South Island – the vagaries of cruising

Two days on New Zealand’s South Island, ostensibly the same timetables and yet completely different experiences. Arrive in port, explore that local area for a few hours then take a bus tour to the main city for sightseeing. And yet one was, for me, the best day of our cruise thus far and the other a bit of a let down.

So, let me begin by explaining the reasoning behind this blog. I’m only too aware of how fortunate we are to be able to enjoy such a wonderful holiday. I’ve been frustrated and surprised by the frequency, volume and venom with which some of my fellow passengers have complained about such disgraces as their scallops being undercooked or having to wait 45 minutes (from ordering starters to finishing desserts mind) for a meal to be served to them (without a single please or thank you of course). So, this is not a complaint about what I’ve received. Rather, it’s a reflection on why one day was so satisfying and what I’ve learned from the other day that might help me next time we cruise and might be of interest to those of you who cruise or are thinking of doing so.

The first day we had docked in Lyttleton, the port for Christchurch. Our tour was a morning bus trip around the city by double decker. It was billed as ‘easy Christchurch’ and I had some alarm bells ringing that we might not get time off the bus to explore on foot. I should have heeded that disquiet; more on that later.

I tend to swing towards city breaks when choosing shore excursions. Christchurch was, I knew, the site of two earthquakes, in 2010 with an aftershock in 2011, which devastated the city and resulted in 185 deaths. The massive job of rebuilding is still far from complete even now and, perhaps as a result of our guide focusing on what had been lost rather than what remained, there was an air of despondency about the tour. Also, I had forgotten about the shootings at two mosques in March 2019, in which 51 people were killed. I now remember the atrocity and how the fact that New Zealand is a country unaccustomed to such events seemed to make it even more unconscionable. As we drove past the first of the mosques I raised my camera to take a picture and then suddenly thought ‘what am I doing here?’

I remember my mum was living in Dunblane at the time of the school shootings there. Every time, for years after, when people asked where she was from and she replied, there was a noticeable awkward silence, a moment when people don’t quite know what to say. It wasn’t too long before she elected to move away for a fresh start.

In Christchurch, I had a similar sense of not quite knowing how to respond to what I was seeing – the holes in the ground, the fractured buildings, the cathedral held up by scaffolding. Was I paying my respects or coming to gawp. Even now, a few days later, I’m not quite sure.

When we docked in Lyttleton it was a very overcast and cold morning.

We duly boarded the coach and set off. Our driver stopped the bus en route to Christchurch at a viewpoint and we duly scampered up to see over the city, to be met by a wall of mist and drizzle. Our guide manfully tried to tell us what we would be able to see if it was clear, but quickly realised that, when in a hole it’s best to stop digging, and suggested we reboard the bus. A short trip later we were off again to visit a very pleasant, if unexceptional, park, before being advised that, as I had feared, we would not be stopping in the city.

So it was a matter of trying to catch sight of those few structures worthy of mention. The main one I was interested in, the cathedral, was on the opposite side of the bus to where we were sitting so I got a mere glimpse as we drove past.

Soon we were heading back to the ship, a little deflated. As we approached the port, Lyttleton itself seemed to have a paucity of attractions. However, with the afternoon to spare we decided it might be worth a walk anyway. But then our guide advised us if we did want to leave port we would need to board a shuttle bus – to be fair it is a working port with a railway line to cross and I’ve seen some of my fellow passengers doing excellent impressions of headless chickens so perhaps the health and safety was appropriate. Add to that that it was still raining and colder than a November day back home and an afternoon in the bar on board suddenly seemed an attractive proposition.

Before looking into what ‘went wrong’, if that’s the right expression, let’s cheer this post up a bit by recollecting the events of the following day, when we docked in Port Chalmers, our destination from there being the city of Dunedin.

It was a bright and surprisingly warm morning as we glided into port. We had been advised by a shop attendant in Auckland that South Island was much colder and the previous day had given truth to that, so to stand on deck and feel genuine heat in the sun was most welcome. The town lay in front of the ship, climbing steeply up wooded hills and looking most welcoming. There is clear evidence that this is again a working port, with both container ships being loaded and piles of lumbar awaiting export, and yet we could obviously walk into town easily.

As our bus tour wasn’t until the afternoon, having had an early breakfast we decided to do just that. We immediately came across a plaque commemorating the Scottish settlers who in 1848 founded the port; they would go on to found Dunedin.

A glimpse of a handily replaced street map reminded me that our ship presentation had recommended a visit to the memorial to Scott of the Antarctic, so we (well, it was me really) decided to make that our aim.

Fist we headed to pretty Iona church, which we’d spotted from on deck and would later find out has the only belltower in the Southern Hemisphere with a clock. Call me sad but I love that kind of information.

