24 hrs on P&O's Pacific Explorer: What passengers never see

Running a cruise ship that carries as many people that live in a small country town is a formidable logistical operation, much of it taking place below decks or behind those secure "no admittance: crew only" doors.

We see front of house people such as waiters, entertainment staff and bartenders around the ship, and we know the captain and his officers are up on the bridge navigating, but who's keeping the engines running? Who's washing all the towels, tablecloths and sheets? How many chefs are working in the galleys to produce 10,000 meals a day – and who does the washing up?

Traveller went behind the scenes during a three-day cruise from Sydney on P&O's Pacific Explorer to gain a sense of what it really takes to keep a modern cruise liner totally shipshape these days.

6.45AM: STOCKING UP

It's a bright, chilly morning ahead of Pacific Explorer's departure and the loading area at Circular Quay's Overseas Passenger Terminal beside Sydney Harbour is a frenzy of activity. Stevedores in hi-vis vests manoeuvre beeping forklifts around the dock where about 250 pallets of fresh, dry and frozen foods are stacked for loading.

Pacific Explorer towers serenely over the busy scene, which is concentrated on one open port – or door –on Deck 4 through which big bundles of rubbish are removed before the cruise's provisions can be taken aboard. A sniffer dog has already checked the pallets for explosive ordnance.

Ibrahim Demirci, P&O's category manager, hotel, food and beverage, explains that fresh produce goes onboard first, followed by frozen, dry, canned and chemical goods. Today, 25 pallets of fresh food are being loaded for the three-day cruise – there is lots of seasonal produce because every dish produced on the ship contains fresh vegetables or fruit.

The pallets are labelled so the crew onboard know exactly where it has to go in the various store rooms – the length of the cruise is critical in terms of how food is stored. Avocados, for instance, are labelled from stage one to five for ripeness, to ensure they will last the distance and that the ripe ones will be used first. "Everyone wants avocado toast in the morning," says Ibrahim, "so it's got to be ready to eat." Bananas can't be stored anywhere near avocados because the gases they emit cause avocados to ripen; tomatoes are also stored for use in stages.

Throughout the process of sourcing fresh produce from markets or direct from farms and delivering it to the ship, a series of rigorous quality control checks is followed. Hotel stores manager Philip is on the dock, checking yet again that everything that was ordered is present and correct and that it meets the high quality P&O requires. Once the produce is onboard, the executive chef will make further random checks.

Demirci works with providores in all P&O's home ports as well as the ships' executive chefs and operations departments – planning starts 12 months in advance. Just think of him when you're struggling to think what to cook for tonight's dinner.

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7AM: NEXT, PLEASE

Passengers from the last cruise disembark in carefully timed stages and inside the ship, the housekeeping team is working at warp speed to have everything cleaned and ready for the next 2000 passengers, who will start embarking at 11.30am.

Turnaround days are the busiest for all the crew and everyone is aiming for Zero Count – the magic hour of 10am, when all the outgoing passengers have disembarked and the last empty rooms can be stripped, cleaned and made up again. The housekeeping team's work doesn't stop there – during every cruise, restaurants, bars, lounges, theatres, stairways, handrails and corridors are constantly swept, vacuumed, wiped and polished and your room is cleaned (even tidied) daily.

7.30AM: FUEL RULES

Executive chef Ravi Rajamanikam meets his team of 18 sous chefs and chefs de partie for the daily menu briefing in Angelo's restaurant. Rajamanikam sits at the head of the table, resplendent in his whites and towering toque blanche, and asks each chef in turn for comments or questions about the coming days' menus. As we learnt at the loading dock, food is a very serious business and the chefs discuss the tiniest details that might make a difference to a specific dish.

Pacific Explorer has eight restaurants, including The Pantry that comprises a variety of different food stations, plus Charlie's cafe-bar and 24/7 room service. All up, 116 chefs work in seven galleys; the biggest one is on Deck 5 for the Waterfront; then there's the crew galley, also on Deck 5; two galleys on Deck 6 for Angelo's and Dragon Lady; one on Deck 8 for pizzeria 400 Gradi; one on Deck 9 for room service; and two on Deck 14, one for Luke's and one for The Pantry and evening-only venue Shell & Bones.

During a tour of the busy, noisy main galley after the menu briefing, chef Rajamanikam tells us that the most popular dishes on Pacific Explorer are fish and chips and Indian curries. Aha. That could be why passengers get through 100 kilograms of onions, 200 kilograms of french fries (bought pre-cut), and 300 kilograms of potatoes – every day.

