New Zealand Law Society - Luxury small ship Island Passage's stunning cruise experience

Luxury small ship Island Passage's stunning cruise experience

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Journalist Jock Anderson catches up on what luxury small cruise ship Island Passage has to offer from a stunning boutique itinerary and interviews himself about pampered shipboard life.

When previously Japan-based international shipping manager Peter Bissett sold his car-export shipping business to Norwegian interests in 2002, his plan was to return to New Zealand and play golf.

Discovering his mates were still working, Peter looked for something else to do – settling for a golden opportunity in the cruising business.

He located a multi-hull vessel in Suva, complete with unused engines, shafts and running gear all still in boxes and had it towed to Nelson, where it was completely fitted out by Challenge Marine as a luxury small cruise ship – named Island Passage.

Re-launched in January 2007, it is a stunning example of design, build, comfort and class – complete with a helicopter deck.

It accommodates only 24 guests in 12 spacious, well-appointed staterooms spread over three decks. All have private ensuite bathrooms.

Island Passage is a 42 metre, 500-tonne twin-hull vessel which has quickly earned a reputation as a high quality international and domestic cruise destination.

As Peter says, it is purpose built to explore.

“We visit coves, fiords and islands that larger ships cannot access.

“Our cruises specifically exclude long periods of travel – we usually cover just three hours each day – and feature frequent daily guided excursions.”

Peter’s company Island Escape provides a unique experience, hand-crafted itineraries, space and comfort only usually found on larger ships and attention to detail from the 10 crew.

Island Passage plies the Hauraki Gulf, Auckland to the Bay of Islands and “winters over” cruising the islands of Vanuatu and Fiji.

The ship is also available for special event charters such as celebrations, small conferences and other private charters.

Ultimate access to Fiordland majesty

Since 2014, a unique seven-night Fiordland package operating from February to April allows guests the ultimate access – in safety and comfort – deep into the wonders of the majestic world heritage site.

It took Peter nearly five years to gain approval for Fiordland cruises, which includes on-board ecology guides who travel with guests into the fiords.

From Queenstown guests are transported to Te Anau for a helicopter flight to join Island Passage at Caswell Sound.

Caswell Sound still retains the remnants of 1905 and 1949 joint United States and New Zealand scientific expeditions when Wapiti deer – half of them a gift from US president Theodore Roosevelt – were released into the area to breed with New Zealand deer as game.

From there the ship explores George, Bligh, Sutherland and Milford Sounds before returning guests by coach to Te Anau and on to international and domestic flights at Queenstown.

Guests from San Francisco described the Fiordland cruise as “amazing beyond words – an absolute must do bucket list trip. Well done on persevering to provide this world-class product.”

Relaxed t-shirt elegance

In 2013 my girlfriend Lorraine and I joined Island Passage for what was to be a fabulous relaxing week’s cruising round the Bay of Islands – we even saw where Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood has a private coastal hideaway.

If you exclude the TSS Captain Cook voyage from Glasgow in 1958 and about 50 Cook Strait crossings, my last cruise experience was on the Oriana to Sydney, when I disgracefully turned up to the Skipper’s welcome aboard cocktails in shorts and t-shirt.

On Island Passage, shorts and t-shirt were the order of the day, with a clean change for dinner.

Officers and crew are highly trained – several of them coming from the super-yacht industry – and do their utmost to provide friendly perfection at all levels.

Nothing was any trouble for the crew, who immediately made guests – we had 14, including a family from Victoria, and couples from Brisbane, England and Auckland – welcome and at home.

Island Passage has one Solo Cabin (130 sq ft, for a guest travelling alone), two Bridge Suites (235 sq ft), four Ocean Suites (195 sq ft) and five Staterooms (175 sq ft).

Better than at home for some, I suspect.

For outdoor entertainment the ship carries a purpose-built landing craft for shore trips, large tenders, sea kayaks, fish and snorkelling gear.

A tender took us into historic Kerikeri, where the more adventurous explored a handy waterside Guinness house.

A helicopter was available for trips beyond the range of the tenders.

On our cruise, while I preferred to laze in a deckchair firmly anchored to chilled Bombay, it gave Lorraine a once-in-a-lifetime view around the Bay of Islands from the air.

I kept cold beers company while she swam off the back of the ship.

Not one to let more energetic shipmates down and throwing caution to the wind, I figured my ten circuits of the promenade deck worked out at about 800 metres a day – about half a mile before breakfast.

Our five-night 2013 adventure meant driving from Auckland (and back) to join Island Passage at Opua before settling in for gentle cruising round Roberton, Moturua and Urupukapuka Islands, and into Paradise Bay, Oke Bay, Deep Water Cove, Parekura Bay, Cape Wikiwiki, Purerua Peninsula, Black Rocks and Kerikeri Inlet.

[This season the cruise follows the coast from Auckland to the Bay of Islands.]

Relaxation, exceptional food – including the best New Zealand organic lamb and Santo beef, fresh fish, fresh produce from local farmers’ markets – and fine wines are all essential elements of an Island Passage cruise.

Dinner is usually served in The Anchorage, or alfresco on The Terrace under the stars, weather permitting. Breakfast, lunch and barbeques are usually served on The Terrace.

All meals are sumptuous and relaxed affairs, with dinner stretching long into the evenings as good wine loosens tongues and tales flow as freely as the dolphins round the ship’s bows.

Peter Bissett describes Island Passage as “the perfect casually elegant venue.”

And he’s right…

Jock Anderson writes the law-flavoured CaseLoad column in the New Zealand Herald, profiles lawyers on what they do outside law for the New Zealand Law Society and is a regular radio commentator. He and Lorraine paid for their Bay of Islands cruise, the helicopter ride was free for early payment, but bar bill extra. For further details about Island Passage’s 2015/2016 cruise and charter season contact

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