Right on cue, playful dolphins ride the white-crested waves as we cruise into New Zealand’s magnificent Milford Sound on the sleek MS Noordam, where the scenery takes centre stage, inviting choruses of admiration from guests of many nationalities.
It’s a place, regardless of how many times you may venture, that never fails to impress, and a running commentary by cruise and travel director, Chris Pappas, makes the experience even better.
Milford Sound, known as Piopiotahi in Māori, sits on the southwest coast of the South Island in the Fiordland National Park and it’s no wonder English novelist Rudyard Kipling once described it as the eighth wonder of the world.
We pass craggy mountains and watch tumbling waterfalls plummet down sheer cliffs, and view rich rainforests and silvery coloured islands that sparkle in the morning sunlight. It’s home to fur seal colonies and penguins and clearly a favourite haunt of dolphins as they dive bomb through the water like they are forming a guard of honour as we discover this wonderland.
Mid-morning, we cruise into Doubtful Sound – named by Captain James Cook because it looked a little tight for his ship, and Thompson Sound, named by a sealer after boat owner, Andrew Thompson.
Dusky Sound, the finale of the day, is the largest fiord on this coast and just as stunning.
Our 10-day Sydney to Wellington cruise calls at Melbourne, Burnie in Tasmania, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, Port Chalmers (Dunedin), Timaru, Picton, Charlotte Sound and Wellington, while the full sailing finishes in Auckland.
It doesn’t take long to succumb to the pleasures of cruising on the MS Noordam under the helm of Captain Pieter Bant. It is part of the Holland America Line’s stable that’s celebrating the 150th anniversary of cruising this year. A crew of 811 caters for 1972 passengers and surprisingly, regardless of whether you are doing laps around the promenade deck or attending an entertaining show, you never feel crowded.
Launched in 2006, the ship is named after the Dutch word for the northern compass point and has a charm about it. Taking centre stage is the three-story atrium that sparkles with a curved green glass stairway and a huge Waterford Crystal compass above. Eclectic artwork and historic photos line the walls and if you feel like taking home some art, there’s a gallery showcasing works for sale.
My stateroom is cosy and comfortable with a balcony that’s perfect for wave watching and room service breakfast. The flat-screen TV offers on-demand movies, music stations, as well as both live and pre-recorded television. You can also access ship information, dining options, an onboard activities schedule, shore excursions, and port details. A compact ensuite is well stocked and there’s a mini-fridge, desk and couch.
The elegant fine-dining Pinnacle Grill with its swish décor is impressive and offers fabulous cuisine and presentation and polished service.
It’s known for its steakhouse dishes – the menu features a selection of 28-day wet-aged prime steaks, meticulously chosen to guarantee the finest quality and innovative recipes from James Beard Award-winning chef and Culinary Council member, David Burke. The filet mignon with béarnaise sauce is cooked to perfection and a good size while the whopping Tomahawk bone rib eye for two is enormous. Classic seafood and vegetarian options are also available. It is perfect for special occasion dining – an extra charge applies and bookings are essential.
My favourite for casual dining is Canaletto Restaurant in a corner of the Lido Restaurant that serves hearty and tasty Italian dishes. Think delicious antipasti, soups such as minestrone and langoustine-tomato soup, and pasta including seafood linguini and spaghetti and meatballs. I ordered the scallopine alla caprese twice and was tempted to return for a third. Tiramisu, gelato and the Sicilian Marzipan Cassata Torte are also recommended.
“It’s as good as you’ll get in Italy,” says our jovial waiter José as he whistles That’s Amore.
The main dining room serves breakfast, a leisurely lunch and multi-course dinner with classics such as Boneless Lamb Loin en Croute, Rosemary Roasted Chicken, as well as regionally inspired cuisine and artfully prepared vegetarian dishes.
The Lido Market is great for casual dining with marketplace food stations and various international cuisines at the Distant Lands Bar. Few can bypass the Breadboard with freshly baked breads and pastries and the salad bar, Wild Harvest is where you can make up your own fresh salad.
The Homestead Bar offers comfort classics and head to the Sweet Spot for ice cream and decadent treats. Poolside there’s a Mexican Bar and burgers and hot dogs at Dive-In are delicious – the chips are up there with the best I have tasted. As for the cocktails – master mixologist Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail has devised some beauties such as the gin-based Strange Brew and the rum-infused Flor de Jerez.
For a caffeine hit, head to Explorations Café which is always busy.
Activities & entertainment
It’s fun singing along and foot tapping at Billboard Onboard where two talented pianists who can also belt out a song entertain on two pianos with a repertoire spanning 60 years of chart toppers. Music trivia and the Team Trivia Challenge are a popular daily activity.
Colouring for adults has a following, along with dance and fitness classes, bridge competitions and pickleball tournaments, while the pool is a popular haunt for all ages.
HAL has a partnership with BBC Earth, and you can see incredible wildlife footage in The World Stage, and if musicals and dancing are your thing – catch the Step One Dance Company performances.
Nightly entertainment can vary – everything from a comedian to polished classical performers.
Many gravitate to the gym, especially after all those delicious indulgent treats and as a bonus, the treadmills overlook the bow of the ship where you may spot a dolphin.
A new friend I meet while doing some laps on deck says she always wears her tightest clothes in the first few days of a cruise as they become even tighter as it progresses, and she always takes the stairs.
The beautiful spa boasts tranquil sea views and offers some incredible pampering treatments.
Get down tonight
Music and dance lovers will enjoy toe-tapping, eclectic entertainment in the popular Rolling Stone Lounge where rock, pop, country, soul and rock and roll hits star. The lounge features a seven-member party band that plays hits of all genres from the past 60 years. Many shows are themed and have a big following for those who enjoy a boogie on the dance floor.
The family-run Natures Wonders tour is a special experience and includes a panoramic coastal drive along the Otago Peninsula to the Taiaroa Head Wildlife Habitat where we spy on the cutest sea lions and fur seals at play.
Our guide says, “Taiaroa Head is unique for the diversity of wildlife that abounds on the small headland.” English botanist David Bellamy describes it as one of the finest examples of eco-tourism in the world. We board an eight-wheel drive vehicle known as an Argo for a scenic off-road journey and take a peek at the world’s rarest penguins, the hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin and blue penguins as they waddle freely about Penguin Beach. The owners, the Reids closed the beach to people years ago and it’s now the domain of these penguins which you can see from afar and in a few nesting boxes.
It’s a fabulous insight into these species that are now thriving.
And the verdict?
It’s a super-relaxing cruise that showcases some of Australia’s and New Zealand’s most stunning landscapes, cities and towns.
Just as well a mat reveals what day it is when you enter the lift – it’s easy to lose track when you are under the cruising spell of MS Noordam.