April 25, 2014

Solo Travel Down Under

Kiwis, Koalas & Kangas, OH MY! STI New Zealand was truly a “bucket list” lifelong dream for many of us. Enticing coastlines, diverse indigenous animals and a reputation for the best adrenaline-spiking adventures swooned tempted 51 us to travel from the other side of the world!

Our adventure ‘down under’ kicked off in Auckland, deemed the ‘City of Sails’, centered around the waterfront and infamous America’s Cup Marina. We enjoyed happy hour & dining at the iconic Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere, with a rotating floor that provided panoramic views of the bridges, sailboat races and far off mountain ranges.

We toured the city, seeing all of the highlights of Auckland. We drove over the Harbor Bridge before travelling along the scenic waterfront route of Tamaki Drive to Bastion Point for 180 degree uninterrupted views of the stunning Waitemata Harbor. We stopped for photos and a stroll in Auckland Domain, the city’s oldest park situated on a 62,000 year old volcano and checked out the trendy shopping area of Parnell Village with its historical buildings that have been transformed into boutiques, antique, craft and specialty shops. Most members of our group wrapped up the afternoon by taking a 10 minute ferry ride over to charming Devonport and admired views of the Auckland skyline from afar over fish & chips.

We enjoyed happy hour in the historic Ferry Terminal Building, an Edwardian Baroque building made of sandstone and brick facing Queen Street on one side and Waitemata Harbor on the other. Darling Harbor was a 10 minute walk further in an area called Viaduct and was buzzing that Saturday night with everyone dressed up and out on the town. The revitalization of this area has led to many award-winning waterfront restaurants, a beautiful fish market and mega-yachts calling it home. We had the BIGGEST and BEST mussels we had ever eaten, I’m talking four and five inch long TENDER, JUICY New Zealand mussels…YUMMO!

The next day, our group shared a memorable and remarkable lunch and wine-tasting right in the heart of a local vineyard and were talking about it for DAYS! Then they met aboard Celebrity’s Solstice of the Seas to depart on a 12 day adventure around the north and south islands of New Zealand, eventually heading to Australia.

This cruise ship had SO MUCH TO OFFER! Idyllic spa and Persian Garden overlooking the water, Crush Martini Bar with an iced bar top and where the talented bar staff put on quite the show making 28 martinis AT ONCE, amazing service and optional dining, including award-winning Murano, a ‘Hot Glass’ show sponsored by Corning on the Lawn (yes, as in REAL GRASS), two pools, 6 hot tubs and a QUIET and serene place to relax in the Solarium poolside, etc, etc.

Our very first port set the bar HIGH for the rest of our trip, the stars were aligned and we had surprises, one after another! We were in Bay of Islands and took a cruise to Zane Grey’s Hole in the Rock. On they way, the captain got word there was a pod of Orca whales feeding so he went to the place they’d been sighted and sure enough, they were there! We followed them around so that we could capture it on video and film, all of us were in awe of the extraordinary animals swimming with the rugged coastline and blue waters crashing in the backdrop, FOREVER etched in our memories! We also came upon some dolphins that used the water coming off the bow as well as our wake as a playground, turning, rolling over & jumping RIGHT IN FRONT OF US! I do not think anyone aboard had any memory or battery life left and we hadn’t even seen what we’d initially come for, the HOLE IN THE ROCK! We approached the hole and saw the foamy blue water rolling in and out, it was exciting being on the boat and feeling the boat move with the waves. As we were standing on the bow gasping and filming, our captain saw an opportunity and took it, we went full speed ahead THROUGH the hole! Lots of screams of excitement could be heard and some of us even got a little bit wet. Just magnificent! As if that weren’t enough, we came through to a rainbow on the other side…as if it had all been carefully orchestrated. Even the crew were in awe and couldn’t believe that we’d seen Orcas, dolphins, and a rainbow on our tour, what a day on the north island!

By day two we had come around the tip of the north island and were in Tauranga, NZ and were headed to Hobbiton, the actual movie set from Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit. I could hardly contain myself knowing that we were going to see the real ‘Middle Earth’ and did NOT disappoint! The same family owns it that Peter Jackson leased from and the gardens are meticulous with swarming butterflies and plump produce of all sizes & varieties. There were over 40 Hobbit Holes built into the landscape, complete with windows and chimneys protruding from the green hillsides, we enjoyed an ale and oversized (THE BEST ONE I’VE EVER HAD) blueberry muffin at the famous Green Dragon Inn, saw the mill, and crossed over the double arched bridge. Some of us tried to sneak into Frodo’s Hobbit Hole so we could get left behind and live in the Shire but we were not successful. It was as every bit quaint, charming and tranquil as in the movies and we were sad to leave.

