It's the morning after our first night on the Emerald Princess cruise ship and everyone's raving about the beds in the cabins. We're half a day out of Southampton, in the North Sea, spearing our way to Norway and the talk over breakfast is about … beds.
For once, I'm content to listen, given that I drank my own weight in the Princess Cruise Line's excellent own brand craft beers (Sea Witch, Denali Red) last night and would have slept on a razor blade so the efficiency of the bed was somewhat lost on me.
It seems they've been designed to complement the rocking of the ship (the beds, not the beers). This little snippet was proffered willy-nilly over fruit and muesli and isn't something that I can see actually borne out by the information on the website but it's such a cool concept that it seemed worth including.
So, yes, scientifically designed beds – 44,000 of them are being rolled out into every stateroom in the Princess fleet between now and 2018. A collaboration between sleep expert Dr Michael Breus and designer Candice Olson, the Princess Luxury Bed has a medium firm 22 centimetre single-sided mattress with a plush five centimetre pillow-top mattress-topper, circular-knitted mattress ticking, individually wrapped coils, electronically tempered springs and full foam casing.
This, in turn, is covered in linen made from "100 per cent luxurious, long staple cotton and woven on Jacquard looms". There's also a "continuous-filament fibrefill of hypoallergenic 100 per cent virgin polyester to maximise loft without compromising climate comfort".
To top it all off, the "undulating waves and the natural shape of a pearl on a satin finish echo the jewels of the sea".
Assuming that nobody reading this works for NASA, what this boils down to is that, all jokes aside, they are exceptional beds. On several mornings I found myself loath to leave mine (though that might have had something to do with the bewitching effects of a Sea Witch or two).
According to the press release announcing the Emerald Princess's first visit Down Under in November (it will be based out of Sydney until next April) the arrival will take the cruise line's "Australasian capacity to a record 11,800 berths across five ships during the season ... [and] with five of its 18-strong fleet cruising down under, Princess Cruises ranks Australia as its biggest market outside the United States".
Cruise lines, as you can see, do love to chuck a number around. The Emerald Princess, for instance, entered service on April 11, 2007, has a 113,561 gross tonnage, is 59 metres tall, 290 metres long, 36 metres wide (48.5m including the bridge wings), has 19 decks, carries 3092 passengers and 1200 crew and, should you ever need it in a trivia quiz, a passenger space ratio of 36.7 tonnes. About 80 per cent of the rooms have balconies, 31 per cent of them are wheelchair accessible; it's almost as long as the Sydney Tower is high; and if you were in the deck 19 disco in New York harbour you'd be eye-to-eye with the Statue of Liberty.
If this is the sort of thing that floats your boat, as it were, then the three-hour behind-the-scenes Ultimate Ship Tour ($US150 a pop and always popular so book early) is pretty much an essential part of a cruise.
How else would you learn that the Emerald Princess loaded 95 tonnes of food and beverage items into 23 storage rooms in Southampton (including 1200 kilos of carrots – because it seems that Australians and the British, in particular, do love a root vegetable)? Or that each day the passengers put away 15 cases of canned Coke, 500 bottles and 150 litres of draught Heineken?
It's tempting to imagine that the professional peace and tranquility of the upper decks is matched, swanlike below the waterline, by a frenzy of activity but it's just not the case. The best analogy I can think of as we prowl about below decks is a snappy waltz or a well-rehearsed minuet.
For in the white corridors, offices and store rooms down here it's curiously calm. There are plenty of people moving about but the general atmosphere is of relaxed competence. If you'll forgive the cliche, the only words that spring to mind are "well-oiled machine".
This is where the bakery works 24 hours a day, every day, where trays of hand-made croissants are baked every 20 minutes and 550kg of flour is used daily.
Down here 600 members of the food and beverage staff (250 of whom work in the galleys) have been plucked from 27 nations. None of them are Australian but we are over-represented in the dance chorus which is 50 per cent Aussie.
