Fabio is Brazilian, gorgeous, and really working my abs. In fact, he’s working my entire core, making me stretch into positions I never thought I could accomplish. I feel unwound, liberated and ultimately will be rewarded with a good night’s sleep.
While I think about how pilates is the last thing I thought I would be doing on a cruise through New Zealand and Australia, I’m distracted by the faint smell of sulfur. Behind Fabio, through the wall-size windows of the gym’s studio space, the large and single White Island, an active volcano where wisps of smoke curl through the crevices of red rock, emerges into view. The jagged island protrudes from the sea majestically (not to mention quite mysteriously), almost beckoning. It’s the first thing we’ve seen all day at sea, augmenting our excitement.
The ship circles the island while the sweet voice of travel expert “Spencer” on the PA offers cruisers White Island 101, noting how profound the experience is.
It’s an engaging moment, indeed.
I surrender my attention from Fabio to admire the rocks that are lone in the middle of nowhere, just like the cruise ship, a thought that’s no less than thrilling: I am truly away from the real world.
Keeping guests visually busy is just one of the many things the premium cruise line excels at. Guests get lost in the extensive onboard art collection (which can be toured with iPod audio), explore the carefully selected port stops and admire the innovative and affectionate presentations of the culinary options. While Americans (almost half the ship’s guests) spend thousands to join the New Zealand/Australia itinerary, Holland America exceeds expectations in making the long-haul journey worth it.
One of the few American-based cruise lines to head over to the region, Holland America is also one of the gay friendliest. In fact, it’s the Holland America Line that charters popular gay cruises (like Olivia and Atlantis) and has a “Friends of Dorothy” program gays actually go to. We met the group director Nathan in the Piano bar along with other male couples. My friend Mark and I were a little concerned that, as gay travelers, we would feel like the oddballs out but no one questioned the group of obvious gays in the middle of the Ocean Bar lounge. Furthermore, I was quite comfortable in my booty shorts during the days, there were other gay couples we could salute in passing and not one passenger (with the average in the 40+ age range) flinched at “Ted,” the utterly flamboyant performer in the cabaret shows. In fact they loved him.
Just as much as I love a prancing John Belushi (thanks, “Ted,” for bringing the gay out of a Blues Brother), I was equally wild about the size of our ship, the Ms Volendam. Smaller ships = less people. Even on the fully booked 14-day Pacific jaunt, I felt that claustrophobes could actually unclench (even my indoor suite—at 197 square feet—was comfortable). It never felt crowded, and the ship’s size (1400 passengers, 700 crew) brought a level of intimacy you can miss on a larger ocean liner. It’s almost like a small community at sea, an ABC reality show in the making.
While that wasn’t my main concern, I put all my chi into a health-conscious journey. After all, statistics show passengers can gain up to 14 pounds a week on a cruise, thanks to the all-you-can-eat buffets and 24-hour in-room dining. But the potential to size up is offset by the wealth of diet assisters: Spa cuisine options; acupuncture (deterring sugar cravings and leveling water retention); body metabolism assessments; personal trainers; sugar-free desserts; fitness center with classes; basketball court; tennis/volleyball court; ionithermie treatments in the spa and even brisk walks on the outdoor deck (3.5 laps equals one mile).
Variety also stretched with activities and amenities: Daily movie screenings (and complimentary recent blockbusters in the staterooms); cooking classes; activities like BINGO and Name That Show Tune; a casino; seven bar and lounges; an extensive library with New York Times Exploration Cafe; two swimming pools; the Greenhouse Spa (with a communal relaxation center that includes a hot tub, sensory showers and steamroom); and, of course, the outdoor decks for simple alone time.
The sunset was something out of a storybook: slices of sunlight breaking through gray clouds, the image reflected on the sea. It was so perfect I couldn’t help but think this was something the cruiseline had brilliantly choreographed. Even the fingernail of a crescent moon at night was just as commanding, hanging in the black sky, which met the black sea without any break.
