Australia New Zealand Trip Report
Well, the beginning of the cruise started with a bit of adventure and a fair amount of stress. Out journey would take us from Seattle (SEA) -> San Francisco (SFO) -> Sydney (SYD) -> Auckland. The foreshadowing for the initial adventure was exposed when I received a flight delay for the SFO-SYD flight by two hours shortly before we departed the red Carpet lounge in Seattle. OK, no problem so far, the Red Carpet lounge agent from United put us on a later flight for Air New Zealand (no boarding pass yet though). Just one note: Red Carpet lounge in Seattle no longer offers free cocktails, wine or beer. You must pay for these...not sure what the membership value is any more... free pretzels, apples and cheese though. OK, so SEA-SFO flight is uneventful and as soon as we land in SFO, I turn on my cell phone and get another flight notification that the flight to Sydney is delayed until 9 AM the next morning! 11 hours after the original time! Now what? We went directly to the international terminal in SFO for United. They had us taken care of - they had a room at the Sheraton and dinner vouchers ready and our flight to Auckland was pushed to a later connection. Still OK. Well, we get a good night's sleep and dinner - check back in the morning and wait for the flight. So far so good - we have a 2 hour connection time in Sydney...should be enough. Well...takeoff from SFO was delayed an hour...trying to find some bags of passengers who did not board...that will now put us with a < 1 hour connection in Sydney ... and our bags are NOT tagged for the correct flight. This is starting to look ugly. The business class service on United and food has not been bad though. The stewardesses did go into the cockpit and tried to call ahead to the United airlines folks in Sydney to see what they can find out. Not sure if this is going to help or not. Made it to Sydney and we made the flight to Auckland. Air New Zealand did not want to let us board since we were less than ½ hour before the flight...but we cajoled them since we had a cruise the next day and the succumbed to pressure and let us on. The flight was cramped, but the food was good and a free movie even in Economy. OK - we made it to Auckland! But...no bags. We filed our report and trucked off to the hotel. We took the airport shuttle service that goes to all hotels 24/7. $16 NZD per person - great bargain. We arrived at the Hilton, checked in swiftly and had a great room. Without a doubt - if you want to get on a cruise in Auckland, the Hilton makes it SUPER easy. Next day..still no bags. We called ANZ - still no luck - they have no idea. So we decided to do some emergency shopping just in case - found some nice shops in Auckland - super helpful retail staff. Bit WARNING Will Robinson - the prices are expensive here in NZ! After shopping, still no luck, but we found an ANZ retail outlet - we found out we could get $100 NZD per person emergency money. We were supposed to get receipts, but they were nice and offered to just pay us cash. Cool - we have more spending money. ?
Embarkation Eventually we were forced to board the ship - definitely follow the recommendations - if you board after 2:00, you will get on in 10 minutes - no kidding. If we try to board before 2:00, you will spend 1 - 1.5 hours in line. Our experience was great. Cabin Got on board - the mini suite cabin is spacious, very clean but definitely limited storage outside of the hanging closet. Everything was prepared - canapEs in the room. The champagne was not waiting, but we mentioned to our steward (Marlon) that we had hoped for it...and he asked if we would be disappointed with a whole bottle...ummm...No, that would be just fine thank you! The cabin steward has plenty of extra hangers - the closet is very spacious and you can hang everything despite the limited shelf space and drawers. On board So we checked in with the purser - made the mistake of picking a junior assistant purser and it took almost a full hour to file our missing bag report...uggh. But Princess was very helpful and they offered us toiletry kits as well as complimentary formal wear if we needed it. How nice. Fortunately, to make a long story short, our bags arrived the next day in Taraunga when we were in port and out on a tour. Whew - what a relief. They were waiting in our cabin as we returned from the day in Taraunga.
