My wife and I had long wanted to travel “down under,” and so, with our two adult sons joining us, we scheduled ourselves for a ten-day cruise of New Zealand from which we returned just after Christmas. We had previously taken cruises of the Caribbean Islands, Alaska (the Inland Passage) and Eastern Canada with the Celebrity and Holland America cruise lines. And we had never been disappointed in the experiences those cruises provided.
But this time, our travel agent recommended the Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas. The Radiance is a slightly smaller ship than some of the others we have been on, but it is still a healthy-sized vessel (with no fewer than thirteen decks). And, as with all the other cruises we have experienced, they feed you constantly and in great quantities. Happily, with very few exceptions, the food was all very good on this cruise. My only disappointments were the beef and fish. The beef lacked tenderness and the fish was often overbaked (for my tastes at least).
But meals are provided in the main dining room every morning and evening (two seatings, one early, one late) and in the large buffet dining room for breakfast (everything you could possibly want), lunch and dinner. And there are several side eateries (pool side and off the main deck) where you can grab snacks just about 24/7. Or, you can order room service (also 24/7) with a shorter menu of options. So, suffice it to say that you shouldn’t ever be hungry. In fact, if you’re not careful, you’ll gain a few pounds, since you can order as much as you want (two or three appetizers and a couple of entrees were not unusual for any or all of the four of us).
They also know how to keep you entertained on a ship like the Radiance. Our cruise director, a perpetually happy and highly talented guy of around 40, was the MC for a variety of entertainment specials in the large stage hall every night of the cruise. Three of these specials featured completely produced song-and-dance performances with a nine-piece orchestra, four professional singers and eight dancers. On the other nights, we were entertained by stand-up comedians, singers or dancers who were brought on board just for their single performances.
Ships like the Radiance don’t make any money on the food or entertainment. Where they do make a few bucks is on the alcohol, the gambling, the merchandise, the photos, and the shore excursions they provide. Alcohol is offered everywhere, and most drinks ranged from $8 to $10 for a cocktail or glass of wine to $30 or $40 for a bottle of wine or champagne. And while those prices aren’t exorbitant, it’s the volume that must produce the revenue because drinking, if that’s your thing, seems almost de rigueur on a cruise.
Gambling is available in the casino that is open every evening. While I didn’t see a lot of activity at most of the tables, there was enough to suggest that the ship’s revenue is enhanced by that part of the cruise experience. The on-board shops offer everything from cheap watches (I bought one for $10 that the saleswoman told me, quite frankly, was a cheap watch that I’d be lucky to get two years of life out of) to expensive artwork (I wandered into the art shop at one point and was immediately shown a lithograph by an artist I wasn’t familiar with that was available for something like $5,200).
You are photographed constantly on the ship, whether you want to be or not. And since almost everyone is happy to be photographed with their family members or spouses or friends, many of those photos provide nice souvenirs. The photos are displayed in display cases throughout the cruise and you can buy them in a variety of packages for prices ranging from $50 for a set of four to $299 for the complete package of every photo taken of your party over the ten days. After some debate amongst ourselves we opted for the complete package and ended up with about 70 photos, in only a few of which did one of us have a weird look or closed eyes.
The shore excursions are where I think a cruise ship must make its big bucks. We avoided these entirely. They run anywhere from $75 for a simple tour of the port to $150 or more for a tour bus to take a bunch of your fellow passengers to a viewing spot or a famous landmark. The big tour on our cruise was to the set location for “The Lord of the Rings,” outside of Napier on New Zealand’s North Island. Tickets for it were $175 each. Instead of paying for the tour bus excursions, we went into the port towns and rented cars (usually around $100 with gas for the day) and plotted our own tours.
And in those tours we saw the beauty of New Zealand, which, as I’ve indicated, is divided into the North and South Islands. The vistas on both are gorgeous, and we hiked to some, drove to others, and took our own photos everywhere. New Zealand’s three main towns are Auckland (northernmost), Wellington (the capital, at the southern tip of the North Island) and Christchurch (inland from Akoroa on the southern part of the South Island). These are small to medium sized cities (Auckland approaches one million; the others are smaller) that are very European in feel. (The entire population of New Zealand is only four-and-a-half million.) But American culture is also evident in these cities, with Starbuck’s, McDonald’s and Subway’s franchises almost as ubiquitous as they are in the States.
But once you get out of the metropolitan areas, the landscapes are spectacular with open grazing sheep spotting green fields that abut mountainous terrains. We were there at the start of the summer season, and the temperatures ranged from the mid-60s to the mid-80s (Fahrenheit; that would be from around 18 degrees to around 30 degrees Celsius). While the weather can be inclement even at the height of summer (New Zealand’s South Island reaches as far south as the southern part of Alaska’s Inland Passage does north), we were told it never gets unduly cold along the coastal communities, even in the dead of winter.
The height of sightseeing on our cruise, however, occurred right on the decks of our ship on the eighth day, when we sailed into New Zealand’s Fiordland, where eleven separate sounds exist. The sounds, we sailed through five, are massive inlets where the sea has carved itself into the mountainous land that surrounds it. In the last of these sounds, Milford, our ship sailed within fifty yards of a majestic waterfall and lingered there for thirty minutes as everyone on the many decks took photos and wondered at the beauty of nature unadorned.
The other aspect of New Zealand that I found especially appealing was the people, who were uniformly friendly and unassuming. My wife and I played nine holes of golf outside of Dunedin (on the South Island) on a public course where a friendly club member and his wife lent us a golf cart and provided us with clubs and balls. After our round, the couple treated us to drinks as they chatted with us about the ways of life in our respective countries. As was true of all the residents we asked, they never lock the doors of their home.
The English-speaking Kiwis were the invaders, of course, but they differ from their American counterparts in that they honor the native peoples, the Maori. In every town, for example, the signs are printed in Maori and English, and in the major art museum we visited in Wellington, the bulk of the art was from the Maori period of New Zealand’s history.
When we did speak to residents (or to shipmates on the cruise who were from New Zealand or Australia), the conversation not infrequently turned to our recent election. Without exception, the folks we spoke to from the other side of the world were shocked or at least surprised (and confused) at our election of Donald Trump. They don’t understand it and are frank to say so. (On this point, I will confess that we were hard-pressed to offer an explanation.)
Our cruise ended on Boxing Day (December 26), which meant we celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the ship, and the crew put on a great show for all of us, with a major sing-along of carols on Christmas Eve (after the production show on the big stage) and a full day of activities (including showing the 2009 Disney animated film of “A Christmas Carol”) on the big day itself.
We ended the cruise in Sydney, Australia, which looked very much like a major city (perhaps not unlike San Francisco). But, alas, we were immediately whisked to the airport for our fourteen hour flight back to Los Angeles. Those parts of the vacation (getting there and getting back) were the only really difficult aspects of the trip. We flew an American Airlines flight to Auckland and a Quantas flight back. Both were about as pleasant as they could be (with non-stop video of movies and TV shows and audio of all kinds of music, and with three hot meals served both ways). But fourteen hours in cramped airplane seats is what it is, and if you have a touch of claustrophobia (I do), it isn’t ideal.
But, having endured the flights, I can say without hesitation, that I would happily endure them again for another cruise of the beautiful islands of New Zealand. And if the cruise ship was the Radiance of the Seas or another of the Royal Caribbean fleet, I’d be happier still.