Dawn Princess cruise to New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji

Thick and rich, the mud seems to pulsate with a life of its own, like an extra from Doctor Who. Scooping a hearty handful, it's just begging to be slapped on your face. 

Standing in a green paddock in rural Fiji, clad only in swimmers and smothered from ponytail to toenail in the green-grey goop that smells like cattle dip, it's not what I had in mind when I signed up for a seaward jaunt on board Australia's best-loved ship, the Dawn Princess. Don't get me wrong: it's great fun, just greatly unexpected. 

The Dawn Princess runs this South Pacific journey – visiting New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji – about five times a year, and every one of its 999 cabins books out – even the compact interior, no-window rooms and the pull-down bunks, where you can squeeze another few cruisers (preferably your kids or besties). She calls Australia home, and everything's priced in Australian dollars, from the flat whites to the Crown Lager, and late at night, the in-room tv screens re-re-re-runs of The Love Boat, filmed on the Princess ships back in the '70s and '80s, sending them into Acapulco-flavoured stardom. 

The captain alters our course through the Fijian islands to avoid the cyclone-damaged port of Suvasuva, instead paying a visit to Fiji's second-largest town, Lautoka, 25 slow kilometres north of Nadi. In between the two towns lies the Sabeto Hot Springs and Mudbath, beside its better-known neighbour, the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. 

One of Fiji's top attractions, the gardens are full of showy orchids and appreciative tour groups. But the flower that started it all, the one that captivated the garden's founder, US actor Raymond Burr almost 40 years ago, is a pure, white orchid whose simplicity lets it evade neatly being snapped and papped by the masses. 

This day-long shore visit to Nadi and Lautoka has proven fruitful, even for the repeat Fiji visitors in our gang. A hot insider tip leads us to Vuda Marina, home to the Boatshed Café, an open-air, thatch-roof bar and cafe that last year pipped all the luxe island resorts to claim the title of Fiji's restaurant of the year, incredible given the price tag on Fiji's most exclusive islands. The grills are fired up by a chef poached from the Shangri-La, and the green lawns pack out on the weekends with locals, expats and blow-in yachties to snack, shop trinkets and listen to a band.

On the way back to the ship, we pull into the sleepy village of Viseisei, said to be Fiji's first village when Tanzanians made the journey in the 1500s to the new world. Everyone's been here, from Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Charles, presidents and prime ministers. It's hot, and the ladies selling sea shells and crafts can barely raise a fan. I sit with Lomo, who bounces her youngest daughter on her knee and tells how, even weeks after the devastating Cyclone Winston, they were still without electricity, the village children suffering eye and chest infections. 

The return to the relative luxury of the ship (Clean water! Electricity! A bar full of Tanqueray gin!) is tinged with guilt, and I oscillate between health farm and ship party. 

One morning, I make it up for the sunrise stretch, followed with a yoga class by Matt, the ship's personal trainer, and one of the many northern English staff on this ship. Post-breakfast, and still in my workout gear, I stick my nose into one of the theatres, where a Zumba class is under way. It's an activewear fiesta. Led by an elastic Korean girl named Song, Zumba's too popular to be held in the fitness centre's studio. Women into their 80s are packed on the dance floor, in the rows, in the aisles, shaking it as hard as they can. In comparison, the fringes of the theatre are lined with husbands and other onlookers, kicking back with a morning cuppa. I had no idea Zumba was a spectator sport. 

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Later that day, I check back into the spa to embrace my current location, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Yes, it's time for a warm, nurturing seaweed wrap: because it's another chance to slap green slime on skin. The seaweed has been dried and powdered, and when mixed with various moisturising and detoxifying unguents, is a thick, milky-green paste that is slathered on my bare skin after a vigorous bout of skin brushing. My body is then wrapped in meters of aluminium foil, and I bake gently in my seaweed marinade, like a giant green sausage, all the while detoxing as hard as I can. I may even have nodded off. No cameras, please.

See? There are good intentions on this ship, best illustrated by a 7am visit to the gym, where every ocean-facing running machine is whirly madly beneath the footsteps of an army of exercising cruisers. In the spa, you could have your teeth whitened, hair keratin-smoothed, or even a cheek lift, pop some acupuncture or have a new life plan drawn up for you. 

