So you have an idea about my past experience cruising I have sailed 20 times besides this cruise on Princess, Celebrity, Holland American, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian. Itineraries so far include the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Hawaii, Tahiti and Norway. My favorite line so far is Princess, the food on Celebrity and the entertainment on Princess but all of the different lines have something to recommend them in my experience.
One part of the world I had always wanted to visit was both Australia and New Zealand but had never been able to take the time off to really justify such a destination. When the company I worked for closed and I was out of a job I figured I would use the opportunity to take my "dream" vacation. I signed up for the 16 day cruise on the HAL Prinsendam sailing from Sydney, Australia on 11/20/02 and ending in Auckland, New Zealand on 12/6/02. To really do it right I added a week in Sydney prior, and a week in Auckland after the cruise. The following are some of my thoughts on the experience.
I flew to Sydney on United Airlines on Tues. Nov 12 departing at 10:50pm and arrived in Sydney on Thurs. morning Nov 14 at about 8:30am. The long flight was not nearly as bad an experience as I had feared, but 14 ½ hours is still a very long trip. As I live in the SF Bay area, when I boarded the plane it was my normal bedtime and I slept most of the way. It never seemed like I was sleeping but whenever I looked at my watch it was a couple of hours later. Most of the flight was in the dark and only as we approached Sydney did the sun come up and it felt like a normal morning after a long sleep. Luckily I felt no effects of jet lag at all and had no problem beginning my explorations.
To reach my hotel in the city I used the excellent Airport Express bus system to be dropped off directly in front of my hotel, the Russell Hotel in the historic Rocks district. The Russell was recommended very highly by a local Internet friend Glenn and by my sister who had previously stayed there. I have to agree with them both and this was a fantastic relatively inexpensive place to stay in probably the best location in Sydney. The Russell is right at the foot of Circular Quay and the ferry terminal, almost across the street from the Passenger Ship terminal and in sight of both the Opera house and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The Russell is listed as a "small hotel" and could be almost called a large B & B. Staff was very friendly, and all the guests I encountered also enjoyed the atmosphere of a smaller hotel. I highly recommend you check into the Russell if you are visiting Sydney. Their website is: www.therussell.com.au
After getting settled in I met my Internet friend Glenn for the first time and he gave me a quick orientation tour around the Opera house and the Rocks district pointing out sights and making restaurant recommendations. After a bite to eat Glenn headed back to the office and I was on my own. The first thing I did was give myself a quick tour of the city by heading down George Street to the Sydney town and head for the observation level. Once on top I had a breathtaking view of the entire Sydney area. Also located here is the main shopping area along Pitt Street. Next stop was down to the Darling harbor area and finally back to my hotel. Over the course of the next week I would do this walk numerous times, from the ferry terminal down to Darling harbor is about a 20-25 minute walk, or a short ride by ferry. (just make sure you get on the right one, I took a short unexpected harbor tour when I got on the wrong one)!
Over the next few days I saw many of the sights Sydney had to offer. As the next day it was raining (and badly needed in the area) I decided to visit the Maritime Museum. This was very nice, and I did the full tour through both an Australian submarine and destroyer docked at the pier. After going through the sub I was sure glad that I would be sailing above the water rather than below it! When I woke up the next morning and the sun was shining I decided it would be a great day to take the ferry over to the beachside town of Manly. Ferries ran pretty frequently and I boarded one of the first ones over that day. After a 35-45 minute ride through the harbor we arrived in Manly. As it was a Saturday morning there were lots of families out enjoying the day wandering around and relaxing on the beach. During a short walk along the shore I noticed a large crowd on the beach and went over to investigate. Turns out it was a Charity event, and two person teams were to paddle in small inflatable rafts over to a nearby cove. All the participants were in some sort of costume with pirates, superman, a ballerina and one team in tuxedos in evidence. It sure was hilarious to watch them battle the surf right of the beach and then paddle across the water. Watching all the fun made for an enjoyable day.
