Special to Vagobond with 4 original photos © Susan McKee
Santa Claus just doesn’t look quite right standing next to palm trees and bougainvillea wearing his red suit trimmed in white fur in 80 degree temperatures. But, the earth’s rotation being what it is, summer begins in the southern hemisphere just as radio stations in the northern are playing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Dashing Through the Snow”.
It’s all rather routine to Australians and New Zealanders, of course, but Christmastime Down Under provides a bit of cognitive dissonance to those of us from North America. We’re more used to wearing parkas and boots than shorts and flip-flops as we browse shop windows during the holidays.
Fleeing winter does have a certain appeal, however, so I took advantage of an invitation from Holland America Line to join one of their Australian cruises from Sydney, Australia, and around New Zealand earlier this month.
About halfway through the voyage it occurred to me that I could avoid cold weather perpetually by arranging to spend half the year in Oz. Like those legendary surfers pursing the perfect wave around the globe, I could find “Endless Summer” by dividing my time between North America and New Zealand.
While my friends back home were battling sub-freezing temperatures as fall segued into winter, I witnessed spring bursting forth into summer while holiday tunes played in the background.
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” blared from loudspeakers as rollerbladers zipped past shoppers on the sidewalk in Napier. “Good King Wenceslas” contemplates snow that’s “deep and crisp and even” as shellers in Akaroa scan the beach for that perfect specimen.
At every port – and there were seven along our route – traditional symbols of the holiday decorated houses and shops. The major department stores in Wellington and Auckland had the usual animated windows with artificial snow, icicle-trimmed houses and all the other traditional markers of the holidays.
Everywhere, there were the usual Christmas trees – the pine varieties (albeit mostly fake) trimmed with ornaments, lights and tinsel. Snowmen complete with black top hats were crafted from metal, adorned with lights and set to guard downtown intersections.
Peppermint candy canes, Christmas cookies, and imported holiday specialties such as Stollen cakes imported from Germany and panettone from Italy filled store shelves – it all seems just like home, until you run into the native New Zealand Christmas trees.
These don’t look at all like their Victorian pine and fir namesakes. Known formally as P?hutukawa, the Kiwi Christmas tree is a type of myrtle often planted along coastal roadways and sidewalks of the North Island as a landscape ornamental – bushy dark green and (usually) stubby evergreen trees that, conveniently, burst forth with crimson blooms in the days leading up to December 25.
My ship, the ms Volendam, was festively decorated for the season, with lavish swags of greenery, red ribbons and glittery ornaments everywhere. The culinary staff explored their artistic side by using gingerbread, icing, gumdrops and other candy bits to create fanciful (but, alas, inedible) mansions and castles. (These are much grander than the usual gingerbread houses because they start with plywood bases rather than cookie slabs.)
Confections abounded on this cruise. Not only were the desserts varied each meal, but there was an ice cream bar offering sundaes and cones open every afternoon. On one evening during the cruise, the culinary staff whipped up a dessert extravaganza with massive ice carvings, chocolate sculptures and all sorts of fanciful sweets served buffet-style at the unusual hour of 10:30 p.m.
I’d not been on a cruise like this one before, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a range of dining opportunities. There was the usual: a cafeteria-style buffet with everything from sushi and salads to prime rib and sandwiches. But there was also a white-tablecloth restaurant with flowers and candles and a menu that varied each day, a small bistro featuring Italian delights — and the Pinnacle. As its name suggests, this was the fine-dining option (with a small surcharge – the other locations were included in the cruise price). Here’s where I found lobster macaroni and cheese, lamb grilled on a skewer, baked Alaska and chocolate truffles served with after-dinner coffee.
Kids (and grownups) celebrating birthdays during the cruise are serenaded at dinner by the mostly Indonesian dining room crew with a traditional Southeast Asian song
(thereby avoiding all the “Happy Birthday” copyright issues).
In fact, there never was a dull moment on board. There was internet access via satellite, game tables for chess and checkers (not to mention a whole cabinet of board games), jig-saw puzzles, jewelry shops, a casino (this was the only indoor smoking area onboard), daily trivia and bingo games, a library, DVDs for the television in the cabins), presentations on everything from “eating right” to the aboriginal culture of Australia, two swimming pools, a hot tub, ping-pong table, spa, art auctions, gym, yoga classes, Tai Chi, religious services and AA meetings.
My personal favorites were the frequent demonstrations in the Culinary Center. Ever heard of Lamingtons? I thought not! This Aussie specialty is a sinfully rich dessert that starts with an egg-and-butter cake dipped in chocolate and layered with icing, whipped cream embellishments such as coconut, banana and honey. I even learned how to create marzipan roses and fold towels into fanciful animals during the demos.
The lure of the cruise for me, however, was the chance to explore both the north and the south islands of New Zealand. Port stops began at Oban on Stewart Island (off the country’s extreme southern tip) and continued at Port Chalmers, Akaroa, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga and Auckland.
Rain interrupted my visit to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, obscuring the signature skyline with fog. By the time I got back on board, I was soaked through.
Unfortunately, the last scheduled stop, Bay of Isles, had to be scrubbed because of high seas. A storm to the north of us meant that we’d need the extra time to steam around the high winds and waves on our way back to Sydney. Total distance round trip? 3290 nautical miles.
(Full disclosure: I was the guest of Holland America Line aboard the ms Volendam earlier this month on its 14-day New Zealand & Australia cruise.)