Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Akaroa (Christchurch), Dunedin, and Hobart

Weather happens. That’s what we tell our clients all the time, because it happens to us, too. Captain Sagani began his weather advisories well before our scheduled cruise into Fjordland, offering possible alternative routes if conditions worsened. As it happened, not one, but three different frontal systems converged over the Tasman Sea causing strong winds and high seas and slowing our speed considerably. At one point, the Diamond Princess was barely crawling at 2-4 knots. It made for quite a bumpy ride! Luckily, all in our group weathered the storm well--thanks to midship cabins and a dose of Meclizine here and there--but we were so pleased to finally reach Hobart, Tasmania, that we barely minded the half-day loss of port time and cancellation of many of our scheduled shore excursions.

Before the storm approached, however, we had continued to enjoy the sunny, cool New Zealand weather greeting us in both Akaroa and Dunedin.

Interestingly, though founded by the Maori 700-800 years ago and already claimed by Britain, Akaroa was New Zealand’s only French settlement, and some of that country‘s influence remains today through both its architecture and cuisine. It was also the closest our ship would get to Christchurch, that beautiful city so terribly ravaged by the 2011 earthquake. A few excursions gave passengers the opportunity to venture into the city, either on your own or to the Antarctic Centre or Botanic Gardens. (One couple in our group returned from Christchurch happy they had gone, but very sad at the destruction they saw.)

It was from Akaroa that passengers could also board the Tranz Alpine Express in Arthur’s Pass for a delightful train ride through the country’s Southern Alps. One lucky couple in our group did just that--the ones whose arrival had been delayed by weather, no less--and gave the excursion high marks. Some of us chose a wildlife cruise to the outer edges of this natural caldera harbor formed eons ago by a volcano. We went in search of Hector’s Dolphins and were not disappointed! These smallest and rarest of the dolphin family are fast and playful, and several found their way to our boat. We also sighted a tiny white-flippered blue penguin and beautiful sea birds. Akaroa itself is a delightful little resort town with interesting shops, bars and cafes. You can also journey to the remote and lovely Mt. Potts high country station, home of Mt. Sunday, and see how movie magic transformed this peaceful mountain into Edoras, the capital city of the Rohan people in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Our ship called next at Port Chalmers for a visit to Dunedin, a delightful city with strong Scottish roots and some beautiful Presbyterian churches. (Okay, other denominations and faiths are represented there, too.) From here, Princess offered excursions by train, harbor cruises, bus and foot. On the Taieri Gorge Railway, you could travel one way through the Taieri Gorge for panoramic views straight out of New Zealand’s gold rush days, or to the seaside along the Otago Coast.
Dunedin is home to some stunning homes, too, and I didn’t want to miss them. First we visited Fletcher House, where I felt as though I’d stepped back into Grandmother Martin’s home in Edwards, Mississippi. There in the parlor stood the exact same model upright Majestic radio that I inherited from her and which still resides in my dining room, as well as a mantle clock similar to my own and a beautiful piano bearing frayed-edge sheets of music that would no doubt have had Mother singing in no time. The house is the only fully restored and furnished Edwardian villa in New Zealand. It was lovingly crafted by James Fletcher, the Scottish stonemason who eventually founded Fletcher Construction Company.

Our tour next visited Larnach Castle, a huge Edwardian-era home built on an exposed bluff and containing numerous rooms priceless antiques. In contrast to both the Fletcher House and the next home we’d see, however, this lavish castle was destined to bear a very sad story of a family divided and unrequited love.

Finally came Olveston House, located in an inner suburb of Dunedin and a home that was built to be as practical as it was beautiful. This owner thought of everything that would make the kitchen efficient and servants well-equipped to care for the property and its contents. And since the last of the Olveston family left no heirs it was donated in its entirety, complete with its stunning gardens and still operational 1920-era Fiat convertible, to the City of Dunedin in 1966 along with money to maintain it. Nice folks, huh?

After making it through the storm of the summer, the Diamond Princess, which had managed quite well to keep us happy and entertained over three and half days as sea, pulled into Hobart, Tasmania. Our captain extended our hours in port, giving enough time to at least get glimpses of this southern Australian city and even visit the historic Georgian village, Richmond, and the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary where we cuddled up to kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas and saw Tasmanian devils up close and personal--but not too close! So, despite fears of not being able to see much of Tasmania at all, we were well treated by tour guides delighted to welcome us to their fair city.

Moreover, Ben and I made it back to the ship in time to celebrate our 42nd anniversary with friends at Sabatini’s Italian restaurant on the Diamond Princess. And now we’re on our way--over much calmer seas--to Melbourne!

(As usual, I’ll add photos and links when we return home.)

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