A visit to a Dark Sky sanctuary, fishing trips and fabulous food experiences are transforming the New Zealand cruise experience.

Princess Cruises, who carry a quarter of Australians who cross the Tasman, have transformed their Across the Ditch program with up to 20 exclusive and immersive experiences to make it as much about what’s on shore as what’s on their ships.

Majestic Princess will launch an industry-first next month when guests will be able to experience a star-studded visit to the Great Barrier Island, one of only four Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world.

Astro-tourism is becoming increasingly popular as city skies are polluted by power, lights and smog.

Only 1000 people live on this eco-friendly island, which really is off the grid – powered by solar energy only.

Located 100 kilometres from Auckland, the island’s night sky, unpolluted by electric light, is one of the cleanest and brightest on the planet.

It all starts with a 30-minute flight on a light plane.

Visiting the island is like taking a step back in time. Here, everyone knows one another, doors are unlocked and neighbours swop home-cooked bread for fruit. The local school is run by volunteers.

It is a haven for birds, including the dotterel, oystercatchers, kaka (parrot) and the threatened pateke (brown teal). More than three-quarters of the island is covered in native bush.

But it’s when darkness calls that the island comes into its own.

We gather on the outdoor verandah of Trillium Lodge to gaze at the heavens. It is magical. Millions of stars twinkle bright and clear. It is as if the planets are so close you can reach out to touch them.

Deborah Kilgallon, founder of Good Heavens – a Dark Sky Experience, points out the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and how the stars work in the galaxy.  She regales us with fascinating stories of Maori legends and how they are linked to the night sky.

No artificial light, candles, mobile phones are allowed. We watch, literally star-struck. There are falling stars, blue-coloured stars, red-coloured stars all twinkling intensely in the night sky.

After three hours, we have a cup of hot chocolate and watch the clouds gently drift by obscuring some of the wonders that have kept us enthralled.

We retire, thoroughly amazed and humbled by the experience.

At Tauranga, we drive to Rotorua to visit Te Puia to learn about Maori culture and visit a school where 18-year-old Maoris are taught the ancient art of wood carving.

We enjoy a hangi lunch of prawns, green-lipped mussels and eggs cooked in a boiling cooking pool. The food is wrapped in flax baskets and quickly lowered into the boiling water. It’s all cooked in eight minutes.

We also watch the steaming Pohutu geyser as she hisses away and shoots steam up to 30 metres high, twice an hour.

We then drive to a kiwi orchard to taste and learn why NZ’s Bay of Plenty produces 80 per cent of all the kiwi fruit produced in the country – thanks to its rich volcanic soil, lots of rainfall and winter frost.

We taste gold and green kiwi ice cream, gold and green kiwi juices, fresh fruit and gold kiwi fruit relish.

No visit to Rotorua is complete without a visit to a Comvita Honey – one of the country’s leading producer of manuka honey, known for its anti-bacterial and healing qualities. We taste different manuka honey, some infused with ginger and lemon and they are all delicious.

Once upon a time, a shore excursion meant a rickety bus ride to a souvenir factory, and back to the ship for lunch.

The new Across the Ditch program is an amazing cross between adventure, expedition and food and drink experience.

And it takes a cruise to Kiwi land to a whole new level.