Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty. Picture: Roy Gibson

New Zealand: never been there and never particularly wanted to go. However, my reason for holding such a view - that you have to cross Australia and then the Tasman Sea to get there - was not very sound.

So I was persuaded to give it a fair go and now have to admit New Zealand is a wonderful holiday destination. Cruise ship Celebrity Solstice gave me a chance to see the fringes of New Zealand and I liked what I saw.

Like almost every cruise, you get a sample of what's on offer - dip your toe in the water, so to speak. We visited several towns and cities on New Zealand's coastline and I enjoyed every moment of it.

We boarded the Celebrity Solstice at Circular Quay in Sydney and, from our balcony, the Opera House seemed almost within touching distance. The Solstice is a giant of a ship - 314m long with 2850 passengers and 1500 crew.

After a couple of pleasant days at sea, our first taste of New Zealand came as we edged into the spectacular fjord country in the south-west of South Island.

Predictably, it was wet and windy - it rains every second day on average - but that helped to make Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound even more eye-catching. Thick clouds covered the high peaks and waterfalls poured down the mountainsides into the sea.

First stop the next day was the university city of Dunedin. It was established by Scottish migrants in 1848 and the name Dunedin means Edinburgh in Scots Gaelic.

Dunedin shows off its Scottish connections with a statue of famous poet Robert Burns at the upper end of the cleverly designed city centre, known as the Octagon. The weather, too, was just like Edinburgh - cold and windy with a maximum of 12C. There was also a piper playing the bagpipes as we stepped off the bus.

Within easy walking distance are the impressive railway station buildings, the Otago Museum and Baldwin Street - recognised as the world's steepest residential street with a gradient of 19 degrees. Part of the street is covered with concrete as, on a warm day, bitumen would simply run down the slope.

A two-hour walking tour of Dunedin was well worth the $30 while a bit further afield is Larnach Castle - New Zealand's only castle. Overlooking Otago Harbour, the castle was built in 1871 by banker and government minister William Larnach. And, like most castles, it has seen its share of controversy, scandal and tragedy.

What we couldn't resist in Dunedin was the tour of the Cadbury chocolate factory in Cumberland Street. For $22, you get to wear a silly plastic hat and see the chocolate- making process.

We then sailed north overnight and the next morning moored in the waters off the small town of Akaroa. If there is a more beautiful spot stretched around a picture-perfect bay, I've yet to see it.

In 1840, a French whaling captain planned to establish a French colony at Akaroa and claim the South Island for France. But the British beat him to it and he found a Union Jack blowing in the wind. However, the French decided to stay, creating a township that remains a quaint mix of British and French.

Akaroa has a population of only about 700 but that increases greatly in summer. There are a host of arts and crafts shops, jewellery shops and spots selling Maori carvings. Fudge and honey are local specialities and all the shops rely greatly on the regular arrival of cruise ships.

There's no shortage of boats for tours around waters full of penguins, seals and dolphins.

If you want to travel further afield, Christchurch is only 75km away but another way to spend the day is journeying to the Middle Earth - the Mt Potts high country station in the Southern Alps, where part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed.

The next day it was time to visit New Zealand's capital, Wellington. The cruise ship terminal is only a stone's throw from Westpac Stadium, home of Wellington Phoenix Soccer Club and recognised for its banks of bright yellow seating (usually empty).

Wellington is both windy and hilly, and boasts a cable car which is listed as one of the city's must-visit attractions. Unfortunately, it had broken down, so we had to hire a taxi to get us to the top, from where we enjoyed wonderful views of the city and harbour.

We spent the next few hours strolling through the impressive Wellington Botanic Garden, which was established in 1868 and covers some 25ha. Walking on what is described as the "downhill path" takes you past an observatory, an Australian garden area, a playground and a threatened species garden.

The final part of the walk back into town goes through an old cemetery which, sadly, has been sliced in two by a motorway, and then past the modern parliament building known as the Beehive because of its unusual design.

After a full day at sea it was on to the penultimate stop at Tauranga, in the Bay of Plenty region. We gave the city a miss in favour of exploring Mt Maunganui across the harbour to the north - a wise choice with the sun shining brightly.

On one side of the peninsula, there is a quiet promenade walk and the sheltered beaches of Tauranga Harbour, and on the other side is the main beach. The sand is soft and white and the Pacific Ocean waves are perfect for surfing and diving.

At the point of the peninsula is an extinct volcano known as Mauao. A slow stroll around the base takes no more than an hour, while the more energetic can try climbing to the 232m summit in about the same amount of time.

Then, after sampling the shops and restaurants, if you still have some energy left, it is a short walk across a bridge to Moturiki Island. Wander its gentle trails and climb some rocks to find spectacular views of the bay and Mauao.

Hopefully, we will get another chance to make the day trip to Rotorua, famous for its hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud. Those who saw it for themselves said it was a wonderful experience.

Our final stop was Auckland, where we spent a weekend before returning to Perth.

You can't come to Auckland and not visit the impressive Sky Tower, 328m high and in the central business district. For $28, you can zoom up in a lift which has a glass-bottomed floor.

If you want an alternative way to get back to the ground, you can try sky jumping. We didn't - it was frightening enough watching people plummeting past, attached to wires and spread-eagled like bats.

Much more relaxing was the 15-minute ferry trip across the harbour to the small town of Devonport - considered to be Auckland's crown jewel.

Jump on a tour bus and see the twin volcanic cones of Mt Victoria and North Head, where there are still military bunkers and tunnels to be explored. Devonport also has no shortage of shops, restaurants and boutiques.

The West Australian

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