's amazing. Most of us said "YES!"
So, Charlotte (Mrs. Astrocat) suggested that when we disembarked the ship we either walk or take the shuttle to Te Papa first and then meet them in front of the capitol building later in the day for our tour. So that's what we did. Te Papa is to New Zealand as the Smithsonian is to the US. It is their national museum. It tells the story of their land and their people and we think it is a MUST SEE. We could have stayed there most of the day but we did get to see some great exhibits both traditional and interactive. We took the Celebrity Shuttle bus with our new buddies Tim and Perry and had a great time. If you are a good walker and wanted to walk to Te Papa, you could probably do it in less than 45 minutes. Kathleen was pretty worn out from walking all day the two prior days, so we took the shuttle.
When it was time to head for the Astrocat's tour, we left the museum and walked along the waterfront (stopping for an ice cream cone) and saw all the waterfront activity. It is a beautiful waterfront. On the way we discovered that Wellington is a very walkable city. In hardly any time at all we were in front of the capitol building (known as the Beehive--you can see why in the photo) where we met Charlotte, Warwick and their son Daniel with the tour bus that would take us on our short tour around Wellington.
Off we went to the top of Victoria Peak Lookout which may arguably be the best view you can get of Wellington. There is also a cable car you can take (and we would have taken had we not been touring with the Astrocats) to the top of a peak opposite where we were. Even though it was raining lightly we all got out and hiked to the very top of the hill to take pics. At least all the photographers did. Got some great, if cloudy/foggy pics from the top.
After our tour, we arrived back at the beautiful home of the Astrocats. I won't say more to describe it but I think this was the first time in our many cruises we had been invited into someone's home. What a treat. Thanks so much to the Astrocats. You folks are the BEST! After we were done with tea and pavlovas (a traditional Down Under dessert---don't ask who invented it as Aussies and Kiwis both lay claim to it) and sausage rolls we headed back down the hill on the bus to the Astrocat's favorite viewpoint of the harbor. What a great view. Then we (about 12 of us with Daniel Astrocat) were dropped off at Old St. Paul's Cathedral an amazing church that was the original cathedral in Wellington. It is built completely of native woods and it is beautiful. When we walked in a young man who worked there was just leaving and he asked us if we would like to hear about the cathedral and we said a resounding "YES!" So he proceeded to give us about a 20 minute presentation that was very informative. Really made the visit for us.
After we were done at the church, Daniel led us down the hill on about a 15 minute walk back to the ship. We had to say we had a wonderful day in Wellington. We wish we had more time there and I think when we go back to NZ (I have been informed by Kathleen that we are) that we will spend a lot more time there. We liked it a lot better than Auckland. It may not be as big but it is much more interesting. Or maybe we just like it because we have friend there.
Amazing Akaroa! When we originally booked this cruise we weren't supposed to stop in Akaroa. We were supposed to go to Christchurch but of course the devastating earthquakes of 2011 meant that this was not going to happen. The port of Christchurch had pretty much been destroyed. So about five months before the cruise we got an e-mail from Celebrity stating that we would be switching that day from the docked port of Christchurch to the tender port of Akaroa. We were OK with that and fully understood that this was something that "had to happen." In hindsight, it was one of the best things that happened to us. We loved Akaroa. I think I loved it more than Kathleen but if I were moving to NZ, I would move to Akaroa.
We had decided since it was such a small town that we wouldn't book anything to do in advance other than possibly a tour of the harbor. Or the bay, or the crater, or the caldera...whatever it is. You see if you look at Akaroa on a map, you will see that it is a caldera of an old volcano that has a cut out of one side that gives it access to the ocean. And inside that huge caldera/bay/harbor is a wonderful body of water teeming with wildlife in it and around it. So we decided to take a boat tour of that bay. (From this point on I will call it a bay cruise because it means I have to type less letters.) There are a number of tour companies that do that. At first we attempted to book with Black Cat Tours but again, luck was on our side. They refused to answer our e-mails. I tried to get some kind of reservation confirmation from them for more than two weeks, but no luck. So we started looking for alternative tours and we found Akaroa Sea Ventures. And we are so glad we did. You see when we got to Akaroa we discovered that Black Cat Tours runs boats that hold more than 100 people and all the fun that entails. You get on in a line. You sit in one chair or seat the whole time. If you don't get on first, you get to sit in a bad seat with no chance to take decent pics, you get a canned tour lecture over their public address system.
