I didn’t think I would ever even consider going on a cruise, but my sister and I had never done a holiday together and when discussing finances, we kept coming back to a cruise as being the affordable option. I was skeptical, it seemed to me that cruises were for families, retirees or 18 year olds looking for a party.
It all came to be organised though, and I have to admit I was pretty excited to be going aboard the P&O Pacific Dawn for an 11 night cruise headed to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. We departed in February, in the middle of cyclone season unfortunately, although we didn’t experience any cyclones we did have some rainy days. To avoid this, I recommend the mid year cruises.
This was our itinerary:
- Day 1: Boarding day, depart Brisbane 2pm
- Day 2: At Sea
- Day 3: At Sea
- Day 4: Noumea, New Caledonia
- Day 5: Isle of Pines, New Caledonia
- Day 6: Mystery Island, Vanuatu
- Day 7: Wala, Vanuatu
- Day 8: Champagne Bay, Vanuatu
- Day9: Port Vila, Vanuatu
- Day 10: At Sea
- Day 11: At Sea
- Day 12: Return Home to Brisbane, disembarkation from 6.30am.
The boarding process was terribly slow, and probably an area that P&O might be able to improve. There were around 2000 passengers, and it seemed that virtually all of them were in the cruise terminal when we arrived (hint: get there really early). The check-in process was where we got our passenger cruise cards, which we were encouraged to link to a credit card enabling easier processing and payment when checking out. The cruise cards were precious, not only being our room keys, but essential for purchasing drinks and other sundries aboard. The cruise cards were also important for identification when getting on and off the ship at our ports of call. There are ATMs on board the ship at the reception counter, but cash cannot be used onboard except to top up your cruise card. The reception desk also did some money exchange to South Pacific Francs for when we were in Noumea, but did not have Vatu for our visit to Port Vila.
A few hours later, we were onboard and making our way to our room on Deck 11, this process being hindered by the ships photographers, who are always everywhere. Photos are taken at every port of call and every evening on the boat, and are displayed daily and available for purchase. They are fairly expensive though, be warned.
Our room was an external cabin with window, and on the same deck as the more plush suites that are available. We found later this enabled us to have VIP departure from the boat when back in Brisbane, so we highly recommend Deck 11! Our room was not fancy in any way, but comfortable and clean. A steward is assigned to your cabin, we had the lovely Franco, who came twice daily to clean our room and deliver the Pacific daily newspaper which lists daily activities aboard and ship updates. Franco made us a few animals out of towels as well, which was cute.
Of course, the food was always going to be a major aspect of the cruise for me. We found that our days revolved around mealtimes, especially the days at sea. The included meals are located at the buffet Plantation restaurant, and the Waterfront restaurant which has a-la-carte menus. We found the buffet better for breakfast and lunch, but ended up going to the Waterfront restaurant for dinners. The Plantation restaurant was always packed out, and it felt very cafeteria like as we joined the endless line awaiting the shuffle along the buffet.
Dinners at the Waterfront restaurant are busy, and it is recommended to book, otherwise you may find yourself eating at 8.30pm. You can order anything you like off the menu, so three courses were of course a must for everyone. You may also find yourself sharing tables with other passengers, as there are no two-person tables here. I really found the food to be quite hit and miss at both restaurants, some food was great, and other meals, not so great. Hygiene is always a concern aboard a big boat with lots of passengers in close proximity, and a squirt of antibacterial gel is mandatory before joining the queue at the buffet, or before being seated at the restaurant.
There are other dining options on the boat however, and one of these is Luke Mangan’s Salt Grill restaurant, which we dined at twice. This definitely provides the best food experience you will have aboard the ship, and a review will follow later. A $40 surcharge applies to eat here, which we found was well worth it for a three course meal.
Noumea is the capital of New Caledonia, and is known as the “Paris of the South Pacific”. We had heard Noumea itself was a bit rough, and when we took an hour or so to walk around the streets, we found there wasn’t a lot to see in the city itself. Being a French colony, there were a few chocolate shops and patisseries that we saw that looked delicious, although we didn’t exchange any money over to purchase any items. Above the cruise terminal is a market selling various souvenirs where you can use Australian dollars.