The delicious smell of freshly baked bread fills the air around the galley's bakery section. Twelve staff work day and night shifts to produce an astonishing array of fresh bread and pastries. They use 250 to 300 kilograms of flour a day, some of which goes into the 6000 bread rolls made daily to accompany every meal.

A separate area of the galley is dedicated to special-diet menus such as vegetarian, nut-free and gluten-free. Food and beverage director Martin Bell says the F&B team is testing a range of vegan dishes for upcoming menus – plant-based food is the latest trend sweeping the world's best land-based and cruise-ship dining rooms.

While the chefs discuss plans for keeping passengers' appetites satisfied, the refuelling barge has come alongside. Pacific Explorer will chew through 250 tonnes of fuel on this three-day cruise, as we discover during a late-night visit to the engine control room; like most departments on the ship, it is a 24-hour operation.

9.43AM: A BIT OF HURRY UP, THANKS

"Would the family in suite [number withheld] please make their way to the gangway now." Oh dear. It sounds like some people are enjoying their cruise so much they don't want it to end. Zero Count is fast approaching.

10.30AM: COFFEE'S ON

Master barista Joanna Yuen, from P&O's coffee suppliers Nestle, is running a class for barista trainees in Charlie's Bar while her colleague Evan Greenway is checking that every coffee machine on the ship is in perfect working order. The ship's movement can affect the machines' calibration, so they are tested at every turnaround port call. Training staff how to clean and maintain the machines is all part of the quality-controller's job.

10.40AM: DINNER ALREADY?

Preparation for dinner at specialty, no extra-fee restaurants Angelo's (classic Italian) and Dragon Lady (Asian fusion) gets underway in the galley on Deck 6 – service begins at 5pm – and on Deck 14 The Pantry galley and wait staff get ready for the lunchtime rush, by which time most passengers will have boarded.

1.30PM: THE STAGE IS SET

Four of the ship's regular sessions musicians tune their instruments on the stage in the empty Black Circus theatre. It is their first live rehearsal with the star of tonight's show Hans the German, aka the multi-talented, musical-comedian Matt Gilbertson. We see "half Hans", which means Gilbertson is wearing a spangly, skin-tight jumpsuit and a jaunty feathered hat but none of his trademark colourful make-up for the rehearsal.

It's hard to believe this is the first time the band and Hans have performed together and after the rehearsal, Hans/Matt is full of praise for the ship's musicians, sound engineers and lighting crew. Even offstage, the witticisms and sharp comments flow freely: he tells us that his mother "Joanne on the Janome" makes his costumes and describes tonight's show as "Kylie on a Dannii budget".

3PM: A VOICE FROM THE BRIDGE

"Crew proceed to muster stations at 15.10 for 15.30 muster drill. Passengers, please note the location of your muster stations, which are listed on your cruise cards and the back of your cabin door.

"Please make your way there for 15.30pm, which means 3.30pm. Lifejackets are not required for this exercise, which is compulsory for all passengers."

3.30PM: HERE'S THE DRILL

We're in muster station A in the 550-seat Marquee Theatre. People file in, chatting and laughing as the assistant cruise director (ACD) requests everyone to fill the front seats first and turn off their phones. "This is important information that will save your life in an emergency," he says firmly, "so please pay attention."

Eagle-eyed crew patrol the aisles and spot a few passengers still scrolling through their social-media feeds. They politely tell them to put the phones away – now. There is a considerable wait for the general alarm to be sounded and a lifejacket demonstration to take place as the ACD rattles through the names of 20 absent passengers. Finally they are located elsewhere on the ship and the safety drill goes ahead. Later we find out they are non-English speakers and the captain allows them to take a separate drill with an interpreter: the ship cannot leave port until the drill is completed by everyone onboard.

4.10PM: WE ARE SAILING

Pacific Explorer's hefty mooring lines are cast off and the mighty ship slowly, almost imperceptibly, slips away from the dock. Three loud blasts of the ship's whistle announce to surrounding water traffic that we are going astern and because we are in Circular Quay, there's plenty of traffic about.

Ferries big and small weave their way in and out of the wharfs and the view from the bridge, nine decks above sea level, is sublime. The ship makes a sweeping turn beyond the Opera House to head east, a seaplane swoops overhead and on our port side a tall ship, its sails neatly furled, makes its graceful way towards its berth in White Bay. A brochure-perfect start to our voyage.

