Our home away from home for the next fourteen days, the super-liner Celebrity Solstice, was docked at the Circular Quay International Cruise Terminal, opposite the magnificent glistening, white sails of the Sydney Opera House. It was pouring with rain but our sprints weren’t dampened as we explored the decks of this vast vessel which has fabulous features like a grand towering atrium with a giant live ficus tree growing towards the glass ceiling, a Lawn Club at Sea on the top deck, a Persian Garden Spa and a host of speciality restaurants.
Our spacious well appointed stateroom was waiting for us, along with a Welcome Aboard Party invitation from Pied Piper Travel. This New York based agency organises gay group travel on mainstream cruises. Already Pied Piper alumni, this time we were bound for Melbourne and Hobart as a starting point before the highlights of the south and north islands of New Zealand.
MEETING THE GROUP
We met our group at the Sky Observation Lounge on Deck 14 (sweeping, panoramic, sunset views from the front of the ship) for introductions and cocktails before dinner. There were twenty of us in the group, mostly from the U.S., some from Canada, the U.K. and, this time, we were the only Aussies.
Later, we headed off to the dining room (the Grand Epernay) which was enormous and decorated beautifully with cascading chandeliers, large oval tables and luxuriously upholstered white club chairs. Rob, our Pied Piper host, made us all feel welcome and comfortable for a great start to the first evening of the cruise.
DAY TWO AT SEA
Unfortunately, still grey skies and unseasonably cool, it was a day to further explore the ship. We watched glass blowing on the top deck at the Hot Glass Show (the Corning Museum of Glass), sat at the Lawn Club and chatted with fellow cruisers and ate as much as humanly possible from the buffet at lunch time. Later in the day the sun burst through the clouds and it was time for the pool and the gym.
Evening Chic is the attire for dinner now. Formal nights are ‘so yesterday’ on Celebrity Cruises. It was a time to look fabulous in designer jeans, cool shirt and sports jacket.
In the heart of the city we decided to head straight for Degraves Street, just near Flinders Street Station, for a famous Melbourne coffee. The narrow lanes are a unique part of the Melbourne cafe scene with their Parisian style small tables, tiny crowded shops and a treasure trove of food and coffee aromas filling the air. In Degraves Street we stumbled upon a very popular mens’ barber shop offering cut throat shaves, beard trims and the latest haircuts.
Around the corner in Flinders Lane, we visited Lord Coconut, where over 40 jewellers from all over Australia exhibit and sell their hand crafted jewellery, designed exclusively for men.
The approach is to bring together high quality jewellery that combines a less polished, less shiny, chunkier style. Rings can feature beaten, hammered or string cast designs and most often come in sterling silver, all types of gold aa well as titanium. Each piece of jewellery at Lord Coconut, whether one of the hand crafted wedding rings, cuff links, chains, earrings or bracelets, is a true work of art, individually styled and completely unique.
One ring that caught our attention was made from Fordite or Detroit Agate, a by-product of the painting process for automobiles at the Ford Motor Plant in the 1960′s. This material has since become very popular for jewellery and has great lapidary as well as historic interest. Rings made from this exhausted and highly unique mineral deposit, ensures a collectible future. Shopping at Lord Coconut feels like being in a men’s den, so buying an engagement or wedding ring for yourself or your husband is a very comfortable experience.
Melbourne has so many beautiful buildings (old and new) and charming wide streets. Don’t miss seeing the Eureka Building, currently the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. We wandered off to the Old Melbourne Gaol and then jumped on a tram to the seaside suburb of St Kilda to have lunch in Acland Street. Here we were mesmerised by the delights on display in the windows of the Jewish cake shops and we also didn’t miss trying some delicious homemade pasta at one of the many sidewalk eateries to be found around this gourmet precinct.
DAY FOUR AT SEA
We awoke to the sounds of the waves and a slow roll of the ship as we sailed calmly across the Tasman Strait. The seas in this part of the world can be treacherous but this time they were kind and a beautiful sunny day was bestowed upon us. Would it be relaxing by the pool with a cool drink, going to the lecture about the Apollo Missions or just some ‘me time’ in the privacy of the cabin?
The pool deck, hot tubs and gym won out in preparation for a catch up with our Pied Piper friends at the Martini Bar around 8pm. Our pre dinner drink sessions together and our 8:30pm dinner sitting is the only regular time the whole group meets. Being with Pied Piper does not mean everything has to be done together. However, occasionally Pied Piper arranges a private group ship tour or dinner at a speciality restaurant to offer some different experiences and perspectives of the ship.
