I have become a collector of fjords. Been to Alaska, they're nice. Cruised through numerous narrow, snow-capped passageways in Chile, beautiful. And today? I add Milford, Dusky and Doubtful Sounds to my list of experiences (could Norway, the grand-papa of them all, be far behind?).
Fjords are valleys carved out by the tremendous pressure of glaciers. In this case we traveled around the southern tip of New Zealand and up the west coast to the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Park, home to the Fiordland National Park. You can spy these vistas by driving remote country roads from Queenstown ... but we're lucky in that we get to see it all from the water.
The day started out at a leisurely pace. This morning at about 8:30 a.m. we began at Dusky Sound, which was lush and tree-covered, reminding me more of Alaska than it did the glacial fjords of Chile. Pleasant, rounded mountains. Lovely, really. And then we were back out again, into the Pacific, chugging along northward to our second "scenic" passage. At lunchtime, as we approached the slightly more palatial Doubtful Sound, the ship's captain came on the squawk box and announced a medical emergency.
In this most remote place, where hillsides were scared by nary a house or roadway, I couldn't help feeling sympathetic for the ill passenger -- and a bit nervous. Why here, of all places, when before this we'd been in Dunedin and Christchurch, cities with excellent medical facilities? A passenger noted that, as we have two sea days tomorrow (crossing the Tasman Sea to Australia), this in fact was good luck as helicopters could reach us here but could not make the distance while we were at sea.
Indeed, the splendors of the fjord were forgotten as all the passengers rushed from their claimed seats in the Crow's Nest and their places at the open railing to Deck 6, where there was an observation deck. I couldn't believe how many folks hopped up to the deck railing (the area is enclosed by glass) -- it's a sign of how strong the railing is that it didn't collapse, cascading all to the ground in a heap!
Finally we heard the whirring of the approaching chopper (it should be noted that the captain did a marvelous job of keeping folks on the ship informed) and it set down on the ship's helipad. Most of us couldn't see the action but it was reported that the passenger, who'd had a heart attack, walked to the bird under his own power (and later, we did hear that he was safely ensconced in a Queenstown hospital). After that excitement, and feeling somewhat deflated, the crowd dispersed, most of them to the Lido buffet for lunch -- or the Rotterdam Dining Room.
On my part, eager to pay a visit to this ship's Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's alternative restaurant concept that focuses on cuisine and wine of America's northwest, I headed there for what I anticipated would be a long, luxurious lunch. Despite having made a reservation (which actually didn't appear necessary -- only three tables were occupied), I was greeted as if I were accompanied by the scourge of Norovirus: a cold "may I help you," a two-minute wait at the podium while the waiter checked his computer to see that I was acceptable, and not even a "sorry to keep you waiting" when he ultimately managed to find a trace of my existence. Once I was "in," so to speak, a waiter immediately appeared and insisted I order dessert as the kitchen would be closing at 1 p.m.
The experience did improve. The menu is different at lunch than at dinner; the beef tenderloin, which you could just about cut by fork, was laced with blue cheese and delicious. The "scalloped" potatoes, same ones you get at night, were bland and lukewarm. The dessert, a lush chocolate concoction recommended by the waiter, was, well, bland, lukewarm and stale.
And I never really got over feeling rushed. Frankly, if I'm going to hurry through a meal I'd just a soon limit myself to the buffet. This particular branch of Holland America's Pinnacle Grill has airs that it has not yet earned.
In the late afternoon we headed into Milford, the last of the day's three sounds. This, the most spectacular, consists of 4,000-ft. rock mountains. Waterfalls are omnipresent. The Mitre Peak, an unforgettable pyramid-shaped mount towering to some 5,560 ft., looms above the fiord.
The captain warned us that the 10-mile-long Milford Fiord gets so much rain that it has a 10- to 13-ft. layer of fresh water on top of its sea water. For aficionados of all life below, this is one of the qualities that makes this cathedral-like place so unique, with its own breeds of sponges, corals and fish.
It's been said that Captain Bos, who formerly commanded Holland America's Prinsendam, will sometimes bring the bow of the ship right under a waterfall and let it splash on the deck there. Alas, the good news was that our weather was so serene -- crystal clear skies, not a raindrop in sight -- that the waterfalls didn't actually do the Niagara act; they sidled down the rock mountains instead. The bad news? You actually see more dramatic exhibits of nature if indeed the torrential rains and wind do occur as they flesh out the waterfalls and add ambience to the rocks.
Well, we had the wind anyway. After carefully maneuvering the ship to block the wind from its starboard sign, the captain waited for a boat on shore to sidle up next to Statendam. Inside were passengers who'd opted to leave the ship at Dunedin and take an overnight excursion to Queenstown and on through the sound. The water was so rough that at least one of them was keeled over, head over the railing, in protest (no further details should be necessary).
We felt it too, even more so as Statendam, having boarded its remaining passengers, headed back out of the sound and into the Tasman Sea.
Image courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.