P&O Pacific Explorer cruise to New Caledonia: Fishnets and latex, this isn't your average cruise

It's a riot. Love Riot, that is. The hot new show on P&O's new flagship Pacific Explorer is unlike anything I've seen on a cruise ship. It's raunchy, risqué, rude – all the naughty R-rated things – and most of all it's very funny. Five women and two men from the international circus world stage the fast-moving, burlesque-type show to loud pulsating music against a backdrop of flashing neon signs; clad in masks, fishnets and tight-fitting latex they perform aerobatics, unicycling and juggling acts and eye-popping contortionist tricks.

P&O Cruises is certainly upping the ante in the entertainment stakes. Love Riot's director is Scott Maidment, the creative mastermind behind Madonna's Rebel Heart Tour and the sell-out Blanc de Blanc extravaganza, among many other successful ventures. "I've directed shows in Budapest, London, Bogota and Singapore but never before for a cruise ship," Maidment says. "[Love Riot] was about giving the P&O audience an experience they wouldn't expect and remember long after their holiday."

The show is performed in the intimate Black Circus theatre, which is new to the cruise line and is just one of several new features on the recently refurbished ship. P&O spent several million dollars refitting the former Dawn Princess and designer Petra Ryberg, who was involved in the makeover of Pacific Aria and Eden, directed the redesign of Pacific Explorer. The overall look and feel is chic and contemporary with a tropical touch, from the airy atrium to intimate venues such as the Blue Room and The Bonded Store bar – you can even buy some of the stylish accessories in the new Home by P&O shop.

What else is new? The lawn bowling green at the aft of the ship provides a more challenging game than on flat non-moving land and keeps our competitive, multi-generational group entertained on several occasions – as do the waterslides, which have been installed on Pacific Dawn as well as Explorer. One of the Pacific Adventures team tells us that more adults than kids on our cruise are watersliding – maybe because it's great therapy screaming your way down 80 metres of slippery fluorescent tubing. We also tested out Edge Adventure activities, which you can do on all P&O ships (for a charge); Segways, zip-lining over the top deck and walking the plank, although I admit I just hung back and took photos of the others wobbling and turning pale on the last one.

Dining options have expanded on Pacific Explorer with the addition of Luke's, a casual poolside grill by acclaimed chef and restaurateur Luke Mangan, and a pizzeria called 400 Gradi, by award-winning Melbourne chef Johnny Di Francesco. There is no Salt Grill by Luke Mangan as on the other ships – instead there is a seven-course degustation dinner, Taste of Salt, at the Chef's Table.

The Chef's Table dining room is a smart, mirrored black-and-white space with a table that seats 14 – bookings are essential. At $99, Taste of Salt is a special-occasion dinner but well worth it for delicious signature dishes such as Grilled sirloin of beef with spices, truffle mash, beans and shallots, top-of-the-range Australian and New Zealand wines and extra-attentive service.

The burgers are definitely better at Luke's grill, and the shared starters and Neopolitan pizzas at 400 Gradi are super-fresh and tasty – we visit both eateries at least twice during the cruise. While on the food trail we sample every venue on the ship, both new and familiar. One standout is Shell and Bones, a neatly curtained-off area of The Pantry that opens only for dinner; as you might expect from its name, the menu is all about seafood, with a couple of dishes for carnivores and vegetarians.

Another new spot that quickly becomes our regular haunt is The Bonded Store, a boutique-clubby cocktail bar that's run in partnership with Sydney distillery Archie Rose. You can sign up for gin-mixing classes but we are more than happy to let the mixologists do the job for us.

Explorer Hotel is also new – the pub/bar is busy from morning to midnight with trivia sessions, suduko challenges, quizzes and live music. People lounge around on capacious window seats (as well as on normal comfy seats and couches) and the atmosphere is fun and buzzy. The Blue Room is the place to go for live music every night and the line-up of local talent is terrific.

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P&O is known for its theme parties and Explorer's passengers need no encouragement to dress up to the nines for the White and Gatsby parties. If you don't happen to have a flapper outfit in your suitcase you can join a group to make 1920s-style feathered headbands and accessories – some seasoned passengers are pretty expert at wielding a glue gun.