The next day, Sunday, I headed across the harbor to Taronga Zoo. Be sure and purchase the combination ferry / admission ticket to save some money. Again because of the gorgeous weekend weather it was filled with many families and groups of kids out enjoying their time together. This a very nice zoo, it is built down a hillside and you take a cable car up to the top and sort of walk down the hill looking at the exhibits before ending up at the bottom and the ferry. This has fantastic views across the harbor looking back at Sydney and is nice place to spend at least a couple of hours. In the afternoon I headed down to the Darling Harbor area, which is a great meeting place. This area has lots of museums, the aquarium an IMAX theater and numerous restaurants, cafes and stores. It reminded me lot of the Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghiradelli Square area of San Francisco.
On Monday I explored more of the Rocks area and walked up o the top of the pylon of the Sydney harbor bridge. This is not the bridge climb where you go right to the top of the bridge but climb up inside the pylon for a nice view for about $5 instead of $150. That evening I again met Glenn and he drove me up to the Bond beach area where he had grown up. After showing me his old schools and home we had dinner a nice seaside pub and steakhouse.
Having a hotel in the Rocks district was very nice. This area had lots of restaurants and shops, and was only a very short walk to either the Opera House or the bridge. On the weekends the main street was closed to traffic and a craft market set up. Because of the holiday season there was also live music on Friday night. This was really nice to walk around and enjoy, and fantastic being just down the street from my hotel.
On Tues. I finally left the Sydney area and took a tour into the Blue Mountains. This was booked through the hotel and was with Dal Myles Tours. (wwwdalmylestours.com) An all day tour, this had a little bit of everything from a ferry ride, a stop at a wildlife park, and lots of scenic views, to a nice lunch. All in all a nice end to my Sydney visit.
I can't say enough about my visit to Sydney. This is a very friendly city with lots to see and do. The views of the harbor are stunning, especially at night. My hotel was in a perfect location to explore from, and close to the ferries and Opera house. If you can, make an effort to spend more than a day or two before any cruise.
I awoke on Wed 11/20 to see the HAL Prinsendam docked almost across the street from my hotel. The time had come to leave Sydney and start the cruise portion of my adventure The Prinsendam is smaller cruise ship at 38,000 tons, 673 feet long and a capacity of 794 passengers. As she was docked very close to the Russell it was easy to head over later that morning. The terminal is very small and embarkation was done differently than on any other cruise I've been on.
At the pier we went thru security and were directed directly onto the Prinsendam. Here we were all gathered into the main show lounge, the Queens Lounge. As we entered we were handed numbers and were then called in small groups to head to the pursers desk where the actual check-in took place. Because of the small passenger load this was a fairly easy straightforward procedure. It turns out that we only had about 550 passengers aboard for our cruise, I was told that previous segments had only between 250-350 aboard! This procedure worked out well but could have used a bit more announcements as to what was going on.
My cabin was a standard outside on the lowest deck (Dolphin) starboard and forward G409. Overall I found it to be a very nice cabin, one of the larger ones I've had on any cruise. This was the first time I've had a walk-in closet, it had lots of hanging space, a number of shelves and the safe. I actually put a small chair from the main cabin in here that I hadn't planned to use and the closet was still very roomy. The bathroom was immediately behind this and was also quite large. Again one of the largest showers I've ever had. From emails with others who had sailed on the Prinsendam it seems my bathroom had been remodeled with new tile, cabinets and fixtures just before my cruise and looked brand new. Very nice.
The rest of the cabin had twin beds, which I had made into a double, a small sofa, desk and a credenza housing the TV in the corner. Because of my forward location and the curve of the hull there was a small maybe 2' wide raised platform shelf between the room and the portholes in the ship side. This actually made the room seem larger and made a nice place to store my camera bag and misc. stuff. Overall decor was done with dark wood, which I liked a lot.
Cabin was pretty quiet, I only heard an unlatched door banging against a bulkhead one night in heavy seas. Otherwise I never heard any noise from the nearby cabins or the hallway.
Generally I thought that the ship was larger than I was expecting. I had sailed on the small Island Princess back in 1998 and was expecting something along that line but was pleasantly surprised. The ship was in very nice shape and I saw no signs that she was as old as she was. The only area under repair was the top forward deck where the carpeting was in the process of being removed for replacement. All interior areas were very nice, although much smaller than the bigger ships. I really liked the several open stern decks, as these were almost always deserted.
