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Hawaii cruise

Hawaii Cruise Expedition

By John Roberts.

Hawaii is a destination that invites and instills a spirt of playfulness, wonder and awe. And I’m convinced that a small-ship expedition is one of the best ways to experience this tropical paradise.

So this is how I spent my summer vacation. Sailing in Hawai’i with UnCruise Adventures. Carefree, barefoot, bare-chested and bold.

This voyage was especially reinvigorating, full of opportunities to cut loose.

Hawaii Cruise

John jumping into a great week! * Photo: UnCruise

We spent our days playing in the water without a care in the world as the 36-passenger Safari Explorer moved from island to island during the weeklong cruise — transporting us to a new place each day to play in our vibrant giant aquarium with sea turtles, reef sharks, octopuses and colorful fish.

Safari Explorer Hawaii

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii cruise aboard the Safari Explorer

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer is ideal for cruising Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

For a person who loves the water and outdoors, there is no better place than Hawai’i.

It has ideal weather throughout the year and offers an infinite number of activities to please foodies, nature lovers, sporty types, and history and culture enthusiasts.

UnCruise Adventures blends all of these passions in its jam-packed itinerary, sailing from Molokai and visiting the Big Island (Hawaii), Maui and Lanai.

Hawaii cruise with UnCruise

The 36-passenger Safari Explorer 7-night cruise route. * Map: UnCruise

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Hawaii Cruise: The Staff

“I feel that the staff was amazing,” said Sharon Navre, who is from New York and was sailing on her first UnCruise voyage with husband Jeff to celebrate their 35th anniversary.

“We were kept busy, and we like that side of things. We are impressed with how they can take care of everybody, including dietary needs. I would definitely do an UnCruise again.”

The expedition line has been in Hawai’i for more than a decade, and during this time, UnCruise has developed special relationships with members of the island communities. This gives travelers an opportunity to immerse themselves in an experience more representative of authentic “Old Hawai’i” than they would find elsewhere.

Authentic Hawaii Cruise

Experiencing authentic “old” Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Connected to the Past

Since 2019, UnCruise now sails all year in Hawai’i, offering weeklong one-way expeditions between Molokai and the Big Island (Hawai’i). UnCruise decided it made a lot of sense to keep Safari Explorer running in Hawai’i all year to maximize the number of trips it could offer to this beloved destination.

We joined Safari Explorer for one of the last voyages of the summer — the end of UnCruise’s first season cruising Hawai’i during the summer months (the ship used to spend summers in Alaska).

Though summer is outside of whale-watching season (which is September until June), there is still plenty to do and see.

Hawaii Cruise: Molokai

Our cruise started and ended in Molokai, an island the big ships can’t get to. In fact, UnCruise Adventures is the lone cruise line making regularly scheduled visits to Molokai.

This island is just 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, and is the place most connected to Hawai’i’s ancient roots. A large proportion of the 7,000-plus residents are of native ancestry who proudly live a simple and rural lifestyle aiming to preserve their culture and history.

At the eastern tip of Molokai is the Halawa Valley, a lush place home to the island chain’s oldest continuously inhabited spot; the first Polynesian people arrived from the Marquesas, Tahitian and other neighboring islands around 650 AD. More than 1,300 years later, you can meet with Anakala Pilipo Soltario and his family who welcome visitors to their land and home.

Hawaii Cruise: Family Heritage

Anakala (or Uncle) Pilipo is the last resident of the valley who was born there, and when we arrive, we are greeted by him, his son Greg and two teenaged grandsons. The two teens lead a short hike around the property and up to the home.

In port in Molokai on a Hawaii Cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his grandsons. * Photo: John Roberts

Each member of the family wears a red kihei, a cape-like cloth that is knotted at the shoulder and draped around the torso. Uncle Pilipo and Greg then have us gather in a small grassy area to show us the traditional “welcome ceremony,” demonstrating how visitors from one village would seek permission to enter another village, perhaps to discuss trade.

Greg stands at the head of our group and blows into a conch (pu), awaiting a return call from his father. We may approach only when Uncle Pilipo returns the sound on the pu.

We then all line up for a “Hawai’ian handshake,” the traditional greeting called honi. This intimate custom requires the participants to press together their foreheads and noses while looking into each other’s eyes and inhaling deeply, sharing a breath.

the traditional "honi" on a Hawaii cruise

The traditional “Hawai’ian handshake,” a greeting called honi. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

The entire group did it with all of our hosts and one another before moving to a set of picnic tables to hear Greg and Anakala Pilipo speak passionately about the customs and culture they are seeking to preserve. When Hawai’i became a U.S. state in 1959, the process of “Westernization” — which had begun decades earlier after the U.S. annexed the islands — became accelerated.