Our eight-night cruise includes two sea days on the way to Noumea and two on the way back to Sydney from the Isle of Pines. There are 22 shore excursions on offer in Noumea, most of which are suitable for all age groups. Two of us head off for Duck Island on a Zodiac, where we snorkel and sunbathe for a couple of hours, while most of our group spends the day at Amedee Island. A few years ago while cruising on Pacific Jewel I kayaked on Dumbéa River, a lovely trip that takes you into the island's peaceful hinterland; one day I intend to visit the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, which is highly recommended by a young couple I meet on board.

I'm hoping to find an English-language bookshop in Noumea after our Duck Island trip but there doesn't seem to be one when I search on Google (please feel free to advise if you know otherwise). Which leads me to a missing element on the ship: a library. My cruise companion suggests P&O set up a community pop-up library – they're taking off all over the world and would suit the ship's ambience perfectly.

Mare is a beach stop that I skip in favour of having the run of the ship and a fabulous facial in the spa – as my therapist points out, sun damage takes its toll, so that's another good excuse for the pampering session. At the Isle of Pines it seems the entire population of the ship has chosen to chill at the beach, so if you prefer to explore a little off the beaten track book the Turtle Bay boating trip: it only takes limited numbers.

Everyone I chat to during the cruise, from couples with young children to loyal P&O passengers in their 50s and 60s and above, is enthusiastic about the line's latest ship. And not surprisingly, Love Riot is still a major talking point, days after we have seen the show. Just as Scott Maidment intended. Whether you love it or find it confronting, it's just one of a variety of entertainment options on board. Today's cruising is all about choice and P&O has that covered.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

traveller.com.au/new-caledonia

pocruises.com.au

CRUISING THERE

Pacific Explorer sails out of Sydney on itineraries ranging from three to 14 nights, to Queensland, Tasmania and the Pacific islands, as well as three-night Comedy and Food and Wine cruises. Fares for the eight-night Taste of Caledonia cruise, departing Sydney on May 24, 2018 start from $899. Phone 1300 159 454, see www.pocruises.com.au [pocruises.com.au].

Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of P&O Cruises

Five facts about P&O Cruises

THE FLEET

P&O Cruises operates five ships in Australia: the 1998-passenger Pacific Explorer, 1546-passenger Pacific Dawn, 1670-passenger Pacific Jewel and 1260-passenger Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden.

HOME PORTS

Adelaide: Pacific Eden sails from Adelaide in February 2018, and returns at the end of January 2019 until mid-March.

Auckland: Pacific Jewel sails from Auckland, returning in March 2018 until August.

Brisbane: Pacific Aria and Pacific Dawn sail from Brisbane year-round. Pacific Jewel sails from Brisbane between September and November 2018.

Cairns: Pacific Eden sails from Brisbane, returning at the end of July 2018 until the start of September.

Melbourne: Pacific Jewel sails from Melbourne until the start of March 2018, before returning at the end of November until March 2019.

Sydney: Pacific Explorer sails from Sydney year-round. Pacific Eden sails from Sydney, returning in April 2018 until July, and again in September until January 2019.

DESTINATIONS

Between them, the five P&O ships visit ports in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia; the Pacific islands (New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands); and New Zealand.

SPECIAL EVENTS

Explorer is sailing a four-day State of Origin cruise, round-trip from Sydney, June 4-8; Eden and Explorer are cruising to the 2018 Melbourne Cup from Sydney and Dawn from Brisbane.

SHORT BREAKS

Three-, four- and five-night cruises in 2018 include Food and Wine, Comedy and non-themed "classic"; Whitsundays and Hamilton Island (from Brisbane), Moreton Island and Moolalaba (from Sydney), Fraser Island (from Cairns), Kangaroo Island, Eden and Tasmania (from Melbourne), Port Lincoln (from Adelaide).

See also: Megaships: The new cruise giants launching this year

See also: Richard Branson reveals Virgin's 'adults only' first cruise ship

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