Nature is the hero - and music, too - on a boutique trip in the land of the long white cloud.
I am a little alarmed, as it looks like the beautiful golden-headed bird - a gannet - in front of me is eating its baby. I worry that it will swallow the white ball of fluff whole, python-like. Swivelling around to look at the hundreds of other birds on the clifftop overlooking Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island, it is not the only baby "at risk". I am relieved when the guide tells me that the bird is simply giving its baby a "seafood smoothie", which is a slightly nicer way of saying regurgitated fish - recently caught by the parent who's flown back to cough up its Uber-eats delivery. The chick emerges, seemingly unscathed, and starts squawking for more.
The Cape Kidnappers Gannet Safari is one of three nature-based New Zealand shore excursions I experience while on a 17-day cruise between Melbourne and Auckland on Azamara Quest. She is a boutique ship with 352 cabins (a max of 702 passengers), so you don't need a GPS to find your way around. There is no casino, plenty of places to drink, dine or be entertained, and many quiet spots to read.
In Wellington, we have another high-flying experience. We all dress up in our finery - smart casual is the dress code - and head to the Wellington Opera House for the highly anticipated "AzAmazing Evening". There is one of these special events on every Azamara itinerary. Our "Symphony by the Sea" starts with a welcome champagne before we are swept away on a wonderful night with Orchestra Wellington, and the soaring Pasifika voices of the Signature Choir.
Orchestra Wellington play classics from Mozart, Rossini and Barber, and are joined by the choir for a sublime mix of traditional Samoan songs and numbers from Disney's Moana. There are tears, and not just mine. The Norwegian man next to me needed his hanky. It is that beautiful.
A shore thing
After arriving in Nelson, we all scurry off to various shore excursions. We bus it to Kaiteriteri then board a catamaran to cruise to, and hike in, idyllic Abel Tasman National Park. We pass pristine beaches, swathes of green forest butting up against golden sands and turquoise water. We spot seals sunbathing on rocks at Tonga Quarry before doing a U-turn back to Anchorage Beach, where we break up into groups - those doing the long hike, those doing the short hike and those who just want to laze on the beach.
The shorter hike takes us to Pitt Head, with glorious ferns, curious weka (birds) that apparently like to pilfer your food, and a tour guide who matter-of-factly tells us how invasive species like possums are dealt with in this precious park to help the native species regenerate. At one point she draws her finger across her throat. I am on my best behaviour after that.
More aquatic fun is had in Picton, after what was a perfect arrival, cruising down the Marlborough Sounds at sunrise with barely a ripple. I sign up for a kayak tour of Queen Charlotte Sound. We split into pairs to go in the double kayaks, with our guides taking us around the southern shore of Grove Arm. It is so tranquil, paddling from beach to beach, and we stop at one for a swim.
The Art Deco city of Napier is where my heart is kidnapped by gannets. We drive to Cape Kidnappers, home to the super-luxe The Farm at Cape Kidnappers and its associated golf course, and bump over dirt tracks to the soaring cliffs. Driving up a dusty hill, the colony reveals itself, with the throng of gold-headed parents with those Hollywood-blue eyes, white fluffy babies and three-month-old juveniles in speckled black and white. Our guide, Mick, tells us that this is the largest and most accessible gannet colony in the world. "They mate for life, and it is fascinating that these juveniles will jump off this cliff soon and fly 2700 kilometres to South Australia. They will have never flown or fished before. And in two or three years, they will fly back to this very spot," he says.
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As Azamara spends longer in port than most other ships, I enjoy time on board. I have a massage at the spa - there is a good daily special - and read on my balcony and in my secret squirrel spot in a deckchair under the lifeboats on deck 5. I don't do yoga at sunrise, forget to go to Pilates, visit the well-kitted out gym without actually doing anything and opt not to walk a mile by doing 13 laps of the jogging track.
I did do trivia, learn some tips on smartphone photography and love the entertainment, from the Musiq 4 Soul band who had everyone jumping at the White Night Party, to the tight group of six singers who do various shows including British Rock. They do an awesome version of Somebody to Love and nail the Petula Clark numbers.
As for the food on board, just wow. I test every restaurant, including the two specialty offerings - Aqualina and Prime C. My go-tos are the Sunset Deck attached to Windows, Discoveries - which although the biggest restaurant is elegantly styled - and Patio, on the pool deck.
Back home, I scroll through the channels. Moana is on, and I watch it, volume up, being carried "away, away" back to Azamara Quest. Pass the hanky.
The ship: Azamara Quest
The size: 356 cabins, 702 passengers, 181 metres long
Good to know: Keep an eye out for the daily specials as you can save a bundle on valet laundry and at the spa. There is a free laundry for guests if you choose to use it.
Get on board: Azamara will offer this itinerary again in January 2024. Prices from $6,568 per person.
Explore more: Azamara.com
Helen Hayes was a guest of Azamara.