Circumnavigate Australia on the Diamond Princess

forget about the calorie creep, just go for lots of walks around the decks as you circumnavigate Australasia, writes Caroline Gladstone.

On a 28-night circumnavigation cruise there's plenty of time to decide whether to keep your swimsuit on or bare it all in a traditional Japanese bathhouse.

Four weeks at sea can do strange things to people – the gentle movement of the ocean has a lulling effect, where normal defences might be down and you're blissed out enough to sign up for just about anything.

Over dinner as Diamond Princess pulled out of Sydney on the first night of a round-Australia itinerary, some of us – slightly in the grip of the grape – decided we'd throw caution (and bathing suits) to the wind the next day and go au naturel.

But, as often happens, in the cold hard glare of the morrow, as the ship made its way towards Tasmania, we chickened out. As old colleagues, we were more than a little self-conscious.

Who knows what may have occurred had we taken the entire voyage and not just a five-day leg? Perhaps some would have made an evening foray to the bathhouse for an anonymous skinny dip. 

Australia is the perfect destination for a circumnavigation if you have the time and the money ...

Caroline Gladstone

The fabulous new Izumi bathhouse was added to the 10-year-old ship as part of an extensive $30 million facelift, along with a large sushi restaurant, on the eve of the ship's debut in Japanese waters mid 2014.

Extending over 817 square metres and situated at the rear of Deck 15, Izumi has segregated male and female sections each with indoor and alfresco hot baths (the latter are under sliding roofs) steam rooms and saunas, and the thoughtful addition of separate soaking sessions for swim-suited and clothing-optional patrons.

As Australians had not seen the bathhouse before, daily guided tours of the facility were offered (when noone was bathing) to let newcomers get the hang of it.

The beauty of a cruise are the countless opportunities to dabble in a host of pursuits, all just a saunter away from the cabin door. With ballroom dance classes, art and craft workshops, golf chipping lessons and the opportunity to sing in the Princess Pop Choir (anyone for Glee?), it's entirely possible to emerge a totally new person after a month at sea.

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It's also possible to morph into two extra dress sizes.

Australia is the perfect destination for a circumnavigation if you have the time and the money, although with the lowest fare during my sailing at around $3800 for 28 nights, it was a very good deal when calculated at $136 a day.

With a coastline of 25,750 kilometres  to explore, the typical circumnavigation takes 28 to 33 days depending on the number of ports. It's a far cry from the days when Matthew Flinders sailed around the island continent taking 18 months (from December 1801 to June 1803 with a few rest stops) to map the country aboard the 334-ton sailing ship, the Investigator.

On a balmy November evening last year the spick-and-span 115,875-tonne Diamond Princess set off on the first of two circumnavigation cruises it would operate during its recent five-month season in Australia. 

With 2699 passengers on board, including 24 children, and not a spare bunk to be had, the circumnavigation voyage has certainly gained in popularity since Princess Cruises pioneered the idea (with a little help from a famous explorer) in 2005. Among them were 150 passengers who had just completed Diamond's previous cruise, a 16-day sailing from Singapore to Sydney, and were staying on to make the big loop.

Princess boasts it is Australia's biggest cruise line, backing up the claim with statistics that show Aussie passengers spend more nights on its ships globally than on any other line.  

The company has experienced rapid growth in Australia and come 2016 will have five ships (Diamond, Dawn, Sun, Golden and Emerald) either based here year-round or during the summer season, operating a variety of itineraries from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth.

It was my first time on Princess Cruises and while I was impressed with the public areas, the pools and the food, I was also rather fond of Diamond's huge dimensions. At 290 metres the ship is long and as my cabin was at the very aft (rear), I took pleasure in clocking up just how long it took to walk the entire length of my deck to the bow (front). It was only a few minutes at a brisk pace but if you did that over a month you might just stem the calorie creep.

Big ships with lots of people can be daunting but they also have lots of room. Diamond Princess sports 10 different restaurants where dinner is served every night, eliminating any feeling of crush or the need to queue. Five of these restaurants offer the same dishes on any given evening however there's a choice of dining styles be it the "traditional mode" of set-time and set-dining table, or the newer "anytime dining concept" where passengers turn up between certain times at their whim and choose a table at random. The menus change daily but they always feature a handful of all-time favourites, which included two dishes deemed to be Audrey Hepburn's favourite pastas – Spaghetti al Pomodoro and Farfalle al Pesto. The late actress is among a clutch of celebrities who have christened Princess ships during its 50-year history; she did the honours with Star Princess in 1989, while Princess Diana christened Regal Princess in 1984 and her daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge christened Royal Princess almost 30 years later in 2013.