We visit the frighteningly spotless stainless steel kitchens where each day they labour to make 700 litres of soup, wash 25,000 pieces of crockery and somehow overcome the logistical challenge of pumping out millions of breakfasts, billions of lunches and a gazillion of dinners (I did have the actual numbers but ran out of zeroes).
In the laundry we spot the head of a member of staff sticking up over a panorama of white bed linen that is either ready to go into one of the massive washing machines or fed through a series of complicated apparatuses which stretch and fold sheets and towels and other laundry for re-use. He is one of 22 people who work in shifts 24/7 to make sure that Candice Olson linen continues to echo the jewels of the sea. About 20,000 towels are cleaned every day depending on whether you chuck yours on the floor or not.
More food containers, we are told, will be added in Norway's Stavanger and Bergen as the managers try to source as many local and regional items as they can. Though one item they won't be looking for in Norway is beef, which is sourced exclusively from Australia. The Princess line, we are told, has spent about $50m on Australian beef in the last 10 years.
And, yes, when it makes its debut in Sydney, it will have Vegemite on board so calm down.
On the bridge, with its magnificent views and large wraparound windows, we are greeted by the charming Captain Martin Stenzel, a man who is obviously a beneficiary of the laundry downstairs because his all-white uniform makes me wish I'd brought sunglasses.
As always with bridge tours it is a little disappointing not to find the once-obligatory ye olde pirate helm (steering wheel to you landlubbers) up there, something that went out, says the captain, 100 years ago. There is talk of 9000hp thrusters, 7000hp stern something or other and lots of questions about radar, state-of-the-art navigational systems and different types of ensigns.
I, on the other hand, am fascinated by the night vision goggles, which are accompanied by a sign which says "do not use during daylight", and the three lookouts who, on this searingly clear day, would seem to have the world's most boring job. "Water, Captain Stenzel. And lots of it."
Also part of the tour is a visit to the Princess Theatre where you can catch the extravagant Magic To Do show or The Voice of the Ocean, a sort of karaoke twist on the popular reality TV show in which guests participate.
Magic To Do is a magic show-cum-musical created exclusively by Stephen Schwartz, the Grammy and Academy award-winning composer of Wicked, Godspell, and Pippin. It showcases a number of his most famous songs along with a new number, A Little Magic, which was written exclusively for Princess.
The theatre itself seats 800 people and, according to senior production manager Kyle Byrnes, rivals any Broadway or West End theatre. We enter a room at the rear of the stage, descend some narrow stairs and find ourselves in a postage-stamp sized dressing room – the grit behind the glitz – festooned with hats and wigs and various other theatrical accoutrements. Cats would hate to be swung around in here.
What is impressive is the gargantuan costume rack which is essentially a conveyor belt of hangered clothing and extends upwards through three decks and brings you your next change of clothes at the press of a button.
How the dancers and the rest of the theatre staff manage to stage such extravagant shows from these cramped quarters and areas below stage is anybody's guess. Though cruise director Kelvin Joy's explanation that "it's a well-oiled machine" leaves the writer in me tutting at the use of such an obvious cliche.
The Emerald Princess Ultimate Ship Tour covers the engine control room, medical centre, incinerator room, print shop, laundry, photo lab and bridge. It lasts about three hours and is offered once or twice per cruise on a sea day. It costs $US150 per person and places are always limited. The tour can be reserved on board at the Passenger Services Desk.
As part of the tour, French champagne and canapes will be served in the galley and each guest will also be presented with an official chef's jacket and their own set of personalised stationery from the Print Shop. The visit usually concludes on the bridge with refreshments and a photo with the captain, a framed copy of which is delivered to your room later.
The Emerald Princess will call Australia home from November-April. Based in Sydney it will tour throughout Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, including Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Visit princess.com for details of prices and dates.
Keith Austin was a guest of Princess Cruises