P&O has various organised “Shore Tours” at each port of call, and Noumea was the one place we chose to do one of these tours. We did the Duck Island tour, taking a speedy boat over to a small island off Noumea and spending the afternoon snorkelling and chilling out. There wasn’t much on the island apart from sunbeds and a small cafe selling drinks and food. Visibility in the water wasn’t that fantastic although we did see some cool fish. Generally, the Shore Tours appear quite expensive, and a lot of passengers end up doing their own thing. It depends if you feel adventurous or if you want to have everything done for you.
Isle of Pines
Isle of Pines was one of our favourite places, so named due to the magnificent pine trees that greet you as soon as you approach. There is no port, so the ship anchors out off shore, and the ships tender boats will take you in. The tender process was a little lengthy. When you are ready to leave the ship, the idea was to go down to the Promenade Bar where you will be given a ticket. We found the time between us getting a ticket and actually getting ashore was about an hour. The tender boats can be quite crowded and stifling for those who are claustrophobic.
Isle of Pines main feature is the massive sacred rock in its bay which provides a great snorkelling area (although do not climb the rock, it is sacred to the locals). Locals set up food stalls where you can purchase local food like lobster, snails and chicken curries. I had a lobster kebab which was delicious, and my sister was brave enough to sample a snail which was garlicky and served with a slice of baguette. Australian dollars can be used here.
Unfortunately, the day here was cancelled due to poor weather. The ship could not anchor in rough seas and the rain was torrential. The captain made the decision to move on for everyones safety, so Mystery Island is still a mystery to us!
Wala was a tiny island, again reached by boarding one of the ships tender boats. Locals set up stalls, bars with local beer and kava and shaded areas for all the cruise passengers. Local kids had plenty of turtles, lizards and piglets for us to take photos of, provided you pay them a couple of dollars! Animal lovers may find this a little uncomfortable. You can also go for a tour of the locals village for a few dollars, which we ended up doing. Snorkelling here is great, and the water is incredibly clear, providing a beautiful swimming experience. Again, Australian dollars are able to be used, take small notes and gold coins.
The weather for Champagne Bay was terrible this day unfortunately, so we spent only about an hour in the bay. The bay is so named for underwater springs that provide a bubbly experience at low tide. Again, locals set up small food stalls and shops for souvenirs. Local men will cook up whole lobsters and crabs (prices for a lobster was around $40 though). The Bay was beautiful, and surrounded by dense jungle. Australian dollars were accepted here (bring small change and smaller notes).
Port Vila is the capital of Vanuatu, situated on the island of Efate. Port Vila provided the most action packed experience for us. We booked a tour with Noumea Shore Tours/Gateway Tours to head to the Mele Cascade Falls (one of Vanuatus best tourist attractions), a local coffee roastery and then back to Vila for duty free shopping. We were greeted at the cruise terminal by the sight of a mass of taxi drivers, all yelling loudly and offering various fees for transport into the town and beyond, which was intimidating.
After a disorganised start of driving to currency exchanges and ATMs to pay for the tour, we were on our way. The cascade falls are 50 metres high, with naturally eroded rock swimming pools set amidst the jungle. The walk to get to the falls is hot and humid, and so the rockpools were a welcome sight to see. Wearing shoes that can get wet and enable you to be sure-footed is a must. The falls were stunning, although there were so many tourists there, the peace was somewhat disturbed. A cafe is available at the bottom of the falls for those who might be thirsty after their trek.
We left most of our souvenir shopping to Vila. There are various cheap duty free stores along the main street of the town, and locals also set up markets along each side of the road to the cruise ship which are great for trinkets. Australian dollars are accepted in Vila Duty Free stores and these markets.
So would I do another cruise? Likely not, as I have a been-there-done-that kind of attitude to the cruising life, but I know many others enjoy cruising. The fact that most things are organised and included, and the cost of the cruise was definitely appealing, but I found the long days at sea to reach our destination, and the cattle-herding of passengers to be a bit offputting. I think next time I will fly to my destination rather than cruising, but I did definitely have a good time.