P&O's Sydney-based cruise ship is a welcome addition to the cruising ranks, writes Joanna Hall.
As we approach the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the entire top deck lights up with the flickering of camera flashes. Within minutes we're right under the massive structure, and so close you feel you could reach up and touch it.
The deck I'm standing on is 49 metres above the waterline and the bridge is just six metres overhead. It's a surreal way to look at this famous landmark, which moments later makes way for another Australian icon in the form of the Sydney Opera House.
Each cruise on board the Pacific Dawn begins this way and the sail out from Darling Harbour through to the Tasman Sea via Sydney Heads is a highlight, no matter which exotic destinations await on the itinerary.
Pacific Dawn is P&O's first Sydney-based "superliner", and her arrival last November was confirmation of the fact that cruising is one of the fastest growing sectors in the travel industry in Australia. Recent figures reveal a 14 per cent growth in the numbers of Australians taking a cruise from 2006 (221,033) to 2007 (251,674) - more than the 11 per cent growth in Britain and the 4.6 per cent rise in the US. It's also the fifth year in a row that Australian cruise numbers have achieved double-digit growth.
It's expected the Pacific Dawn's presence in Sydney will push those numbers even higher with capacity to carry 2050 people on each cruise. Her itineraries are driven by demand for cruises in Australian and South Pacific waters.
The destinations are the main attraction for Pacific Dawn cruisers. A typical 10-day journey will take in two ports in New Caledonia, the capital Noumea and the white-sand paradise of Ouvea, and two stops in Vanuatu including Port Vila and Mystery or Wala Island.
There are also more exotic ports of call that other cruise ships don't visit. Twice a year, the Pacific Dawn makes a stop at Pentecost Island in Vanuatu for the famous land divers spectacle, and New Caledonia's stunning Isle of Pines is another popular destination.
Longer cruises go as far as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Tahiti and there are also Australia-only cruises which stop at Brisbane, the Whitsundays, and tropical North Queensland including the Barrier Reef. Two-night cruises (perfect for first-timers who don't know if they'll like the experience) occasionally run from Sydney to Brisbane and return, and in November a special six-night Melbourne Cup cruise heads to the Victorian capital for one of Australian sport's biggest events.
There's a definite family-friendly feel on board; daily children's entertainment programs keep the kids happy while mum and dad kick back around the pool with a cocktail. There are separate children's centres catering for toddlers and pre-teens, and a "Teen Lounge" for 13- to 17-year-olds.
One of the families we met on our 10-day New Caledonia and Vanuatu cruise had 21 members - mums, dads, uncles, aunts, and grandparents, with about 10 children in tow. "We can send the kids off for the day and they're more than happy with that and the adults can all catch up with each other properly, which we can't really do at home," said one of the mums.
Families aside, honeymooners and couples were also spotted on board, along with groups of twenty- and thirtysomething friends taking a break from the grind of work.
Pacific Dawn was renamed for its Australian launch. In a former life she was known as the Regal Princess, entering service in 1991. But a multimillion-dollar refurbishment has given the Pacific Dawn a revitalised look - and from the outside the ship is still a bit of a head-turner, with sleek lines and a bright white hull, topped with an impressive glass-panelled dome.
On board she has retained a tasteful design and decor - open and spacious with light wooden panelling, murals and furniture that complements the feel. For most passengers the first experience is the entry into the three-level atrium in the centre of the ship, and it's remarkably spacious and refined - at the lowest level is the pursers' desk and shore excursion office and a pleasant cafe called Le Patisserie, while higher up is the Galleria which houses shops that sell duty free goods, clothing and jewellery.
Up on the open deck there are two swimming pools - one for adults only until midday - and two outdoor jacuzzis with sun loungers spread around the whole deck and a fun outdoor bar. Naturally this is the busiest part of the ship during the day, but if you want to escape the crowds around the pool, one deck up is the Dome - by day it's a fabulous observation lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows and at night it becomes a cabaret venue and nightclub open well into the early hours.
The Dome is one of the most eye-catching additions to the Pacific Dawn and while it's a favourite with the party-set after dark, there are half a dozen other bar options on board, each with an atmosphere of its own, including the sophisticated Promenade Bar with a fantastic martini menu, murals depicting the speakeasy bars of the prohibition years and black and white classic movies on screens. There's also the bright and breezy Bengal Bar, a Sports Bar which is attached to the casino, and the quieter Bacchus Bar which overlooks the Atrium.
One of the standout features on board the Pacific Dawn which gives her the edge over other mass-market cruises is the concept of "Your Choice Dining", which means you're not assigned a table for dinner at a particular time, or with other people. The main dining room, the Palm Court, operates like a normal restaurant, and despite the large numbers of people on board, reservations are usually not essential outside of the dining "rush hour" of 7pm to 8pm. And unlike many other main dining rooms on mass-market ships, the food quality and service is consistently good, with an atmosphere that harks back to the traditional era of fine dining at sea.
Other dining options include the Cafe del Sol, a casual buffet, the Bravo Trattoria with pizza and pasta with the option of alfresco dining, and the Steakhouse. The Trattoria charges a couple of dollars for each dish and is a quiet and relaxed alternative to the Palm Court, while the Steakhouse, which charges $20 a person, is an unofficial child-free venue by virtue of its cover charge, and offers quality steaks in an intimate setting.
Service throughout the bars and restaurants is attentive yet relaxed with an international crew that's courteous - even if something's not right, they seem genuinely happy to make sure the problem is fixed.
As part of her upgrade, staterooms on Pacific Dawn have been fitted with flat screen televisions and extra four-berth bunks were added to cater for families. And although the interiors aren't exactly brand new, most are quite spacious with a surprising amount of clothing and storage space.
The only downside is that compared to more modern ships, there's a lower ratio of cabins with balconies - just under a fifth of the 795accommodations - and these sell quickly.
The Pacific Dawn offers a cruise experience which attracts a lot of repeat passengers - P&O say it's about 40 per cent. One of the big attractions is that the ship sails in and out of Sydney with no airports to negotiate. And, coupled with a fun and relaxed atmosphere on board, you get experiences which stay with you for life - like a South Pacific sunset at sea, or a smile from a local on a remote tropical island.
The writer was a guest of P&O Cruises.
The Pacific Dawn operates year-round from Sydney. Fares for a nine-night cruise, visiting Port Vila and Mystery Island in Vanuatu and the New Caledonian capital of Noumea, start from $1597 a person, twin share (departing October 3). Cruise fares include accommodation, most food and entertainment, with soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and selected eating options extra. For more information, contact a licensed travel agent, see http://www.pocruises.com.au or phone 132 469.