From there the road headed slowly uphill before a sharp turn and a road telling us it was 1km to the monument. However, not only was the road rising increasingly steeply but the pavement ended and I could tell Moira was less and less enamoured with proceedings. Hoping to improve things, I saw a sign for a forest trail to the monument so advised we go off road. Tragically, a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ as it was dank, muddy and slippery. Just when I thought divorce proceedings might ensue, we finally emerged at our destination.

And boy was it worth it. What magnificent views welcomed us.

In addition to the monument was an anchor pulled from the harbour and displayed.

Having soaked in the views and drawn breath, I became aware that we still had to retrace our steps back to town, which as you can see was a long way below. The path we’d used was clearly off limits and the pavement-free road wasn’t appealing either. At that point I saw a family appearing from what I thought was a path up and inquired of them, only to be met by puzzled looks as they had come from a viewing platform only metres away. We must have looked pretty miserable because dad was kind enough to offer us a lift back down to town, which needless to say was gratefully accepted!

It was obvious that sustenance and retail therapy were in order so we stopped in the pretty main street for coffee and homemade cake, before visiting a craft fair, set up for our arrival in the town hall. Successful purchases were made. It was evident that everyone was pleased to see the ship in port; we were only the second ship to visit as New Zealand opens after covid and there were signs up, smiles from the locals and numerous warm welcomes.

On our way back to the ship I saw signs for another viewpoint but wasn’t too surprised at the suggestion that I go solo while Moira returned to the ship. Another uphill slog resulted in fine views over the port and also a quirky hidden sculpture garden.

The afternoon saw us heading for Dunedin, to visit Olveston House, the Botanic Gardens and a city tour by bus. It was only a short drive, some 9km along the coast, to Dunedin, passing some pleasant suburbs and then the Forsyth Barr rugby stadium, with the largest fixed glass roof in the world.

Olveston House was a delight, a large home previously privately owned but then donated to the city when the family line expired in the 1960s. The house is eclectically decorated with some fine pieces dating across the centuries. No pictures were allowed inside but the house can be viewed online (

The Botanic Gardens cover a massive area and in the time allotted we were never going to cover it all. We opted for the Japanese area, a terraced slope leading up to some massive cedars of Lebanon, a formal knot garden and a herbaceous border. This is an oasis of calm in the centre of the city, apparently designed along the lines of the famous botanic gardens in Edinburgh, a place I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never visited.

Our bus tour again led to the inevitable craning of necks to try to catch sights as they sped past. On this occasion however our driver was able and/or prepared to slow down and stop wherever possible and also allowed us fifteen minutes in the square where both St Paul’s cathedral and the statue of Robert Burns are located, allowing some welcome photo opportunities.

Returning to the ship, we spoke of what a good day we had had and how it was so much more satisfying than the previous day. And I couldn’t help but wonder why that was and, of course, what I might do differently the next time.

Because there will be a next time, many in fact, as we’re far from done with cruising. Of course, there will always be days when things don’t go according to plan. We can’t control things like the weather, the traffic, the behaviour of other travellers, all of which impact on the pleasure or otherwise of the routine of the day, but I do think there are some variables I could control and would pay more attention to in the future.

The shore excursion is a staple of all cruises, the opportunity to get ashore in far flung locations and explore. To me it’s the fundamental reason for cruising; we’ve visited places like the Falkland Islands and Ushuaia that we’d never get to see any other way. You only have a few hours and it’s vital to choose wisely and well – I don’t think we did that in Christchurch.

There are different types of excursions – cultural, sightseeing, nature based, activity focused, culinary and so on. Also the time varies from three to ten hours. Shore excursions are never cheap and can run into several hundred dollar territories. So it pays to do your research and decide just what you want to achieve on your day ashore. We looked at the list for our day in the Christchurch area and picked a city tour as we like seeing cities. What I would do if I had the choice again is be more enquiring, ask things like:

What is there to see in Christchurch?

Do I really want to see those things?

Might I see them, or similar things, elsewhere?

What other sights are in the area?

Am I prepared to take a bus several hours to see something else?

If that means we can’t explore near the ship is that a problem?

Can I justify the expense of a full day activity trip?

Had I done that, I think we’d have opted for a nature based trip to the surrounding area, which – judging by comments of fellow shipmates – had been very successful. We had actually used a very similar process to decide on the Hobbiton trip when we were in North Island, which was a tremendous success.

So, if you’re planning a cruise I hope my experiences and honesty about how and when it wasn’t the perfect day might help your planning and decision making. And it’s comforting to know that the best days are often the ones that sneak up on you and leave a mark on your heart, which Port Chalmers most certainly did for me.

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