While Captain Alan Nixon, five officers, two watchmen and the Harbour pilot focus on navigating the four nautical miles (about 7.5 kilometres) through Sydney Harbour to the Heads and beyond to the open ocean, the Anchors Aweigh party is in already in full swing on the Lido deck.

Although it is midwinter the sun hasn't yet set and it's warm enough to encourage hardier types to strip down to swimmers. An upbeat soundtrack keeps everyone buzzing, kids splash about in the pool and the sun-loungers are fully occupied by cruisers keen to make the most of every relaxing moment of their long weekend at sea.

5.20PM: DROP THE PILOT

As we approach the Heads, cruising at up to 12 knots per hour, the pilot boat that has been leading Pacific Explorer through the Harbour turns and comes alongside the port side of the ship to pick up the pilot. The true cruise nerd in me comes out every time I witness this operation – the pilot has to leave the ship from a door on Deck 4, climb down a narrow ladder and jump onto the deck of the hovering pilot boat.

I've never seen one miss his footing but that final leap is always a heart-stopping moment. Passengers lining the rails cheer and wave, then get back to the business of partying until the sun finally sets behind us in a blaze of golden glory.

6.05PM: COCKTAIL HOUR

It's all happening around the bars and lounges on deck seven. The attractive, plantation-style Explorer Hotel is thronged with trivia players, families with young children and groups of 20-something friends. The comfy cushioned window seats are all taken and as the trivia game winds up, a musical duo takes over.

We wander through to the more laid-back Ocean Bar, where a pianist plays familiar, easy-listening songs, and then head towards the middle of the ship, where the darkly-lit Blue Room is playing host to yet another talented muso (a bit more hip) and his appreciative audience.

Bartenders in Pacific Explorer's quirky cocktail bar The Bonded Store, which is hidden away behind a "secret" door, serve tailor-made sophisticated concoctions that feature gins and whiskies produced by boutique distillery Archie Rose in Sydney. This little bar has a different vibe again – it is decked out with high-backed, green velvet couches, leather wingback chairs and an eclectic collection of vintage books and random antique paraphernalia. It's well worth signing up for the Bar Academy cocktail course which we do on the last day of the cruise. The negroni is a house specialty.

Many of the passengers are already dressed in white suits, dresses, hotpants, crop tops and glistening acrylic wigs for tonight's Bianco party. There's just time for a quick change before dinner and to add at least a token white scarf to feel part of the crowd.

7.30PM: DINNER IS SERVED

A light lunch of broccoli and stilton soup – and one of those 6000 bread rolls – at The Pantry is a distant memory and we're more than ready for a pizza at 400 Gradi. The menu of this busy pizzeria, overlooking the atrium on Deck 8, was designed by award-winning Melbourne pizza chef Johnny Di Francesco and is priced a la carte. We overdo the shared antipasto plates, which are loaded with various meats and cheeses, but somehow make room for a selection of irresistibly gooey, crispy-base pizzas.

8PM: IT'S SHOWTIME

The Marquee Theatre is packed for rock show Anthems of the Ages. It kicks off with the unmistakeable riffs of Midnight Oil's Beds Are Burning and powers through a bunch of high-octane classics belted out in rock-concert style by a tight live band. Exuberant dancers clad in sexy retro-style gear own the stage – the energy is contagious.

9PM: PARTY ON

Music, lights and coloured smoke fill the atrium in the warm-up for the Bianco Party and in a matter of minutes the floor is heaving with white-clad dancers of all ages, sizes and shapes. It's full-on and those not throwing themselves into the action line the stairways looking on, taking photos, critiquing the outfits and generally enjoying some good old-fashioned people-watching.

9.25PM: AN EVENING PROMENADE

Seeking a moment's respite from party central, I take a stroll around the Promenade Deck. The ship is heading north at a leisurely pace and from the starboard deck there's a beautiful clear view of the full moon casting its silvery reflection across the calm water. It's a gentle reminder of that timeless call to run away to sea, even if only for a weekend.

10.30PM: ADULTS ONLY

We're not the only ones who can't wait to see Hans the German's adults-only R-rated show. As soon as the doors to Black Circus open, there's a rush for the front seats (they're brave!) and the intimate theatre is almost instantly filled to capacity. Unlike most cruise-ship shows, there's a small cover charge, which includes a drink but it doesn't seem to have put too many people off. As the rehearsal promised, the show is hilarious.

