Like thousands of other passengers on this 137,276-ton cruise ship—one of the largest afloat—the retired railroad conductor had come out to see a marvel of a different sort: the Voyager’s sail-away from the glistening harbor of Sydney.
It was a first for Hanke, as it was for the ship.
Call it the start of a new chapter in cruising. When it arrived in Sydney in late November, the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas became the largest cruise ship ever based in the city—and a harbinger, some say, of things to come.
As the fast-growing cruise industry expands into new areas around the globe, major lines are rapidly beefing up their presence in Australia and New Zealand, and the region appears well on its way to joining the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska as a hot spot for cruising.
Royal Caribbean now has three ships based in Sydney, up from two a year ago and one in 2010. Princess Cruises is up to four ships in Australian ports, after adding three vessels over the past five years. Holland America has boosted its capacity in the region by 25 per cent this winter with two ships.
‘Like nowhere I’ve been’
For frequent cruisers such as Rina Daigle of Fredericton, New Brunswick, the itineraries around Australia and to New Zealand and the South Pacific offer something new. She’s already taken multiple voyages in the more traditional locales of the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
“This is like nowhere I’ve been before,” says the 50-year-old technology consultant, as she gazes out over sheep-dotted hills near Napier, New Zealand, while on a van tour to what’s billed as the world’s largest bird colony of gannets.
Known for its art deco downtown and surrounding Hawke’s Bay wineries, Napier is one of six ports in New Zealand and Australia on this 14-night sailing. In addition to an overnight stay in Sydney, the itinerary also includes a day-long stop in cosmopolitan Melbourne, Australia, and a day visiting the glacier-carved Fiordland of southern New Zealand, including mountain-lined Milford Sound.
Also on the schedule: the Scot-founded town of Dunedin, New Zealand, historic hub of the country’s first gold rush and home to a rare yellow-eyed penguin colony; and the small New Zealand town of Tauranga (pop. 121,000), gateway to the geysers, steam vents and geothermal mud pots of nearby Rotorua—a lake resort area also known for its Maori cultural sites and high-adrenaline sports such as mountain luging.
For Americans and vacationers from other far-away countries, such itineraries offer a chance to get a broad—if not always deep—overview of the region in one trip. “The cruise makes it easy to see a lot in a short period of time,” says Steve Gracie, 50, of London, who is taking a tour to Rotorua that includes everything from a Maori cultural show to a stop at a kiwi orchard.
With two-week sailings available for less than $ 1,500 per person on several lines, the trips also are opening up the region to a new crop of overseas travelers. Gracie, for one, notes that he and his wife, Janice, 54, never would be able to see so much of the two countries touring in a rental car and staying in hotels. “It’s good value,” he says.
Cruising has grown so fast in Australia and New Zealand that some ports are having trouble keeping up. During a stop in New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, frustrated Voyager passengers wait in line for as long as an hour to exit the ship through the single available gangway.
Still, port bottlenecks aside, the region has yet to become overwhelmed by cruise ships in the manner of some Caribbean and Alaskan ports. In Auckland, Voyager is the only ship in town, and passengers spread out between the compact downtown, wineries to the north of the city, and the forest-covered Waitakere Range and black sand beaches to the west.
“There can be several ships in port, and you’ll come out here and hardly see another person,” says
Tony Dunn of Auckland-based tour company Bush and Beach as he leads a small-group trip to a miles-long crescent of black sand about an hour’s drive from the city.
Cruise ships sailing around New Zealand often stop at the Scot-founded town of Dunedin, home to what’s billed as the world’s steepest street.
Older crowd, older ships
One noticeable difference with cruises out of Australia is the demographics of the passengers. In contrast to Royal Caribbean’s American-heavy, family-dominated Caribbean sailings, this voyage skews older and has a far more international mix of passengers, dominated by Australians. (Well over half of the passengers on this sailing are Aussies.) About 300 passengers are from the United States, with a significant number of Canadians, Germans, New Zealanders and Chinese among more than 40 nationalities onboard.
Another difference is the age of the ships. While the Caribbean and Europe draw the industry’s newest, hottest vessels, cruisers in Australia generally must settle for slightly older models. Christened in 1999, Voyager of the Seas is approaching middle age and already showing signs of wear. Cabin furniture is dinged in places; the color scheme is slightly dated. There is rust on cabin balconies and spots of mildew in bathrooms.
Like other ships that originally were designed to sail the Caribbean, Voyager also features elements that seem somewhat out of place for trips across the sometimes rough and chilly Tasman Sea, from its Caribbean-inspired sandy pink hallways to its sprawling sports and pool decks. On several blustery sea days during the voyage, the outside areas of the vessel are nearly deserted.
Still, few passengers are complaining.
“Sailing into Milford Sound alone was worth the price of the ticket,” says Beth Boesch, 62, of Columbus, Neb. “The scenery, the majesty of it … we don’t get that in Nebraska.”
A view from the top deck of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas as it sails deep into Milford Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordlands.
JUST THE FACTS
Royal Caribbean (866-562-7625; royalcaribbean.com) offers two- to 18-night sailings out of Sydney to ports in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific on three vessels: the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas, 1,998-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas and 2,112-passenger Radiance of the Seas. Fares for 10- and 11-night trips start at $ 772 per person, double.
Princess Cruises (800-774-6237; princess.com) operates two- to 35-night voyages out of Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Fremantle, Australia, on four ships starting at $ 334 per person, double.
Holland America (877-932-4259; hollandamerica.com) offers 10- to 50-night sailings out of Sydney on two ships starting at $ 999 per person, double.
Other North America-based lines operating in Australia include Celebrity Cruises (800-647-2251; celebritycruises.com); Carnival (800-764-7419; carnival.com); Seabourn (866-755-5619; seabourn.com); Regent Seven Seas Cruises (877-505-5370; rssc.com); and Crystal Cruises (888-722-0021; crystalcruises.com).
Distributed by MCT Information Services