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Sound way to see far

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:40:38

Joanna Hall tours New Zealand aboard a ship that echoes the grand ocean-going liners of old.

ON A glorious spring morning, our catamaran ventures into Queen Charlotte Sound and our skipper is excited for several reasons. For a start, there's the weather: cloudless blue skies, calm waters and a gentle breeze perfect for cruising. On previous journeys into the sound, a plethora of wildlife had been seen, including a pod of playful dolphins and this day will be no exception.

This mini-cruise into one of New Zealand's most picturesque marine landscapes is part of a land-and-sea tour that sets out from Picton. It's a pretty town on the far north-east corner of the South Island and one of several alluring ports of call on a 14-day cruise on Holland America's MS Volendam.

Just days earlier on our arrival into Auckland, however, the weather had looked ominous to say the least. From our hotel room high in the SKYCITY Grand Hotel, rain clouds threatened to engulf the tower, leaving Waitemata Harbour almost completely obscured from view. But the following day, as the Volendam ventured out to sea on the way to Tauranga, Mother Nature flipped the switch to good weather, setting the stage for the remainder of our cruise.

The Volendam is one of an increasing number of ships plying the waters of Australia and New Zealand each year between November and March. It's a cruise that presents passengers with amazing landscapes and unique experiences, some of which are available only to those who travel by sea. Cruising past White Island in the north, New Zealand's only active marine volcano is one such landscape that needs to be seen by sea; navigating Fiordland in the country's far south is another.

In between ports of call, however, the Volendam is a nice-looking ship with plenty to keep you busy. Launched in 1999, it used to carry the highest number of passengers in Holland America's fleet. Today, however, with just 1432 passengers, it's considered a boutique mid-size ship possessing big-ship facilities and it's easy to navigate around its decks.

Our stateroom was on a lower deck, with an ocean view through a small picture window. It had simple decor and was reasonably spacious though it showed signs of wear and tear, something that will be dealt with in a makeover due in April. Public rooms, however, were overhauled in a previous dry-dock visit and are more appealing. They have a more traditional feel. The vessel's dark navy hull and full promenade deck also hark back to an era of grand ocean liners.

Seasoned cruisers quickly find favourite spots on a ship; a top one for us is Explorations Cafe. A combination of coffee house, internet cafe and library, it has comfortable lounges for taking in the views with a cappuccino in hand. Another favourite spot is the intimate martini bar, complete with a two-for-one cocktail happy hour and a pianist who entertains travellers before dinner.

When it comes to dining, Holland America regards its offerings as a notch up from the competition. The ship's elegant Rotterdam dining room serves international cuisine and combines open seating with traditional, fixed-seat dining. There's also a casual buffet if you prefer to be low-key, although it closes somewhat early.

For alternative venues, look no further than the Pinnacle Grill for an additional $US20 ($20.08) a head. It's a combination European-style restaurant and New York-style steakhouse, with a menu that will have meat-lovers drooling.

Another enjoyable diversion aboard is the Greenhouse Spa & Salon. Although perhaps lacking the glitz of newer ships, it has a decent menu of treatments, including unique offerings such as aromaflex - 25 blissful minutes each of back and shoulder massage - and foot reflexology. Better still, the fitness centre has a wall of windows allowing for a workout with a view, which for us included a pod of killer whales frolicking in the water.

Key drawcards of any Australasian cruise are the ports of call and the Volendam's longer itineraries don't disappoint. One of the first was a stop at the delightful beach community of Tauranga, which straddles the Bay of Plenty. For many, the must-do excursion from here is usually Rotorua's hot springs. Since we'd been there before, we decided to walk the base of Mount Maunganui, then hike to the summit. It's a challenging walk that can be done either as a 60-minute easier round trip, or a 40-minute tough round trip. Either way, you work up a sweat and the views from the top are sublime.

From Napier, a quaint town with art deco streetscapes, we opted to explore some of the region's renowned Marlborough wineries, the most impressive being the Mission Estate. It's the oldest in the region and packed with history.

And in Wellington, on yet another glorious day, we swapped a workout in the Volendam's gym for a walk that included a steep hike to the top of Victoria Mountain for the gorgeous views. On the way back to the ship, we stopped at cafes and took the tram to the botanical gardens, which were awash with spring flowers.

We disembarked in Christchurch but the Volendam was continuing its journey south to Dunedin, Milford Sound and across the Tasman before arriving in Sydney.

Holland America has a loyal legion of fans and the Volendam will continue to win hearts among cruisers, especially after the stateroom makeover. The ship's low-key style won't suit everyone; however, for top-notch service, spacious public areas, value for money and a great itinerary showcasing the best of Australia and New Zealand, it will be one to beat.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America Cruise line.

Trip notes

Getting there

Air New Zealand has daily direct flights from Sydney to Auckland. 13 24 76,

Staying there

Pre- and post-cruise stays can be booked at the elegant SKYCITY Grand Hotel, in the heart of Auckland and close to the cruise terminal. A Grand Bed & Breakfast package starts from $NZ209 ($161) including GST. +64 9 363 6000,

Cruising there

Fares for a 14-day Australia and New Zealand cruise from Sydney to Auckland, departing on November 7 and again on December 5, are priced from $1998 a person, twin share, including taxes, for a large inside stateroom midship. Auckland to Sydney, departing November 21 is priced from $2198 a person, twin share, including taxes. The itinerary in either direction includes visiting Tauranga, Wellington, Napier, Lyttelton (Christchurch) and Port Chalmers (Dunedin). 1300 804 522,