Before we set sail, let’s clear the decks.
I am not a fan of cruising and less of a fan of stand-up comedy. So, what was I doing on a P&O Comedy Cruise? And before you ask, no, it wasn’t a media junket. I paid for the experience.
The three-night cruise on P&O’s Pacific Explorer departing Sydney popped up on one of those daily deal sites and happened to be sailing on the eve of my birthday, which was the eve of Mother’s Day – a great weekend of self-indulgence, I thought.
What could be better than sailing off into the sunset with my daughter trapped on board for quality time? Nothing to ponder except where to dine, whether bingo or the beanbag challenge was the afternoon option and agreeing on a nightly show.
I didn’t even check the information about the comedians, determined to give them a wide berth. It was the ‘let’s get away from it all’ aspect that appealed.
And get away we did. All in all, it was only about two-and-a-half days on board, sailing on Friday and returning early Monday morning, but the luxury of not lifting a finger, except maybe to order another cocktail, stretched the weekend into eternity.
We met the ship at Sydney’s Circular Quay on Friday at 1pm, a few hours before setting sail with enough time to unpack and explore. Keep in mind that alcohol is not allowed to be taken on board, they actually confiscate it, returning it when you disembark.
While there are four complimentary restaurants included in the price, be prepared to dip into your pocket for extras such as alcohol, the beauty spa, fine dining, room service and adventure activities. The easy option is linking your bank account details to your swipe card, avoiding the need to settle the bill at the end, but remember, it’s also avoiding accountability.
The Pacific Explorer, the largest and the latest vessel to join the P&O fleet, boasts a length of 260 metres, weighs in at 77,441 tonnes and caters to a capacity of 1,998 guests across 11 decks. I went overboard and splashed out on a cabin with a balcony, just large enough for us to bask in the sun and watch the east coast of Sydney pass as we began our three-night sail.
Do everything, do nothing
With more than 60 activities at our fingertips it was startling at first to see hundreds of passengers just sitting or lying around, doing nothing. But therein lies the beauty of cruising. While we’re all in the same boat, all at sea in fact, you can either join in or not. Do lots, do nothing.
While those at the Edge Adventure Park ziplined across the ship, or walked the plank, the less adventurous created arts and craft, enjoyed dance classes, bellowed Bingo!, played barefoot bowls or exercised in the gym. The two 80-metre waterslides were a hot favourite, as were the swimming pools, hot tubs and two adults-only areas complete with plunge pools on Deck 14. Every day there were quizzes, workshops, games and movies screened on the top deck, perfect timeout while lying by the pool.
Naturally, on a Comedy Cruise, the entertainment featured comedians with professionals including Claire Hooper, Kehau Jackson and Mickey D, hosting workshops, shows or late-night, adult-only performances. Not to be outdone, brave passengers, game enough to try out their humour, also stood-up for scrutiny on stage.
For those of us not a fan of comedy, although favourable reviews from fellow passengers almost tempted me, there were numerous other shows to capture our imagination. Gatsby, magic and rock were just a few of the themes showcased in nightly performances.
The heart of the ship lies on Deck 12 where stylish sofas surround the pools, a bar at one end, ice cream and table tennis at the other. Games and contests feature throughout the day and a pop-up bar sells cocktails reasonably priced at $13.
At night, the mysterious Blue Room, all dim lighting and intriguing corners, offers live music, beginning the beat with blues, jazz or R’n’B, before metamorphosing into a dance club partying into the early hours. The Bonded Store, with its dark-green velvet lounges and bookcases groaning with encyclopedias, is an alluring hideaway accessed by a hidden door offering extraordinary cocktails laced with gin and whiskey, while The Explorer Hotel is a popular pub-style haunt boasting a nautical theme brightened with loud colourful cushions.
Food? Where to start! The Pantry, all included, has replaced the popular buffet with nine fresh-food outlets offering food to suit every palate including curry, Mexican, desserts, stir fries, seafood, burgers, salad and pasta. It’s where most head, making it difficult to get a seat. Expect to queue for food, not ideal for foodies preferring to stack their plates at once, but certainly a solution to eliminating waste. We opted to dine at the Waterfront, offering a broad range of Australian cuisine and Angelos, fantastic Italian. An Asian option, also complimentary, is the Dragon Lady.
For those wanting a truly spectacular gourmet experience, try the seven-course degustation by Australian chef and restaurateur Luke Mangan, at A Taste of Salt.
At A$119 per person, we had high expectations, all of which were exceeded. Dinner is served with the upmost attention at the elegant 14-seat Chef’s table, exquisite premium Australian wines paired to each course and generously topped up. Worth the price alone.
The food was a mouth-watering sensation, bursts of flavour from the delicate combinations continuing to surprise with each dish. Over three hours, we enjoyed prawn toast, kingfish sashimi, seared sea scallops, roasted lamb cutlet, grilled sirloin of beef and the very curious liquorice parfait with lime syrup and tuile. Each dish was served with accompaniments varying from Persian feta, to truffle oil and good old -fashioned mash. Finishing the cheese at the end was a mighty challenge. If you can stretch the budget, it’s worth the reservation.
Short and sweet
A short-break cruise offers three major advantages after setting sail. The first is to just get away with the minimum of fuss, unpack once, simply roam from deck to deck for your entertainment, food or spa indulgence, while your ship heads, in our case, up the east coast just north of Coffs Harbour. The second is to sample whether a cruise ship is your thing. Discover whether you’ll get seasick, or if not being in sight of land in the middle of a sail freaks you out. The third is to enjoy a passion, whether it be comedy, Elvis, country music, Australia Day, Christmas, New Year or the Melbourne Cup. Then there are the destination cruises where you sail not too far, but far enough to stop at a port and see the sights.
The Pacific Explorer, gets the mix right. Yes, there were loads of children onboard, with four kids’ clubs catering to ages between two and 17, but they didn’t rock the boat. There’s enough space and enough going on for families, couples and singles alike to find their own fun without cramping each other’s style.
Having established there are two types of people in the world, cruiselings and non-cruiselings, with me previously being the latter, having been left unimpressed by a couple of cruises I took when my daughter was young, I’ve discovered the ideal compromise. A perfect three-night getaway, where within minutes of unpacking, you’re cruising. Literally.