SATW president begins her New Zealand cruise aboard the Island Passage

Betsa Marsh

President, Society of American Travel Writers, Special to AllThingsCruise

Island Passage is the flagship and entire fleet of Island Escape Adventure Cruises of Auckland, New Zealand. She is one of the few ships that makes five -and six-night sailings around New Zealand, and the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland is one of the most popular. This is Kiwi luxury, with fabulous food and the feel of a personal yacht while kicking off your shoes and coming to dinner in your khakis.

Auckland Harbour

November 13, 2011
After a week in Wellington, New Zealand, it’s time to hop the hour flight back to Auckland and link up with my Island Passage.  I find the low-slung catamaran at her little berth along Princes Wharf, just a few blocks from the Victorian Ferry Building that is the icon of Auckland Harbour.

I’m too early to board, but don’t fancy carrying all my gear around Auckland. Who should appear to save the day but Captain Vincent Maurice himself, hoisting my bags onto deck and freeing me to wander. He promises I won’t recognize him later in the day when he’s shaved.

Auckland Harbour is beautifully designed for aimless ambling, with a wide, tiled sidewalk that marks the Maritime Trail. I learn bits of Maori and European history along the way, while ogling some of the world’s most beautiful yachts.
Chef Vaughan G. Mabee lives up to his reputation-as part of the culinary team that took Noma in Copenhagen to No. 1 in S.Pellegrino’s Top 50 restaurants for 2010.

The starter is a deep-water hapuka with fresh asparagus and New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels. Mains are New Zealand Angus beef or snapper, with mustard potato, just-picked watercress and a surprising plum juice sauce. Each course has a recommended Kiwi wine for accompaniment, a $30 fee that takes you through the meal. CEO/owner Peter Bissett sits at the head of our table, proudly serving only New Zealand wines.

Chef Mabee pops up from the galley to announce each course. For dessert, it’s burnt butterscotch budino, “sort of an Italian crème brulee,” he says. “I worked in Florence and we had a 90-year-old pastry chef. For six months, I asked ‘Can I have this recipe?’ and all she ever said to me was ‘No!’ Finally, she gave it to me.” The rich pudding, spiked with Wild Turkey bourbon from Kentucky, seems all the sweeter for the chef’s persistence.

 Soon it’s lights out in my little Kawau cabin, named for one of the islands coming up. Last thing I hear is chilly waves sloshing under deck, the Hauraki Gulf lullaby.

Kennedy Point Winery

Island Passage is the flagship and entire fleet of Island Escape Adventure Cruises of Auckland, New Zealand. She is one of the few ships that makes five -and six-night sailings around New Zealand, and the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland is one of the most popular. This is Kiwi luxury, with fabulous food and the feel of a personal yacht while kicking off your shoes and coming to dinner in your khakis.

 November 14, 2011

We tender over to Waiheke Island this morning, forced by southwesterly winds to land on shore rather than the harbor. At sandy Oneroa Bay, we time the waves to make a beach landing, hopping off in rhythm with the surf.

It’s a morning of wine tastings at three of Waiheke’s best vineyards. This once sleepy island was a hippie haven until vintners discovered its climate was a match for Bordeaux’s, and the first vines were planted in the late 1970s. Since then, Waiheke has become a commuter island for Auckland and real estate prices have shot up, our Ananda tour guide tells us, 500 percent in the past five to 10 years.

At Kennedy Point winery, we sip syrah and nibble New Zealand cheese and bread, dipped in olive and avocado oils from the estate. The winemaking is such a traditional French-style process that the staff picks the grapes by hand and, as bar manager Dale Weingott says, “we clean our feet and destem them just like Lucille Ball.”

Te Whau (pronounced Tea Foe) serves up killer ocean views with its Bordeaux-style blends, and Obsidian pours a nice light Weeping Sands pinot gris to send us back to our tender and a beachy exit.

This afternoon, we’re facing into the wind up to Great Barrier Island, “Guardian of the Gulf,” and our displacement catamaran gets rocking and rolling for a few hours — what Capt. Vince calls “a bit lumpy.” We pull into a calm nook off Great Barrier, which blocks the heavy Pacific swells, and finally anchor about 7:30. The Island Passage settles gently in for the evening.

The ship also sails for two nights out of Auckland and for five nights in the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand, from November through April. From May through September, Island Passage sails six-night routes in Vanuatu.

This five-night Hauraki Gulf cruise starts at $2,000 US, including all onboard chef-prepared meals, juices, soft drinks, teas and coffees. The fee also includes onboard expedition leaders, small-boat excursions with guides, small-boat fishing trips with guides, use of all fishing and snorkeling equipment and kayaks. Visit

www.islandescape.co.nz.

 November 15, 2011

The sun and warmth of a real spring day help carry us over to Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier Island, heart of an inspiring conservation tale. I’ve been to Kapiti Island off Wellington, which is a predator-free haven for New Zealand’s endangered native birds. This bit of land jutting into the Hauraki Gulf is now the Kotuku Peninsula Sanctuary, which is also trying to give native birds one last chance.

