Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 16, 2017

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Kiwi Cruise

New Zealand's island beauty begs to be explored by land and sea

The weka loved me and wouldn't let go. Deep under the rainforest canopy of Ulva Island, he worshipped the ground I walked on, stooping to kiss my every footprint as I explored a path carpeted with the red petals of the rata tree.

"Love's got nothing to do with it," laughed Peter Tait, a former forest ranger and my guide for a hike on New Zealand's Ulva Island. "He hopes you'll stir up seeds for easy pickings." Because of his tenacious nature and shiny, burgundy feathers, this plump bird was treasured by the early Maori settlers.

I had disembarked from Silversea's Silver Shadow only an hour before, but already I was enchanted by the island's bird population: its green parakeets perched on leafy branches, cheery white-breasted robins hopping on sun-dappled moss, rainbow-hued parrots flitting among the trees and chubby bellbirds clamouring in concert.

Lying just 32 kilometres from the southernmost tip of New Zealand's main coast, Ulva Island is unique on the globe for its regenerated, pristine nature. "Ulva just recently evolved from an endangered ecosystem, where vegetation was stunted and certain birds were becoming extinct," Tait explained. "Today it's a thriving sanctuary because we have been able to eliminate browsing animals originally introduced by humans: possums for fur, deer for hunting and rats that stole here in the hulls of boats."

Now the island which the Maori called Rakirua -- meaning "heavenly glow" -- is as they first found it. The rainforest grows dense and five bird species have been liberated from predators: the South Island Saddleback, Stewart Island Robin, Yellowhead or Mohua, Rifleman and Kiwi.

Treks and Trees
A sudden rain drenched the foliage, but not our spirits. Trekking along, Tait pointed out towering punga ferns and giant remu trees whose leaves change as they mature. Then he spotted, with great glee, a tiny seedling of gunnera hamiltonia, a new species in the plant world. When we reached the sandy beach, the fickle weka disappeared behind another hiker.

A retired fisherman and former senior forest ranger in the region, Tait had participated in Ulva Island's regeneration. Today he delights many of the few visitors who venture to this remote ecological haven with a guided hike and a gourmet sailing adventure around Stewart Island on his steel motorsail ketch.

Tait navigated deftly around rocky outcrops and scenic island coves, bringing us close to clusters of Stewart Island Pied Shags nesting proudly in the trees, lazy fur seals snorting on the shores and puffy white gannets bobbing in the protected waters. We dined on fresh blue codfish and delicate abalone that his wife, Iris, sautéed fresh in the galley.

Back on the Silver Shadow, as the elegant vessel was leaving Foveaux Strait and heading north toward Picton, I thought back on the spectacular day trips I had enjoyed so far. Besides organizing a wide range of sightseeing excursions and active adventures, Silversea's personalized excursion program also customizes individual tours with private guides and limousines.

The Silver Shadow's 10-day New Zealand Medley itinerary had appealed to me as much for the culture of the cruise line as for the culture of the destination. As a first-time visitor among the Kiwis, I wanted to gain a sense of the country, the landscape, the locals and their indigenous and modern cultures -- and to play some fabulous golf -- without having to worry about organizing all of it.

Customized trips would maximize my time inland, so I had combined Silversea's information with tips from New Zealand's Auckland tourism office (tel: 866-639-9325, www.NewZealand.com). I listed my dream excursions -- including a pre-cruise visit to the capital city of Wellington for a Pinot Noir festival -- and let the Silver Shadow's concierge arrange private tours for each port.

Wellington wine
New Zealand's capital city of Wellington is one of the liveliest port cities in the world. Now dubbed "Wellywood" for all the gargantuan statues of Lord of the Rings characters on prominent buildings, its port is fringed by a walkway punctuated by bridges and streets branching to pretty squares, museums and cafés.

At the architecturally stunning Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which houses precious Maori artifacts -- including a carved, thatched-roof greathouse and a long waka (canoe) -- we learned how the various iwi (tribes) recorded their histories in carvings, and we witnessed a powhiri, the traditional warrior dance that "challenges" visitors to rejoice in their land.

Excellent exhibits put into perspective the significance of the Waitangi Treaty. The historic document, signed in 1840 between Maori chiefs and the British Crown, established New Zealand as a bi-cultural nation and was meant to institute a peaceful rapport between the two clashing cultures.