A magical sunny day in Hobart and we had pre-booked tickets for the MONA Museum (Museum Of Old and New Art). Better still, we had booked the ‘Posh Pit’ on the ferry to the museum. So at 11:00am we found ourselves sipping champagne and downing freshly shucked Tasmanian oysters and other seafood canapés as we slid across the bay on MONA’s Roma catamaran for our 25 minute ride to the museum.
Once docked, we climbed the steep 90 stairs to the entrance of the museum complex. The feature exhibition was works by the British artists Gilbert and George. These totally flamboyant gay artists showcased ninety-seven oversized pieces of their famous works dating from 1970 to 2014. They presented a unique perspective of the modern world from the viewpoint of two gay men living in Britain. For some, the exhibition was confronting and challenging as a number of works were anti establishment and sometimes featured depictions of bodily fluids, genitalia and grotesque forms. This same body of work had previously been exhibited at the Tate Modern in London.
David Walsh is the independent owner of the museum. This art and wine precinct includes Moorilla boutique winery, which has tours and wine tastings also included in the Posh Pit package. Source Restaurant is a great place for lunch and if you are thinking of staying longer at MONA, there is an accommodation complex that features high-tech, luxury dens looking down across the Derwent River.
Back on dry land at the port of Hobart we strolled through the waterfront Salamanca Markets that are held each Saturday. Here we found the Blue Eye Restaurant that had our favourite on the menu, freshly steamed Tasmanian Spring Bay mussels in a creamy garlic and white wine sauce. The menu also included other fabulous choices like panfried Mirror Dory with black bean salsa, avocado and sesame, seared scallops in pulled pork tacos with chipotle mayo, slaw and jaiperos.
Three sea days meant plenty of time to chill out and it is often a favourite time with passengers on the cruise. Coffee in Café al Bacio was a good start each morning and sharing a table provided an opportunity to meet new people. A few guys in our group bought a day pass to the Persian Spa, while others checked out the art auction and one couple decided to try a picnic basket on the lawn of the open top deck. Live performances in the Celebrity Show Lounge, like the incredibly talented Will Martin from New Zealand and the wonderful Aussie Boys, wowed audiences and shows like these are a feature of the onboard entertainment every evening.
On the morning of our third sea day we sailed into Milford Sound. This spectacular fiord area of the South Island of New Zealand is simply breathtaking. Later on the same day we visited Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound, each unique with grand proportions and majestic beauty. Taking a vantage point at the very front of the ship meant the dramatic, gigantic natural edifices appeared to be within easy reach as we glided serenely past.
A small city of around 100 000 people, Dunedin does not have a great deal for the tourist. Some however, enjoyed the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, taking a look at Dunedin’s historic buildings like the magnificent old railway station and shopping in the city centre.
After a walk around the centre of town we took a $20 taxi ride to St Kilda beach area to an Italian restaurant called The Esplanade for lunch. The food was excellent and the slow cooked lamb shoulder in mushrooms with freshly made papadella pasta was a total winner. We also shared a wood-fired seafood pizza that was delicious. We had a walk along the esplanade but being cold and very windy, (yes in the middle of summer) we did not make it to the beach. At around 7:30pm Pied Piper held another cocktail party for the group and then we were invited to Luminae Restaurant by two of the Pied Piper suite class members who had included us in a special celebration.
AKAROA (MORE FRENCH THAN FRANCE)
Our ship, the Celbrity Solstice, sailed into the pristine Bay of Akaroa (the long harbour) as seventy other cruise ships do each summer season. Akaroa is a graceful, sleepy little town, 90 kilometres south of Christchurch. It is surrounded by rolling hills of green wilderness and calm, chalky blue harbour waters which makes it perfect for sailing and a place where you will frequently see dolphins and penguins.
Nestled on the shores of an extinct volcano the town of less than 1000 people welcomes both New Zealand holiday makers and thousands of tourists from all around the world. One day is not enough time here and in later conversations our Pied Piper group members all agreed. Having time to explore the quaint cafes and French restaurants more fully as well as sailing, hiking, canoeing and golfing will definitely call us back to this part of the world. Akaroa has several special tourist highlights such as swimming with the dolphins or a guided tour to see the white flippered penguins (http://www.blackcat.co.nz)
In the town there are holiday homes to rent with outstanding colourful gardens. The Library Cafe has free wifi plus a wonderful selection of treats including the biggest and best sausage rolls in the world. The town is a little piece of France, with French street names, the waft of French blue lavender, French themed restaurants, butchers, bistros and bakers. The French flag flies on the waterfront close to where it was placed in 1840 by a load of emigrants. The French navy had claimed the area for France, but alas too late as the British had earlier signed the ‘Treaty of Waitangi’ declaring all of New Zealand a British protectorate.