Yes, it is true - the average age of this cruise is 50. But there were more kids and younger couples than we expected. Overall, we did not notice the age difference and we met a lot of interesting people from all over the world. Interesting tip for foreign travelers on US based cruise ships - book with a US based travel agency...we found that Australians, etc. paid TWICE as much for their cabin adjusted for currency conversion as the US passengers did. I don't know how they afford these vacations at those prices! The cruising of the fjords was simply gorgeous. Apparently, they get 6 meters of rain a year and the fjords are full of breathtaking scenery and waterfalls. Quite an experience - very similar to the inside passage of Alaska. Tonight we received some mystery chocolate covered strawberries in our cabin - don't know why, but a nice treat! Speaking of treats - they have a great wine list on The Sapphire - a ton of great selections of wine below $30 a bottle. No need for a wine club - the prices are VERY reasonable - not even worth bringing wine on board and paying the corkage. Although they are very lenient about bringing liquor and wine in your carry on- it is not worth the corkage to bring your own. We had a bottle every night - Bordeaux for less than $25, how can you go wrong? In addition, we also found that the bar service staff were actually not pushy - they were generally helpful and not always pushing expensive drinks.
Watch out for the Tasmanian sea transit. It can be really rough. It was so rough; the Captain had to slow the ship down to 5 knots to avoid damaging the ship and the passengers. The older crowd had a hard time with all the rocking and rolling - but it made for great sleeping! Unfortunately, the stop in Tasmania (Hobart) was cancelled since we could make it in time. Somewhat disappointing, but the Captain definitely made the right decision. We spent a full 3 days at sea cruising from NZ to Melbourne since it was so rough, but we are going to be able to spend an extra night (Sat night) in Melbourne!
Casino The casino was open at night, but it did not stay open late. After midnight, we were one of the few people still awake at that time of night. So, whether we wanted to stay up late or not - it was hard since we were the only ones willing to stay up. The casino staff were very friendly and overall a lot of fun to interact with. We played craps most sea days after the shows and overall, we did fairly well for the cruise - broke even for the vacation which is a WIN in my book. Melbourne has a very large casino which has different rules and atmosphere from other casinos in the world. Worth going into. The odds are MUCH better - on all games from blackjack to craps. The Crown casino in Melbourne also has a night club/disco on the top which is also very popular - especially with the crew.
Shows The overall entertainment was decent. The variety of shows is good. I found the directing, choreography and creativity to be excellent. The singing was fair at best in my opinion though and the lighting was also poor. The production show of the spy movies was absolutely fantastic and extremely clever. The trick to shows is get there a half hour early - if you don't forget it...the seats are all taken. Some of the other entertainment and bands around the ship were fair. Don't come on the cruise if you are looking for Vegas quality entertainment - come for the ports and food. The Piano man was the best show and seemed to be the most popular - the costumes are amazing. The hypnotist was entertaining and the comedian was fair. If you want a good seat - get there at least a half hour early. If you want a seat at all, get there 20 minutes early. After that - you will have to catch a later/different show. They pack out.
Food We ate in the international dining room every evening. We found the food quite good and the service good as well. I would not have rated the service exceptional - the overall staff were quite junior and young, but they tried hard and overall we had no complaints. The head waiter was more than happy to please and I had escargot waiting for me every night as my appetizer - only had to ask on the first night. The buffet on deck 14 (lido) for breakfast and lunch was always excellent - even though it was crowded. The variety was high and the quality very good. We also found the all night buffet to be great and tasty - Otto was always helpful and fun at midnight for our late night indulgences. It is more than burgers and hot dogs at night - something different every evening. Lobster night - it was quite good and like most people we had more than 1 serving of lobster ?. The deserts are different every day - one day they will have baked Alaskan, bananas foster, cherries jubilee - all the favorites. The staff conducts a large cooking demonstration and galley tour on the last sea day. Like all large events this will be in the Princess Theater - get there a half hour early to get a seat.