 

At the Pinot Noir festival, I was introduced to the regional nuances of New Zealand's award-winning wines. On a day trip across the Cook Strait to the vast vineyards of Marlborough, I quaffed aromatic varieties with celebrated local vintners like Michael Seresin (better known as the cinematographer for the last two Harry Potter movies) whose wines, with their signature handprint labels, are exported around the world. By the time I boarded the Silver Shadow in Auckland for the start of our cruise, I knew enough about local vintages to explain the wine list to my dinner companions.

Having sailed on three memorable cruises aboard each of the Silver Shadow's sister ships, I knew I'd be basking in sumptuous style with deferential service. Sure enough, my accommodations in the all-suite vessel included chilled champagne, fresh fruit and flowers, and an array of complimentary spirits and wines.

After a quick glance at my suite with its sunny balcony, make-up vanity, desk with satellite phone and computer outlets, TV/VCR, walk-in closet, and granite-clad bathroom with twin sinks, soaker tub and shower stall -- I dashed out to explore the 382-passenger ship from top to bottom.

The airy Observation Lounge on Deck 10 overlooked the prow. Next door, the Mandara Spa and Fitness Centre had treadmills and recumbent bikes (each with TV and headphones). On Deck 9, the jogging track ran past the golf cage at aft. A deck below, the pool was flanked by twin whirlpools. The Panorama Lounge (lovely for afternoon tea or twilight cocktails) was next to a library and computer centre.

On Deck 7, the Terrace Café (popular for buffet breakfast and lunch) doubled as a restaurant at night alternately serving Italian, French and New Zealand cuisine. Adjacent, Le Champagne was devoted to vintage wines and exquisite meals inspired by renowned chefs from the Relais & Châteaux association of Michelin-rated restaurants. The tiered Viennese Show Lounge extended down from Deck 6 to 5. Here, the lobby lead to a casino and boutiques. On the deck below, the main restaurant glittered with crystal, china and Christofle silver. Down on Deck 3, the medical centre was accessible around the clock by appointment.

Excursion Exertions
With so many excursions scheduled, I wondered how much time I'd have to enjoy the ship. Our first stop was Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty. While other passengers went sailing, fishing or were flown out to the bubbling, geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, I hiked up to the wooded peak of Mount Maunganui.

At a stop in Lyttelton, some passengers boarded classic Jaguars or Daimlers to tour Christchurch, or went fly-fishing or jet boating on the swift Waimakariri River. I opted instead for a helicopter flight over the Canterbury Plains and Southern Alps to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The highest peak in Australasia, at 3650 metres, it is called Aorangi -- "cloud piercer" -- by the Maoris.

At the head of a gorgeous, 22-kilometre-long harbour, Dunedin had all the passengers agonizing over options. The luxury of a private guide enabled us to tour the city and the University of Otago whose Victorian and Edwardian architecture resembles Cambridge. We drove around the entire harbour, visited a tunnelled preserve of rare yellow-eyed penguins and sailed out to rocky Taiaroa Head to see the rare Northern royal albatross.

From Picton, the main port of the Queen Charlotte Sound, passengers toured popular vineyards (including Herzog and Cloudy Bay), visited sheep farms or went kayaking. I tramped along a stretch of the famed Queen Charlotte Track and then joined a fisherman who sailed out to Mills Bay where he harvests some of the country's prized green-lipped mussels. In splendid serenity, surrounded by blue waters and verdant hills, I washed down the fresh mussels with glasses of crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.

I had a busy day in the city of Napier, which was completely rebuilt in Art Deco style after an earthquake struck in 1931. First Bertie, the city's "Art Deco ambassador" trundled me about the city in his 1934 Buick Straight 8. By noon, I was heading west to the Kaweka Ranges for a divine lunch at Sileni Estates, one of Hawke's Bay's finest vineyards. By 2pm, I was losing balls at the new, cliff-top Cape Kidnappers golf course, awestruck by devilish greens that overlooked the sea.

On my last morning, I disembarked in Auckland with five hours to spare before hustling to the airport. "Of course there's time for a tour," the concierge insisted. "This city has a wilderness on its western doorstep." Just 40 minutes from the pier, I was examining Maori carvings at the Arataki Centre before taking a guided hike through the subtropical rainforest of the Waitakere ranges.

My last impression of New Zealand was of watching surfers riding the curls of wild waves toward the black sandy beaches of Piha and Karekare on the Tasman Sea. It was one final contemplative moment for a trip spent immersed in the country's spectacular natural beauty.

 

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