What did we get with Akaroa Sea Ventures? A boat that held 12 of us. Fast, quick and able to go where ever they wanted. A guide who actually talked directly to us and would answer any question we had. Plus he took us places in that boat that the Black Cat boat couldn't get near because of their size and their speed. We were reminded of the wonderful experience we had with Harv and Marv doing whale watching in Juneau on an Alaskan cruise. Same size boat, same personal service (not as much fun as H & M but close). We went everyplace in that harbor. And here's the really great part. We did it for exactly what we would had paid Black Cat for their tour, ($60 NZ) what a bargain! We strongly recommend if you are going to Akaroa, skip the big tour boats and the ship's shore excursion tour and go with the fine folks of Akaroa Sea Ventures. To see the kind of things we saw, check out my pics in our Akaroa photo album.
I jumped ahead a little. First, it was a challenge to get off the ship. We were supposed to arrive to start tendering off at 10:00 am but when we anchored we were enveloped by fog. And the captain decided to wait to send tenders until the fog lifted. This caused some real problems and made it really worthwhile to be an Elite Captain's Club member. When you are Elite, one of the benefits is "priority tendering." That means you get to go on the first or second tender that leaves the ship, so at 10:45 when the fog finally lifted, we were on the second tender into the village. We wandered around and checked out the shops, Kathleen looked for jewelry, I shot pictures and then since we were planning on two successive tours in a row starting at noon, we decided to have an early lunch. Not that we were starving but we knew that by 5:00 pm when we returned to the ship we would be if we didn't have lunch. So we found a cafe that served me what I now believe is the best hamburger I have ever eaten. If you are in Akarao, go all the way to the end of the first part of the village, just past the fish and chips place there is a restaurant with a big outdoor eating area. Order the burger. You won't be sorry. I promise.
After lunch we sent a quick e-mail to our friends Gary and Jacqui (non-Elites) to see where in the village they were and tell them we would meet them after our noon tour of the bay. We got back an e-mail saying that we were now being "shunned" by all our non-Elite Cruise Critic friends because they were still ON BOARD! The tenders were running so slowly and had to go so far that they hadn't gotten off yet. We had been on shore for almost 90 minutes. We felt really bad...NOT!
At the point we just jumped on the Akaroa Sea Ventures boat and did the aforementioned tour. We saw some incredible sights including these hector dolphins that swam right up to the boat.It was GREAT! After the tour we had decided to join Gary and Jacqui (who had finally gotten off the ship) for a tour of a NZ sheep ranch to see sheep shearing and sheep herding by the Kiwi sheep dogs. We had heard from some Cruise Critic people who had done this in Napier that it was a great experience and we wanted to try it. We love dogs so that part would be wonderful.
In Napier they had gone to a really big sheep farm that was pretty much set up as a tourist ranch that really did the "tour thing." We on the other hand wound up at a family-owned sheep ranch on a small tour with only eight other people. We were headed off on a visit to the Paua Bay Farm a more than 100-year-old sheep ranch in one of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. When we arrived we were warmly greeted by Murray, the owner and taken to the shearing shed. Murray told us his daughter-in-law usually did the shearing (in fact she was scheduled to compete in a competition the next day where she would shear 100 sheep) but she was at a funeral so he would be doing the honors himself. But first he told us the story of his ranch. Now normally this is the place where I would have fallen asleep but I love a good story and even more, I love a good story-teller. Murray is a MASTER! He tells you from his point of view how he and his wonderful wife Sue became the 5th generation of his family to own and run the farm and how he hopes that his son and daughter-in-law will one day take it over. The story is a great one. There are times when I even had a tear in my eye. If he had just told us the story and taken us back to the ship, that would have been enough for me. But once we knew how he and his family had gotten there he brought out a HUGE sheep and proceeded to shear her down to next to nothing. Amazing how fast that sheep was hairless.
And then for this dog lover it got even better as we went up the hill to the sheep pens with one of their many dogs. We kind of just assumed that their dogs would be Australian collie shepherds or border collies but we were surprised to learn they were a cross breed of border collie and greyhound that made them not only smart and quick but blazingly fast. Murray ran them up and down the hills and moved them from paddock to paddock just by whispering to the dog that he had brought with him. It was truly amazing to see. Then he wanted to show how they sort the sheep (shorn from unshorn, marked from unmarked) with a special chute so he talked Gary into being the sorter. This was hilarious for us to watch but pretty painful for the sheep. If PETA had been there, Gary would have been public enemy number 1 that day.
