AdventureSmith Explorations Adventure Specialist Andrew Browning reviews his New Zealand small ship cruise aboard the Island Passage. Read on for his expert review and photos.

View from the stern of a small ship cruise going through misty fjords in New Zealand.

In April I flew to New Zealand’s South Island to experience the Fiordland National Park Cruise aboard the Island Passage catamaran. The trip starts from Queenstown, which is set next to a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. From Queenstown you get to Fiordland by air or road depending on the direction of the itinerary. For the version I did, we started with a private transfer to Te Anau followed by a helicopter flight from Te Anau to Caswell Sound. Quite an impressive start to the trip! The helicopter flight was incredible, flying over the mountain peaks and then dropping into the national park to land on the ship and sail away.

View from a helicopter above the waterways in New Zealand with a pilot pointing out sites.
Scenery of mountains seen from a helicopter excursion off a small ship cruise in New Zealand.
Fjords of New Zealand seen from above.

The Island Passage is a motorized catamaran with 12 staterooms and a 24 passenger capacity. The staterooms are spacious, with their own private bathrooms and plenty of storage for the voyage. The cabins are spread over three decks of the ship, which you can review further on our Island Passage ship page. There are indoor and outdoor dining areas, a beautiful two-sided bow viewing area, and a bar/lounge area inside the ship. The common areas of the ship are surrounded by big windows, great for taking in the scenery.

Helicopter above a small ship cruise in the fjords in New Zealand.
Guests sitting at the bar on a small ship cruise as a crew member serves appetizers.

The crew is the perfect size for this vessel with a Captain, mates, engineer, deckhands, chef and hospitality staff. The dining onboard was very impressive. The chef would review the upcoming meals in advance and passengers could let him know if they wanted something other than what he was planning to cook. This happened a couple times during the trip since there were a wide range of diets/preferences onboard.

The crew also did some free diving for New Zealand crayfish and paua.

There is fishing offered during this trip, and catches typically end up in the kitchen. The crew also did some free diving for New Zealand crayfish (the size of lobsters), and paua (known in the US as abalone). So with those plus the tuna and blue cod that we caught fishing, there were some excellent seafood options served onboard. They also had other proteins (lamb, beef, chicken, etc) as well as vegetarian options. From the plating presentations to the quality of the food, it was a top-notch dining experience onboard.

Fresh Crayfish pulled up on deck aboard a small ship cruise in New Zealand.

Fiordland itself is a wilderness area in southwest New Zealand which is best accessed/seen by small ship. The rugged, steep and heavily forested fjords do not have many trails and the road access is limited to only a couple of the ends of the fjords. Traveling aboard the Island Passage allows for unhurried exploration of the more remote fjords from the comfort of a luxury catamaran. Weather in Fiordland is typically rainy, which is what makes the area so lush and is also why there are so many waterfalls. It is similar to the weather in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Hiking excursion on a small ship cruise going through a pathway in the forest.
Two waterfalls with a rainbow at the bottom next to a small ship cruise in New Zealand.
Native bird to New Zealand seen from a small ship cruise.

The fishing is a main draw for many passengers taking this trip.

Aboard the Island Passage the activities offered include fishing, walks on trails, kayak outings and tender exploration. The fishing is a main draw for many passengers taking this trip and it is done in a few different ways. The first is that when moving between the different sounds, the crew will set up a couple deep sea trolling rods off the back of the ship and passengers can reel in the catches from those. We caught a nice tuna one day, which was pretty exciting for everyone onboard. They will also do some drift fishing near the mouths of the sounds. About 8 people at a time can be fishing during the drifts. The Island Passage also carries its own fishing boat, so using that 4 passengers can go out on fishing outings away from the main vessel. I mainly did the drift fishing and it was a great time. Everyone caught fish and there was a lot of action during those times. From my own experience, first I caught a blue cod with a small shark biting my fish, and the second time I hooked a bigger shark that was difficult to reel in. There were times I thought I hooked onto the boat or the bottom or something because I could not reel it in. It was pretty wild.

Passengers aboard a small ship cruise in New Zealand fishing off a deck.

For the shore walks, we went on some primitive trails for short distances through the dense forest. There were some historical huts we went to as well. Most of the trip is on the water and I found that to be the best part of seeing these areas. Because the forest is so thick, there are not many places to land or walk. The ship carries a few kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for passengers to use and those can be nice during the calm times in the fjords.

Guests from a small ship cruise hiking through a forest in New Zealand.
Fjords seen from a small ship cruise in New Zealand.

There are a lot of sea birds, including albatross that tend to follow the ship, especially when fish are being caught.

The scenery in these remote sounds is stunning. We had some mornings with very calm waters deep in the fjords. Surrounding the narrow waterways are mountains, steep cliffs and waterfalls. Nearly every inch is covered with vegetation except for where landslides have swept it away. When you go out into the Tasman Sea to go between the fjords, there are a lot of sea birds, including albatross that tend to follow the ship, especially when fish are being caught. You can also see dolphins, typically near Milford Sound. The dolphins like the Island Passage ship because of the catamaran dual hull. They like to swim in front of the ship riding in the water being pushed by the vessel. Fur seals can also be seen in some areas of Fiordland.

Albatross seen from a small ship cruise in New Zealand.
Man standing alone at the bow of a small ship cruising through the fjords of new zealand.
Plane flying aboard the peaks of a mountain in New Zealand seen from a small ship cruise.

New Zealand is a beautiful country and experiencing Fiordland by small ship is an excellent option to include in your overall itinerary. There is a big variety of environments to be seen in New Zealand and this is one of the highlights.

For more photos from my cruise, view my Facebook albums: New Zealand Fiordland Cruise and New Zealand South Island.

This New Zealand small ship cruise review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all Cruise Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about these small ship cruises and wilderness adventures: 1-800-728-2875.