The 10 best places to cruise in New Zealand

I'd be hard-pressed to nominate my favourite New Zealand port, which says a lot about cruising our neighbour's rumpled, irrepressibly scenic coast. Auckland has bulky islands, blue skyscrapers and cloud-scattered skies. Akaroa's bay has milky-blue water and brown hills sculpted by exuberant volcanic eruptions. Sail into Dunedin and you're so close to the landscape you could almost lean over the railings and pluck washing from a garden.

Coastal landscapes are best from the sea, but there are abundant other reasons to cruise New Zealand: Maori cultural life; laidback friendliness; a modern history partly shared - but interestingly divergent - from our own. No surprise, then, that in a survey of Princess Cruises passengers, eight of the top 20 favourite Pacific ports for 2016 were in New Zealand, and Fiordland took out No. 1 spot.

Princess Cruises carries a third of all Australian cruisers to New Zealand, and this summer makes 177 calls to 10 New Zealand ports. More are expected next season, when the company's newest ship Majestic Princess also visits. "Australians love visiting their trans-Tasman neighbour and that shows no signs of waning, with Australians accounting for over half of international cruise arrivals," says Stuart Allison, vice-president Australia & New Zealand for Princess Cruises.

If you've yet to sail to New Zealand, here are just some of its port highlights.

AUCKLAND

WHAT TO SEE New Zealand's largest, most vibrant city is enlivened by a multicultural population and impressive cafe and restaurant scene. Check out seaside suburb Devonport, Sky Tower and nightlife spots Viaduct Basin and Ponsonby Road. Kids will appreciate Sea Life Aquarium, with its sharks, stingrays and penguins. The city is surrounded by superb water vistas, volcanic landscapes and islands, making for a splendid cruise arrival.

DON'T MISS Seafaring history is showcased at the terrific National Maritime Museum, where experts repair traditional wooden boats. Auckland War Memorial Museum includes displays on volcanoes, native wildlife and Maori culture, while Auckland Art Gallery showcases New Zealand landscape paintings and striking portraits of Maori warriors decorated in intricate tattoos.

SHORE EXCURSIONS Do a highlights tour, or take an excursion focusing on Devonport or various museums. Visit Waiheke Island for winery visits or zip-lining. You can get beyond the city on coastal eco-tours, or explore the famous glow-worm-illuminated Waitomo Caves.

NEED TO KNOW Many NZ itineraries start or finish in Auckland, or cruise round-trip from the city. Among them is a 13-day New Zealand cruise round-trip from Auckland departing November 24, 2018. From 2099 a person; see princess.com

DUNEDIN (PORT CHALMERS)

WHAT TO SEE This South Island hillside city makes the most of its Scottish heritage and might remind you in architectural look (and nippy weather) of Edinburgh. Though 13 kilometres from port, the city is easy to get around. The Otago Museum and botanic gardens are well worth visiting, and there's good shopping.

DON'T MISS Dunedin has an impressive ensemble of Victorian-era architecture: pop into the elaborate train station for floor mosaics and stained glass. Olveston House is a 35-room mansion crammed with Edwardian knick-knackery from bronzes to ceramics, and has a forest-full of oak carving. Twenty minutes outside town, 1870s Larnach Castle is a baronial folly, gloriously out of place on the Otago Peninsula.

SHORE EXCURSIONS Visit either Olveston House or Larnach Castle on popular shore excursions. Lovers of train rides and scenery should consider an excursion into Taieri Gorge. The Otago Peninsula provides penguins and albatross, Speight's Brewery a look at beer-making followed by a pub lunch.

NEED TO KNOW Among several itineraries sailing to Dunedin is an eight-day Australia & New Zealand cruise from Auckland to Sydney departing October 14, 2018. From $1399 a person; see princess.com

NAPIER

WHAT TO SEE Rebuilt after a 1930s earthquake, Napier is one of the world's showcases of art deco architecture, and lovely to walk around. Many facades have original signage and art deco motifs, occasionally influenced by local Maori cultural symbols. Some 140 heritage buildings remain, surrounded by pretty rose-filled gardens. The National Aquarium has a rich collection of sea creatures, plus kiwis.

DON'T MISS The architecture is impressive, but outshone by the natural beauty of surrounding Hawke's Bay region, with its balmy Mediterranean-style climate, extravagant beaches, lush orchards, vineyards and teeming birdlife. Views are spectacular from the summit of Te Mata - leap off with a paraglider if you dare. The glacier-gouged gorges of the Mohaka River are a white-water rafting thrill.