Tours They are SUPER expensive here in New Zealand. Don't expect to get any deals, save money or get huge value for your money. The tour guides are great - but you pretty much pay double that you would expect in the US or Europe for that matter for the same length, quality, content, etc. We took all our tours with Princess knowing that we were paying a premium - but it did pay off when we did not go to Hobart. People that did not book through Princess were stuck trying to get their money back. We were automatically refunded. Taraunga We took the Maori and wildlife experience. We went to a sheep farm, saw sheep herding, sheering, etc. It was amazing on how many sheep types there are and how the dogs interact with the sheep to herd them. We also went to visit Rotoroo where we visited a Maori reservation which had the second largest geyser in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere. It is almost always erupting and there are steam vents all over the countryside. Most homes, business, etc. are heated by the natural steam vents. They also had hot mud springs that are constantly bubbling - quite an interesting place. We learned a lot about their culture, history, etc. The guide was phenomenal and the experience very pleasant. ChristChurch This was a bit of a rainy day and we took a tour of the New Zealand Air Force museum and also a tour of the Antarctic center. The New Zealand air force has not been disestablished and until just a few years ago were still flying 40 year old A-4 Skyhawks...amazing. Christchurch is the hopping off point for almost all Antarctica expeditions and is also the headquarters of the US base for Operation Deep Freeze. We saw the blue New Zealand penguins and also toured a lot of the Antarctica operations, equipment, simulated conditions, history, etc. This was a lot of fun.
Dunedin Dunedin is the Edinborough of the southern hemisphere. It was a gorgeous day and the scenery amazing. We took a classic car tour of Dunedin. This was by far the highlight of our trip. We rode in a 1964 Jaguar limousine that had been restored - it was actually the Prime Minister of Australia's personal limousine a long time ago. What a treat! We rode around in a private tour of the city - visited Speight's brewery and also some old original houses in museums from the original settlers of Dunedin. The Speight's brewery was quite interesting - they have a natural flowing spring into the brewery that over 300 people daily from the local area come to get free pure water from a tap outside the brewery.
Melbourne We pulled into Melbourne a day early since we passed the port of Hobart. Melbourne is a much older city, but a very pleasant city to walk around. The ship pulls right up to the pier down town which is a nice pier and beach area with some shops and restaurants. You can catch a local tram for $2 for 2 hours or $6 for an all day pass. You can get pretty much anywhere in Melbourne on the tram within an hour. There are lots of sights to see and a HUGE casino/shopping mall/restaurant complex called Crown entertainment center. Las Vegas scale - quite a nice place. Melbourne also has a GREAT aquarium - no need to take ships tour - just take the tram and it is about $24 to get in. Some sea creatures I have never seen any where else. Very popular place and worth the visit. The second day we took a tour to a nature wildlife preserve way out in the country (Victoria). I think these were called the YaoYang mountains about 30-40 miles outside of Melbourne where we able to see Koala and Kangaroos running about in the wild - no penned in a zoo. We saw a few Koalas in the trees and then we saw hundreds of Kangaroos roaming everywhere. We could get quite close - sometimes within 15-20 feet before they would run away. We also saw some wild Emus, wallabies and all kinds of other birds in a close by aviary preserve.
Sydney We pulled in early in the morning. Disembarkation was smooth - no complaints. As long as you waited for your time to be called, it was painless and smooth. However, in Sydney we did have to wait 30-45 minutes for a taxi. The lines were very long, but the pier crew worked hard to get everyone out quickly. We stayed at the Marriott Sydney Harbour - very nice hotel centrally located in the Circular Quay area. It was a great location within 5 minutes walking distance from Harbour Bridge, Opera House, The Rocks, Botanical gardens and a dozen other great sites to visit by walking. There is a ton of great restaurants, pubs and other places to eat and drink in this area. We even took a short visit to Darling Harbour and Star City for dinner and the casino in Sydney. Star City was very large, but not nearly as nice as the Crown complex in Melbourne. Overall, Sydney is an amazing city that can take a week easily to fully explore. We climbed the Harbour Bridge - this was a very fun and amazing climb. Very touristy, but an experience that will not be forgotten. The weather and views were incredible. Unfortunately, you cannot take cameras on the tour - you can only buy pictures taken by the tour guide. They actually run you through metal detectors to make sure you don't take anything unauthorized. There are a ton of low cost tours and options for getting around Sydney. Shopping is quite good in Sydney as well - prices are competitive with the US.
Flight home We arrived at the airport - smooth sailing home - only 12 hours flight time compared to over 14.5 on the trip over. United service and food was good, but not excellent. Does not compare to BA - I even think NWA is better.