I'll admit it. I've never understood the appeal of cruises. I would look at those hulking great ships in the harbour and ponder the phonebook-sized passenger lists that could qualify as a small city. I imagined being stuck with a boat-load of American retirees in matching tracksuits called John and Barbara or Bob and Nancy. I had nightmares of a floating RSL with daggy carpet, bland buffets and endless games of bingo. Why would you want to be stuck on a ship at sea when you could catch a plane to your destination and get there in a tenth of the time?
Sailing past the Opera House
And yet even I could feel a small frisson of excitement as I stood on the top deck of the P&O Pacific Pearl as she set sail with an ear-piercing horn that blasted for at least a minute. There are worse ways to spend a Wednesday afternoon, I said to Minh, as we waved to the bridge climbers on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and chugged past the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
Sailing beneath the bridgeclimbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Four of us of us had been invited on-board for a three night stay, the beginning leg of a longer cruiser that took in several Pacific Islands. It would be as good a chance as any to experience the joys of cruise life.
Cruising through Sydney Harbour
Cocktails for purchase
We'd started our journey at Wharf 5, a huge shed converted into a makeshift terminal with a row of check-in counters and a cordoned-off Customs area. As part of the check-in process, we were prompted to link our passenger IDs with a credit card, enabling easier on-board purchasing. Cards could also be topped up with cash, and it soon became clear that passenger ID cards were essential for purchasing drinks at the bar or in restaurants, buying items in the gift shop, or getting ice creams and dessert at the on-board cafe. ATMs are available on the ship, but all payments on-board are made using the passenger ID card.
Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset
Deck 11 cabins with private balcony
We'd been allocated some of the best cabins on the ship, a reasonably spacious room with its own private balcony. A bottle of champagne was sitting on ice and a fruit platter was pounced on for its treasured banana inclusion.
The private outdoor balcony
It's quite a bizarre feeling to sit on a deck chair and stare at an endless horizon with nothing between you but the rippling waves of the deep blue sea. The silence is eerie, broken only by the rush of water against the side of the ship. It was calming for about a minute, and then I got bored and returned inside.
The Pacific Daily newsletter; an elephant towel; and canapes delivered to our room
Daily room service includes delivery of the Pacific Daily newsletter which lists all the activities happening on-board that day, as well as a newspaper summary featuring major Australian news. Occasionally we'd also find surprises like a plate of canapes or petit fours, or a cuter-than-cute elephant made from two hand towels and some glued-on googly eyes.
Just Married balloons for a honeymooning couple, and the long corridor of cabins
With memories of watching Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure etched indelibly into my brain, it was hard not to picture currents of water hurtling around corners as I walked the corridors. All passengers must attend a safety drill before setting sail, arriving with the life jacket from your cabin and following practical instructions on how to physically put it on. The initial fumbling did reveal how little you absorb from airplane safety demonstrations, but it was reassuring to know exactly where to go and what to do in the event of any emergency.
The ship's entertainment areas are at the front and back of the ship, which sometimes means a long walk through a maze of cabins in-between. It did reveal such personalised gems as Just Married balloons for honeymooning couples, or a birthday message for a passenger. Each cabin is looked after by the same cleaning attendant. Whenever we bumped into ours in the corridor, he would always greet us by name with a cheerful smile.
The swimming pool with aerial bridge for outdoor circus performances;
The Pacific Pearl holds up to 1800 passengers but there were 1711 on our trip, looked after by 711 crew members. The ship is huge.
Underwater stools for drinks in the pool
Buffet food at the Plantation
It was inevitable that meal times would be the highlight of our trip. Our days were built around breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's said that on an average Pacific Pearl cruise, 80 tonnes of food and drink will be consumed, prepared by the ship's 120 chefs, cooks and bakers.
The Plantation offered the most choice, an open buffet for unlimited self-service although the going was often slow behind a trail of indecisive diners. Entrance to any food service area on-board involves a mandatory squirt of antibacterial gel by a helpful staff member. We pushed our trays past a myriad of options. The best stuff was always the hot food in the middle - a roast pork or corned beef carved to order - before the choices repeated themselves on the other side.
