What to know about small ship cruising in New Zealand

What to know about small ship cruising in New Zealand

The myriad wonders and blockbuster scenery of Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) are well known thanks to movies like Lord of the Rings and it seems everyone wants a piece of the action.

But looking at the map, it’s easy to see how much of this intricate coastline would be overlooked if one were restricted to port-hopping with the larger cruise ships. Captain Cook himself, aboard the tiny Endeavour, was perhaps the first European to sing the praises of his new found southern paradise and he used every opportunity to return and rest his men in the peaceful surrounds of places like Queen Charlotte Sound. Tasman, a century earlier, had received unwelcome attention from the Māori and wasn’t so keen to hang around.

From my own experience, many great attractions exist in the smaller cities and towns where large numbers of disembarking passengers could well spoil the special appeal of these out of the way places. One cruise I enjoyed immensely was in the Bay of Islands where kilometre after kilometre of intricate coastline, little nooks, coves and crannies, thickly wooded islands and headlands are all interwoven to create a convivial natural latticework perfect for smaller vessels.

Another time I dropped in to little Kaikoura where I discovered their secret – a very deep secret. But now the word is out. Only a few hundred metres off shore, the seabed rapidly plunges into a massive submarine canyon well over a kilometre deep. When warm tropical currents flowing southward crash head-on into the cold Antarctic stream heading north, a swirling mass of nutrient-rich water is sucked up from the depths. This marine smorgasbord attracts an array of aquatic mammals, fish, birds and tourists. Whales, dolphins, seals and all manner of aquatic birds abound in and around Kaikoura.

One of the cruise areas that you will see on many itineraries is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Fiordland which encompasses Milford Sound, Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound. If you want to get pedantic, it was James Cook who named them ‘sounds’ when in fact they are proper, glacial fjords. No one has dared correct him. While the big ships cruise in and out, it is the smaller ships which will occasionally land guests ashore and conduct excursions as far afield as Queenstown.

Napier is another intriguing port. Totally destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, it was rebuilt in the art deco style. Many buildings remain and the city is making full use of its unique assets which, apart from the heritage architecture, include the vast Hawke’s Bay, widely recognised as New Zealand’s leading wine and food region. Walking the ornate streets is a thrill in itself and guided walking tours are great fun.

Around the corner from Napier is the Bay of Plenty, regularly visited by the big ships, but an attraction for smaller ones as well. While the large vessels send their guests off to Rotorua from the deep sea port at Tauranga, ,ore adventurous types head out to volcanic White Island where, depending on weather and volcanic activity, tenders may put guests ashore for a steamy excursion.

Way down at the very foot of the South Island is Stewart Island, insulated from the world by its remoteness, Stewart Island is a haven for travellers looking for nature, tranquillity and adventure. While it is ideal for small ship visits, bigger ships occasionally creep in too, putting passengers ashore by tender to visit the small village or take shore excursions into the Rakiura National Park which makes up 85 per cent of the island.

Now for those really looking for a dash of adventure, New Zealand has a whole bunch of sub-Antarctic islands hundreds of kilometres south of Stewart Island. These little specks of land have been variously used for agriculture, seal hunting and even military surveillance, but all are now returned to national parks and are occasionally visited by expedition ships. Names like Auckland, the Snares, Enderby and Campbell Island all contain wonderful birdlife, particularly albatross and petrels as well as rare fur seals.

Thankfully several specialist cruise lines have taken a particular interest in New Zealand and its potential for boutique travel. Bear in mind, you’ll be paying a bit more for these cruises.

Cruise lines regularly visiting New Zealand on comprehensive itineraries include Silversea Cruises, Seabourn, APT, Hapag-Lloyd, Ponant and Regent Seven Seas. Niche adventure operator, Heritage Expeditions regularly sail from Bluff, near Invercargill and local small (tiny) ship line Island Escape are also of note.

Writer’s Tip: There’s no bad decision about cruising in New Zealand, so don’t be too worried about choice. Small ship cruises, however, require a bit more attention to detail. Identify as closely as you can what you want to see and do, then go after a vessel that does it. Some of the waters down south can get ‘choppy’.

Written by Roderick Eime. Republished with permission of