During this culture talk, we learn the traditional term for a Hawai’ian feast is pa’ina and not luau, which is actually a leaf of the sacred taro plant. Greg gathers a large board and a set of stone tools he uses to pound fresh poi from taro roots. These are family implements that have lasted six generations and are meticulously cared for. He pounds the poi and tells us how the food is a staple of the native Hawai’ian diet. He mixes a bit of salted fish into the sticky lump of poi, and we all eagerly grab a serving from the mound, many getting seconds as the fresh delicacy is passed around on a large taro leaf.

Making poi on an Hawaiian cruise

Greg uses stone tools to pound fresh poi from taro roots. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Natural Disasters

Anakala Pilipo recounts the days of his youth and the small schoolhouse he attended that once sat on the property — a cornerstone still visible under a tall palm tree. There were thousands of residents in Halawa Valley up until the late 1950s. A massive tsunami flooded the valley in 1946, when Anakala Solatorio was six years old. He recalls seeing a wall of water approaching as his family joined villagers retreating higher into the hills to avoid devastating flooding that killed more 100 people.

After another tsunami in 1957 wiped out the taro fields, most residents left the valley, leaving few remaining families.

Greg gives the culture talks and also leads hikes to a majestic waterfall for visitors (heavy rains left the trails unsafe for hiking during our time in the valley). He says preserving this lifestyle is his passion. The role his father had long held has been passed to him.

“Our culture is sacred, not secret,” Greg says. “When we don’t share our culture, will be the moment our culture dies.”

Hawaiian cruise

Uncle Pilipo and his family greeting UnCruise passengers. * Photo: John Roberts

Whether you start or end your trip at Molokai, you should consider spending an extra day or two there to further explore places like the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a former leper colony — or just relax in the soothing serenity.

The lone resort on the island is Hotel Molokai, a lovely spot right on the waterfront.

This also serves as the hospitality site for UnCruise Adventures’ passengers beginning or ending their voyages in Molokai.

Below is a video tour of Hotel Molokai.

Hawaii Cruise: Quirky Ship Built for Island Adventures

Safari Explorer is a rugged yacht that carries up to 36 passengers in 18 staterooms spread over the ship’s three decks. There are two Commodore Suites and three Admiral cabins that offer between 200 and 275 square feet as well as amenities like a bathtub and hot tubs. So, you get a bit more space than the other accommodations, which all feature simple layouts, small marine-style bathrooms (with the toilet and shower in the same little space), comfy beds, and TVs with DVD players (DVD library in the lounge).

We stayed in a standard cabin, and our room was a tight fit for couples. The layout meant we had to take turns getting into the bed, which is fit into a tight corner area. There is no wi-fi or cable TV. But for this trip, you only really need a place to store your clothes and lay your head in comfort at night, and the cabins fit the bill just fine.

Safari Explorer cabin

John’s cabin. * Photo: John Roberts

The captain welcomes passengers onto the open bridge to see how the navigation happens or to get a good look at the wildlife at play in the waters.

Hawaii Cruise with Captain Tyler

Captain Tyler at the wheel. * Photo: John Roberts

Open bridge on Safari Explorer

The bridge is open for passengers to visit. * Photo: John Roberts

The top sun deck is a wide-open space that we used for a morning stretch and workout with a complement of free weights and yoga mats available. (Note: UnCruise did away with its wellness program, so no yoga or stretch classes led by staff.)

Hawaii cruise top deck

Morning stretches on deck. * Photo: John Roberts

Safari explorer gym weights

Some work-out equipment is available. * Photo: Colleen McDaniel

Safari Explorer’s main lounge is the heartbeat of life onboard, with a bar area and adjacent dining room serving as the prime gathering spots for cold drinks, hearty meals, snacks and lively conversation.

Safari Explorer bar

Drinks are included! * Photo: John Roberts

Two expedition guides (Lauren and Sophy) conducted enrichment talks in this space, discussing marine life, with a focus on turtles, fish and reef systems. There is a small library and game room with a piano and guitar for any musically inclined passengers.

main lounge of Safari Explorer

The main lounge is the ship’s hub. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Food Department

While the ship offers an efficient way to travel around the islands in comfort, the special formula that makes the UnCruise Adventures experience in Hawai’i so memorable is the activities, crew and food.

For a ship with such a small kitchen, it is amazing the array of fantastic locally-sourced fresh food that we were treated to.

Everyone on the ship during our sailing frequently rotated to create new groups at the tables for six, enjoying plated meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Safari Explorer's dining room

Safari Explorer’s dining room. * Photo: UnCruise Adventures

We loved that the portions were moderately sized, so there was very little waste. Many of the offerings were so tempting that we often ordered half portions of two selections (always one meat, one fish and one vegetarian).