Finally we sailed from Sydney, but in a rain squall which made visibility very poor. Because of this the excitement of leaving the gorgeous Sydney harbor was not nearly what I had hoped. With the weather we had some heavy seas that day that carried on during the next sea day on the way to Melbourne. At least the sea day gave me time to get settled into my new home for the next couple of weeks.
The next morning under a blue sky we docked in Melbourne. The city center is located a short distance from the pier and there is a small rail line with trolley cars to take you into the city at minimal cost. As I had no real plans I just wandered around the city and along the riverfront. On the way back to the ship I went thru the Maritime Museum and the Exhibition Center complex, and visited the casino across the street. After another trolley ride I was back at the Prinsendam for a sail away at dinnertime.
Beauty Point, Tasmania
The next morning we docked in Beauty Point on the West coast of Tasmania. There is not much at the pier area and Holland America provided a free shuttle bus into the town of Launceston nearly 45 minutes away. Very nice HAL! The drive was thru gorgeous rolling green hills and along the inlet. This area was beautiful, one of the nicest on the entire cruise. Once in town I took a walk over to Cataract Gorge, about 1 1/2 miles from the town center. I had a nice time wandering around the gorge and associated gardens and was amused when the ship tours were rushed thru the same area in only a few minutes. And my tour was free! After this I headed back to the main downtown area where there were lots of locals out enjoying a beautiful Sat afternoon doing pre-Christmas shopping. Decorations were up and the main department store had lines to view their window displays. This was a very nice little town, and if the rest of Tasmania is as pretty I would not mind going back for a longer visit.
Sea days, Milford Sound
Next up was a couple of sea days heading over to New Zealand. The first day was OK but as we got closer to NZ it started to cloud up and the seas got a little rougher. The Prinsendam rode fairly well considering her size but you sure could tell she was moving around. On the second day HAL had us go thru NZ customs in one of the lounges, a very good idea that saved us having to do this before going ashore in our first port of call.
The next morning we arrived into Milford Sound to overcast skies and a light drizzle. This was a very impressive area with numerous waterfalls and it must be stunning in the sunshine. As it was it is still pretty spectacular even in the rain, very similar to areas I've visited in Alaska and Norway. As we sailed away later that morning we met some really bad weather. Winds picked up into the 60-70 knot range and the seas built higher. Boy was the ship moving around for a while :) Later that afternoon the Captain detoured into a sheltered passage to give a smoother ride but that was only a short relief.
Port Chalmers (Dunedin)
On the strong recommendation of several friends I booked a tour on the Taieri Gorge Railway. After a short ride from the ship to the station we boarded the train for our tour. The train was nicely restored and the guides were very helpful pointing out sights and talking about the local history. The scenery was spectacular as we rode thru the canyons and over many viaducts. After a couple hour ride we reached the end of the line and were then loaded onto buses for the trip back to Dunedin. Before being returned to the ship the driver gave us a nice tour throughout the city. One place that looked gorgeous was the main Railway station, sure wish I could have stopped to walk thru it.
Another day, another train ride. Today I took the Tranz Alpine Express train tour, a full day excursion. This was a modern train compared to yesterdays in Dundein and after an hour or so ride we entered the mountains. As we climbed thru the alpine scenery to Arthurs Pass I spent most of the time on the outside platform between cars taking photos. At the pass we were then transferred to buses and driven to a large tent set up in a field in an alpine valley and the scenery was beautiful. Lunch was a very good buffet and the timing was perfect as 5 minutes after we boarded the buses for the trip back to the ship it started raining. After a couple hour ride thru the spectacular NZ countryside we reached Christchurch for a quick tour thru the city. Part of the fun today was trying to pick out the areas that parts of the Lord of the Rings had been filmed in. I can sure see why New Zealand was picked for the location of this film.
After two full days of tours I decided to take a break and just walk around town. Picton is a pretty small town with only a few streets, and I ended up hiking up a trail along a ridge across from the ship to a nice viewpoint in a park. Very nice view back to the ship and down the Queen Charlotte Sound, all in all a nice relaxing afternoon.
