The best way to appreciate Sydney Harbour’s beauty

The haze in the distance becomes more distinct. There’s land ahead, and after four days at sea, it’s mesmerising. As our ship approaches this smudge takes shape – there are beaches, blobs of bushland, skyscrapers, the arch of the bridge.

Then as we round the rugged honeycomb of the Heads, a first glimpse of the white tips of the Opera House elicit a communal “ohhh” and Sydney, in all its sun-shimmering beauty, is almost too much.

This is a homecoming with a difference. It’s my first entry to the city by ship and the first time I’m able to see the effect this dazzling harbour has on visitors, mainly American and French passengers aboard the revamped Norwegian Spirit on her first return to Sydney after three years. Sailing to “the other end of the world”, is a lifelong adventure for many, and it’s one reason why when news broke that the Spirit would not stop in Noumea as planned, but instead would have an overnighter in Sydney, the response was more excitement than annoyance.

Then there’s that moment: as a water-spout chaperone welcomes us, every passenger and just about every staff member – even chefs in white hats – line the windows and decks as we glide under the Harbour Bridge (the Spirit is the only NCL ship small enough to fit) accompanied by tooting ferries and yachts full of waving well-wishers.

Sydney, you’re a show-off.

Cruising from Fiji to Sydney

DAY ONE

The lay of the land at sea

After a delayed, cramped, uncomfortable flight to Nadi, it’s a relief to file onto the Norwegian Spirit at Fiji’s port of Lautoka where it docked a day earlier after cruising through Tahiti.

The Spirit has just emerged from a $US100 million ($145 million) bow-to-stern renovation. The stairway and rooms decor is restful and muted with an emphasis on light-filled space. The 14 new drinking and dining venues offer plenty of choice plus room to move. Our cabin is compact but not cramped – with clever storage and a balcony big enough to soak up sunrises and sunsets and spot the odd winged companion.

The first day on board – so experienced cruisers tell us – is all about getting your bearings and scoping out perfect perches. We set to it and have no trouble tracking down peaceful lounges, sunny corners and shady reading nooks. This may be due to the fact that the Spirit is carrying just over 1200 passengers instead of its 2018 capacity. Also, because of its smaller size (268 metres, 10 decks), its adult-friendly itineraries and its lack of rollercoaster-type bells and whistles, this ship tends to carry fewer young children. Whatever the reason, there is peace in our time. After working out what’s where – the basketball court is that way, the spa, thata way) we clink glasses as the Spice H20 deck transforms into a cocktail bar under warm Fijian skies before dinner at Italian restaurant Onda by Scarpetta.

DAY TWO

An island idyll

“We’re so happy,” says Rita, as she stretches on the sand in front of her stall where she’s had a good day selling coconuts on Dravuni, Fiji, our first port of call. Rita’s referring to the return of cruise ships to the island – the Spirit is the second to visit this week after a too-long absence. Dravuni is no resort island, rather it’s a 0.8 hectare drop in the ocean that is home to Rita’s village. It’s where she brought up her four sons who now live in London – a fact hard to comprehend as we stare at the turquoise waters, white sand and nodding palms.

We arrive early to the island by tender, keen for a snorkel. We stay all day, walking along long stretches of beach, swimming when we feel like it. The coral is emerging from a bleaching but there are coloured fish and the water is warm and pristine. Most passengers enjoy some time here, though it never feels crowded and many return to the ship for lunch. Some pay boat owners for a $10 ride around the island; others climb a rugged peak, but many do as we do: swim, snorkel, chat, repeat. We buy lunch locally: delicious grilled fish with lime, chilli and salt; roasted sticky eggplant and cassava, washed down with coconut milk. Later we explore a warrior graveyard touchingly adorned with shells and sarongs; listen to traditional songs, say hi to wandering roosters and pigs and buy a pineapple, chopped with a machete.

On the Spirit tonight it’s show time. “Havi and Anahi: Unstoppable” in the Stardust Theatre is a magic act that leaves us gasping and pondering why Havi seems intent on either making the beautiful Anahi disappear or chopping her in two.