Dinner on an Hawaii cruise

Yummy pork belly. * Photo: John Roberts

Check out some of the specialties that the kitchen created:

Thai basil red snapper, chicken curry, Hungarian mushroom soup with paprika oil, Kona coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin, pork belly, corn fritters, seared scallops, marinated rack of lamb, ahi tuna, chickpea tarts and venison loco moco.

Desserts included meringue fruits pavlova (below), ginger lemongrass ice cream and a daily afternoon assortment of fresh-baked cookies.

(I drooled just typing that paragraph.)

Dessert on the Safari Explorer

Dessert is served! * Photo: John Roberts

Check out John’s video tour of the ship below!

Hawaii Cruise: Four Islands & Endless Fun

Aside from Molokai, UnCruise Safari Explorer expeditions in Hawai’i feature stops at three other islands —  Maui, Lanai and the Big Island.

Colleen and I sailed with 18 other adventure-oriented travelers. Onboard was a foursome of friends from Seattle and a pair of best buds from San Fran, with all of these youngsters in their 30s or younger. There was a family of four from California with two college-age kids; couples from Virginia, New York and Florida; and a mom and daughter from Australia.

Hawaii cruise on Safari Explorer

Passengers bonded quickly on the intimate 36-passenger Safari Explorer. * Photo: John Roberts

The group quickly grew tight over the course of the week as we jumped into our exploration.

After departing Molokai, the next morning offered the first of many water activities. We snorkeled in secluded Honolua Bay and spotted green sea turtles as well as an array of tropical fish. In summer, the activities are focused on getting into the water for Zodiac rides, paddling, swimming and snorkeling.

kayaking on an Hawaii cruise

Kayaking is a big focus of UnCruise in Hawaii. * Photo: John Roberts

snorkeling on an Hawaii cruise

Snorkeling fun! * Photo: John Roberts

(In other parts of the year, these sailings will utilize more time for wonderful whale-watching outings.)

The sun was out every day, and the hot temps made the time in the water all the more inviting. So, we all took advantage.

Hawaii cruise swimming

John & Colleen enjoying the water! * Photo: John Roberts

Our expedition leader Lauren and expedition guide Sophy briefed us each night after dinner about the next day’s plans.

Hawaii cruise crew

Lauren and Sophy. * Photo: John Roberts

An UnCruise Adventures itinerary lays out a rough schedule for where the ship will sail, but is always considered an outline and a plan from which we could deviate because of weather or special wildlife activity that the team learns about and is eager to have us experience.

In fact, we depart the Big Island a day early to avoid rough weather that would make it tougher to cross the Alenuihaha Channel and back to Maui.

During the week, we mix time on the ship with time ashore. We snorkel at a green sea turtle “cleaning station” off the coast of Maui (the Olowalu “turtle reef”) and see the turtles as well as numerous white tip reef sharks, a mating pair of octopuses and harlequin shrimp.

green sea turtle on a Hawaii cruise

A big green sea turtle seen on a snorkeling excursion. * Photo: John Roberts

John snorkeling in Hawaii

John snorkeling.

Hawaii cruise snorkeling

Colleen is holding a pin cushion sea star for a moment. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: Lanai

At anchor just off Lanai, we set out in kayaks at sunrise and get back in time for breakfast and a late-morning snorkel. After lunch, we got the chance to head ashore to explore historic Lanai City and take a hike to Sweetheart Rock.

Lanai is home to just 3,000 people, one of the pristine and isolated places that you visit on this expedition — far away from the crowds, making the overall experience that much more blissful as you can enjoy the natural beauty in its raw form.

Sailing from Lanai, we encounter dolphins eager to swim on the bow of the Safari Explorer. Multiple pods join through the rest of the afternoon as we make our way toward Kona on the Big Island.

I’m pretty sure that we saw dolphins nearly every day.

dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Seeing dolphins up close! * Photo: John Roberts

Kona is a bigger city, bustling with tourists and resorts along its pretty beaches. Colleen and I go for a run, managing just a couple miles in the heat before we settle on a gentle stroll back to town, taking some pics along the way. We have a set time to join fellow cruisers Chris, Kevin and Garad to try our hands at paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a.

Hawaii cruise wooden canoe

Tips for paddling the traditional wooden canoe, called a wa’a. * Photo: John Roberts

We have fun paddling in sync around the coastal waters and into the lagoon off Kona, taking some time to rest our arms and jump into the warm waters for a swim as well. The wa’a is an important boat in Hawai’ian culture. Long ago, these single- and double-hulled canoes with an outrigger were the sole means of transport around the islands. They are carved by hand from a tree, and the process of building one is quite sacred.