On Tuesday, we had a busy day at sea. Our newbies lunch was a huge success and some veterans even crashed it! We had a VIP area by the windows in a private area of the dining room and got to know one another and how we each came upon STI. Lots of retirement celebrations, some with life-changing situations (health, widowed), and others who just wanted to see this amazing area of the world with other people. The STI Exclusive Scavenger Hunt and VIP Sunbathing Sun Deck were a huge success that afternoon and followed by our first formal night with everyone dolled up and excited for the Captain’s Party!

Wellington, NZ was our next stop on the Solstice and a group of us walked to the cable car so we could catch a ride up to Mount Victoria. We saw panoramic views of the harbor and on the walk back strolled through the city’s lovely botanical gardens where we saw thousands of gorgeous roses of all varieties.

On day 6, we woke up in Akaroa, a historic French and British settlement nestled in the heart of an ancient volcano. We caught a tender over to the dock and got on our boat “Fox II” a vintage sailing ketch for a coastline tour & wildlife cruise. This area is known for having the largest colony of the smallest penguins in the world as well as the smallest marine dolphin in the world. As we sailed in the crater of the extinct volcano, we saw the native cormorants, fur seals and even the sheep feeding on grass above them on the hillsides. It was a magnificent day on the water, the sun was shining and the breeze filled our red sails. Afterwards, we explored the village with its colonial architecture, galleries, craft stores, and cafés.

The next day, we arrived in Dunedin, known for its Scottish influence in both the scenery and architecture. It is home to New Zealand’s only castle as well as the Trans-Alpine, one of the world’s great scenic train rides through the lush landscapes on side of the Alps and dry beech forests on the other, crossing the Taieri Plains. That night there was a New Zealand/Australia themed buffet in the Oceanview Café that DID NOT disappoint! Crocodile, kangaroo, fish n’ chips and MANY other native foods were there to sample alongside ice carvings of koalas & kangaroos. In the Grand Epernay, kangaroo steaks were on the menu and most of us ordered it or tried one that was ordered for the table…you know what they say, “When in Rome…”

Now, I am not sure how to put Milford Sound into words or worthy to give it justice, but I will make an attempt. This was THE HIGHLIGHT of our trip in NZ! STI had secured a VIP crossing on the HELIPAD. We were met by one of the officers, Angie, and escorted out to the forward deck where we walked the red carpet and were passed champagne and a blanket. There was instrumental music playing, like that from Lord of the Rings and Hobbit and we all stood in awe of Fjordland. Clouds hung low, waterfalls draped hillsides, it was stunning and definitely a “YOLO” moment to never be forgotten as we cruised into the sounds slowly.

Our day at Sea was marked by our big team event, KIWIS VS KOALAS on the lawn. STI friends were split up into teams, where they chose a name for their group and strategized. They played three rounds and then the winners went on (it was March Madness week, after all). We eventually split up into two teams for the last match, as we had so many players dressed in ALL BLACK rugby gear and others in their favorite sports themes. It got really competitive and whacky towards the end, where STI Concierge Coaches, Else & Heidi, changed the RULES! Ball had to be rolled while bent over, thrown backwards! If that wasn’t challenging enough, players were spun 3 times (EYES CLOSED) and had to throw. It was close but the KIWIS prevailed and won the championship and bragging rites!

The next day, Monday (yes, we were all losing track), we had our Farewell Disembarkation Meeting and then spent the rest of the day having fun! We played Left, Right Center after lunch and convened late afternoon in the Solarium for STI Hot Tub and Relaaahxation Lounge. Most of us read, napped and hot-tubbed, it was DIVINE! That night, we watched ‘Dancing With the Stripes’ in the Grand Foyer in front of the dining room, where we saw our group coordinator, rock the dance floor with a guest onboard and win the championship!

AUSTRALIA, BABY! Our last stop, Hobart, Tasmania, was so unexpectedly special! We went to an animal refuge where we were able to pet and feed kangaroos that were allowed to roam freely. We saw a baby wombat rescued from it’s mother’s pouch after a run-in with a vehicle, Tasmanian Devils fighting and sleeping koalas. It was so incredible to be face to face with kangaroos of all ages and sizes, I wanted to take one home! Upon return, we walked the beautiful harbor where there was fish and seafood boats lined up and equally as many fish and seafood restaurants to match!

Port for port, this was an amazing trip with amazing people from all over the world. We shared a sense of adventure, bravery to take a risk and go down under, and it paid off! Many new memories, friends, stories and pictures fill our hearts and heads and we re-acclimate back to the real world with fantasies of fjords, kangaroos & koalas dancing in our heads…

Contributed by Else R of Boca Raton, FL, STI Concierge, foodie and one of the funnest people you’ll ever meet!

Join the STI gang in New Zealand next time, click here to find out more and make your reservation.


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