On a Sunday night against the electric 21st-century backdrop of Sydney, the MS Noordam is escorted out of Sydney Harbour by a flock of unruly seagulls, bound for the Tasman Sea. By daybreak on Wednesday, the 82,318-tonne behemoth noses her way into Milford Sound on New Zealand's west coast - her escort this time a lone majestic albatross - and into a landscape that has changed little since artist-adventurer Eugene von Guérard painted it so spellbindingly in 1877-79.
The 13-day passage of the Noordam is a geographic dégustation, a taste of Fiordland, Dunedin and Akaroa in New Zealand's South Island, and Wellington, Napier, Tauranga, Auckland and Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands, in the North Island. The ship takes a leisurely two days and three nights to cross the surprisingly hospitable Tasman Sea, in which we get a taste of that most elusive of 21st-century treasures - nothingness.
It's tempting to luxuriate in free time for a day or two, gazing into the wide blue yonder. For those of us who spend 24/7 making mental to-do lists, engaging with the open sea is both calming and cathartic. But there's much indulging to be done. Pass the remote! And the Champagne. And the welcome-aboard chocolate installation. Oh, and that little pinwheel of smoked salmon and caviar or the turkey roulade might be nice about now.
The 143-year-old Holland America Line is one of 10 brands in Carnival Corporation's global portfolio. HAL has a fleet of 14 ships that collectively undertake more than 500 sailings a year to ports in the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe, Mexico, South America, the Panama Canal, Australia, New Zealand and Asia, as well the Amazon and Antarctica.
The Noordam, launched in 2006, is a sister ship to three others also named for the compass points. It's a little ironic that a ship named after the north is navigating such southern waters, but she's doing so with aplomb. At 285 metres in length, the Noordam has 11 decks and 959 passenger cabins (67 per cent with balconies); she accommodates 800 crew and a maximum of 1918 passengers, though there are 1770 on my cruise.
My veranda stateroom on level five is as roomy as an average hotel room, all blond wood and blue view, king bed, good shower, plenty of hanging space, discreet room service and two deliveries for the ice bucket per day. What more could you want? Maybe a slightly bigger veranda.
For what's classed as a full-service mid-size ship, the Noordam never feels like a party that's got out of control. There are so many intimate spaces you often feel that you've retired to your own drawing room. The décor is a mix of contemporary and classic: a three-storey atrium with look-at-me green-glass stairway and gold wall tiles nods to the groovy 1970s, while the Explorer's Café nerve centre is more clubby - woody and leathered. Overall, the style is more ambient than brash.
As with most travel experiences it's wise to expect the unexpected. When we hit rough weather, the promenade deck is closed, the pool emptied, and port visits cancelled. The appealing French-influenced town of Akaroa near Christchurch is a casualty - the seas are too rough for the tenders to ferry passengers ashore.
This means an extra day at sea (and a free glass of bubbles to compensate). Time to re-engage with the wider world, though herein lies a challenge. Satellite Wi-Fi can be interminably slow at sea. An unlisted guest activity is finding the best time and place to connect, a pursuit whose urgency is heightened by the need to pay by the minute. One of the most popular shore excursions at every stop around New Zealand is a visit to the ubiquitous Wi-Fi booth, a fuchsia twist on the old red phone box. Guests and crew cluster around them like moths to a flame.
On board, in the Explorer's Café, those not playing chess or working on giant jigsaw puzzles are swapping notes on cropping, collating and creating photo galleries on their iPads. Instagram posts are in a holding pattern. In the Stuyvesant Room, lecturers explain the finer points of Windows 10, Skype, OneNote, digital cameras, Cloud control, and choosing the right electronic device to angst about.
Dozens of shore excursions cater to the fit, the food-obsessed, the art-loving, the culture-seeking and the unashamed sightseer. Because cruises need to be all things to all people, some sifting is required. Gourmet Traveller was on board for a week, disembarking in Wellington and so missing the North Island ports. The following were our cruise highlights.
From blues to bake-offs
Engage, disengage, or find your tribe at talks on rare gems (opals, alexandrite, tanzanite, pearls); pub and movie trivia sessions; film screenings; cocktail sampling and wine tasting (Old World and New); cooking classes; art talks and art auctions; classical recitals; digital workshops; fitness seminars. Or at the casino. After dark: find the Northern Lights nightclub and hope the programming is Motown not ABBA, or choose from one of three nightly sets in BB King's Blues Club.