Today, Hawai’ians young and old use them for exercise and recreation and for racing competitions.

Hawaii cruise canoe

Paddling in sync around the coastal waters off Kona. * Photo: John Roberts

Our time at the Big Island included a diverse array of activities, indeed. That evening we went for a night snorkel in the hopes of seeing giant manta rays. We came up empty (frowny face) but were enthralled by the spooky illuminated waters filled with plankton and thousands of feeding fish. Some in our group even saw a rare Hawai’ian monk seal darting through the gauzy depths.

The next morning, we set out for a sunrise kayak along black lava cliff sides until we reached the “Blue Lagoon,” an area where black crabs crawled on the lava formations and turtles enjoying the calm waters and quiet shoreline where they rest and mate.

lava formations on an Hawaii cruise

Cool lava formations. * Photo: John Roberts

turtles in Hawaii

Turtle time. * Photo: John Roberts

Those who chose a skiff tour instead of kayaking were met by a curious pod of dolphins for an up-close interaction.

Dolphins on a Hawaii cruise

Dolphins spotted from a skiff! * Photo: John Roberts

In the afternoon, it was more snorkeling and a skiff ride along the shore where we witnessed thrashing waves shoot through lava tubes in a stunning display of the ocean’s force.

lava tubes in Hawaii

Lava tubes. * Photo: John Roberts

Hawaii Cruise: A Bit of Chop

With a storm approaching, Capt. Tyler Manning guided the ship back to Maui, navigating some fairly choppy waters. Colleen and I enjoy being rocked to sleep, while many other passengers were a bit worried about how they might handle rougher seas.

We all emerged the next morning, most of us looking quite chipper despite being tossed around a bit. Back in calm waters off the coast of Maui, we took advantage of the chance to snorkel, swim and jump into the water off the back marina and the second-deck platform, which offers an exhilarating 20-foot drop.

Safari Explorer in Hawaii

Weeee! * Photo: John Roberts

We were anchored off Lahaina Town, and most of us took the opportunity to go into town for some beach time and a refreshing shave ice.

Hawaii cruise snacks

Hawaiian shave ices anyone? * Photo: John Roberts

Safari Explorer stayed at anchor well into the night, and the crew put on a wonderful top-deck cocktail hour and dance party. It was Day 6 of our cruise, and by now, we all were getting along like a big festive family.

Jessica, our bartender mixed cocktails. Jose, our hotel manager and the rest of the crew handed out cold beers, wines and tapas. And most of us danced around the deck while the beautiful sun set.

Hawaii cruise aboard Safari Explorer

Life is good for John and Colleen. * Photo: John Roberts

We didn’t want the cruise to end. That always happens on these small ships, especially when you travel with people who love to stay active and share a passion for adventure.

Here’s John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

Hawaii cruise crew

Jose & Jessica. * Photo: John Roberts

Alas, the last day brought as back to Molokai to explore more. That night, we had a farewell pa’ina feast and music and storytelling from a hula master at the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center. A duo played ukulele and guitar music while singing folkloric songs. A hula dancer swayed to the tunes. We dined on pulled pork, seafood and pickled veggies.

Our souls were filled with the true aloha spirit of Hawai’i.

Hawaii sunset

Until next time …. * Photo: John Roberts

For booking info, contact UnCruise Adventures.

The 7-night Hawaii cruises start at $5,200 per person and include all excursions and alcoholic drinks.

SPECIAL OFFER FROM UNCRUISE: In celebration of its first year of year-round Hawaii sailings, save $700 per couple on weeklong Hawaii cruises departing between March 7 – September 5, 2020.  Mention code 700HI20.

Enjoy John’s video recap of his UnCruise Adventures expedition in Hawai’i.

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cycling on a new zealand cruise

New Zealand Cruise Adventure

By John Roberts.

I arrive at the meeting point for the start of our New Zealand cruise and multi-sport adventure a bit bedraggled after about 22 straight hours of travel from New Jersey to Auckland, New Zealand. (Note to self: Next time, arrive a day early when you fly halfway across the globe, in order to properly acclimate for your trip.)

Sure, I may be tired, but I’m also fired up for another Backroads adventure. I’m running on excitement at this point — and maybe a few Diet Cokes.

My fellow travelers and I mill about at the waterfront just in front of Hilton Auckland, gathering our water bottles and a few snacks set out by the Backroads team of Katie, Brandon and Ryan. They are busy checking us all in and gathering up luggage to send over to the 184-passenger cruise ship that will serve as our home for the voyage.