The late Tony Bouzaid was the visionary who first bought an old farmstead here in 1994, restoring the 1901 farmhouse and then tackling a much bigger restoration project: reclaiming the native bush for the birds, and replanting tens of thousands of tree species.

Dr. Emma Cronin and her darling daughter Pippa greet us at Fitzroy House, to explain the ongoing work. Her husband Scott Sambell takes us up the hillside in a unimog, an old military transport, to get into the bush and see the re-emerging shrubs and trees.

We listen for kaka and tui birds, and look for the little chevron skink, a brown lizard so rare he’s almost a myth. But the species is real, and eliminating the cats, ship rats and pigs from Great Barrier is the only way to give the skink a chance.

Dr. Cronin and her team use everything they have:  poison, traps and a clever anti-predator fence that runs more than a mile and a half through the preserve.

Then it’s a quick run back to Island Passage and lunch on deck lunch: Maori crayfish bouillabaisse packed with fresh snapper and prawns. The French baguettes are a bit burnt, but we tear into them anyway and toss the crusty bits, with permission, to the seagulls and the fish.

The afternoon is open for close-in fishing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking or vegging. It’s my chance, under glorious sunshine, to explore all 140 feet of this ship, from the open pilot house to the oversize saloon to the aft deck.

Crane and tenders

Topside, I watch a maneuver I haven’t seen at sea before: The crew lifts a steel-hulled tender up with a crane and lowers it over the side. Half-way down to the water, they load it with fishing rods and gear, then settle it on the Gulf.

The tenders cluster around the helipad. If you need to send the chopper for more champagne, it’s NZ$2,500 per hour.

Island Passage carries five tenders, including one for rescue. We use them to zoom to all our shore excursions. This afternoon, anyone left onboard the ship can hop aboard one of the little boats with Capt. Vincent Maurice for a spin around our little patch of paradise.

That’s one of the most indulgent parts of the Island Passage experience: It’s planned around our interests. Anglers have a boat and crew at their command. Kayakers can slip into the waves whenever there’s free time. Nappers can duck off back to their cabins for siesta, and readers can take a book up on deck for an uninterrupted stretch. The crew will bring you a nice beverage and then give you time and space to relax.

By dinnertime, we’re feeling grateful to the fishers among us, who brought home some serious snapper for Chef Mabee to work his magic with. It’s the centerpiece of an aft-deck barbecue whose platters overflow with salads, grilled asparagus, sausages, lamb and those wonderful green-lipped mussels. We dine with the crew, and I learn that host Sethson Pelten has a 2-week-old daughter back home on Vanuatu that he’s yet to see.

Sven Stellin and manuka

November 16, 2011

Day two in our perfect little harbor off Great Barrier Island, but suddenly the sun and warmth are gone. We bundle up for the short jaunt over to shore and the quirky homestead of Trish and Sven Stellin.

For more than 18 years, they’ve been making Barrier Gold balms and oils from the manuka and kanuka plants, better known in the States as tea trees. The plants, once reviled as weeds, now are the source of healing elixirs and bold-flavored honey.

Sven walks us through his distillation process, from harvest to the final drop coming from his Rube Goldberg still. He uses all the waste oil on Great Barrier Island to fuel his fires, and the Island Passage even drops off her waste fuel oil to help with the effort.

It’s not too bad and we anchor safely at Bon Accord, the only spot Island Passage is allowed off Kawau. It’s a quick tender ride to Mansion House, where a preening peacock shows us his feathers, a shy wallaby scuttles into the woods and New Zealand wood pigeons flap away from their branches.

Calla lilies grow wild among the palms and tree ferns-how many times have I tried to grow back home, and here they’re weeds. The lilies, like all the New Zealand native species, are so unremarkable to Kiwis, yet so exotic to the rest of us.

Hearty hikers tramp up to the ruins of the old copper mines and up the Redwood Track-another import from the acquisitive Sir George.

Capt. Vince joins us for our farewell dinner, roast duck with risotto and merlot-raspberry sauce. It’s like the end of every wonderful cruise-where did the time go?

Nicole Donahoe Birthday

November 18, 2011

It’s happy birthday to Nicole Donahoe, and Chef Mabee has carved an elaborate apple swan for the breakfast bar in her honor.

One gift given, another taken away. We’re hoping to make landfall on Tiritiri Matangi, a remarkable island of conservation. The once-eroded farms are now sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s rarest birds: the flightless takahe and kokako, which was nearly extinct.

But the southwesterlies intrude again, making the tender operation too dicey. We need a calmer easterly wind, so all we can do is snap photos and sigh.

By noon, Island Passage is all safely lashed back in her berth at Auckland Harbour.  I feel a total disconnect to the miles clocked-a 120-mile loop from Auckland to Auckland. It feels like we’ve been away for years, into another realm.

Capt. Vince told me on our first day, “you come out here and unplug. To be able to step off the planet is so nice.” I now know exactly what he means.

All photos by Betsa Marsh.

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