As Christina and Robert Woodroffe continue their 67-day tailor made tour they embark on a cruise from New Zealand to Australia, which they arranged independently, but if their experience appeals to you Ffestiniog Travel can plan and organise everything for you. Here is the first instalment featuring their Celebrity Solstice cruise highlights as they embark from Auckland and experience amazing places along the New Zealand coastline.
Auckland – ‘City of Sails’
Up for a pre-breakfast exploration before boarding the Celebrity Solstice and discover that water dominates Auckland with its bustling marina, hence the name "City of Sails". There are 135,000 yachts & motor launches registered here. Auckland lies in the centre of a volcanic field and one's vision of the water and land is punctuated with volcanic cones. The last one erupted 900 years ago, so we were fairly safe!
The whole impression is of wide, leafy avenues with very little traffic, even in the rush hour. Old colonial buildings blend in with new modern constructions with ease.
This capital city, situated near the tip of the North Island, has an urban population of approximately 140,000, which is 32% of the total New Zealand population. In 2011 The Mercer Quality of Living Survey listed Auckland as the 3rd most desirable city in the world to live in and I can believe that. From what I have seen I would happily live here.
We have chosen Celebrity Cruises for our journey to Australia having thoroughly enjoyed a cruise to the Eastern Mediterranean with them two years ago. The Solstice, built approx five years ago, is our home for the next 12 days. We have a stateroom on Deck 11 at the top. A more than adequate room and the afternoon canapés have arrived. Breakfast will be taken in our cabin. Why break the habit of recent years! Our next door neighbour has just poked his head round the balcony screen and said if he plays his music too loud we are to tell him. I am sure we will, (even though he is in a suite with a butler!).
Our friends Gareth and Jan from Milton Damerel have joined us for this section of our adventures. They flew into Aukland from Heathrow last night and we met up with great excitement on the boat at lunchtime. A very pleasant celebratory meal was had at the Tuscan speciality restaurant where the Fillet Mignon was excellent.
The Bay of Islands
Our first port of call. These islands are situated on the north east coast of North Island, in Northland and about 210km south of its tip. The bay is a 16 km wide irregular inlet with several arms reaching out into the water. There are many Islands in the bay, some government owned, some privately. Visitors are only allowed to camp around Otehei bay on the island of Urupukapuka, following fires set off on other Islands by visitors. It really is so tranquil here. The area was made famous by the American author Zane Gray who lived here, on Urupukapuka, in 1926.
The area was first populated over 700 years ago by Polynesians who arrived in their mataatua ( long war canoes) from Hawaiki. The first European to arrive was Captain James Cook in his ship Endeavour when he landed on Motuarohia Island in 1769.
We toured a large part of the bay and saw diverse ecology. Rolling green hills, forested areas (Manuka and Kanuka trees) and craggy outcrops. One particularly interesting area was the Black Rocks which had the same geology as the Giant's Causeway in Antrim and Fingal's cave on Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides. The familiar hexagonal basalt formation, but not as well pronounced, caused by molten lava coming into contact with cold water.
We had our first glimpse of the Pohutakawa tree. Known locally as the Christmas tree which for two weeks only in December it is covered with red flowers.
The water was equally exciting. Blue Pacific penguins, a glimpse of a hammerhead shark and dolphins. We were thrilled at the spectacle of dolphins, adults and babies, who came to play around our boat and had great fun. They jumped and leapt and generally showed off. The young also joined in. Heartbreaking that the young dolphins have only a 50% chance of survival.
We pass glorious lagoons and sandy bays, the water so clear that you could see passing large stingray and the snorkelling trails laid out. On Okahu we met Molly, a black Labrador, who sits on the end of the jetty waiting for the post and the accompanying biscuit from our boat. She likes to swim with the dolphins and the orcas and sometimes refuses to get out of the water. This usually means she has to be rescued as her neck is badly arthritic and she is in pain for days afterwards, but enjoys her games with her friends so much that she is willing to pay for it afterwards. Her exploits are apparently available to be watched on YouTube.
We then head out to sea to go to Motukokako Island (originally named Percy Island by Captain Cook after the First Lord of the Admiralty.) The island stands more than 478ft above sea level. It is famed for its hole through which the boat can pass if conditions are judged to be favourable. A boat nearby did not attempt the passage but our guide Tammy decided it was ok and so we experienced the thrill of the passage. She was an extremely skilled skipper!