Le Laperouse in New Zealand

The 184-passenger Le Laperouse cruises between Auckland and Dunedin. * Photo: Ponant

I grab a banana and start stretching my legs. Before boarding our mini cruiser, we’re going to head over to Waiheke Island for a short hike and lunch at a vineyard to kick off our 10-day multi-sport adventure cruise.

As things get going, I start meeting some of the 23 others in our group. These strangers would quickly become like family. That happens when you share exciting activities ashore and onboard during an adventure cruise in such a stunning place.

Backroads is an active travel company that has been around four decades. The company started simply — offering biking trips in California. These days, Backroads curates hundreds of adventures all over the world, including sporty small-ship cruises like the one I’m taking part in over the course of 10 days in New Zealand.

New Zealand Cruise & Cycle map

The 10-day itinerary from Auckland to Dunedin by sea and cycle. * Map: Ponant

Luxury French cruise line Ponant has teamed up with Backroads to provide a comfy home base while we sail from the northern part of the North Island all the way to the southern tip of the South Island for our amazing New Zealand cruise and multi-sport combo comprising hiking, biking and kayaking.

Watch John’s video: What’s it like to cruise around New Zealand?

On Day 1, I begin to introduce myself to my two-dozen fellow adventurers (all from the United States) as we make our way over to the ferry for the ride to Waiheke Island and learn that it’s the first time in New Zealand for almost all of them (including myself). More than half in the group have traveled with Backroads before, some with more than 10 trips under their belts, though it will be the first cruise for almost all of them. I tell them that a small-ship cruise looks like a great way to see a lot of this country, which is known as a natural wonderland.

We are all excited to get going and enjoy the luxurious accommodations, food, wines and entertainment on the ship as well as explore New Zealand through activities like hiking, biking and kayaking.

Le Laperouse New Zealand cruise

Le Laperouse is John’s posh home for his New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure. * Photo: John Roberts

Waiheke Island

After a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, we arrive at Waiheke Island. This is a place known for its vineyards, and many visitors make day trips to visit multiple spots and sample the wines. We, instead, will take a 2.3-mile coastal hike and then stop for a farm-to-table-style lunch.

Katie, Max and Brandon break us up into two groups of hikers so that we are not too congested on the narrow trails around the island.

The sun is out and the skies are blue and accented with puffy clouds as we hike for a couple hours and work up a nice sweat. Our guide helps us spot silver ferns, palm plants and see the first of many finches and fantails. Seabirds soar offshore.

What we won’t see the entire week is the famed kiwi. Even New Zealanders rarely see these birds most associated with their country. Kiwis are shy and nocturnal, so they prove most elusive. (By the way, the nickname for a New Zealander is a kiwi.)

After a big lunch and a tasting session at Cable Bay Vineyards, some in our group take a walk over to another vineyard and others (including me!) opt for a one-mile steep hike to a high point on the island with great views over the bay. Then, it’s time to hop back onto the ferry and make our way to our cruise ship for the first time.

A hike on a New Zealand cruise

John’s on the coastal hike on Waiheke Island, just off shore Auckland. * Photo: John Roberts

When we board Le Laperouse, our bags are already waiting for us in our cabins. The 184-passenger, 9-deck Le Laperouse represents the first of Ponant’s series of six expedition ships, and was built just last year in 2018.

We begin with cocktails in the Main Lounge which extends outside to the Pool Deck and offers beautiful views of the surrounding skyline of Auckland.

Our group will dine each evening as a group in the main restaurant, Le Nautilus, or at the Le Nemo grill on the Pool Deck. We start with a welcome aboard meal where the wine flows freely as we enjoy the French cuisine, from grilled salmon to entrecote (as in “premium cut of”) steak, while getting to know one another.

It’s an early night for most, and I head to the cabin straight after dinner to finally get some proper rest for the adventures ahead.

Tauranga

This is when the action kicks into high gear. A daily morning briefing in the ship’s theater outlines the activities each day.

Today it’s Tauranga, a charming coastal city to the north of Rotorua along the Bay of Plenty. From here, we take a bus to McLaren Falls Park where we will bike in the morning and kayak in the afternoon.

A support team with Backroads has the bikes ready for us each day, plus water bottles and snacks like fresh fruit, granola bars and sweets.

Backroads support van for a New Zealand Cruise

The Backroads support-mobile is at our beck and call. * Photo: John Roberts

We’re using Backroads Touring bikes, 30-speed titanium mountain cycles. And after getting our helmets and making the proper adjustments of seats and handlebars for comfort, we’re off and riding in the countryside.

The fresh air is intoxicating as we pedal past acres and acres of farmland. We must remember to ride on the left side, a constant battle against our reflexes as residents of the United States used to driving on the other side.

