What's it like to cruise on P&O's refurbished Pacific Dawn: A cruise with non-stop entertainment

Is the ship the destination, or the means to get to the destination? That's the question I ponder as we board P&O's refurbished Brisbane superliner Pacific Dawn, fresh from dry dock in Singapore. How fresh? you ask. Well let's just say it's nothing short of a miracle what they've achieved in the two short weeks the ship was out of the water.

In the past 24 hours before returning home, contractors scrambled to make finishing touches; getting new furniture in place, restocking bars and meticulously cleaning every nook and cranny. The crew, meanwhile, returned to normal duties, donning uniforms, prepping food, cleaning rooms and running final sound checks in the lounges. In port, the 2000-passenger ship gleams proudly – displaying the cruise line's striking new livery featuring the Southern Cross – ship shape and ready to welcome guests on board.

The ship versus the destination debate is particularly relevant for us, given that hours before leaving port we're told we're on a "cruise to nowhere". This is thanks to Cyclone Debbie, which is due to slam into the far north Queensland coast. This means our scheduled port stop at Airlie Beach (which ended up bearing much of the cyclone's wrath), is cancelled. Pacific Dawn's Captain Alan Dockeray says several options have been investigated, including sailing to Lord Howe Island. However, this is ruled out "given the rough ride passengers would face on the return leg". The ship will instead do a loop before returning to Brisbane on Saturday morning, giving passengers four days at sea.

For most of the 1956 passengers on board this is welcome news. Personally, I feel relieved and my mum, who back home is about to have a hernia at the thought of us sailing towards the cyclone, calms down a little. I mean, seriously, who would want to sail towards a category-four cyclone, or arrive to the aftermath? The decision also means we have more time to explore the many new features of this incredibly popular ship. The sister ship to Pacific Eden and Aria, Pacific Dawn turned 25 last year. She has carried the most passengers in P&O's current fleet (joining in 2007) and began home-porting in Brisbane in December 2009.

The multimillion-dollar refit is designed to put Pacific Dawn in the same league as her comelier and more sharply dressed siblings. Our first impression, after settling into our cabin on deck 10, is what an incredible makeover she's had.

Highlights of the spruce-up include two new 80-metre water slides – one transparent and the other multicoloured with pumping music – which snake their way from the funnel to the top deck. The two waterslides took almost 40 days to build offsite and on board, with final installation and testing being made as she cruised for home.

Also new is a fun kids' water park, 3000 pieces of new and reupholstered furniture, more than 15,000 pieces of art and accessories, and more than 500 new pieces of signage. A team of 700 contractors spent more than 100,000 hours transforming the ship during its time in dry dock, including the installation of more than 18,000 square metres of carpet. To put that into perspective, that's almost enough to carpet all four exhibition halls at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre. P&O Cruises president Sture Myrmell says the enormous amount of work that occurs during a dry dock has ensured a spectacular-looking ship ready to welcome guests on board.

And spectacular she is. One of the more notable new features is The Pantry, an international marketplace of nine fresh food outlets that replaces the traditional ship buffet. The Pantry has already been introduced on P&O's other ships and has proved extremely popular with guests. The move certainly ruffled a few feathers with some ardent cruise-goers but eliminating the buffet dramatically reduces food waste, as well as delivering a vastly improved food and beverage experience. With its fresh, contemporary look, including palm wallpaper, granite-topped dining counters with café-style stools and Alice in Wonderland-type chairs, The Pantry is also where you find the Mediterranean-inspired Nic and Toni's, and P&O's first seafood restaurant, Shell and Bones. The space morphs from a casual dining spot for breakfast and lunch to a hip, relaxed seafood eatery at night. It's fabulous, and ends up being one of my favourite spots to dine (the Singapore-style crab is messy but delicious, as are the crab cakes).

Some of the ship's key public spaces, including the Atrium, Charlie's Café, The Orient and the Promenade Bar also sport a striking redesign, mirroring the smart contemporary look which has become a trademark of the P&O fleet. These are now seriously stylish spaces to sit and have a coffee, enjoy a cocktail, listen to live music and escape the crowds on the upper decks. The new look also provides a taste of what's to come on P&O's next ship, Pacific Explorer, which debuts in Sydney in June.

