Monday, 26 March 2018

New Zealand's Fjords Are Truly Spectacular

It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of overseas travel and forget about the beauty surrounding you in your own country.  Years ago the New Zealand tourism board had a campaign with the slogan "Don't leave town until you've seen the country", the idea was to encourage people to look around New Zealand before heading overseas.  It was, and is, good advice.  I have traveled around New Zealand extensively over the years but there is still plenty more for me to see and discover in this beautiful country of ours.

Ethereal beauty of early morning in Milford Sound

Hundreds of metres high this waterfall
looks small against towering cliffs

One of the things I was most excited about on my recent cruise around New Zealand was the opportunity to see parts of the country I had never seen before and to return to places I hadn't seen in a long while.  A day spent cruising the three magnificent fjords of Milford, Doubtful and Dusky Sounds, on the west coast of the South Island, was
high on my excitement meter.  I had visited Milford Sound,  on a couple of previous occasions but had only ever seen it from the shore at the small village of Milford at the innermost point. And I had never been to Dusky Sound or Doubtful Sound so it was with  high anticipation that I was  up at the crack of dawn and out on deck in order not to miss any of the  spectacular scenery. Luckily we were blessed with a fine day, Milford Sound has annual rainfall of 6412mm and is one of the wettest places in the world. The full, informative, on board commentary, by
 a New Zealand park ranger which was piped around the decks throughout the sounds cruise was invaluable.

Amazing scenery in Milford Sound

Milford Sound - high peaks, snow capped mountains, tumbling waterfalls, magnificent
Milford Sound is New Zealand's most famous tourist destination.  Despite the fact that it is remote, and takes at a minimum a couple of hours to reach by road, it nevertheless receives around 1 million tourists a year.  Rudyard Kipling described it as "the 8th wonder of the world", high praise indeed, but well deserved.  Carved by glaciers during the ice age the 15 kilometre long inlet is surrounded by majestic peaks of sheer rock reaching up 1200 metres and more with the tallest, Elephant Peak, reaching up 1517 metres.  Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, some from a height of 1000 metres. Snow capped peaks tower over the cliffs and the green, clear, dark and mysterious water. As with both Doubtful and Dusky Sounds, Milford Sound is home to seals, penguins, dolphins and whales. It is a stunningly beautiful, ancient and timeless landscape.

Doubtful Sound with a view towards one of the three arms
Doubtful Sound, at 40 kilometres long is the longest of the sounds, with three arms and a depth of 421 metres.  Captain Cook originally named it Doubtful Harbour because he was doubtful that he could successfully navigate it under sail.  In the end he decided not to but I'm pleased we were able to. 

I was in awe and wonder at nature's majesty
Finally we cruised into Dusky Sound.  At various times inhabited by Maori and Europeans and used by Captain Cook and whalers as a base, Dusky Sound contains several large islands, has prolific seal colonies and is inaccessible except by sea.  It is wild, isolated, beautiful and unchanged since Captain Cook first sailed in in 1770.

Dusky Sound
In total we cruised for 65 nautical miles through the sounds, that is equal to just over 120 kilometres.  We cruised at the gentle speed of 10 knots, equal to 18 kilometres per hour.  It was gentle and serene and there was plenty of time to take in the spectacular scenery.

Today the word "awesome" is bandied around as a fashionable expression of approval yet it is really the best word to use, in its true sense, when describing the breathtaking majesty and beauty of the New Zealand fjords.  The wonder of these soaring peaks, deep waters, cascading waterfalls  made me feel incredibly insignificant but also incredibly joyous.  This was without doubt a truly marvelous day, well worth waiting for!