DAY THREE

Excess all areas

We make a discovery. The aptly-named Windows is the place for breakfast.  The Garden Cafe offers a buffet, but why battle with too much choice and having to cook your own toast when you can have table service, white tablecloths and a seat by a window? It’s not the only discovery we make today, the first of four days at sea. We play trivia, discover where to snare an espresso and savour panoramic views over the bow from the Spinnaker Lounge. We use the stairs, never the lifts – another expert tip –  to ward off the effects of excess. It’s excess of another kind on display later at a cocktail tasting where we sample tasty solutions to the problem of food wastage at sea. Watermelon Twist, which puts otherwise discarded watermelon rind to good use, includes tequila and lime juice in a glass rimmed with cayenne pepper and salt. There’s a Croissant Mai Tai using stale pastries; Pulp Art, which blitzes tops of capsicums, and Cafe Replay, where spent coffee grounds are mixed with vodka, Frangelico, bitters and pineapple juice. It’s all part of NCL’s environmental plan that includes committing to zero emissions by 2050 and inviting guests on the Spirit’s voyage from Sydney to Auckland to a beach clean-up at Eden on the NSW South Coast.

Dinner is at the Teppanyaki Restaurant where our chef combines singing, dancing, chopping, knife-juggling, hilarity and delicious food, though we’re not convinced the egg dropping is part of the show.

DAY FOUR

What a swell party

The sea is different today, gun-metal grey with white peaks. One of the ship’s two pools is closed due to wild splashing, though we see little evidence of sea sickness. Still, it’s probably not the best day to do a yoga class on deck, I decide as I feel the sea do a downward dog under my own. But the decision was a good one, with our instructor, who also manages the crew of entertainers, taking us through poses for an hour as a gentle breeze calms stomachs. Later we join her backstage at Stardust Theatre where we’re shown sequinned costumes for the Spirit’s award-winning shows Blazing Boots and Elements. (Who knew spraying a mix of vodka and water on sparkly outfits keeps them smelling fresh?). The performers are young, talented and close-knit – essential when they’re away for months on end. They’re also troupers who’ve performed on much rougher seas, often in heels. “Sometimes you’ll look for a prop and it’s sliding across the stage”. Tonight our food matches many accents around us as we indulge in the French Le Bistro.

DAY FIVE

Water, water everywhere

It’s been three days since we’ve spotted land. This fact stretches our brains. Australia, to many, is at the end of the world, but experiencing just how far it is by water – even from “neighbouring” Fiji – is mind-boggling.

Yet our days on the water are never dull; the sea proves riveting. One minute it’s grey, the next bottle green, later deepest blue or blushed pink by the setting sun. Two seabirds, gannets, have adopted the Spirit on its lonely voyage south. They swoop, dive and shake their tail feathers on these waters that keep luring us from our books and phones to sit and contemplate.

And then there’s the spa – a 50-minute massage followed by a 50-minute facial leaves us so chilled out we are unable to contemplate anything except more watery vistas. The Mandara Spa doubled in size under the Spirit’s renovations, and includes a Thermal Suite including steam room, sauna and heated-tile loungers.

DAY SIX

The Emerald City

It’s fitting that the Opera House is the jewel in Sydney Harbour’s crown, because arriving here by sea is aria-worthy. Heads swivel from the caterpillar of BridgeClimbers on that arch, to the Luna Park smile, to the imagined depths of Fort Denison’s cells. Then it’s peak arrival as we glide under the bridge to a waving fanfare from yachts and ferries. Our first stop is White Bay – a mystery to most on board. But after a heads-up, many take a short cab ride to Balmain for a shopping blitz. Others head to the city, while some zip about on ferries, four days at sea obviously whetting rather than dampening their appetite for the sea.

As we gather for dinner, we are all moved again, literally, as the Spirit makes its way back under the bridge for an overnight berth opposite the Opera House.

THE DETAILS

CRUISE

A 12-day cruise, Australia and New Zealand, departs February 8, 2023, from $2145 a person; or Sydney to Papeete, March 28-April 12, from $2960. Includes beverage package, Wi-Fi, specialty dining experience, shore excursion. In December the Norwegian Spirit returns for eight 12-day Sydney-Auckland sailings. Book before January 31, 2023, for a $US200 on-board credit per stateroom.  See NCL.com

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Traveller.com.au/cruises

Jane Richards travelled as a guest of NCL

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