New Zealand cruise and cycle adventure

The Backroads & Ponant cruise and bicycle adventure begins. * Photo: John Roberts

My lungs and quads strain during only a few spots of the ride as I grind up some steep hills. But the reward is always a speedy drop on the descent with wind rushing in my face. We see cows and horses on the 16-mile loop before returning back to the park. We are all definitely ready for lunch after a challenging ride.

cycling on a new zealand cruise

John cycling in Tauranga, New Zealand. * Photo: John Roberts

We have a picnic outside in the courtyard of a small café under a bright sun. A few peacocks are strutting around in the yard of a home next door.

It’s actually getting really hot as we finish up our freshly prepared meal, and I’m eager to get on the water. McLaren Lake is formed by a dam system comprising a series of rivers that work to create hydroelectric power in the Bay of Plenty region.

selife in tauranga

We all mug for a selfie in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

Backroads guide Brandon joins me as my kayaking partner and agrees to sit in the back so I can get the best views and play with my camera up front. This means he does most of the paddling and all of the steering while I snap pics of the waterfowl (so many species of ducks!) and the Jurassic Park-like narrows that we kayak into late in the afternoon.

Kayaking in gorgeous Tauranga on a New Zealand cruise

Kayaking in Tauranga. * Photo: John Roberts

Back on Le Laperouse, we refreshed with showers and cocktails before dinner. The night concluded with some of us gathering for drinks and dancing in lounge with live music — a guitarist and singer — topping off  a thrilling day.

White Island

This is a fairly casual day but still interesting. We take a zodiac ashore to the remote White Island, an active volcano that spews sulfur mists. We hike around one of the most active volcanoes in New Zealand and learn about the former mining activities on the island. You can smell the sulfur hanging in the air even before reaching the beach area where our zodiacs are, but the mists that blow around in the wind are especially pungent when we get closer to the rim of a crater.

zodiac on a New Zealand cruise

Several excursions involve a zodiac ride. * Photo: John Roberts

This requires us to wear face masks and suck on little hard candies to fend off our choking fits.

It’s a fascinating look around a place that appears like it could be on a far-off planet. When we head back to the ship, I get a chance to try the ship’s small gym for a workout and jump into the heated infinity pool.

pool towns on Ponant

It’s great having a heated pool on board the Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Max leads a talk in the theater for our group discussing New Zealand currency and how the colorful bills contain unique images that tell a story of the country.

This is the first of a few enrichment sessions that our Backroads guides will offer to help connect our adventures to the rich cultural aspects of the country, including its indigenous Maori people.

Napier

This port stop brings us to an area of the country just south of Hawkes Bay that is well known for its vineyards and agricultural production. Napier is fondly referred to as the “Fruit Bowl” of New Zealand because the fertile lands and long days of warm sunshine yield an array of foods like cherries, peaches, apricots, plums and apples. Plus, those wine grapes, of course.

Cycling from Tauranga, New Zealand

Cycling in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

We get to explore the region on a 22-mile bike ride that intermittently traces the coast line along rocky beaches and weaves into the fields and groves of the miles and miles of farmland. The day starts a little overcast but clears up to offer brilliant sunshine by afternoon when we arrive at the Black Barn Bistro winery.

cycling in Napier on a new zealand cruise

Biking in Napier. * Photo: John Roberts

Upon arrival, I quickly crack open a beer during my cool-down and stretch my legs. Then, it’s into the winery for a hearty lunch. Most in our group eagerly line up for more wine tasting. Upon completion of their flights, glasses are filled, swirled and knocked back over friendly and energetic lunch banter.

vineyard new zealand

Vineyard tours are business as usual in New Zealand. * Photo: John Roberts

Once back on the ship, we have free time in the afternoon to relax. Many of us grab a nap before gathering for a meal al fresco at the grill on the pool deck.

Wellington

Midway through the cruise, we arrive at the capital of New Zealand. Wellington is a bustling city with a lively port area. A large promenade is filled with residents and tourists enjoying a Sunday in the city.

We have a lot of free time on our own in Wellington, as a morning hike and picnic lunch are the only activities on the Backroads plan for the day. We take a group hike from the serene Karori city cemetery to a trail at Otari-Wilton’s Bush. This leads to a popular nature center that is bustling on the weekend as families enjoy picnics and parties on the grounds, which are filled with lush trees and exotic plants and flowers.

Otari-Wilton's Bush trail

John joins a group hike on a trail at Otari-Wilton’s Bush outside of Wellington. * Photo: John Roberts

After our lunch, we head back to the ship. Max, Katie and Brandon offer maps of Wellington on which they have noted their favorite restaurants, museums and a district full of craft breweries. I join a group that chooses to get dropped off at Te Papa Museum in the city center. This is the national museum of New Zealand and is filled with interesting artifacts and depictions of the nation’s history from old to modern times.