After the sorting and herding we headed back down to meet Murray's wife Sue and see their home as well. We were also invited for afternoon tea with wonderful scones and delicious jams. Their gardens are gorgeous (make sure to check out my Akaroa album) and their home was beautiful. Most of the buildings on the property (including the rebuilding of their house) had been done by Murray's best friend, Sue's father. It was he who chauffeured us to and from downtown Akaroa. We left Paua Bay Farm happy and full and headed back to the ship. We asked to be dropped off at the end of the village so we could walk through the entire town before we reboarded the ship. I still know that it is my favorite place in all of New Zealand.
We cannot recommend this tour enough. It was worth every penny we paid for it and you can find out all the details by going to their website at www.akaroafarmtours.com. Or just click that link and it will take you there.
The next morning found us tied up at the dock in foggy, rainy and wonderful despite of it Dunedin. We had booked a tour for 10 with Iconic Tours. When our buddies Mike and Carol did Down Under they had used a tour company in Dunedin called Arthur Tours. A couple of years back, Arthur retired and sold the company to Kim and Ann who changed the name to Iconic Tours. But Arthur still works with them sometimes and fully endorses them and so do we. Getting off the ship in the rain, most of the group waited under an awning while I ventured down and found both Kim and Ann (that's Ann with Kathleen) waiting near their vans. Kim was taking a larger group out that day and Ann would be our guide. She was wonderful and we were soon all in the van and driving off to see the sights of our last port in NZ.
Our first stop was the University of Otago (Otago is the region Dunedin is located in). There are some wonderful historic buildings to see while waited for other destinations to open. We had left the ship at 8:00 am so we had to wait until at least 9:00. These buildings are certainly worth seeing if you are up early with nothing else to see.
Then it was off to Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street. Check it out in Wikipedia. It really is. How people walk up and down it, I will never know. Ann drove us to the top and stopped so we could take pics from both ends of the street. I have to tell you that pictures can't do it justice. There is no way to show in photos or movies how steep it is. The best way to describe the steepness is to say the Kathleen saw a flower just about two feet down from the level spot at the top of hill and when I went to take a photo of it, I could not put even one foot downhill from the top without feeling a real sense that I was going to fall over and roll down the hill. It's that steep! And I later read that they actually have an annual race up and down this street every year. OMG! And once two people were arrested for sliding down it in a chilly bin. WHAT??? Not me.
After the ups and downs of Baldwin Street it was time to head downtown to see some quick sites. We had just realized that even though this wasn't our last day in NZ, it was our last day on land in NZ. So if we wanted any final souvenirs then we had to get them today. And we wanted two things that we have brought back from other countries, Starbucks coffee mugs. Starbucks does mugs around the world that you can only get in those countries so we asked Ann (and our friends) if they would mind if we stopped to pick up two mugs. Everyone welcomed the idea of another cup of coffee (especially when it wasn't Celebrity coffee) and Ann said we had the time so we stopped and grabbed our mugs and our java and were off to the Dunedin railway station.
The station is the second most photographed building in the southern hemisphere (I am assuming that the Sydney Opera House is the the most photographed building) and as soon as you see it you can see why. We stopped and spent about half an hour shooting it, inside and out. A truly beautiful building with lots of history. Then it was back in the car and we were off to Larnach Castle, our next stop in Dunedin.
Larnach Castle (which isn't really a castle but a private home) is truly impressive. When we arrived it was shrouded in fog but for this old building that was a very cool way to see it. The fog seemed to fit "New Zealand's only castle." We did the usual walk around outside to take pics and then toured the castle inside. Ann was obviously a frequent visitor as she knew all the stories and all the rooms. No photos are allowed inside but the stories are great and you can purchase pics and books that tell the whole story in their gift shop. If we went again, this would be on my list of things to see.
After touring the castle we stopped for late-morning tea at the castle's restaurant as we would not be able to do lunch at our next two stops and as it turned out we didn't do any other food until we got back to the ship that evening. But as well as we had been fed onboard, we really didn't notice it. The food was fine and the restaurant (which used to be part of the castle's cooking area) was beautiful.
