A small boat, following the stunning Kiwi Coast, is a recipe for true luxury.

A wispy white cloud cloaks the mountains guarding the mouth of Milford Sound—and that seems just about right. Standing at the stern of the Seabourn Encore with Tua Pittman, we look out over the chop on the Tasman Sea, Pittman pointing to peaks and points of interest lining the lush green almost mystical South Island shore.

“For us, Milford Sound is a sacred place, where the Maori came to gather the green stone. Whenever we come here, we pay homage to the spirits,” says Pittman, the ship’s culturalist and traditional navigator. As we steam slowly closer to the opening of the Sound, girded by the world’s tallest sea cliffs, we’re greeted with an unexpected welcoming party—a pod of about 100 playful dolphins, emerging from the blue-grey waters to skim and leap and gleefully ride the waves rolling off the back of the ship. Those lucky enough to be out on the decks cluster quickly at the railings, happily snapping photos; moments later, the playful creatures start to fall away and, as the Encore makes the big turn, we say farewell to these little friends, even as we prepare to greet the spirits.

I’m sailing down the coast of New Zealand—known to the Maori people as Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s a voyage of discovery, both cultural and natural, as we trace a course along the country’s eastern shores. Leaving from Auckland, we call at all three of New Zealand’s inhabited islands—the North, South and Stewart.

Pittman notes that coming in from the water provides a unique vantage point. Because the Encore is smaller than most cruise ships (the vessel carries just 600 guests and has a remarkably shallow draft, needing as little as a half metre of clearance below the bottom), it’s able to navigate into small bays and coves necessarily bypassed by bigger vessels. And approaching these islands from the sea—the tropical North, temperate South and tiny Stewart—we’re following in the wake of the land’s first residents, the Maori, who came here in wooden canoes, navigating by the stars, and later European explorers like Abel Tasman and James Cook.

At Tauranga, our first port of call out of Auckland, I emerge early in the morning onto the deck to watch our approach, passing the verdant flanks of Mount Maunganui and smelling that distinctly tropical mix of salt and earth as we roll toward the jetty. This is a resort city that swells in size during the summer, and my day tour quickly skirts the 22 kilometres of beaches—sand crowded with surfers and sunbathers and beach volleyball players—as we make our way toward Rotorua. Arriving at Te Puia, one of the country’s best-known tourist attractions, a place where culture meets nature, our small group of day trippers is greeted by Maori warriors at Te Puia’s meeting house who sing songs and demonstrate traditional fighting techniques. Then we wander down into the Whakarewarewa Valley, marvelling at its geothermal wonders, liquid hot magma simmering near the surface of the earth. As we walk past bubbling mud pools, our patience at the Pohutu is rewarded when the geyser erupts, frothy water shooting as far as 30 metres in the air, blowing a fine mist over all of us snapping photos.

Back on board, evenings pass happily, surrounded by the rather indulgent luxury of the Encore. It’s the newest ship in Seabourn’s fleet; even the regular staterooms (known as “veranda suites”) feature 300 square feet of space, enough room for a separate sitting area, a walk-in closet, and a deep soaker tub in the bathroom, plus plenty of room on the balcony to relax and drink some good Kiwi chardonnay. I find myself opting instead to wander down to the fifth deck to sip gin and tonics in one of the two hot tubs there, watching the blue ocean roll away off the back. One day I decide to go all out, proceeding on my own personal “tub crawl”—sampling all six of the hot tubs on board.

During a day at sea, I take it up a notch, wandering out of my stateroom in my robe and going up to the 12th deck to guzzle a few Grey Goose martinis in a cabana in The Retreat, a sort of holy of holies on the luxury front—a private, even more luxurious oasis with premium liquors and otherwise unavailable dishes offered for an extra fee. Later, I complete the indulgence at the Grill by Thomas Keller, a classic American steakhouse conceived of by the founder of Napa’s famous French Laundry,  downing lobster thermidor and big rib-eyes and plenty of New Zealand cabernet. But I also make time for a bit of education along the way, taking in lectures by Pittman and other members of the Expeditions team, which includes naturalists, a geologist and an ornithologist, among others, there to help interpret the world through which we cruise.

Making our way down the east coast, we stop almost daily, in the nation’s capital of Wellington, as well as small villages like Picton, and Oban, on Stewart Island. At Akaroa, near Christchurch, I have a true Kiwi experience. Part of a shore excursion, our group of 30 or so rolls out on a motor coach, out over the crater rim of an extinct volcano, proceeding through vivid green valleys, mist and cloud shrouding farms and dairies and cheese factories, the entire panorama looking like a scene from Lord of the Rings.

Returning to shore, we’ll soon again be at sea. A few days later, I’m finally in Milford Sound. A glass of bubbly in hand, I stand on the top deck, the sea cliffs climbing away on both sides, the silver ribbon of Stirling Falls tumbling down nearby. As Tua Pittman told me, the spirits are all around, here, beyond the mist and below the long white cloud.

When You Go…

Air New Zealand flies daily, non-stop flights from Vancouver to Auckland. Its Business Premier cabin features lie-flat beds that convert into a leather armchair, and the Premium Economy cabin has larger seats and a special menu—and both have the funniest inflight safety videos in the sky.

In Auckland, the Cordis Hotel features a rooftop pool, a full-service spa and newly renovated rooms within walking distance of downtown (and a short drive to the cruise port).

Sailing 16 nights from Auckland to Sydney, the Seabourn Encore calls at ports on the North, South and Stewart Islands before crossing the Tasman Sea to Australia. The ship features all-suite accommodations, award-winning cuisine and an open bar throughout.

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