Dozens of large, contemporary cruise ships visit New Zealand each year but if your penchant is geared more toward the smaller, luxury lines, these travel to the country on a far more infrequent basis. But this is beginning to change, which begs the question – what is New Zealand like on a luxury small ship?

New Zealand for most isn’t a destination they think of when it comes to luxury cruising. Normally the domain of large mainstream ships from brands such as Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises, passengers for whom a more luxurious voyage is more their style are now seeing some of the world’s most luxurious ships spending longer in New Zealand waters.

Favourites such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Voyager, Silversea Cruises’ Silver Whisper and Oceania Cruises’ Regatta are among those returning to local waters this season, accompanied by new ships to the region including Azamara Club Cruises’ Azamara Journey and the brand new Seabourn Encore, the newest and largest vessel to join the Seabourn fleet in its history.

Seabourn will soon take delivery of Seabourn Encore.
Seabourn Encore will make its debut in late December, the vessel debuting in Kiwi waters as part of its inaugural season.

With a significantly renewed interest in the “land of the long white cloud” from luxury lines, it is common for these brands to quickly appear on the radars of local passengers as lines compete to drive guests to book onto their new product.

First up, a major highlight of joining these ships are the longer calls into each port which guests will experience, enjoying much later sail-away times of later than 7pm, compared to 4pm or 5pm on the larger ships.

These longer calls in each port allow guests to delve deeper on longer shore excursions, which in many cases can travel further afield, such as the many wine regions dotted around the country or escaping to Rotorua from Tauranga. Additionally, many ships will spend the entire night and a second day in some ports, such as Auckland, affording guests a chance to dine ashore – opening up the culinary tastes of a particular destination.

The Champagne Pools of Rotorua are easily accessible with the longer calls afforded by luxury lines.
The Champagne Pools of Rotorua are easily accessible with the longer calls afforded by luxury lines.

While your time spent ashore is greater, you will typically also spend considerable periods of time in more off-the-beaten-track locations such as Nelson, the South Island’s artsy town often compared to Byron Bay for its food, art and culture scene. Itineraries include time in Nelson are widely regarded as giving guests a look at the real New Zealand rather than the popular “milk run” ports usually included on other itineraries.

Towns such as Oban and Timaru are also a good chance of being included as they are only able to accept small ships in their tiny harbours – another big advantage over large ships as it opens up more destinations generally not accessible by cruise ship. For example, a visit to Oban will open up Stewart Island, one of New Zealand’s most pristine island communities.

Smaller ships will also offer their guests more unique opportunities to join the ship in places other than Auckland. One such brand is Ponant, which allows guests to embark in remote locales such as Milford Sound. The stunning natural channel, very popular as a scenic cruising destination for many ships, features as the dramatic embarkation point for guests who then discover New Zealand and some of the Sub-Antarctic islands such as Macquarie Island.

One of Ponant's four yachts L'Austral.
Ponant’s L’Austral gives guests the chance to embark for select voyages in the dramatic Milford Sound.

Additionally, the smaller size of most luxury vessels allows for an increased chance of wildlife sightings as the increased maneuverability allows them to more easily turn to follow whales and dolphins, should they spot them in the breeding grounds which surround New Zealand.

Opportunities for wildlife sightings are not lost on the cruise lines sailing in this part of the world. Many contract the services of a team of experts including marine biologists who can provide information on the wildlife which can be found in the area you’re in. Some go as far as ensuring there is a pair of binoculars in every stateroom to allow guests to whale watch from their balconies. Additional guides are bought on to roam the decks during transits of the three sounds – Doubtful, Dusky and Milford – all staples on many New Zealand itineraries.

Luxury lines sailing to New Zealand from Sydney generally operate one-way voyages ending in Auckland. Some brands will sail an itinerary or two entirely within New Zealand, such as French line Ponant, which sails from both Lyttelton and Milford Sound. The typical luxury cruise season runs from late November to February, however you can also find the odd ship or two visiting the region very late in the season, such as Oceania Cruises’ Insignia, which calls into New Zealand in May during its annual world cruise.

Have you cruised New Zealand on a luxury ship? Let us know in the comments below!