The last time I sailed on Azamara Journey was in 2014, on an unforgettable cruise from Athens to Rome.
A general strike in Athens meant Syntagma Square was packed with protesters and tours to the Acropolis were out of the question. No matter; my cruise companion and I boarded the Journey at Piraeus to find we'd been magically upgraded to the Club World Owner's Suite. Any sense of sightseeing disappointment evaporated in a trice.
Four years on, I'm on a mission to check out what's changed since the ship had a multimillion-dollar refurb in 2016 – and to experience sailing solo for a change. Azamara Journey's cruise starts in Auckland, recently rated the world's third-most liveable city (after Vienna and Zurich). I'm not surprised by this news – Auckland is easy to get around on public transport, scores highly on the shopping, dining and natural-attractions scene and its cruise port is right there in the middle of the city.
The ship had a multimillion-dollar refurb in 2016.
Before we sail out of Auckland, we are treated to an impressive onboard performance of the haka and other tribal dances by a local band of musicians. They manage to entice a surprising number of passengers to join them on the deck and it's a fun start to the cruise.
After the excitement of sailaway – and a vaguely worrying thought about dining alone – dinner on the aft deck of Windows Cafe proves to be a breeze. A seafood buffet is in full swing – you pick your own ingredients and the chefs cook it all in front of you – and my table for one (OK four, with three empty places) overlooking the Hauraki Gulf is the best place to be for amazing sunset views and casual conversations.
The pool deck on Azamara Journey.
Has the ship changed much over four years? Yes and no. The decor is brighter and lighter, a selection of house drinks is now included in the fare, dining is better than ever and the service even more attentive than I recall. The former Looking Glass Lounge is now the more attractive Living Room, where wine and tapas are served in the evening and coffee and snacks during the day, while favourite features such as the painted tromp de l'oeil ceiling in the library (Drawing Room) remain.
On the way to the Bay of Islands I join a table of single travellers for dinner, hosted by cruise director Tony Markey. You have to book a spot in advance and there are so many of us we spill onto a neighbouring table. It's a lively evening. On one side of me sits a former US senator, on the other a retired teacher, also from the US. An English woman gets straight to the point – "What are you going to do about your gun laws?" Then we talk Trump, Brexit, travel, sex and everything else under the sun.
Over the next few days, friendships develop; Azamara Journey's size and spaces are very conducive to sociability, whether you're travelling with a group, couple or on your own. And if you're not the most confident single traveller, organised cruise excursions are a boon. Whether you take a ship's tour or a cheaper option offered by a local operator, it takes the hassle out of making the arrangements yourself and, particularly if you choose a small-group tour, you get to know fellow passengers along the way.
The Aqualina restaurant.
I join a Waitangi walking tour at the Bay of Islands. Guide Morrie is a straight-talking Māori who shares his extensive knowledge of his ancestors' culture as we wander along the glittering rocky coastline. He explains the significance of the massive ceremonial canoe, which is launched every February for Waitangi Day celebrations, and inside the surprisingly homely Treaty House we inspect a replica of the historic Waitangi Treaty.
At the ornately carved Meeting House, which symbolically faces the Treaty House, we see a dazzling display of Māori weaponry, stick games and the haka; later we split up to try our hands at wood-carving or flax-weaving. Not something I'll be doing again, by the way, crafts are not my forte. Azamara Journey's visiting magician Paul Draper accompanies the tour – his show in the new 54 Below venue that evening is mind-boggling.
My next outing is with eight other passengers from Tauranga to Rotorua, the birthplace of Maori culture. Minibus driver John keeps up a running commentary during the 45-minute drive, on everything from soaring real-estate prices in seafront Mount Maunganui to how the freshwater lakes surrounding Rotorua are full of trout. You can catch the fish but selling them is illegal.
Kayaking the Queen Charlotte Sound.
The gushing geysers and bubbling mud pools at Te Puia are as dramatic as I'd imagined and the sulphur smell much fainter. It's a key tourist attraction and very managed – however, our onsite guide talks geology with authority and takes us through a nocturnal sanctuary to observe a pair of young kiwi birds. You can only see the native "slow breeders" in the wild if you're accompanied by a ranger.
After a look through the inspirational new NZ Arts & Crafts Institute in Te Puia we spend an hour or so at the Polynesian Spa, languishing in geothermal pools that overlook steaming, multicoloured Lake Rotorua and far distant mountains. We agree on the drive back to the ship that another hour there would have been preferable to the educational pit stop we make at a kiwifruit farm – but it's a first-world problem.
By the time we reach Picton the weather is considerably cooler and the prospect of kayaking on Queen Charlotte Sound is suddenly not so enticing. Nobody else is piking out, though, and it turns out to be a wonderful, energising experience. Ten of us paddle about 14 kilometres in and out of bays and coves in a mountainous landscape that's so vast and silent it's quite mystical; our entertaining guide's dry comments bring us back to earth (or sea).
Another highlight is the AzAmazing Evening in Wellington. These special events are held once on every cruise and almost everyone on the ship attends the superb Symphony by the Sea in Wellington Cathedral. Even if you don't know much about classical music you recognise these pieces; two are traditional songs made famous by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
I jump ship in Dunedin and catch a glimpse of Azamara Journey a few days later in Sydney, where it's setting off on its 102-night Bridge to Bridge voyage to London. Fifty-two passengers are on board for the full cruise; as Captain Johannes Tysse says, "I hope they won't be climbing the walls by the end of it, but we have plenty of things to keep them entertained."
Azamara Quest will sail four voyages between Australia and New Zealand in 2019; 16-night Melbourne to Auckland, departing January 6; 16-night Auckland to Sydney, departing January 22; 14-night Sydney to Auckland, departing February 7; and 15-night Auckland to Cairns, departing February 21. azamaraclubcruises.com
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Azamara Club Cruises and Emirates.
Sally Macmillan. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.