Leaving Dusky Sound to continue around New Zealand

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Queen Mary 2 - Experience the Golden Age of Travel

In the 21st century, when life seems to hurtle by at break neck speed, it is an absolute joy to turn back the clock for a while and travel from A to B at a slower more leisurely pace.  My recent 9 day cruise on the Queen Mary 2 gave me just such an opportunity.
The Queen Mary 2 in Sydney at the start of my cruise
One of 3 ships in the Cunard fleet, and the only ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2 is an elegant and gracious lady. The difference between a liner and a  cruise ship is that liners were designed to take passengers from A to B rather than on leisurely cruises.  Therefore they are built strongly to cope with all types of weather conditions which means plenty of steel in the hull, a long tapered bow and a deep draft for stability. I have to say that even through quite large swells in the Tasman Sea the ship barely rocked. Liners can also travel at speed, if required, although today some of the modern cruise ships are right up there with liners in the speed stakes.
The crew don't dress like this anymore but the traditions are largely maintained

Your TV tells you what to wear each evening
Now owned by Carnival Cruises the Cunard line is their luxury brand which trades on its British traditions and requires a certain level of formality in dress, especially after 6pm when men must wear jackets and women cocktail wear.  If this is not your idea of fun, don't travel Cunard, but for those aboard it felt very special and enjoyable to dress for dinner each evening, putting on finery and  taking a step back to the golden age of travel. I particularly loved dressing up in ball gowns for the two balls held during my trip.  It had been many, many years since I had worn a ball gown and I'd forgotten what fun it was. Day wear aboard is less formal so tee shirts and shorts are acceptable and there is also a buffet for people who do not want to dress in the evening although they are excluded from the other public areas of the ship after 6pm.

A corner of the library.  There are plenty of seats for a quiet read with a sublime view of the sea.
Entertainment?  You are spoilt for choice.  The ship contains all the amenities you could wish for including a well equipped gym, a large fully stocked library, a cinema, a theatre for live shows and lectures, a ballroom, an art gallery, numerous bars including a champagne bar, a chocolate cafe and Churchill's cigar bar, several restaurants, shops, swimming pools, deck games, a golf simulator and even, unusually, a planetarium.  After 9 days aboard ship I am certain I didn't get to see all of it, only discovering a large previously unexplored area on my last day.  The daily programe offers a variety of lectures on a broad range of subjects.  I attended a few and found them absorbing. If you have over indulged at the restaurant you can take a stroll around the promenade deck...3 laps = 1.1 mile. One of Cunard's slogans was "Getting there is half the fun"  I would add 'at least' to that slogan.  I was never bored for a moment. For me this trip was more about the ship than the destinations, although they were great too.

Balls on board are very popular...a great excuse to dress up.
In 2016 the ship received a 90 million pound upgrade and it is beautiful.  Decorated in the art deco style, which I love, the public areas are wide, spacious and grand, glowing under glittering chandeliers. I also enjoyed the galleries of historic photos relating to the Cunard line found in may different places around the ship. There were 2500 passengers and 1200 crew on our trip but at no time did it feel crowded.  It was easy to find a quiet corner to read or a peaceful lounge to sit in.  I often wondered where everybody was.

left: the Britannia Restaurant where we dined each night

Right: The Grand Lobby

Left: One of many art deco statues around the ship

Right: a spacious lobby outside a cafe and bar. The double doors at the end lead to the Britannia Restaurant

Yours truly enjoying afternoon tea in the ballroom
I have heard criticism of Cunard that all the travelers are in the older age bracket but there were plenty of younger people on board and a few well behaved children, the ship also provides a kids club. Believe it or not there is also a pets area, which is separate from the passenger area, where passengers pets are exercised and cared for by crew. There were no pets aboard on our trip.

My group of nine was sitting in a bar on our last evening when someone asked the question "Did you enjoy the cruise and do you have any complaints" Without exception all agreed that they had loved the cruise, the food and entertainment were excellent, the ship was beautiful  and the only complaint anyone could think of, and which was echoed by most, was the cost of drinks on board....A glass of wine in a bar or with dinner cost $16US!  Needless to say nobody over indulged! So be prepared for expensive drinks when on the Queen Mary 2 but be like our group and enjoy every minute of the experience.

A tip: If you don't like late nights ask for the early sitting (6.30pm) in the restaurant.  We were happy with the late sitting, (8.30pm), because we were keen to be on deck as the ship left each port but it made for very late nights as we attended the shows after dinner.