The wine tasting in Napier’s Hawkes Bay went well… fact a bit too well for some of the enthusiastic cruisers on our bus! What started out as a sedate afternoon evolved into a fun, laughter-packed afternoon and a very merry  ride back to Volendam! Let’s say room service was quite busy that night….but the lovely Sauvignon Blanc we brought back from our last winery, the Mission Estate, went down very nicely indeed.

From there the ship ventured to the New Zealand capital of Wellington, and for once we caught the picturesque city on a glorious day. Although there was some upper level fog around, for the most part it cleared to produce a glorious afternoon. We swapped our workout in Volendam’s great gym for a big walk, including a steep hike to the top of Victoria Mountain. Although I cursed enough times on my way up the panoramic views from the top were worth all the effort – and what a great way to work off some cruise food! In Wellington, we also ventured up to the Botanical Gardens, which were glorious with brightly coloured spring blooms.

Our last port of call on this cruise was Picton, deep in the heart of the stunning Queen Charlotte Sound. A sleepy if modern little port, we opted here to venture out in the areas wide open spaces. The first part was a bus ride through the countryside, with a comfort stop at a pretty garden called Pollard Park. Although this bit of the tour proved a bit too long for some of us – there were a few nodding heads on the bus – we all perked up as we arrived at the jetty to board the catamaran which would take us on the water.

This proved to be the top of many highlights of this trip, thanks to an excitable pod of bottle nose dolphins which frolicked in the water, and followed our vessel providing great photo ops for those of with quick enough fingers on our cameras. We also saw a variety of other curious wildlife including hundreds of moon jellyfish, ducks, cormorants of many types, and fish. Thanks to glorious, if cool weather, it was a wonderful tour.

Back on ship it was time to return our thoughts to packing for our departure at Christchurch, and our experience of Volendam. One thing is clear – she has a lot of loyal fans, and I think a huge part of that is down to the exceptional crew. On ground level – meaning the bars, restaurants and lounges – they are mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, and they make their countries proud. Efficient, friendly, kind and always smiling, they were able to draw genuine joy from even the most tired, cranky passenger on board.

But there’s another major draw card – Pinnacle Restaurant. This proved to be another highlight of the cruise, providing not only an intimate, elegant venue for dining, but a seriously delicious menu of cuisine which would rival anything on land. A stylish steak house, the menu was clearly aimed at meat lovers, with every cut of steak you can imagine, lobster tail, chops and more. But we had a vegetarian in our group (who didn’t eat fish) and by all accounts she enjoyed it.

My bet is that Volendam will continue win a lot of fans among local cruisers Down Under, especially after she has her stateroom makeover next year, in time for the 2011-12 season. She won’t suit everyone – her style is low key, and her age group slightly more mature – but for service, spacious public areas, value for money, and a great itinerary showcasing the best of both Australia and New Zealand, she will be hard to beat.

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