In counterpoint, US confectionaire Norman Love plans to undo us all with his signature Chocolate Journeys, which emerge from the kitchen to cheers, all chocolate curls and vivid daubs of jus. In fact, there are a battalion of underminers. I'm looking at you, Curtis Stone. The Australian chef's delicious feature dishes encourage overconsumption, and runner-up is the all-day Italian bakery, Amuleto, which churns out mid-morning cappuccino and pastries, while scones are hot property when a sneaky brigade of cruisers-in-the-know edge up here mid-afternoon to slip a high tea or Devonshire tea into to the day's itinerary. 

And then there is the Sterling Steakhouse, the ship's only restaurant with a surcharge, at a modest $25. I could be ladylike and plump for the prettily named Princess Cut filet mignon, at a modest 220g, but I am not. At a hefty 400g, the rib-eye is a seriously substantial steak that has the blokes on the table declaring it better than most Australian restaurants. 

It's later in my brief sojourn that I discover the Oasis Bar, a modest little nook that sits right above the gym, so you can toast the joggers with a very, very good gin and tonic or the Isaac, a cocktail designed by your favourite ship's bartender. It's is lurid as only a 1970s cocktail can be.

Oasis is like a house party that draws the same crowd each evening, and barman Paul knows us all by name, and what we'd like to drink. My inner policewoman says it's lucky this bar closes after sundown: it's dangerously good fun.

That house party vibe runs through the entire ship: I see gangs of glammed-up Golden Girls, who have obviously been cruising together for decades.  On the promenade, couples wave to each other, friends from past cruises. You can tell the in-crowds, they're the ones wearing the customised lanyards, from which our identity cards hang. I quickly realise you're nobody if you don't have a spangled lanyard.

I fall to chatting with a couple from Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula. They take maybe six cruises a year. "We're what you'd call cruise tragics," they say, with a laugh, though they readily admit they're babes on the cruising scene, and point to a cluster of cruisers who are knocking up more days on sea than on land. Tips are exchanged on cruise deals and favourite destinations named – many are happy to simply relax and circumnavigate Australia. 

I relax, albeit briefly, at the Sanctuary, an adults-only suntrap on the top deck, where cold, scented towels and chilled, lemon-tinged water are poured by discreet, white-clad staff. And evenings are spent snuggled beneath warm blankets on the deckchairs, watching the latest Bond movie and other blockbusters. There are high-kicking girls in the cabaret show, hotly-contested trivia and a high point when a warm-hearted man pre-records a wedding proposal to his girlfriend, who watches, astonished, when her bloke's quiet voice and mild face beam down from the vast Movies Under the Stars screen one evening. In front of hundreds, she says yes, and our eyes are all momentarily bright with tears. 

Off ship, the hedonistic lifestyle continues at our next stop, tiny Dravuni Island, on the tip of Fiji's third-largest island, secretive Kadavu.  There are no cars, no high-rises, no shops – a supply ferry drops in weekly. However, there is plenty of entrepreneurism; the coconut trees on the white-sand beach have rough signs nailed to them, and I read out the closest one. 

"All welcome. Full body massage, hair braiding, coconut juice.  Vinaka [thank you]."

Another tropical health farm? No, really. Thank you. 

FIVE MORE…THINGS TO DO ON BOARD

Catch a show: Any cheesiness in the 50s-inspired Princess Signature Show Shimmy is outweighed by some seriously impressive footwork by the ship's troupe. 

Meet a new friend: There are get-togethers for GBLT travellers, singles and solos, knitters and natters, Christian fellowshippers…

Catch a little patter: The daily Princess Patter is a must-read for those with FOMO (fear of missing out). Otherwise, flick your TV to the morning Wake Show as the cruise directors run through the day's events.

Gaze at the stars: The new Stargazing program is one of a range of nature collaborations with Discovery Channel.

Find the piano man: What's a ship without a white, baby grand? Grab a nightcap and wind down. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See princess.com

CRUISING THERE

A 14-night Fiji & South Pacific voyage on the Pacific Princess costs from $1599 a person plus $100 onboard credit for an interior cabin (no windows).  Phone 1300 551 853, see princess.com 

Belinda Jackson travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises. 

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