Flexibility and choice are key when taking such a long sea voyage. Those who want to mix and match cuisines can book the three specialty restaurants - Kai Sushi, Sabatini's Italian eatery and the Sterling Steakhouse – and pay a small surcharge, while staff are on hand to oblige. I met a woman travelling on her own who wasn't too happy with her set-time tablemates and requested a change. Once liberated from her time-slot and table, she was free to eat when she chose and at a table of her choice.

Diamond Princess' itinerary featured 11 ports – the coastal capitals and regional gems of Albany and Busselton in Western Australia and Cairns, Port Douglas and Airlie Beach in Queensland. 

But while ours was just a short sojourn we were lucky to experience the ship's only overnight stay, in Hobart. We opted for a ghost tour and while none of our party experienced any paranormal behaviour or poltergeist sightings, our tour guide Martine Delaney, a prominent Hobart trans-sexual, certainly made up for it. When not regaling us with tales of evil doings in the backstreets of 19th century Battery Point, she later filled us in on her former life as a male soccer player (then Martin Delaney) and her new career in the Australian Women's Soccer League.

I came away thinking you just never know who you'll meet or what experiences are in store on a cruise. 

There are only a handful of ships that undertake circumnavigations each year;  most feature similar ports, although some add Eden, Newcastle or Burnie or the special treat of an overnight anchorage near the Great Barrier Reef. 

For seafarers there are 10 to 14 blissful days on the ocean to look forward to; if sea-sickness is a concern then a circumnavigation would probably not be wise, although most who suffer the malady find their sea legs within a day or two.

If the salty wind in your hair and the lure of a leisurely togs-free soak are tantamount to paradise, then Diamond Princess is definitely the ship and she's back in Australia in the spring.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Princesscruises.com

CRUISING THERE

Princess Cruises' 33-night circumnavigation aboard Diamond Princess departs Sydney on October 22, 2015. Apart from Australia, it also includes five ports in New Zealand. The voyage can be divided into two legs – the first a 15-night cruise from Sydney to Perth via the Top End; the second 18 nights from Perth to Sydney via New Zealand. Fares start at $4749 a person, twin share for the 33 nights.

Dawn Princess also has a 28-night circumnavigation from Sydney departing March 9, 2016. It can also be divided into two legs. Fares not yet available. .   

The writer was a guest of Princess Cruises

Five Diamond Princess Diversions

• Passengers who like to soak and sweat can buy combo packages that give access to Izumi (Japanese bathhouse) and the Lotus Spa Thermal Suite where more steam rooms and saunas await, together with the addition of heated ceramic beds. If you're a junkie go for the combo pass, but my tip is stick to the Japanese experience and spend the extra money on the child-free Sanctuary. Passes start at $130 for five days (for either venue) or $149 for a combo pass (prices can drop during a cruise if business is slow).

• Getting away from kids has spawned new retreat areas on many ships. Diamond Princess' escape area is The Sanctuary on Deck 16 where for a fee of $25 for a half day or $50 for a full day, you can have your own comfy sun lounger, listen to soothing music preloaded on to MP3 players and have waiters bring refreshing face towels, Evian water atomisers and items from the spa cuisine menu. But get in early as this cool space is a hot ticket.

• Carnivores will love the ship's Sterling Steakhouse where the cuts of meat are wheeled out by the maitre d' for patrons to peruse. It's a classic American experience where the choices include New York Strip, Rib Eye and Filet Mingon and are measured in (great big) ounces. The feast, along with entree and dessert, is $32 a head. 

• Hankering for a sushi meal after a relaxing Japanese bath? Diamond Princess' Kai Sushi Restaurant is one of only two such eateries in the fleet. Morsels are individually priced from $5 for two servings (such as Shimi Saba or cured blue mackerel), or go with a group and order a mini feast.

• When a mid-afternoon snack is called for, Princess delivers with its daily afternoon teas in the Pacific Moon Dining Room. Rather than a tier of goodies on each table, wait-staff glide through the restaurant with trays of treats, which diners can pick and choose from. It cuts down on the guilt of leaving untouched cakes on the tea-stand!

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