Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

New Zealand has a lot to offer small-ship cruisers and a surprising number of vessels to be of service, writes Ewan McDonald.

Some estimate 15,000km, others think 18,000km. Truth is, no one knows exactly how much coastline New Zealand has, only that there’s an awful lot of it.

Precise measurement is impractical, says our national encyclopedia teara.govt.nz, using a polite phrase for “If you think we’re sending people around the country with a tape measure on taxpayers’ money … ” because of the countless twists and turns around inlets, headlands, spits, bays, harbours, fiords, sounds and estuaries.

It is generally accepted (a) we have the ninth longest coastline in the world and (b) the North Island is smaller than the South Island but has a longer coastline. This means there’s a lot to see from the waters between Surville Cliffs and Slope Point, and a number of small-ship cruise lines who are only too happy to take you on that voyage.

And it’s not a case of “look, don’t touch”. Unlike the large cruise ships that dip into a fiord on the way to the next port visit, small-ship cruises will take you right up to the banks and set you ashore for a wildlife or history-themed expedition or give you the chance to kayak around our most isolated inlets.

Rodney and Shirley Russ founded Heritage Expeditions in 1985. Through his work as a biologist with the Wildlife Service, forerunner of DoC, on kākāpo, Chatham Island robin and other endangered species, Rodney favoured sharing wilderness areas with the public so they’d become ambassadors for conservation. At the time, the service favoured locking Kiwis out of conservation zones.

Their sons, Aaron and Nathan, still run the line and its 140-guest Heritage Adventurer, 18-guest yacht Heritage Explorer and two 50-guest polar research vessels.

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

Heritage Expedition's fleet includes its 140-guest Heritage Adventurer, 18-guest yacht Heritage Explorer (pictured) and two 50-guest polar research vessels. Photo / Heritage Expeditions; Aaron Russ

Venturing further afield – should that be asea? – the line cruises to Antarctica, the Subantarctic Islands, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu and the Russian Far East as well as coastal New Zealand. Each cruise is planned to ensure guests learn and experience as much as possible about the destination while minimising the impact of their visit.

There are few words to fully describe Fiordland, its sounds or fiords, mountains, bush, islands, wildlife. You can start with magnificent, unique, awesome, gobsmacking and work up from there – and for many Kiwis who aren’t damn-near death-wish trampers, the only way to see and feel this special part of the planet is from the water.

Rob Swale’s ancestor built the first European settlement in Aotearoa at Dusky Sound in 1792 and Swale pretty much grew up on his father’s crayfishing boat. He, wife Kate and sons Jack and Joe operate Fiordland Discovery; their 24m, three-deck catamaran Fiordland Jewel hosts up to 20 passengers on week-long voyages through the fiords, sometimes to Rakiura Stewart Island, and out into the Tasman to catch-your-own blue cod dinner.

Bonus: the ship carries a robot fitted with lights to attract marine life and illuminate the undersea environment, beaming images of centuries-old black coral trees, fish and marine life to a big screen in the saloon (and on to researchers at Stanford and other institutions).

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

Fiordland Discovery's three-deck catamaran Fiordland Jewel hosts up to 20 passengers on week-long voyages through the fiords. Photo / Fiordland Discovery

One of our longest-established tourism enterprises, Real Journeys has been offering experiences from Queenstown to Rakiura since 1954 when Les and (now Lady) Olive Hutchins began taking small groups on multi-day trips into Doubtful Sound by boat and on foot. The company has expanded its interests across skiing, rafting and the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.

But these pioneering conservationists’ mission was always to share their “backyard” with visitors and protect the places where Real Journeys operates, with flagship cruises in Patea Doubtful Sound and Piopiotahi Milford Sound.

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

Real Journeys' flagship cruises service Patea Doubtful Sound and Piopiotahi Milford Sound. Photo / Real Journeys

An enduring legacy was buying the steamship Earnslaw when it was about to be scrapped in 1968, painstakingly restoring it to its original condition as the only hand-fired, passenger-carrying steamship in the Southern Hemisphere, and a must-do cruise for every visitor to Lake Wakatipu.

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

TSS Earnslaw is a must-do cruise for every visitor to Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown. Photo / Destination Queenstown

Southern Discoveries is – spot the theme here? – another local, family-owned company, operating for more than 60 years, the original Milford Sound cruise service. As well as its cruises along the sound and out into the Tasman, the company has access to a unique opportunity.

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

New Zealand's only floating underwater observatory is moored in Harrison Cove as part of a Southern Discoveries' cruise. Photo / 123rf

New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory is moored in Harrison Cove in Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. Visitors descend 64 steps (10m) underwater into a large viewing area to see into the deepwater haven and encounter an amazing ancient world.

At almost the other end of the country, The Rock Adventure Cruise sails overnight cruises on New Zealand’s largest houseboat, exploring the Bay of Islands and classic Kiwi activities like fishing, kayaking, swimming and lazing about.

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

The Rock Adventure Cruise sails overnight on New Zealand's largest houseboat, exploring the Bay of Islands. Credit / Supplied

And it wouldn’t be Auckland without a superyacht. Southern Crossings‘ Rua Moana, launched in June 2020, promises “nearly 27m of privilege, privacy and pure indulgence from the heated spa on the foredeck to the submersible beach platform at the stern”.

We’re told those who cruise with her enjoy “effortless luxury, en suite accommodation for up to eight guests, an impressive collection of floating toys and chef-prepared meals as they drink in the magnificent scenery of New Zealand’s spectacular cruising grounds”.

Interested? You’ll find Rua Moana moored in Viaduct Harbour. Where else?

Small-ship cruising makes an unforgettable New Zealand holiday

Southern Crossings' Rua Moana, launched in June 2020, promises “nearly 27m of privilege, privacy and pure indulgence”. Photo / Auckland Unlimited

Shorter cruises

For those wanting a shorter – or perhaps calmer – life on the ocean or lake wave, consider:

Sealink‘s ferry from Auckland to Great Barrier Island

Kawau Cruises‘ Royal Mail Run from Sandspit to the Hauraki Gulf island

Bay Explorer cruise exploring the Bay of Plenty coastline and islands

Pure Cruise NZ‘s Lake Rotoiti eco-tour aboard 16m catamaran Tiua

Chaddy’s Cruises on a 1953 classic UK lifeboat around Taranaki’s coast and islands

Pelorus (and others) mailboat cruises, delivering mail, groceries, farm supplies and tourists around the Marlborough Sounds for 100+ years

Nelson historic harbour and lighthouse cruise

Waiatoto River Safari into Te Wāhipounamu Unesco World Heritage Site by jet boat

Ulva Island Explorer to the renowned wildlife sanctuary at Rakiura Stewart Island

Check alert level restrictions, vaccine requirements and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz

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