We returned past the Cape Brett lighthouse, now decommissioned because of the health hazard of the mercury pond the light floated on. To get supplies up to this isolated posting, a small railway track was built. The loads were lifted up the track by a horse winding them up by walking round and round. It quickly realised that when a ship was approaching with stores, boring walking in circles would soon ensue so she made herself scarce. An internal combustion engine was soon substituted!
We headed back to Phahia , where we landed. Instead of returning to the Solstice we took the ferry to Russell, a historic seaside village and enjoyed a drink and bite on the balcony of the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club. Nobody else was there and we had a glorious setting looking over the bay with all the yachts flitting about and the shallows of the foreshore being patrolled by a giant stingray.
A marvellous day and Christina had that same misty eyed look she had when she left the Isles of Scilly for the first time. Overcome by the beauty of it all. On that occasion we ended up buying a timeshare on Tresco...
Today we arrive in Tauranga and decide to go "off piste” by hiring a car for the day. To go ashore you need both your ship's sea pass and photo identification to get back on board which cost $135 ( approx €2/£1) . Gareth drove the old silver RHD Toyota Civic with a milometer reading of 22,000, but it is probably 120,000 or even 220,000!! We cruise along serenely, wide open roads with a modicum of traffic. There are some large American type big trucks as logging is a big industry here. There were piles of tree trunks waiting to be loaded at the docks and one of the lorries we came up behind was number 558 logging truck.
Soon we enter the unfortunately named Te Puke, the Kiwi fruit capital of New Zealand. As we turned south on Route 33 we passed orchard after orchard of kiwi fruit trees. The trees grow to about six feet then the branches are trained to go up wires to an apex.
After about an hour we arrive on the outskirts of Rotorua, having driven along the length of the lake of the same name. There are 16 freshwater lakes here. Fifteen are fishable and teeming with trout - rainbow, brown, brook and the ominously named tiger trout.
Our destination is the famous geothermal springs. But could we find them ? There is an extreme paucity of road signs in NZ. Eventually about 200 yards from our destination we came across a brown sign and then we were there, the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve. Try saying that after a good night out. We knew we were in the right area as the smell of hydrogen sulphide - rotting eggs - perfumed the air.
The Maori believe that Roturoa owes its geothermal activity to an early spiritual leader called Ngatoroirangi. In Maori mythology, when the Te Arawak tribe arrived in Rorurua, Ngatoroirangi had to stand on what is now Mount Tongariro to claim the land. He got frozen and nearly died. He appealed to his sisters in Hawaiki, which if you have been paying attention you will remember it is the place the Maori originated from. They sent fire demons to his aid, which cut across the land and sea and freed him from the cold leaving a geo thermal trail in their wake. This is what is still found in Roturoa. At this site there are bubbling mud pools, from which kaolin is made - remember Kaolin & Morph mixture from your youth. Yummy!
The main attractions are the geysers. The smaller "Prince of Wales" feathers and the larger Pohutu geyser . The geyser was quietly simmering away as we approached, then a persistent rumbling increased beneath our feet and the eruption started. Boiling water and steam were shot 30 metres into the air. A nature warden who was looking for orchids said it was the best blow-out he had seen for some time. Curiously if you were caught in the water coming down, as we all were, the water was icy cold. The majestic rumbling and the power of the eruption reminds one of what is not far beneath our feet and how tenuous is the hold of life on earth.
We left the park and headed back, stopping off at Papamoa, a resort on the Bay of Plenty. A tranquil location with a long sandy beach with the sea crashing onto the shore. The average summer temperature here is 23.9 and they have an average of 2260 sunshine hours annually. The ladies took the opportunity to paddle. There were a few people bathing. A family came down to the beach. The sea temperature today the captain informed us was 20C.
We passed up the opportunity to go blokarting!
The gallant chaps returned the car, having dropped off Jan and Christina at the port gates and on reboarding, found that our wonderful ladies had afternoon tea waiting for us. We dined at Blu, the speciality restaurant reserved for the Aqua class passengers, and then to bed. Tomorrow is a day at sea and formal dining in the evening. It will be interesting to see how "formal" is interpreted by our fellow travellers as 'smart casual' seems to encompass anything and everything!