A wave of emotion sweeps through me as the beam of Cape Reinga’s lighthouse flickers in the distance. The tiny dot of light on the tip of New Zealand is the first sign of land we’ve seen in two days.
My mother and I stayed up especially to see it. Resting on the balcony of our room on board the Celebrity Solstice, we gaze into a void of darkness. It’s one o’clock in the morning and nothing’s disturbing us but the gentle swish of ocean. It’s a special welcome home.
I cast my mind back to when we boarded the ship in Sydney. I stood on the helipad at the bow, looking out at the mesmerising lights of the skyline; the Opera House and Harbour Bridge definite showstoppers.
We’ve since made the four-day journey across the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean to familiar territory – first the Bay of Islands and then Auckland. The ship will continue on without us to Bora Bora, Honolulu and finally Alaska.
On our first morning on board we wander down to the ship’s main dining room for a crucial part of the cruise lifestyle: sharing a meal and a conversation. Mum and I chat to passengers from America, Canada and the United Kingdom, egging them to try the Vegemite and watching their faces turn to disbelief as we tell them it’s our first cruise. We listen as couples exchange stories about how many voyages they’ve done and which is their favourite. Someone on board has set sail 77 times and this is their third cruise this year; not bad considering it’s only April.
There’s no such thing as going hungry on board. We’re tempted by cafés serving up delicious cakes and coffee and gelato stores offering ice cream sandwiches.
I spot Captain Zisis Taramas enjoying a bite to eat in his downtime and decide to interrupt. Despite coming from a family of olive and fruit farmers an hour out of Athens, Greece, the captain is most comfortable at sea, he says. He’s been working on cruise lines since the 1980s.
On the top deck, Mum and I settle into a relaxing afternoon with our books by the pool. A Zumba class begins on the deck beside us and has me feeling slightly guilty for lazing about, so I hit the gym while Mum attends lectures on New Zealand’s history and endangered dolphins. Later that afternoon we go to a photography seminar together.
The Celebrity Solstice is a floating community. There’s a casino and shopping malls, yoga classes, saunas and hair salons, a real grass lawn for petanque and picnics; something for everyone and never a dull moment.
In the evening, we decide to try one of the ship’s speciality restaurants, then head to the on-board show of the night,
a Freddie Mercury tribute.
When we finally approach land, it’s into the Bay of Islands. Dolphins dance in our wake, the tender boats are lowered. We pull up to shore, catch a shuttle into Paihia and board a ferry to Russell. Lacing up our walking shoes, we trudge through cooling bush and up Flagstaff Hill, sharing the path with weka, until we reach the iconic flagpole. It’s impressive to see a piece of New Zealand history in the flesh. We make our way back down to Russell for lunch.
As we power on to Auckland, we enjoy a drink at the aptly-named Sunset Bar, providing the best spot on the boat for soaking up candy-floss pink skies.
The early morning glow of the city of sails wakes us, and again, we find ourselves leaning over our balcony, captivated by another bright skyline.
I underestimated how special it is to approach land by boat. I’ve flown over the same stretch of water multiple times and haven’t thought anything of it; on a ship I had time to reflect on how, although the destinations are exciting, the journey to get there can be just as memorable.
Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Summer 2016 issue