Australians have become very choosy about their coffee and cruisers often complain about the poor quality, stewed brews served up on some ships. On home-grown line P&O Cruises, however, coffee is taken seriously.
As P&O Cruises' president Sture Myrmell says: "Australians are used to certain creature comforts and it doesn't matter if you're on holiday or not, you can't start your day with a bad cup of coffee.
"We have ensured that not only do our guests have increased access to espresso coffee – available in more than 60 per cent of our bars and lounges – but that the coffee is served by baristas who receive the highest standard of training."
When Pacific Explorer was in Sydney recently, barista Leo Tejada was put through his paces in Charlies Bar by Mark Tenaglia, Nestle's technical and operational manager. Nestle supplies P&O with Buondi coffee beans and, along with the company's top barista, Christopher James, trains select crew members in the art of coffee making, and runs an annual barista competition across the ships.
Training sessions for up to six food and beverage staff are held on every ship at every turnaround port – about 40 a year – and six trainees then compete on each ship to be the best barista of the year and wear the coveted Gold Bean lapel pin.
While Leo and Mark whip up a round of coffees behind the bar, I learn a little from Nestle's national channel manager Katherine Edwards about what's involved in making the perfect brew. It's about grinding, dose, tamping, water temperature, bars of pressure and milk "stretching" – 70 to 80 per cent of Australians drink coffee with milk and the flavour needs to cut through the milk, which should, by the way, have a silky texture. The Australian palate demands a strong coffee, so the blend served onboard is a mix of arabica and robusta beans from around the world, roasted and blended locally.
Training also covers scrupulous attention to "theatre" – cleaning the grinder and other equipment, engaging with customers and, of course, adding cute latte art to the finished cuppa. Nestle's experts have been working with P&O for 18 years and not only supply the coffee beans and organise the barista competitions, they are on hand to maintain the equipment, test filters and water quality, and carry out other behind-the-scenes technical operations when the ships are in port and in dry dock.
P&O's director of food and beverage, Simon Blacoe, says his team is genuinely enthusiastic about the training program because they appreciate the importance of making and serving consistently good coffee on board. Once they have reached the standards required in the training program, they can train fellow crew members – some have even taken their skills back home to the Philippines and set up their own coffee shops.
Blacoe says one reason why P&O is a local leader in the coffee stakes is the availability of its brews. "Look at Pacific Explorer – we have 14 bars and lounges and eight have the capacity to serve a consistently high standard of coffee. Other cruise lines may have 20 to 30 per cent of lounges that can offer table-service coffee all day, rather than just as part of the general food experience."
Aussie cruisers are particular about a few more things besides coffee, as Carnival Cruise Line Australia's vice-president Jennifer Vandekreeke discovered when Carnival Spirit arrived for its inaugural season Down Under. After the first cruise, passenger surveys were disappointing, despite the line spending $7 million "Aussifying" the ship with the Green Thunder waterslide, a barbecue, the adults-only Sanctuary – and, of course, good coffee.
"Back in 2012, in typical American style, we were confident we had thought of everything," Vandekreeke told a travel conference. "We were devastated, we questioned everything." Its research revealed that local cruisers love participating in onboard activities, rarely spend hours sunbathing and "Aussies take kids to activities, our US customers don't". After the ship had been sailing in Australia for eight months, a Carnival crew member's blog noted a few more differences between American and Australian cruisers.
For example, he observed that we spend more time in the gym, drink far more wine than North Americans (who prefer spirits and mixed drinks) and consider iced tea "an abomination unless it comes from a bottle". Beer is also a high priority for many Aussie cruisers and Carnival now serves beer brewed at Sydney's Lord Nelson Hotel in its Red Frog pub.
Local cruisers are not keen on paying compulsory gratuity charges and P&O jettisoned these in 2010, leaving it up to passengers to tip crew personally as they feel appropriate. Tipping is not part of our culture as it is in the US and Carnival, Princess and Royal Caribbean have since adopted similar policies on their ships operating in Australia.
Dining is another aspect of cruising where we differ from other nationalities, particularly Americans. We eat more fish, lamb, salads and vegetables and, in Sture Myrmell's experience, are more health-conscious, requesting a higher number of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and low-carb dishes.
P&O's main food suppliers are Superior Foods, Select Fresh and Andrew's Meats and its beverage partners are Nestle, Carlton and United Breweries, Pernod Ricard and Treasury Wine Estates. Boutique Sydney-based distillery Archie Rose came onboard Pacific Explorer last year, serving classy cocktails as well as running gin-making and whisky master classes in The Bonded Store.
To get an idea of the quantities of food and drinks consumed over a seven-day cruise, P&O's passengers get through an average of 125 kilograms of coffee, 4900 litres of fresh milk, 11,000 teabags (Aussies and Brits are fussy about their tea, but that's another story), 3092 dozen eggs, 4781 kilograms of chicken and 2009 kilograms of fish. The most popular meat eaten onboard is the flap steak.
Myrmell says the ships are designed with the goal of being "trend-setting rather than trend-following". The Pantry, which did away with the traditional buffet, provides a variety of different food outlets and the concept was inspired by the contemporary food-court type offerings that you find at Sydney's Pitt Street Mall or Eat Street in Brisbane.
Before Golden Princess joins the P&O fleet in October 2020 under its new name of Pacific Adventure, it will undergo a transformation that will bring it in line with the Modern Australian look and feel of the most recently updated Pacific Explorer. The 2600-passenger Grand Class ship will have restaurants and dining "experiences" created by Luke Mangan and Johnny Di Francesco, along the lines of Pacific Explorer's Luke's poolside grill and 400 Gradi, a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria.
Pacific Adventure will have an expansive child-free Oasis retreat across multiple decks, fitted out with sun lounges, spa tubs, a swimming pool and dedicated bar; an exclusive-access retreat for suite and mini-suite occupants called the Byron Bay Beach Club; the Blue Room, a popular live-music venue on the other ships; and 560 balcony rooms, 230 suites and mini-suites and the fleet's first five-berth family cabins.
P&O will reveal more about its new flagship over the coming months, but will it have the quintessentially Aussie lawn bowls green that made its first appearance on Pacific Explorer? Could a netball court or cricket nets replace the all-American basketball court? Will there be sunscreen stations and hunky lifeguards by the pools? One thing's for sure, we know we'll be able to buy a decent cup of coffee.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT P&O
P&O Cruises operates five ships: Pacific Aria, Dawn, Eden, Explorer and Jewel. Jewel and Eden are leaving the fleet in March and April 2019; in October 2020 Pacific Adventure enters service for P&O and at the end of 2021, its sister ship Star Princess will also move to P&O.
WHERE THEY CRUISE
Ships sail year-round from their home ports of Sydney and Brisbane. There are also seasonal sailings from other Australian states and New Zealand to destinations including Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Cruises to the Melbourne Cup, Australian Tennis Open, State of Origin and, returning in 2019, Hobart's Dark MoFo festival, are a P&O specialty. Event tickets, on-site accommodation and a cruise are all combined in one handy package.
Throughout the year P&O operates mini two- to four-night cruises. Some don't stop anywhere, others call at one port in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia, and others are themed comedy or food-and-wine cruises.
WEDDINGS, PARTIES, ANYTHING
P&O caters for all sorts of group celebrations, from weddings to vow renewal ceremonies, special birthdays, anniversaries and even divorce parties. Corporate and private events can also be customised. See pocruises.com.au