Just as endless as a sky of stars were the myriad selection of shore excursions that brought passengers closer to the culture of New Zealand and Australia. Or, if we desired, we could discover the port cities on our own.
Our first stop was a hippy town called Tauranga, where the boys walk barefoot through the main street, toting surfboards with lean arms. Mark and I decided to spend our time shopping (NZ is famous for its all-natural skincare products), spa-ing (the geothermal pool from Mount Oteganu is quite sublime) and hitting the beaches.
Napier was another city on the agenda (major props to the captain, who did an impressive 360 parking job), completely destroyed in the 20s, and restructured with art deco as the foundation of its architecture and culture (it’s such a small town, don’t expect much and don’t be surprised to find women roaming the streets in full-on flapper gear while the guys don zoot suits, just for the heck of it).
Another highlight on the cruise was Picton, where Mark and I went through the rolling valleys and vineyards. To us (and to most New Zealanders we had met on the cruise), this was iconic for their country: vast sky, commanding landscape of hills and vineyards and small homes. We made it to the popular Yealands vineyard, got afternoon tipsy on sauvignon blanc and effortlessly fell into the untainted scenery.
History lessons and trivia are served in daily agendas on the cities and attractions, with “Spencer” on the PA, his voice soft and sweet like the famous New Zealand mamuka honey. Cruising leisurely through the Fjordland National Park was perhaps his “peak” moment: The passion in his voice was unmistakable as passengers at all decks couldn’t really capture the immensity of the natural beauty with their cameras.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t want Spencer to narrate our Tasmania excursion. As soon as we cleared the industrial port in Burnie, the road magically brought us into rolling valleys and sprawling hills chockfull of animals grazing. Sure, they were mostly the type that ultimately keep us fed (Tasmania is after all big on agriculture and dairy), but the motherload of “exotic” animals were at our destination: Wing’s Wildlife Park, a rehabilitation center for injured animals. Feed kangaroos! Pet wombats! Awe at tasmanian devils! It’s an outdoor zoo for those who prefer their game uncaged.
We also hit a home run at the Creative Paper Mill where we (you guessed it) made our own paper from recycled materials. But the sweetest (literally) treat for us was the fudge that came with our teas at the Hellyers Road whiskey Distillery. Infused with vodka, the fudge is completely unrivaled (you can’t purchased it) in the country.
The cruise ship also docks in Melbourne where most passengers and guests head straight to Crown Casino for its wealth of 26 terrific restaurants, stunning public spaces and exciting casino scene.
Sydney, Australia is the final port, where Mark and I extended our stay a few days (common for passengers). Often compared to Los Angeles, Bondi Beach is a must, in addition to the Harbor that comprises the Harbor Bridge and Opera House. Park Hyatt Hotel, right on the harbor, didn’t disappoint with its commanding views and spacious rooms. There was something romantic and magical about sitting on our deck and gazing out into the great architectural wonders of the city.
But nothing really put that fuzzy feeling in my stomach like being onboard the cruiseship at night, sitting out on a deck chair and gazing into the abyss of black, where sky meets sea. Sometimes I was joined by the golden moon and the silent ocean breeze that just kind of captured the mood and reminded me that this exact moment, this feeling of nautical elation, could never be duplicated if on land.
Holland America Cruises
To find out more about Holland America cruises in New Zealand, Australia and all over the world, visit their website.
Yealands Estates Wines
Located near Picton, Yealands Estates Wines is a beautiful vineyard where you can taste and buy fantastic wines.
Need Tasmanian tourism info, you devil? Check out their Tasmanian Tourism Information site, full of itineraries and info.
Crown Casino, Melbourne
Feeling lucky? Try your luck at Melbourne’s place to win big and catch shows.
Park Hyatt Sydney Hotel
Perched on the fabulous waterfront in Sydney Harbor, the Park Hyatt couldn’t boast a more stunning location. It’s luxe and lovely, in the great Park Hyatt tradition!