It was a remarkable turnaround. Australia's ban on overseas ships was lifted on April 17, 2022 and just one day later, Pacific Explorer made a triumphant return to its home port of Sydney. By May 31, Explorer was embarking on its first cruise since being ordered to leave the country mid-voyage on March 14, 2020; for more than two years it had been anchored off the coast of Cyprus, maintained by 250 crew members.
Re-activating a ship in such a short time is an amazing feat. The full complement of 857 crew was in place to look after the 1423 guests who boarded at White Bay on May 31 for the four-night sailing to Brisbane, after an intense six weeks of behind-the-scenes preparation. Pacific Explorer's total passenger capacity is 1998, so 500-odd fewer people on the ship meant the crew was a little less pressured and – good news for us guests – less crowded.
Marguerite Fitzgerald, president of Carnival Australia and P&O Cruises Australia, was onboard Explorer for its "history-making" cruise. She said it was important for the line to be first back in Australia because it is headquartered in Sydney and is the only major cruise line that has Australian operations.
"That means we are able to work through the various protocols locally to make sure the ships are ready when we take our first guests on board," she said.
So, what's new and what's stayed the same onboard the first ship to set sail from Sydney for more than two years?
Checking in online was quick and easy – uploading the required vaccination certificates to the VeriFly app not quite as seamless, but hardly onerous. A pre-cruise COVID test is required (although a negative RAT result is taken on trust); wearing a mask is mandatory, around the terminal and onboard the ship in places where you can't maintain a safe distance, such as theatres and bars (between sips). Special isolation rooms have been set aside for anyone who tests positive during a cruise and all crew must be fully vaccinated with three shots and a flu jab.
The friendliness of the crew certainly hasn't changed – everywhere you go, you're greeted by a cheery "hello, ma'am" or "hello, sir" and eyes are smiling above the masks.
There's no longer a mass gathering for the muster procedure; instead, you watch a safety briefing on the TV in your room and register with crew at your designated muster station before the ship leaves port.
Dining on any cruise is a focal point – indeed, it almost qualifies as an activity in itself – and Pacific Explorer offers plenty of options.
It's been three years since I last cruised on Explorer and Luke Mangan's casual eatery Luke's has been expanded and redesigned. Who can resist an incredibly well-priced barramundi burger at lunchtime, washed down with Luke's crisp Yarra Valley rosé? Luke's is now open for dinner, too, offering an a la carte menu that includes some of his best-known dishes. Upmarket pizzeria 400 Gradi has also been refreshed and still serves up a terrific choice of moreish antipasto plates and pizzas.
The entertainment business was one of the hardest hit during the covid pandemic, so it's heartening to see talented performers back in action on the ship's stages. Hans the German's latest show is as funny and ribald as the first one I saw – despite, or maybe even enhanced by, tech glitches with the smoke machine. Purple Rabbit is a new production for P&O, and it is a stunner. Maybe it's not to everyone's taste, but if you enjoy supremely talented magicians, burlesque performers and a hefty dose of out-there comedic sex and drug skits, don't miss it.
Every day there are dozens of activities, ranging from waterslides and ziplining across the top deck, to dance classes, lawn bowls, bingo and trivia. Themed parties are still a thing – the all-white Bianco night and '20s-style Gatsby Night are packed – and the ship's nine bars and nightclubs are all doing a roaring trade. Nothing's changed there!
Docking at Brisbane's new International Cruise Terminal is a big first for Pacific Explorer and P&O Cruises. Singer Ricki-Lee Coulter serenaded a crowd of passengers and onlookers and Queensland's premier Annastacia Palaszczuk officially opened the terminal – it has been operational since last year, waiting for its first vessel to arrive.
One of P&O's new ships, Pacific Encounter, will home-port in Brisbane from August, while Pacific Adventure will take over as the line's flagship and, alongside Pacific Explorer, will call Sydney home.
On a whistlestop shore tour to Tamborine Mountain, our group was given a warm welcome at each venue we visited – local tourism operators have had a lean time over the past couple of years and are happy to see cruise passengers again. A big shout-out to our hosts Tony and Sam Williams at Tamborine Mountain Coffee Plantation, Brenda Fawdon at the eco-friendly Picnic Real Food Bar, the team at The Cauldron gin distillery and our Southern Cross Tours driver Andy, who led us on an eye-opening rainforest walk in Tamborine National Park.
It's been a long time coming, but cruising is back and it's not just cruise lines and cruisers who are celebrating.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of P&O Cruises Australia. See pocruises.com.au