After a quick bite we were back on the road to head to Penguin Place. Penguin Place is a private conservation reserve dedicated to helping penguins survive. There we piled out of the van and went into a classroom-like building where we met our Penguin Place guide, Tim. Tim told us a little about the yellow-eyed penguins (the predominate type they had there) that we would be seeing and then we jumped into one of their vans for a quick ride to the coast. Once out of the van it was a quick walk down to and towards the penguin habitat. On the way Tim told us to stop and sure enough, there was a yellow-eyed penguin right there by the side of the path. Tim told us to be very quiet while he moved toward it. It later turned out that this was a penguin that had been raised by humans and Tim was his personal favorite although he had us going there for a while.
Further down we came to a part of the trail that looked out onto some of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. And just below us, on the beach, was a big group of fur seals just posing for us photographers. We then moved to a seagull rookery that had a bunch of new babies just waiting for pictures as well. Then a short hike over to another wonderful view followed by another fur seal colony that was even closer which came right before our descent into the actual penguin nesting area.
To protect the nesting penguins you descend into covered trenches that wind their way through all of the nesting. We were able to see a few mother penguins and take their photos (close-up) without disturbing them at all. I will tell you that this was a wonderful experience but by that time, the sun had come out and the temps in these covered trenches was getting warm. Since we were all dressed for rain (the only day in NZ when I didn't wear shorts) by the time we got back to the top of the hill to the van, we were pretty much huffing and puffing and drenched with sweat. But it was definitely worth it. If I was going to Dunedin again and could only pick one thing to do, Penguin Place was it!
After leaving Penguin Place we headed further out on the peninsula to the Royal Albatross Centre. This is a one-of-a-kind place where the Northern Royal Albatrosses make their nesting homes. We were given a short lecture and then with our guide we headed up the hill to the observatory where we could see the albatrosses nesting. Unfortunately at the time we were there only one albatross could be seen from the observatory so it was kind of a short experience. The guide did her best to give us our money's worth and we learned a lot about the albatross (I had no idea how big they were) and if we went back I would love to be there on a day when we could have seen more of them.
When we finished up the tour and did a little shopping in the gift shop we jumped back in the van for our trip back into downtown Dunedin. Since we had done so well getting to and from each venue, Ann said we had time to see some more sites or shop in downtown which we did. Then it was back to the ship and on to the fjords.
As I mentioned, Dunedin was our last land stop in New Zealand but we still had one day left in NZ waters--the Sounds. During the night we would sail around the southern tip of NZ to the Fjordlands. We would sail into and out of three Sounds (Dusky, Doubtful and Milford) in that order. Actually Milford is a fjord. On this trip we found out that you can sail through a Sound and you can't sail through a fjord, you have to turn around and come back out. The one thing I can tell you about Sounds is that they remind me of the Alaskan Inside Passage, especially the first two Sounds. It took most of the day to clear the Sounds. We hit Dusky at 8:30 for an hour and a quarter, Doubtful at 10:45 for the same amount of time and we spent a lot more time in Milford as it is a much more interesting place with more wildlife and more waterfalls. We also had to meet a boat coming to us from the village of MIlford bringing some pax who had taken an overnight excursion from Dunedin.
In the first two sounds it was pretty much just cruising through some cloudy, foggy waters. It was nice but nothing special if you have been on a cruise ship in Alaska. But Milford was pretty impressive even to this jaded cruiser. Especially when the Captain decided to pretend that his ship was just a tiny excursion boat. You see, the entire time we had been in Milford we had seen a number of much smaller tour boats going nose into the biggest waterfall in the fjord. Putting the bow of their ship under the actual waterfall. Well, our brave captain decided to do the same thing. Seriously. He did an entire 360 degree turn using only his thrusters and then pretty much blocked the entire width of the fjord by putting Century's nose under the big waterfall. A one-of-kind experience. I should also point out that the very next day was the day that the Costa ship went aground in Italy and the ship was buzzing with the news. Everyone was talking about it and I had to remember that our captain had done something almost as crazy? Not really. As the fjord is VERY deep and there was never any real threat in doing what he did.
After picking up the folks from Milford we headed out for two sea days into the Tasman Sea. Within an hour of leaving the sound, we found out why the Tasman Sea is known for rough seas. We were rocking and rolling through some very rough water. So rough that it made us late getting into Melbourne three days later when a planned eight hour day turned into four. But more about that below.