I spend a couple hours before heading back to Le Laperouse for a snack and change into my running gear. I take a jog along the harbor promenade, following the coastline to a beach area where I sit back for a while and bask in the sun.

Next, my plan is to find those craft breweries. Following the map, I land on Little Beer Quarter and try a couple varieties. I take my first pint, an IPA, to the bench outside and sip it down slowly. It’s late afternoon, and I note musicians bringing instruments inside and deduce that my lucky timing means that I’ll get to enjoy at least some of their live performance.

Wellington New Zealand bar

John does some beer drinking research in Wellington. New Zealand isn’t just known for its wine! * Photo: John Roberts

Back inside, I grab an APA for my second pint and slide into a cushioned high-backed chair and watch the trio of ladies dressed in peasant dresses and playing banjos offer up their renditions of American folk classics from the likes of Woody Guthrie and Maybelle Carter.

I figure I better head to the ship for a meal or else I would be here all night. Many people from our Backroads group are having dinner onshore, but I join Fleury and Barry, a couple from Florida, in the main dining room. The three of us share an excellent meal and conversation.

Fleury is on her 20th trip with Backroads, and Barry is on his 10th. I ask why they like these trips so much.

“I like the consistency,” Fleury says.

She says she particularly is impressed with the unique experiences you can find with Backroads, explaining that the company goes to places and gives you experiences that you aren’t usually going to get with other outfitters.

Plus, Backroads is a good fit for all kinds of travelers.

“They seem to have more and more options for people of all ages and abilities,” she says. “I really enjoy the focus on being active. We always have a good experience.”

Arriving to the South Island

The South Island of New Zealand showcases the true wild side of the country. The North Island contains most of the nation’s population, while the South Island is home to some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world, with stunning mountains, lakes, waterfalls and glaciers.

Over the final four days of our cruise, we first crossed Cook Strait to arrive at the little coastal town of Picton, situated on a lovely bay leading to Queen Charlotte Inlet and Marlborough Sounds.

A water taxi picks us up at the marina and we head into the sound on a sun-splashed morning. We arrive at a quiet spot on shore about 35 minutes away and find the trailhead for the Queen Charlotte Track. We have options for a short route and a longer hike along a piece of this popular epic hiking path. Ten of us head ashore for the longer, nine-mile hike, which heads high into the hills along forested dirt paths. We see several birds and have frequent views of the sound below.

I carry a boxed lunch and eat on the trail as I walk, making good time on this challenging hike. A water taxi meets us at dock at the end of the hike, and members of our group all finish at different times, so small groups of people share rides back into Picton, where we have time to explore on our own. Some check out the small shops or stop into a café or bar for their favorite refreshments. I find a hiking path at the edge of town and take the chance to get in a few more miles.

Indulging in all the fine French cuisine and craft beers onboard the ship day in and day out, I decide that I better burn a few more calories before dinner.

crafts beers on Le Laperouse

Le Laperouse’s excellent selection of craft beers are included in the fares. * Photo: John Roberts

All aboard is at 4:30 pm, so I tender back and clean up for sunset cocktails on the pool deck. The weather is perfect, and the mood is light as we all relax and look forward to a day at sea before we arrive at Fiordland National Park.

champagne on deck of a New Zealand Cruise

Immersed in nature and fitness by day and luxury and pampering back on board. * Photo: John Roberts

Milford Sound

On the morning that we arrive at Milford Sound, it’s raining. Passengers gather on the top decks at the bow of the ship, as we enter this impressive waterway (it’s actually a glacial fjord and not a sound). The rains create a series of waterfalls streaming down the cliff sides, and cruisers flit about snapping photos throughout the morning.

I join for a bit before ducking inside. I remembered a nice spot in the spa that offers a serene view of the outdoors as we sail into Milford Sound.

milford sound views from the spa

Milford Sound from the ship’s spa! * Photo: John Roberts

After lunch, it’s time to hop on the zodiacs and head ashore where we meet guides on a beach in the national park who will lead us on around Milford Sound on a kayak tour. After morning rains, the skies have cleared and the conditions are perfect for paddling on the calm waters around the edge of the fjord. We look up to see the awesome scale of the region, with a glacier still visible deep into the valley beyond. Waterfalls are still flowing, with some of the streams slowing since the rains ceased.

zodiac in Milford Sound

A zodiac ride to the kayaks in Milford Sound. * Photo: John Roberts

The notorious sand fleas are feasting on our legs and arms, and I’ll return home with some nasty bites from this trip, a souvenir that serves as a constant reminder of this adventure for a couple more months.