This was a very nice town, it has some of the best weather in NZ and is a popular local destination. HAL again offered a free shuttle into town, a nice touch. As it was a Saturday there was a big craft / flea market in one of the downtown squares that was fun to wander about. Lots of people were about enjoying the day out at all the sidewalk cafes. I had a nice stop at the local Holden car dealership checking out the cars and picking up brochures for friends back home.
As this was a Sunday I figured it would be a good time for another tour. After hearing from other passengers about their quad bike tour the previous day I signed up for the Farm Adventure by Quad bike. This turned out to be great and one of the better tours on all my cruises. We were taken to the starting point on a farm about 1/2 hour from the ship. After a comprehensive 30 minute training/safety lesson on the quads we were off thru the countryside. Riding along dirt trails along the ridge tops and thru gorgeous green hills filled with sheep was fantastic. Eventually we made our way right down to the beach for a shore side snack. After this our time was up and we had to head back. This was a fantastic couple of hours and everyone really enjoyed the tour. Rider/drivers ranged from about 20-70 years old and the one older woman did a great job. She had a huge smile on her face to have done this herself. I was very impressed by the whole operation and the guides and highly recommend them. They are All Track adventures and their website is www.alltrack.co.nz
After this tour I spent some time in the city itself. Main highlight was the Wellington cable car with great views of the city and harbor area. The ship was docked right downtown and it sure was nice to be able to walk right off the ship and be in town.
This town is famous for its Art Deco buildings but I didn't find it anything special. It was a nice town and had a nice downtown shopping street. I wandered out to the edge of town and again found several car dealerships to visit. Very interesting to compare the cars available here versus those at home in the USA.
Tour time again, I booked the full day Fascinating Rotorua tour. This one had a little bit of everything. After leaving Tauranga, itself a holiday resort destination for the locals, we headed to Rotora. First stop was at the Agrodome for a sheep shearing demonstration and display of the many types of sheep. After this was a buffet lunch and a Maori dance show. Following this was a tour thru the thermal reserve called Te Whakarewarewa. This area had mud pots, hot pools and geysers along with a Maori art display. Finally after a long day we headed back to the ship. This whole area has a huge amount of tourists and there was lots to see and do.
Interesting to note that while we were sailing away I noticed a lot of activity on a pier about 1/2 mile behind us. There was a lot of flashing lights, and then a fire truck started shooting water onto a freighter. It was shortly joined by a fireboat and for the 10-15 minutes they were in view continued pumping water onto this ship. The next day I asked one of the shore excursion people about it and they called the bridge to inquire about it. Turns out it was just a harbor fire drill but it sure looked real to me!
Bay of Islands
Finally our last port of call, as the cruise is coming to an end. This was our only tender port and it was handled well with little waiting. Of course with only 500+ passengers how long could the lines be? The tenders dropped us off in the very little town of Russell, the smallest of all those we visited. This really only had one street and there was not much activity even with the passengers from the ship in town.. I boarded the local ferry for a short 15 minute ride across the bay to the town of Paiha as it was a bigger town. Once ashore I walked along the waters edge heading towards a shipwreck museum only to find it was undergoing restoration. Oh well, it was a nice walk. Back in town I had lunch and shopped for some final souvenirs. This was a nice little town along with Russell, and a nice end to the cruise
The next morning we were in Auckland for the end of the cruise. This ended up be one of the most disorganized disembarking I've experienced. I can't really blame HAL so much as the local port facilities as we got off the ship fairly quickly. The problem then was the lack of sufficient luggage carts. After waiting almost 1/2 hour after finding the luggage I finally left the pier by taxi for my post cruise hotel. Again not really HAL's fault but they should have been aware of the problem, I can't imagine the chaos when a larger ship arrives.
Misc. Cruise thoughts
Because its such a personal preference I won't go into many details on the food as everybody likes something different, let's just say I didn't go hungry. I ate about 1/2 the dinners in the main dining room and the other 1/2 in the evening alternative Lido option. I was happy with service and food in both places and have no real complaints. The Lido was very under used and few people seemed to take advantage of this option. It was open from 6:30pm - 8:00pm every night and when I would go in around 7:00pm I was usually # 7 or # 8 to be seated. Granted our cruise was pretty empty but this is sad that so few took advantage of this excellent option.