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I admit I'm not usually a big cruise ship devotee (I'm talking about big ships as opposed to small) but Pacific Dawn impresses both myself and my eight-year-old daughter, Ella, so much we hardly notice the fact we don't go ashore. Ella enjoys the kids' club, Shark Shack, and scares the pants off me by doing the "walk the plank" (twice) with P&O's The Edge adventure park. She scales the indoor rock-climbing wall, joins a scavenger hunt and tears down the new slides. The ship's teenage clubs, HQ and HQ+, have also taken the entertainment up another level with the cruise line's new virtual reality experience, featuring a range of popular Sony PS4 titles.

Instead of our planned shore visit to Airlie Beach, the crew up the ante entertaining passengers from dawn to dusk. Laser tag, dance classes, lectures on the "Titanic Story and the Role of Halifax Nova Scotia", animal towel parades, high tea in Luke Mangan's Salt Grill, origami workshops, napkin-folding demonstrations, cocktail and whisky classes, lawn bowls, movies on the big screen, live music plus the highly popular "White Party" are but a few of the activities on offer. We also take in the new show Seven, do a Gatsby dance class, and hang out in the wonderful Thermal Suites with their heated, mosaic-tiled lounges hidden in the ship's bowels on deck two. Even then I feel like we've hardly scratched the surface in terms of what's on offer.

Amazingly, while Cyclone Debbie was wreaking havoc on far north Queensland, followed by torrential rain and flooding, Pacific Dawn's new route gave passengers the smoothest of seas, and the clearest, warmest weather. The worst we encountered was a light sprinkling of rain. While it may have been a "cruise to nowhere", we absolutely had the best time. With a ship as brilliant and entertaining as the Pacific Dawn, it doesn't really matter where you sail to after all.

TRIP NOTES

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CRUISE

P&O Cruises Pacific Dawn operates out of Brisbane to destinations including the Whitsundays, the Great Barrier Reef (including Port Douglas), the Pacific Islands and Vanuatu. It also offers special three-night Food and Wine cruises. Fares are dependent on route, stateroom and length of cruise but start from $299 for a three-night Food and Wine cruise, and $551 per person quad share for a seven-night cruise to the Pacific Islands in July. For more information and bookings, contact a licensed travel agent or P&O Cruises on 13 24 94. See pocruises.com.au.

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of P&O Cruises.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ON BOARD

HIGH TEA AT SEA

This haute high tea at Luke Mangan's Salt Grill costs $20 per person and includes a three-tiered stand of miniature cakes, pastries and sandwiches, including lamingtons and raspberry macaroons, tea, coffee and a glass of sparkling wine. Warm fluffy scones, jam and cream are also served. It's arguably the best high tea at sea.

GET THE ADRENALIN PUMPING

Whiz across the top deck on a flying fox, climb the funnel, take flight on the bungy tramp or, if you're feeling particularly game, "Walk the Plank" – a new experience where passengers walk a beam extending off the side of the top deck – at the P&O Adventure Park. Don't look down.

HIT THE SPA

Book in for a well-earned massage, or revel in an Elemis Pro-Collagen Quartz Lift Facial (50 mins for $165). Empowered with quartz micro-crystals and antioxidant properties, this treatment leaves your skin glowing. Teeth whitening, spray tans, body scrubs and a full-service hair salon are also on offer. Afterwards spend time in the Thermal Suites with heated ceramic beds, sauna, (super hot) steam room and tropical shower.

TAKE IN A SHOW

There's always a live show to see in Pacific Dawn's two-storey Marquee Theatre. Current shows include The Velvet Rope, set in the 1930s and telling the story of two brothers struggling to find success while dealing with their past, while Seven is a visual feast of song and dance based on the seven deadly sins.

WORK IT

Want to work off all that incredible food on offer? "Walk a Mile" each morning on the top deck, join a pilates or sunset yoga class, do a workout in the gym or join P&O's Bootcamp at Sea. The ship is huge (245 metres) with 14 decks, so you can also get an incidental workout by using the stairs instead of the lifts.

See also: 20 amazing trips for first-timer cruisers

See also: The world's next big cruising destination

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