Oceania Cruises’ refurbished flagship Regatta provides a luxurious base from which to explore New Zealand, finds first-time cruiser Fiona Ralph.
While I’ve travelled the length and breadth of New Zealand by road and air, I haven’t explored it by sea, so I jump at the chance when I’m offered a trip from Auckland to Wellington as part of an Auckland-to-Sydney voyage on Oceania Cruises’ flagship Regatta. It’s my first time on a cruise and I’m instantly hooked.
After departing from Auckland, aka the City of Sails, our first port is Tauranga, with Mount Maunganui’s famous peak providing a dramatic photo opportunity as we sail into the harbour. From here, many passengers head to tourist hotspots Rotorua, renowned for its Māori culture and geothermal activity, or Hobbiton, where parts of The Lord of the Rings were filmed, but we are content to wander the laid-back beach town. From the terminal, it is a short walk to Mount Maunganui’s shops and cafes, and a 15-minute taxi down the coast to Pāpāmoa, where we watch the waves and order drinks from Sandbank, a local-favourite coffee and smoothie van.
The surf is pumping, thanks to Tropical Cyclone Tino. Back on board, this same swell is causing the ship to rock and roll a little more than usual, but after dosing up on sea sickness tablets we barely notice the movements – except for the occasional dance-floor stumble when we head to Horizons bar later that night.
While the dance floor is usually pretty quiet, except for our group making fools of ourselves, crowds gather to watch the entertainers in the Regatta Lounge each evening. Local singer Will Martin wows everyone, as do the dancers in the Regatta Production Cast with their energetic Motown performances, accompanied by the Regatta Show Band.
It’s perfectly calm when we drop anchor in Gisborne’s Poverty Bay on our second day at sea. We have a spectacular view of Young Nick’s Head – the cliffs that line the peninsula at the southern end of the bay. While most passengers head ashore to explore New Zealand’s easternmost city, we take advantage of the empty pool deck and lunch buffet, filling up on seafood, made-to-order salads, tropical fruit, and sorbet and ice cream from the daily changing selection. We make a concerted effort to only hit the buffet three times as we’re planning on enjoying afternoon tea in a couple of hours, where there will be numerous pastries and sandwiches to nibble on, accompanied by the soothing sounds of the resident string quartet.
As well as being renowned for its culinary offerings (according to the brochures it’s ‘The Finest Cuisine at Sea’), Oceania is known for its small, luxury ships and boutique itineraries. Regatta, along with another three of Oceania’s six ships, hosts just 684 passengers. My fellow seafarers inform me that I’m lucky to be experiencing a five-star line on my first cruise, which makes me worry that I’ve set the bar too high for subsequent voyages.
The ever-friendly staff are from all over the world, as is the culinary inspiration. At the Terrace Cafe buffet, some days are Mexican inspired, others Asian influenced; one evening there’s even a Kiwi theme, complete with fresh local fish cooked to order, a whole New Zealand lamb, meat pies, the famous lolly cake (an unusual mash-up of biscuits, sweets and coconut) plus pavlovas and lamingtons, two national treasures which Australians and New Zealanders continue to fight over for ownership. Admittedly, the meal isn’t completely authentic but it’s a fun touch.
It seems a shame that most of the other meat and seafood served onboard is from North America, where Oceania is based, although I can’t complain as I indulge in my fair share of delectable Florida and Maine lobster. If you want more of a taste of New Zealand fare, there are plenty of cafes and wineries to explore ashore.
Dinner is where the ship’s cuisine shines. As well as the Grand Dining Room and the buffet at the Terrace Cafe, there are two speciality restaurants – Polo Grill, for all your surf-and-turf needs, and Toscana for Italian favourites. At Polo Grill, after two breakfasts and a fair few lunch courses, my husband manages to squeeze in lobster bisque, lobster mac ’n’ cheese and a whole lobster – the temptations of all-inclusive dining have officially peaked.
For lunch, the Grand Dining Room transforms into a French bistro. You can also enjoy the Terrace Cafe buffet or check out Waves Grill for burgers and poolside snacks. There are another five bars and cafes rounding out the hospitality offering, as well as free 24-hour room service – late night pizzas being just the ticket after a night of dancing.
Alongside such indulgent treats, the ship’s reimagined menus include sugar-free and plant-based options, in line with the wellness offerings at the brand new Aquamar Spa + Vitality Centre, where I enjoy a blissful hot stone massage, and sign up for yoga and meditation classes I really did intend to take.
It’s all part of the extensive refurbishment Regatta underwent last year as part of the cruise line’s OceaniaNEXT initiative. The ship was built in 1998, but you’d never guess, thanks to its shiny new staterooms and suites, and transformed public spaces complete with bejewelled chandeliers. The elegant decor has a classic nautical feel, and our deluxe ocean view stateroom is stylishly appointed with a custom-designed ‘Ultra Tranquility Bed’, which lives up to its name.
Oceania has also considered sustainability, with onboard initiatives including the elimination of straws and the use of reusable water bottles in staterooms and restaurants. Staff still hand out single-use plastic water bottles as you head ashore unfortunately, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Our third destination, Napier, is known for its art deco architecture, as the city was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1931. The seaside town also has cute cafes and a thriving winery culture, which many guests opt to take advantage of. We instead take a shore excursion to Cape Kidnappers with Gannet Safaris Overland. After a long coach ride, navigating hair-raising clifftop turns, we arrive at the world’s largest, most accessible mainland gannet colony. It’s mesmerising watching the birds arrive home after a foraging flight to a ritual of beak tapping with their lifelong mate.
We finish with a mini tour of Napier’s art deco icons before climbing aboard for our final evening, where we dine al fresco at sunset. As we sail into Wellington, I wish we could remain on board as the ship continues down the coast of the South Island, through the spectacular fiords of Milford Sound and on to Sydney, but alas it’s back to land for us, to dream of our next cruise.
Delicious food, friendly staff and a luxurious new fitout. The small ship and high ratio of staff to passengers make for an intimate experience.
If you are wanting a more social holiday, this smaller ship may not be the best bet – you might find you’re the only one on the dance floor!
Couples or small groups wanting a relaxed, exclusive experience.