Whether tasting French style Meniscus Wines in the 1860’s house in the main street or eating home made fudge, or sampling the best fish and chips in The Trading Room Restaurant and Pantry there are many ways to make your stay in this special town an absolute delight.
Windy Wellington lived up to its name as we arrived to strong gusts in Wellington Harbour. Catching a cab into the city ($16 NZ) and starting with a coffee at the Hotel Astoria worked well for us. Wellington is famous for its coffee and named by CNN as one of the top eight coffee cities of the world. Another place to get a good brew is The Hangar.
Strolling down to the water front we found the Museum of Wellington, worth a look for a quick historical overview. At the other side of the harbour is Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. The free entry was a bonus and the displays of Maori culture from weapons, carvings and art works to a huge and wonderfully restored Maori Meeting House gave us sense of how the indigenous people of New Zealand lived before white settlement.
Lunch was next on the agenda and we sought out the Ortega Fish Shack and Bar a little hidden away at 16 Majoribanks Street in the city. This hidden gem served outstanding sea food. The Marlborough King Salmon, with mango salad, prawns, pickled daikon, sriracha mayo was perfectly cooked as was the West Coast Snapper with a ragout of flageolet beans, bacon hock, piquillo peppers, artichoke and aioli. We we very fortunate to find the restaurant open at lunchtime because of a private function. However, the Fish Shack is usually only open for dinner.
Wellington is a walkable city and shopping is easy for either big name brands or boutique bargains. When in the city centre don’t miss taking the cable car from Lambton Quay to the top of the Botanic Gardens. From here you will see amazing views of Wellington harbour and the 25 hectares of native and exotic gardens including an outstanding exhibition of flowers in the Lady Norwood rose garden.
The town of Tauranga is split in two; portside and beachside. We wandered to the beachside where there were cafes filled with locals and tourists. Tauranga is a favourite with New Zealanders who claim it to be the best beach in the country. We enjoyed a wonderful dip in the ocean, a welcome sunbake to dry off and then tried out the local food at one of the cafes.
Nearby Maunganui Bluff is an easy fifty minute walk around the base of a mountain. On your journey you’ll see lots of sheep and cuddly bunny rabbits grazing on the lush pasture. There are small sandy beaches that you can stop at and the views on the walk cover the inner harbour to the open ocean. It’s well worth the effort. We strolled back to the ship past the many families enjoying the last of the sun’s warmth on the calm portside beach area.
PAIHIA AND WAITANGI, THE BAY OF ISLANDS
Don’t blink you might miss Paihia, a small seaside town on the Bay of Islands. The few neat little streets of the town are good for a couple of hours of wandering and for fish and chips on the waterfront overlooking the gorgeous bay of islands. The town of Russell on the opposite side of the bay was once the capital of New Zealand but today is very popular with tourists. A ferry runs frequently between the two towns.
A kilometre or two out of Paihia is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the famous treaty was signed between the British and the chiefs of various Maori tribes. The grounds have stunning views over the bay and a huge flagstaff marks the point where the actual treaty was signed. Near the flagstaff there are two very important buildings, the original treaty house where the British governor lived and the Carved Tribal Meeting House which was erected in the early 1940s.
As part of our visit we saw a performance by a Maori cultural group in the Carved Meeting House. These big boys and the girls of the troupe gave us a taste of Maori song and dance and demonstrated a nose rubbing Maori welcome. Within the treaty grounds we also saw three war canoes, one of which is the world’s largest ceremonial canoe at a staggering 35 metre long and needing up to 70 Maori hunks to row it. The Waitangi area of New Zealand is culturally significant and scenically beautiful and when in New Zealand an area we suggest you should not miss seeing.
Unfortunately our arrival in the capital of the North Island meant our 14 day journey had come to an end. Having said our good-byes to our group, we took a taxi from the port to pick up a hire car for the next leg of our adventure.
Our Australia to New Zealand crossing was a relaxing and easy journey with so much sight seeing along the way. The one main discovery was the amazing beauty of New Zealand and the friendly welcome we received in every port of call. This beautiful and hospitable country will certainly become one of our favourite and regular destinations in the future.