Cruisin' Country, New Caledonia cruise: Australia's biggest music festival at sea

"Hosiery and homewares! Appliances and apparel!" Tania Kernaghan has appointed herself lift operator, adding laughs to our late-night ride home in the cruise ship's glass-walled elevator. The raven-haired artist, part of a country-music dynasty, is fresh from leading a conga line in and around the atrium as beloved super-group the Wheel play what they say is their last gig until they don't know when. The party's hardly over for the night – the Schooner Bar will be rocking until the wee hours – but I'm with Kernaghan. It's time to hit the sack.

 It's been an exhausting week aboard Radiance of the Seas. The 2500-passenger Royal Caribbean ship is not its normal self. It's under charter, hosting Cruisin' Country – an annual country-music knees-up billed as Australia's biggest music festival at sea. The artist line-up equals anything you'd see at the Tamworth Country Music Festival – think John Williamson, Troy Cassar-Daley, Sara Storer, Graeme Connors, Anne Kirkpatrick, Bill Chambers and Gina Jeffreys – along with a thematic focus on old-timers such as Chad Morgan. Although no one gives a flying hayseed about the destination, the itinerary includes two pit stops in New Caledonia – Noumea and Isle of Pines.

Even though I was raised on a diet of Dolly and Kenny and call myself a country music fan, I'm expecting to eye-roll at least once or twice during this unusual week at sea. Instead of rolling my eyes, though, I'm dabbing at them most days because I'd lost track of what country music's all about. It's about real life, real feelings and real connection. Some songs are fun, others are fictional and then there are those inspired by the artists' own highs and lows, which they disarmingly share from the stage.

Gina Jeffreys has drawn upon her own terrible low – a miscarriage suffered on her 39th birthday. When she chats to me about Milestones, the song that will be released this year when she steps back into the spotlight after years spent nurturing her family, she becomes visibly upset. "A lady came up to me yesterday who was just in full tears and said, 'Those are the words I've been wanting to say'," Jeffreys says. "There have been lots of tears on the ship because of that song. I think that's the strength of country music – it's the words and that we can share the stories and touch people's hearts."

The strength of this particular cruise is it allows fans to share such intimate moments with the artists. You might also spot James Blundell splashing around in the Isle of Pines' aqua waters or exchange pleasantries in the corridors with the zany Hillbilly Goats or the cruise's vibrant opening act, Amber Lawrence. When the lime-suited veteran artist Chad Morgan takes a breather during his set, he's besieged by fans wanting a photo. The cruise also includes a meet and greet/autograph session. While I'm chatting to Jeffreys' husband Rod McCormack (a member of the Wheel and a respected producer from the NSW Central Coast, known as Hillbilly Heaven), a woman approaches to ask if he'd consider a house concert at her place. Although fans are occasionally too personal – new mum Lawrence recounts fielding questions about her baby's birth and breastfeeding – it doesn't stop artists clamouring to be on the bill.

That wasn't always the case, says Artist Network Australia's Marius Els. The entertainment manager joined forces with South Australian music-cruise pioneer Mick Manov in 2010 to program a rock cruise. The following year, the Choose Your Cruise joint CEOs filled rock and country cruises, and the juggernaut has since rolled on to sell out an annual portfolio of music-themed cruises in Australia and Britain.

Last October, Els fulfilled one of his dreams when Foreigner headlined the Australian rock cruise. At the same time, he was basking in the knowledge that 2019's Rock the Boat cruise, featuring Suzi Quatro, the Angels and John Paul Young, had sold out a year in advance – for once beating their "safest bet", the Bravo performing arts cruises.

"In the early stages it was so difficult to get any artist interested in doing a cruise ship," Els says. "They saw it as maybe sliding down the other end of their career. A lot of that perception has come because the cruising industry globally normally has concept cover acts. Cruising's only come of age musically probably in the last 10 years.

If there was any breakthrough moment for Els, it was snaffling John Farnham for a 2016 cruise. "We're now in a space where with every cruise regardless of genre, about 200 artists want to get on board but we only have about 35 positions," says Els.

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Gigs take place in venues all over the ship, with a headliner show in the Aurora Theatre each night. Even though there's a seat for everyone, super-fans queue for hours to snaffle their favourite seat. I take to sliding in at the last minute, often finding a spot at the end of a front row.

I don't want to waste time queueing when there's so much else on the schedule. I can watch the belly-flop comp on the pool deck, sip a themed cocktail (Guitar Hero, anyone?) or join the line-dancing classes (more complicated than it looks) and clogging lessons (jingling footwear is not my thing). There are also regular ship features such as the climbing wall, which I have every intention of conquering but somehow I run out of time.

If I could tweak the formula at all, I'd love the cruise to include two-step lessons so that I'm ready to go the next time I step into any ol' honky tonk. And I wouldn't mind seeing gentlemen hosts who can swing the pretty ladies round and round, any old way but upside down.

Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Cruiseco, Choose Your Cruise and Artist Network Australia.

TRIP NOTES

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CRUISE

Cruisin' Country 2019, which departs Sydney on October 12 for a round trip via New Caledonia, stars Lee Kernaghan, Adam Harvey, Beccy Cole, Gina Jeffreys, Amber Lawrence, Felicity Urquhart and more. Cabins start from $2116 a person twin share. See cruising.com.au

FIVE OTHER WAYS TO HIT THE HIGH Cs

Cruisin' Country organisers also conduct an annual performing arts cruise. Bravo 2019, departing Sydney November 12, will star Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel conducted by Gareth Jones, along with Wicked star Lucy Durack, David Hobson and James Morrison. See cruising.com.au

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. P&O Australia is launching its first country-music cruise in December. The three-night Country Music Festival at Sea departs Brisbane on December 7, with a bill promising everything from rockabilly and country rock to folk and bluegrass. See pocruises.com.au

Jon Bon Jovi is the drawcard on two 2019 Norwegian Cruise Line sailings: one departs Miami bound for the Bahamas (April 12-16); the other departs Barcelona for Majorca (August 26-30). The American rocker will board at each port to perform a show on the pool deck with his Kings of Suburbia band. He will also field guest questions at an acoustic storyteller set. See runawaytoparadise.com

The Outlaw Country Cruise, which departed Tampa on January 27, sold out months ago thanks to a sterling alt-country line-up including the Drive-By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the Dukes, and Margo Price. Get on it for 2020. See outlawcountrycruise.com

Pack your fluro mesh singlet for this '80s cruise starring Kenny Loggins, Sheila E, Berlin and Grandmaster Flash. Setting sail from Fort Lauderdale from March 2, the itinerary not only includes concerts but Let's Get Physical aerobics classes, retro board game challenges and a TV channel showing classic '80s movies and series. See the80scruise.com

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