Massage to microdermabrasion
The Greenhouse Spa & Salon on the Lido Deck (deck nine) makes abundant promises: facials that will smooth, firm, oxygenate, add radiance and diminish lines; scalp massages that will imbue hair with Hollywood shine. If that doesn't appeal there's a doctor at the medi-spa who fills frown lines and crows' feet and plumps lips and laugh lines. There are massages of all persuasions, and treatments for cellulite, droopy buttocks and tired legs. (And would you like a box of product with that?) Close by are thermal suites with sauna and steam grotto, an annexe with inviting heated daybeds tiled in turquoise, an Art Deco-tiled hydrotherapy pool, and a relaxation room. The Lido Deck has two swimming pools, including one with a sliding glass roof.
Food: the statistics
The scale and complexity of the galley's logistics are fascinating (keep an eye out for occasional tours). Like those of a hotel? "More like a city," says culinary operations manager Mark Wranik. He oversees provisioning, deliveries and logistics for about 800 crew and up to 1918 passengers.
The Pinnacle Grill, the fanciest restaurant on board, has its own kitchen; the main kitchen serves the two Vista dining rooms, the self-serve Lido eatery, the Italian restaurant, Canaletto, and room service, and prepares snacks for the 11 bars.
In this main kitchen are eight service counters with four cooks in full flight at each. There are storerooms for huge refrigerators, thawing and dry goods - and a florist room doubles as coffin storage. Yes, it happens.
In an average week the Noordam's shopping list includes 5366 kilograms of meat, 62,369 kilos of fresh vegetables, 23,000 eggs, 1304 kilos of fish, 1168 kilos of other seafood and 3515 kilos of potatoes.
The worst things to run out of? "Rice and toilet paper," says Wranik.
Food: Mark Best and more
Tuck into a burger by the pool at the Dive-In bar; have the chef make a spinach and mushroom omelette in the Lido for breakfast; seek out some Italian wines in Canaletto; try the French onion soup in the Dining Room.
The Pinnacle Grill, however, is the restaurant par excellence, for its elegance, ambience, service, food and relatively intimate size - it seats about 145 diners, compared with several hundred in the main dining rooms. Passengers pay a supplement ($42) to dine here.
Chef Mark Best, of Marque in Sydney and Pei Modern in Melbourne and Sydney, is a consultant for Holland America Line. His input is directed primarily at the mega dining rooms, but during our cruise the Pinnacle Grill, too, offers a set menu designed by him. Its highlights are beef tenderloin with a crust of dried squid-ink rice and black olive powder, and a star anise "black hash" eggplant sauce. Other Pinnacle Grill special evenings include a Le Cirque menu from New York's Sirio Maccioni, and a seven-course cellar-master's dinner featuring wines from France, Chile and the US matched with traditional luxury cruise fare - foie gras, lobster, consommé, filet mignon, cheeses, rich chocolate dessert.
As Captain James Cook, the region's first European visitor, wrote when he came upon the broken Fiordland coast in 1770 (in the considerably less accommodating Endeavour), "No country upon Earth can appear with a more rugged and barren aspect than this doth…"
Milford Sound is one of 13 fiords that notch the coast of south-west New Zealand, and most passengers have been anticipating the moment when the ship glides almost silently into the Sound just after dawn. For a while, though, photographing the scene seems unachievable. The weather has been ferocious overnight and the deck is considered too wet to be safe. But by seven o'clock we get the all-clear and the deck is quickly crowded with rugged-up passengers toting cameras, iPads and mobile phones to record the moment in reverential silence. The most compelling way to appreciate this natural wonder - indeed, just about the only way - is by sea.
There is glacial grandeur at every turn as we cruise through the Sound, its peaks so close that we feel all but enveloped. As JH Richards enthused lyrically in his 1955 history Milford Sound, "Can you imagine… a whole mountain range shedding the rain in a thousand silver waterfalls, many of them two or three thousand feet in height?"
And just for a while it's possible to feel the awe those ancient mariners and explorers must have felt with each new discovery. Minus the scurvy, whips and planks. And with a hand-held digital device.
We have a speed date with Doubtful Sound, then a rendezvous with Dusky Sound, freckled with shapely islands (Cook charted this safe anchorage on a second voyage to the region in 1773), before heading around the tip of the South Island through Foveaux Strait.
Nothing beats the romance of a working port, with bossy forklifts depositing containers with Lego-like industry. Mountains of pine logs await a favourable shift in commodity prices. In Dunedin's Port Chalmers, north-east of the city centre, there's a village, a maritime museum and a second-hand bookshop packed to the rafters. On the hill is the pretty Iona Church, started in 1871 and added to in 1882-83, a heritage-listed example of early English Gothic revival style.