Outrageously camp, wickedly witty with lots of off-script interaction with the audience – luckily Hans' "victims" Daniel and Tracey play along – we're exhausted from laughing so much. But even when the show finishes Hans/Matt is still going full steam ahead, charming fans who take selfies with him by the theatre door.

11.35PM: THE AFTER PARTY

Back in the atrium, the Bianco party is winding down and revellers are moving on to the Blue Room for the After Party. There's barely room to move, let alone hoist a drink in the direction of your mouth, but the mood is relentlessly buoyant. "I'm here for a good time not a long time," isn't a phrase exclusive to Tinder.

2.45AM LAST ORDERS, PLEASE

Bartenders at the Blue Room are serving the last drinks of the night, or morning as it is now. It's also last-call for pizza orders at 400 Gradi – if anyone is still hungry at 2.45am, room service will deliver.

3AM: KEEP IT CLEAN

While the stragglers head for bed, three crew do a night shift in the laundry on Deck 1, sorting, washing, drying, folding and ironing vast piles of table linen and towels. The smell of clean washing permeates the corridor and the men move seamlessly between the different laundry stations amid clouds of hissing steam and the loud thrumming of industrial-sized washing machines and dryers. They will knock off at 7am, when 10 crew start the day shift. During the day, passengers' clothing, bedlinen and crew uniforms are added to the loads, requiring more manpower.

4AM: THE RUNNING MAN

Chief engineer Valerio Scinicariello oversees 95 technical crew, 65 of whom keep Pacific Explorer's engines – and a whole lot of other vital functions, particularly the production of fresh water – operating 24/7. Scinicariello says that because the ship is now travelling at a fairly sedate speed only two of the four engines are in use, which saves fuel. Every hour, 25,000 to 30,000 litres of fresh water are produced, for drinking, cooking, showering and laundry. Hundreds of cameras in the engine control room capture scenes from every area of the ship and there is constant communication between this department and the bridge.

Scinicariello wears his enormous responsibilities with a good sense of humour. "If I explained how everything works we'd be here until the end of the season," he laughs.

5AM: MOPPING-UP OPERATION

It's still dark as the deck crew clean the promenade and top decks, placing sun-loungers in shipshape rows and cleaning the pools and surrounding areas for the day's activities.

6.46AM: LET THERE BE LIGHT

Another glorious day dawns and our photographer captures comedian Mike Bennett doing his morning work-out on the top deck. A surprising number of early risers are out and about, running laps around the ship or just taking in the fresh sea air.

7.30AM: A HEALTHY START

Spa manager Rosie Villena is holding a daily briefing for her 18 staff, who all look immaculate and ready to take on a full day of passenger-pampering.

After an energising pep talk the head gym instructor leads passengers through a series of stretches on the outside deck. I join in, breathe deeply and look forward to 24 hours of doing absolutely nothing.

P&O Cruises' Pacific Explorer is currently sailing 39 three and four-night Short Break cruises from Sydney and will do so until October 2020. Short Break cruises also depart from Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide. Fares for a quad-share, inside cabin on a three-night cruise start from $349 a person. See pocruises.com.au

Sally Macmillan and Wolter Peeters travelled courtesy of P&O Cruises.

PACIFIC EXPLORER BY NUMBERS

830 crew members

10,000 meals produced daily for crew and 2000-plus passengers

300 pizzas served at 400 Gradi daily

150 burgers served at Luke's daily

33 coffee machines around the ship

20 staff running kids' clubs

8 staff working in Edge Adventure Park

26 crew in main galley's utilities department washing-up and cleaning

29,791 bath towels laundered on a 10-night cruise

990 guest rooms

23 metres the length of the ship

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ABOARD PACIFIC EXPLORER

Polish your cocktail-making skills at a Bar Academy class in the Bonded Store or Blue Room. You'll create four delicious drinks and might need a siesta afterwards.

Take the Access All Areas tour of the ship, from the bridge to the galley, laundry and backstage at the Marquee Theatre to see for yourself what the hard-working crew does behind the scenes.

Work off some cruise kilojoules at a morning dance class held on the open deck with Pacific Explorer's professional dancers.

Head to Edge Adventure Park on the top deck for zip-lining, waterslides or a nerve-wracking walk-the-plank exercise.

Learn what you can do with a glue-gun, feathers and sequins at a Gatsby headband-making session.

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