A breeze sighs across the harbour, rouging my cheeks. The ship gives a mighty toot and slides away from Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf as evening lights twinkle. Unexpected glimpses of the city’s skyscrapers appear between rounded hills as we sail away. Rangitoto’s ancient volcano is bulky in the moonlight.
Auckland, like my final destination Sydney, is a top harbour from which to depart (or arrive) by cruise ship. But it isn’t only the landscapes on this voyage that will impress: I’m settling in on Seven Seas Mariner, which bills itself as a six-star experience. With New Zealand’s most beautiful ports to come, as well as stops in Hobart and Melbourne and three relaxing days at sea, it’s a dream escape.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises has seemingly high fares, but they include pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, gratuities, specialty restaurants and onboard beverages, apart from premium alcohol. Unusually, daily shore excursions are also included (there are additional, paid specialised tours, too). You can sail off and never spend an extra cent, but book excursions online early, since limited spaces mean that not all passengers get their first choice.
Some $25 million was spent last year on refurbishments for Seven Seas Mariner, and it shows. It doesn’t look like a ship launched in 2001, thanks to new carpeting, revamped bar areas and luxury additions to cabins, such as flat-screen televisions, plush bedding and (in higher-level suites) iPod systems. A few public areas retain an old-fashioned, even slightly gloomy decor, but there’s little faulting the overall sense of quality, comfort and space. For a mid-size ship (50,000 tons and 700 passengers), it feels exceptionally roomy.
Regent has a welcome, somewhat retro sense that cruising should still be about service, space and comfort instead of glitzy amenities. Look for ice rinks and roller discos and be disappointed. Mariner has a library, upmarket boutique, card room, Canyon Ranch Spa Club and – its only hint of flashiness – a casino. It never feels crowded, except (in a convivial way) for Coffee Connection cafe, a popular gathering place mid-morning and after shore excursions. Mariner is a quiet ship, suited to those looking for a refined atmosphere rather than rowdy activity.
The ship is lovely but, this being New Zealand, getting off is lovelier. Our first port of call is Tauranga, where we dock under Mt Maunganui and can disembark almost right into shopping streets or onto a gorgeous four-kilometre coastal walking track. In Napier, some passengers head to golf courses, but I’m content to tour the art deco town’s highlights with entertaining local guide Will.
On board, entertainment is traditional: shuffleboard, putting, paddle-tennis, bingo, fitness, enrichment lectures. I’m a devotee of trivia over afternoon tea. In the evenings, Broadway-style shows and headline acts pack the Constellation Theatre, an impressive two-tiered space with fabulous lighting and a great resident band.
On our Napier evening, the ship’s bell sounds at 6pm for Regent’s distinctive Block Party. It’s a great idea: we step into the corridor, where champagne and canapes are served as we get to know our neighbours. The majority of passengers are American, with a fair number of Canadians, Europeans and British. Not all are retirees. Younger couples are celebrating special anniversaries or de-stressing from work.
Mariner is appealing for providing a luxe experience without formality. The evening dress code is smart casual; during the day shorts, T-shirts and jeans appear. Happily, my suit hangs unused in my walk-in wardrobe.
My cabin (Concierge class) is elegant, but I feel I can still put my feet up. There’s a sofa and armchair in the living area (Mariner is an all-suite ship) and two further armchairs on the balcony, a feature common to every cabin. Everything from fresh fruit and flowers to the Illy coffee machine is luxurious, but the bathroom falls far short of six-star, with a very cramped shower-bath combination and only adequate water pressure.
As the week progresses, we arrive in smaller ports but bigger landscapes. The sail into Picton through Queen Charlotte Sound is magnificent. I sit on La Veranda restaurant’s deck, tucking into salmon bagels as we glide through island-dotted blue waters flanked by green hills. Akaroa is browner but equally beautiful as we’re tendered off the ship for a day among farms and gardens.
The 11th-deck Observation Lounge is a fabulous perch from which to view the scenery, and also my favourite bar area for its light-and-bright decor. But live music in the Horizon Lounge is also a lure, and the low-lit, intimate Mariner Lounge provides cosy pre-dinner G&Ts and murmured conversation.
For a mid-size ship, there’s a good choice of dining venues, too. Compass Rose, the main dining space, is elegantly presented. Tables by the windows provide sparkling lunchtime outlooks. La Veranda is the informal alternative, converting in the evenings to Sette Mari, where the buffet is supplemented by a la carte Italian choices. The Pool Grill and regular themed buffets (Mexican, seafood) are laid-back lunch choices on the deck. You can order anything from anywhere and dine in your cabin – room service is included.
There are two specialty evening restaurants, also at no additional charge though with limited seating, so you’ll only dine there once or twice on a cruise. Prime 7 features prime American beef and seafood, Signatures offers French cuisine. You expect specialty restaurants to offer a memorable dining experience, but some dishes disappoint, most are just good, none are exceptional – though scallops with smoked bacon and savoy cabbage come close. I reckon Compass Rose has the most consistently good cuisine, and a wide range of choices. Accompanying breads, salads and closing cheese plates are always excellent.
If I had to choose a single highlight (apart from Milford Sound on a blue-sky day) it would be Mariner’s service. With 445 crew members to keep 700 passengers happy, whims are almost anticipated. Twice-daily housekeeping service is well nigh flawless, waiters efficient and patient with every requested change to orders. This is a true holiday with no worries and the most delightful of pampering.