The city of Dunedin is the quintessence of quaintness. The rhododendrons here are as big as dinner plates, the roses blowsy and richly scented. Make a list of sights: George A Troup's ambitious and grandiose 1906 railway station; the 30-hectare Botanic Garden; Larnach Castle; Ironic Café (whitebait fritters, seafood chowder, soft tacos filled with tequila- and lime-marinated prawns, lolly cake, good coffee); the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, whose collection includes paintings by Machiavelli, Lorrain, Rosa, Monet, Pissarro, Reynolds, Turner, Gainsborough and Burne-Jones, as well as Japanese prints; and the Forsyth Barr Stadium, built for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. (Rugby 101: Dunedin's team is the Highlanders.)
Dunedin Silver Fern
Train buffs book the half-day Taieri Gorge Railway trip from Dunedin to Middlemarch, but the 90-minute run from Dunedin to Waitati in the refurbished two-carriage Silver Fern is a more time-conscious treat. The painterly, very Scottish landscape along the route takes in Otago Harbour and Otago Peninsula, Blueskin Bay, the holiday village of Purakanui, and Doctors Point, a favourite destination for retired medicos. On the way back there's a stop for cruise passengers at Iona Church, a short walk from the ship.
If you make only one stop in Dunedin, make it this. Completed in 1906, Olveston House is the epitome of modern Edwardian living, an elegant 35-room mansion built by Sir Ernest George for local businessman David Theomin and his family. Theomin's daughter, Dorothy, willed the house to the city of Dunedin when she died in 1966, including its collection of more than 250 artworks and objets d'art, and the original household paraphernalia.
The Theomins had all the mod cons: lift, electric fireplace, pulley systems, intercom. We love the silverware safe with "thief-resisting door", burlap-printed wallpaper, butler's pantry, abundant buttons and bells to summon the servants, dust flaps on the bookshelves, cream and gold Wedgwood dinner service (each setting with half-moon plate for scraps), eclectic collection of weaponry in the vestibule, monogrammed ceilings, etched windows and Steinway grand piano.
Weather permitting - and on this occasion it isn't - this Frenchified village on the Banks Peninsula, 84 kilometres from Christchurch, is the jumping-off point for seafood cooking classes, wine tasting, rare dolphin sighting, birdlife, salmon farming, jet boat adventures, insights into sheep farming, explorations of Christchurch or just browsing.
Tours of Lord of the Rings locations take in the high-country station Mount Potts, which was transformed into Edoras, the capital of the Rohan people. As they like to say in New Zealand, it took two years to film the Rings trilogy but millions of years to build the sets.
Akaroa Craft Market, in the grounds of the Presbyterian Trinity Church (39 Rue Lavaud), is held on weekends and, in summer, on the days cruise ships are docked. A felted wool swing coat I bought here several years ago has been a dutiful travelling companion ever since.
The port of Lyttelton, felled by the Christchurch earthquakes, is being rebuilt and will accommodate future cruises more reliably.
If there is one word that defines Wellington, it's idiosyncrasy - in everything from food, bars and buildings to small-business enterprises. And if the city develops a laneway culture, it will be born in Eva Street, which has grown organically to accommodate a range of artisanal providores: chocolatier, coffee roaster, craft-beer bar, bakery, graffiti, peanut-butter factory, and a cocktail bar.
Flavours of Wellington is a shore option curated by Zest, a local food-tour company that showcases ingenuity, career detours, collaborations and endeavours in all things organic and pure. Taste chocolate, honey, cheese, and ice-cream along the way, and visit benchmark gourmet supermarket Moore Wilson's. There's a shopping pit-stop at Kura (19 Allen Street in the CBD) for an introduction to premium Maori arts and crafts.
"Unless something has character or is quirky, Wellingtonians are just not interested," says Zest tour guide Heather Clinton.
Wellington Chocolate Factory
This factory specialises in single-origin bean-to-bar chocolate, and its ethically traded beans are roasted, cracked, winnowed and tempered in-house. Its colourful wrappers are designed by local artists, among them Gina Kiel, tattooist Simon Morse, and graffiti gurus BMD. The flavours are awesome: Fix and Fogg peanut butter and raspberry; salted brittle caramel; vegan coconut milk; chilli, lime and nuts; malt and marmalade; even a craft beer bar. Most contain at least 70 per cent cocoa.
Graham Joe worked in IT for 20 years before deciding on a career change. Quite simply, he loves ice-cream. "But I discovered you can do so much more with gelato," he says.
In his gelateria on Wellington's waterfront, Joe uses 600 litres of organic milk a day to make his gelato. He has created more than 180 flavours, among them black sesame, Immigrant's Son coffee, and boozy zuppe Inglese. A cucumber, lime and mint sorbet is also popular. Chefs approach with all manner of requests. One asked Joe to create a curry, coriander and mushroom confit gelato. It was a hit.