One thing that I did love was the ice cream / cookie bar that was open twice daily. After about the second day aboard I was nicknamed the "cookie monster" as every time I passed by I had to grab a couple! The chef for these sure had the right recipes, they were very good. The free ice cream is a very popular feature on HAL and I ate more than my fair share.
The entertainment was not to my taste, and this was also the case on my previous HAL cruises. They were well received by most other passengers but just not my style. I did like the fact that even on such a small ship there was a separate movie theater but this was also frequently empty. I doubt I attended a showing with more than a dozen people, and once was the only person watching the movie. Because of the low passenger count other activities were also frequently canceled because of poor attendance. I sat thru several port/shore excursion talks where there were less than 10 people in the lounge. On another day I saw bingo being canceled because there were not enough players, and the newlywed game at its start had 4 couples on stage and 4 couples in the audience!
Overall I really liked the Prinsendam, I think I prefer the smaller size ships. It sure makes getting around easy and going from one location to another very quick. There was lots of exterior viewing areas, and a full walk around promenade deck. The tiered stern decks were a nice place to be sheltered from the weather but still open to the air. I also think the crew on the smaller ships seem to be friendlier, probably because they can become more familiar with the small number of guests. I would sail on her again, and think she would be a great ship for Alaska where the small size gets you more "up close and personal" to the scenery
Post Cruise Auckland
After the cruise ended I spent another week in Auckland, the main goal being to experience the semi finals of the Louis Vitton Cup portion of the Americas Cup action. My hotel was the New President Hotel, chosen for a central location and fairly inexpensive price. While nothing fancy it was a decent room for the price and only a 5-10 minute walk down to the Americas Cup village.
For the first couple of days I went sightseeing around Auckland. While certainly not nearly as nice as Sydney it did have some nice attractions. My hotel was only about 1 block from the Sky Tower/Casino and it offered a great view of the city and bay. Sure was interesting to watch them doing a bungee type jump off the top! The Auckland Museum was a great stop and has three floors filled with interesting exhibits. Well worth a stop here. On day I took the city bus up to Kelly Tarltons Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World and while this was OK I wish that I had gone to the Sydney Aquarium instead. The Maritime Museum located in the Americas Cup Village was a great stop, and it sure is fun to walk around looking at all the huge yachts in for the Cup action. All of the different Americas Cup syndicates had their bases along here and it was interesting to check out their operations and shops. This is a great gathering place to watch the yachts as they left in the morning and later when they returned after the races.
I did go out on the water twice to watch the racing. The first day I went out with Fullers, one of the large ferry companies offering this option. We went out on a large modern ferry and had a great location right on the starting line for the racing. Very exciting to watch the Americas Cup yachts sail among the spectator fleet in the pre race sequence. Actually seeing and hearing, them in person is really something. Just how quickly they can change sails and turn has to be seen to be believed. As the start of the race approached the winds built to over the upper limit and that days' racing was canceled so we headed back in with the rest of the fleet. I was a little disappointed, but had seen a lot of action anyway and already had another outing planned.
Two days later I was out again, but on a different vessel. This time I was on the Soren Larsen, a 145 foot square rigged Brigantine. While we were never actually under sail this was a fantastic experience and a great day on the water. You can take an actual cruise on this ship and participate in sailing the vessel as it is active year round, the schedule was adjusted to be in Auckland for the Americas Cup action. Actually several of the crew had sailed as passenger and loved it some much they are now part of the full time live aboard crew! This was an all day adventure as we sailed about 9:00 am and did not return to the pier until about 6:00 pm. Lunch and several snacks were served throughout the day and I had a blast. I was given a hard time by most of the locals as I was the only American aboard and the US boats both lost that day but it was all in good fun. Check out the website at www.sorenlarsen.co.nz for lots of information on the history of this ship and some great photos of her under sail. She has been featured in a lot of TV and movies and is actually the only square rigged ship to round Cape Horn under sail in almost the last 100 years.
This was the last day of my month long adventure "Down Under" and I was sorry to head back home. It had been a great 30 days, with the week in Sydney being a major highlight. I will get back here someday and spent much more time in both Sydney and New Zealand.