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 the 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 the city. 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.
Auckland is home to Absolute, Aurora, Lush Life, Chinook II and Great Southern. The yacht that totally stumps me is Pastorale, from Oklahoma City, Okla. I’m going to have to get out the map to make that leap.
To get into the seafaring mood, it’s fish and chips at an outdoor waterfront grill. By 4 p.m., I’m ready to board the Island Passage and head into the Hauraki Gulf, the glorious playground for Aucklanders. The entire expanse, 4,200 square miles studded with more than 40-plus islands, is the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park.
This small ship has only 10 cabins, so I’m expecting the maximum of 20 passengers for this first five-night cruise of the spring/summer season. But there are only eight of us, and with eight crew plus Captain Vincent, it’s an incredibly pampering guest-to-crew ratio.
We glide past the Ferry Terminal and out into the Gulf, heading for Waiheke Island. It’s close enough that many islanders commute daily to Auckland, so we anchor in plenty of time for drinks and dinner.
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 and passengers each pay a $30 fee for all the wines for that 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.
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.
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
Tomorrow: Wine tastings at three of Waiheke’s best vineyards
Betsa Marsh is the president of the Society of American Travel Writers.