SHORE EXCURSIONS A city drive, walk or road-train ride highlights Napier's art deco heritage, or you could focus on Maori history at Hakikino Conservation Reserve. Foodies will enjoy excursions to Hawke's Bay wine country or a chocolate producer. For a natural encounter, head to Cape Kidnappers, renowned for its huge gannet colonies.

NEED TO KNOW Among several itineraries calling at Napier is a nine-day New Zealand cruise from Auckland to Sydney departing November 24, 2018. From $2099 a person; see princess.com

WELLINGTON

WHAT TO SEE Despite its small size, New Zealand's capital is lively and occasionally avant-garde, with an impressive collection of cultural venues and cafes and watery vistas everywhere - especially from the top of its iconic red cable-car and adjacent botanic gardens. Take in the Beehive (parliament), colonial buildings on plunging streets and Old St Paul's Cathedral with its unusual wooden ceiling.

DON'T MISS World-class Te Papa Museum, right on the waterfront, is New Zealand's best museum and gives you an interactive, high-tech overview of this nation's geology, wildlife and environment, and Maori and European history. Simulators allow you to experience an earthquake, try virtual-reality bungy-jumping and ride on a whale's back. There's also a fun Discovery Centre for children.

SHORE EXCURSIONS Within the city, shore excursions focus on the cable-car train ride and Te Papa Museum, where you could be tempted into a behind-the-scenes tour. Beyond, take a Lord of the Rings tour, visit a wind farm and seal colonies, or quad bike through glorious coastal scenery.

NEED TO KNOW Wellington features on numerous itineraries, including a 12-day New Zealand cruise round-trip from Sydney departing February 5, 2019. From $1999 a person; see princess.com

AKAROA

WHAT TO SEE Charming Akaroa sits on a magnificent bay where cruise ships anchor and is associated with French explorers, hence the French names, pastries and cemetery. But you're spoilt for choice, since this is also the access port (via the impossibly scenic Banks Peninsula) to Christchurch, getting its mojo back after the 2011 earthquake.

DON'T MISS You'd think an 1880 house built for Akaroa's bank manager would be uninteresting, but current eccentric artist-owner Josie Martin has the historic house painted pink and the gardens erupting in giant sculptures and colourful mosaics. You'll be startled and smiling, and kids will love this Alice in Wonderland place, now called the Giant's House.

SHORE EXCURSIONS Penguins, fur seals and dolphins are encountered on a nature cruise on Akaroa's bay. Take to a coach around the Banks Peninsula or a train into the Southern Alps for stunning landscapes. You can also visit sheep farms, Lord of the Rings backdrops or the delights of Christchurch.

NEED TO KNOW Many itineraries call at Akaroa, including a 13-day Australia & New Zealand cruise from Auckland to Melbourne and on to Sydney departing October 23, 2018. From $2098 a person; see princess.com

FIVE MORE NZ CRUISE DESTINATIONS

BAY OF ISLANDS

Tenders bring you ashore here in this northern New Zealand region of shimmering bays, islands and convoluted coastline made for sailing, kayaking and other water sports. It has an interesting Maori and early European history centred around the Treaty of Waitangi museum and Russell, New Zealand's first capital and current game-fishing centre. See northlandnz.com

FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK

There isn't a port here, though passengers can transfer ashore for overnight excursions to the Queenstown region. Fiordland is a staple destination, however, for scenic sail-throughs that allow you to enjoy the staggering landscapes of soaring cliffs, waterfalls and the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps from the ship's deck in Milford Sound. See fiordland.org.nz

GISBORNE

This popular North Island holiday town sits between chalk cliffs, backed by forested mountains at the confluence of three rivers in another superb collision of beautiful New Zealand landscapes. The area is rich in Maori heritage (nearly half the population is Maori) and also has a reputation for chardonnay and pinot gris wines. See tairawhitigisborne.co.nz

PICTON

This pretty port, easy to access right from the pier, sits deep inside Queen Charlotte Sound, whose island-studded beauty, symphony of scenery and playful dolphins can be enjoyed on catamaran or kayak excursions. From here, you can also visit the Marlborough wine region and excellent Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. See visitpicton.co.nz

TAURANGA

It isn't this Bay of Plenty city that is the chief attraction, but rather beach and village-style suburb Mount Maunganui, where cruises dock beneath a gorgeous headland ringed by a four-kilometre walking track. Many take a shore excursion to Rotorua, renowned for its Maori culture and bubbling, nose-wrinkling thermal springs and mud pools. See bayofplentynz.com