When we finish our two hours of paddling and return our kayaks and life jackets, five kea make a ruckus on the trailers and vehicles at the kayaking outfitter’s beachside station. Kea are the world’s only Alpine parrot, and these birds are well known as “troublemakers” because of their innate curiosity and penchant for chewing up anything their beaks latch onto.

Kea on a kayak

A visit from a nosy Kea! * Photo: John Roberts

We ride back in small groups on Zodiacs at sunset. It’s a great way to cap our adventures ashore. Tomorrow, we’ll have a full day sailing, venturing into Dusky Sound for a look at the dolphins, seals and birds in this part of Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Before Dusky Sound, though, it’s a farewell gala onboard Le Laperouse. With an easy day of sailing and relaxing on tap for the next day, everyone is in a mood to eat, drink and dance the night away, while re-telling our tales of the past week of exploration in New Zealand.

The Ship

Le Laperouse, which launched in 2018, is a luxury, mostly inclusive sailing experience, with 92 all-balcony cabins and meals and drinks included in your fare. Shore excursions and gratuities are extra.

There’s a small gym with treadmills and exercise bikes, as well as a full-fledged spa on Deck 7. Spa services include massages and other treatments. A large sauna is open and available for passenger use.

Watch John’s video: A virtual tour of Le Laperouse.

oceanview gym on Le LaPerouse

The Le LaPerouse gym has ocean views. * Photo: John Roberts

The Blue Eye lounge is a below-water-level multi-sensory experience on Deck 0. The lounge is bathed in moody blue light, and cruisers can go down to enjoy a drink and soak up the atmosphere that includes a hydrophone that pumps in underwater sounds. Two large portholes give sometimes murky views of the underwater world.

Word is that you just might catch some whale sounds. Also, a 30-minute multi-sensory session is offered regularly throughout the cruise. This is a guided experience with the cruise director who plays recorded video and sounds, and answers any questions about the lounge. Space is limited and requires signing up.

Most in our Backroads group gave the Blue Lounge a try, but many thought it feels a bit gimmicky. I agree.

Le Nautilus, the main restaurant, is an open-seating dinner venue operating at set times (usually 7 pm). Reservations are available for six or more. The menus feature traditional French cuisine such as Nicoise salads and beef bourguignon alongside locally-sourced seafood the likes of New Zealand mussels, oysters and scallops.

The pool grill is called Le Nemo, and it’s a buffet with salads, fruits, small plates, a grill area serving burgers, steaks, chicken and a couple hot dishes available for dinner and lunch.

Le Laperouse seafood

Le Laperouse cuisine was very good and featured lots of seafood. * Photo: John Roberts

This is a spot for a lighter breakfast, too, as it has no egg station but wonderful fresh fruit, yogurts, pastries and breads. Reservations are needed for dinner in this limited-seating al fresco area.

The Backroads team offered a variety of enrichment activities to keep our group entertained and learning about the region while on the ship.

Our little group had the theater to ourselves for a viewing of the highly entertaining “Hunt For the Wilderpeople,” a 2016 film that is set in New Zealand. It’s quite funny and sweet and provides some insight into Kiwi culture; you should try to check it out.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople film

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

We also learned about the currency, had a music and dance performance from a group of Maori entertainers while in Wellington, and were treated to a tasting of New Zealand honey during our last day at sea.

interior of Le Laperouse

A sea day or two is a welcome break to enjoy the lovely interior of Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Max, Katie and Brandon did an amazing job of keeping the journey fresh and interesting and created an environment for everyone to get comfortable with one another and enjoy their cruise at their own pace.

The cabins on Le Laperouse offer plenty of storage space in dresser drawers and closets. The washroom and bathroom are separate rooms, which I think is standard for the French design. My cabin had a single sink basin, and a large walk-in shower.

Watch John’s video: A video tour of Le Laperouse’s cabins.

Le Laperouse cabin on a New Zealand cruise

John’s lovely cabin #401 aboard the Le Laperouse. * Photo: John Roberts

Until Next Time …

The Backroads and Ponant partnership works incredibly well for travelers making their first visit to New Zealand. This New Zealand cruise itinerary is packed with daily activities taking place in all kinds of ports, from quiet towns to bustling cities to destinations known for their blissful and serene wilderness.

And the best part is the comfort and convenience of sailing on a luxury ship that offers fine food and a bit of entertainment while serving as your transportation and launching pad for your adventures. 🚲🛳💦🌲

For booking info, visit the companies here: Backroads & Ponant.

sunset on a New Zealand cruise sunset

Until next time … * Photo: John Roberts

 

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