Kids dinner time with colouring-in stencils and crayons
Families seemed to make up a huge proportion of passengers, to my surprise, and kids were often specially catered off. The Plantation includes a special kids meal time that precedes the main dinner service.
The Waterfront Restaurant
We found the Waterfront Restaurant to have much better food with its a la carte offerings. Both the Plantation and Waterfront food is 'free' to passengers on-board, although drinks are extra and must be paid for. You can order as much food as you want at the Waterfront, but it's recommended to make a booking for dinner as they are often full.
Crab cake entree; eye fillet steak; cheesecake; and blue cheese
Rommel, our waiter and napkin-folding extraordinaire
Our charming waiter, Rommel, could not be faulted for his friendly attentiveness. When we heard about his napkin-folding skills, he succumbed to our requests and quickly made us a pair of courting swans, the body of which involves a structure that could double as the Sydney Opera House.
The best meals we had was undoubtedly at Salt Grill, the fine dining restaurant created by Luke Mangan. Meals at this intimate 40-seater involve a surcharge of $30 for lunch and $40 for dinner, but you can order as much food as you like - drinks are extra. We were lucky to have Luke Mangan himself on-board our cruise and we ate so much across two meals that you'll have to wait for the upcoming separate post.
The atrium, Charlie's Bar, the library and the art gallery
Is a P&O cruise just a floating RSL club? It was easy to think so, with patterned carpet stretching as far as the eye could see. The bars, cafes and lounges certainly felt that way, although there was a good choice of books and board games from the library.
Young and old: kids creche and mah jong
We paced up and down each deck exploring our options. Privately I wanted to join the kids creche playing on the deck, or the secret corner of Chinese pensioners engaged in mah jong with quiet intensity.
The hot tub (no time machine spotted)
Most of the time we ended up on lounge chairs at the back of the ship, reading books in snatches of winter sunshine. We were treated to our choice of service at the on-board HealthSpaFitness centre. I had the deep tissue massage (normally $142 for 50 minutes). I discovered I don't relax very well, feeling a need to do something productive since I was somewhere new. I ended up at the very flash-looking gym, not once but twice, attempting to negate our calorific excesses with the treadmill and bike, and multi-tasking by watching videos at the same time.
And that's probably when I realised why I'd been nervous about cruising so much. I like to be in control. And to go out. And explore. It's hard to let go and to do nothing. To allow the entertainment come to you. At set times. By chirpy sparky crew who really do want you to have the bestest time!
By day there was bingo, a light-hearted hour of entertainment with the serious gamers easily identified by their use of bingo dabbers, special markers with oversized tips. At night we caught special performances, like the Centre Stage musical featuring hits from the West End and Broadway, and the dazzling Pacific Cirque display of acrobatics in the Atrium.
The karaoke bar was as painful as we expected and though the Dome nightclub was empty on night one, things were looking up by Thursday night. And the best part about a rolling ship is you can always blame an unsteady gait on the waves and not your third Long Island Iced Tea. Security does monitor passenger behaviour however, with assessments usually made by holding brief conversations with anyone looking particularly inebriated. Passengers can be asked to withhold from drinking for the next hour, and if disregarded, their ID card (and hence bar credit) can be confiscated for the night to ensure responsible service of alcohol.
The laser light show was a huge hit with passengers, but the biggest surprise were the queues for the professional studio photographs, set up with various backdrops around the ship and available for sale in all their cheesy glory.
And who can forget the delights of shuffleboard? Two teams compete to push their collection of pucks to score a higher combined total. It's about the most competitive physical activity you can find on-board. Hmm... perhaps even I could get used to that.
Grab Your Fork travelled on the Pacific Pearl as a guest of P&O Cruises.
Salt Grill by Luke Mangan on the Pacific Pearl, P&O Cruises
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8/15/2011 03:46:00 am