In my 51 years I've managed to steer clear of cruising because I'm a travel snob.
I've been on adventure cruises – small-vessel trips to cold extremities that were a pleasing combination of academic lectures, expensively branded polar fleece and thoughtful passengers numbering around 150. But cruising-cruising? That, I figured, would be a less pleasing combination of bingo, baby oil and on-shore excursions to binge-buy souvenirs.
In November, I joined the 55,000-tonne Pacific Eden, one of the newest ships in the P&O Australia fleet. My baptism was to be a seven-day cruise through the little-visited Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea.
This is what I learned …
SURPRISE 1: '55,000 TONNES' DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING UNTIL YOU'RE IN IT
The city of Cairns is cowed by the Pacific Eden. Berthed beside the old tin wharf, her proportions are so large as to make her seem alien. Close up she's even more overwhelming, cordoned off and serviced by ant-like humans.
But she has to be big to accommodate 1506 passengers and 600 crew, which by any measure is less of a guest list and more of a population.
Before getting to board (up a gangway and through a small hole in her side) one must check-in, though it's more akin to joining a small European country. The process merges hotel registration, applying for a new bank account, going through immigration and clearing customs, and a small army of people with laptops employed to make it work.
Once inside 55,000 tonnes, I feel like I'm in a vast hive, with levels and chambers, and a certain amount of social layering – worker bees down below, royal jelly makers up the top. So big is it, that for most of the cruise I emerge from stair wells or through heavy doors only to be surprised by what I find. Sometimes it's a restaurant (one of 15), or a bar (one of 10), or a pool (one of two). Often it's a deck with a neck-breaking drop down to the sea.
It boggles my mind to think 55,000 tonnes is actually considered small. Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas is the current heavyweight champ at 227,000 tonnes.
SURPRISE 2: YOUR VESSEL WILL REVEAL SOMETHING OF HOW YOUR COUNTRY SEES ITSELF
Consciously, or not, cruise lines tend to reflect the national identity in their product: for one thing, they're effectively carving off a little of the home country and sending it out into the world; for another they need to keep their market happy in a familiar environment.
Aesthetically then, P&O Australia has rendered the Pacific Eden colourful, off-beat and laid back.
The palette is not quite Ken Done, but clearly a lively departure from Britain's adherence to navy blue. It also stops well shy of any American delusions that diamantes equal class.
The vessel has been hung with art work that goes well beyond the banal. The pop art in the atrium, for instance, is quirky enough to engage people. Likewise, the 600-seat theatre is quite outre; in fact the Sideshow Alley production cheerfully bends genders and challenges norms in its ode to the Victorian travelling show.
To be properly Australian, I suppose they should have allowed passengers to ride up front with the driver. But since maritime rules forbid this, they have come up with the next truest bluest aspect to the P&O experience: there's no tipping.
SURPRISE 3: THAT'S RIGHT – YOU ARE NOT OBLIGED TO TIP ON P&O VESSELS
Whatever Americans tell you, tipping is a way for employers to pay their hospitality staff crap wages expecting customers to make up the shortfall, and the cruising industry has long relied on tipping to propel itself into more profitable waters.
But as any American will also tell you, Australians don't like to tip.
When someone in P&O first suggested going tip-free, they surely risked rasping Laughton-esque howls of "MUTINY". But it was a great call. Not having to tip 10 per cent every time a barman looks at you only adds to the Pacific Eden's relaxed nature.
SURPRISE 4: CRUISING IS QUITE GOOD VALUE
Cruising embraces the classic loss-leading model: get 'em in cheap, gouge 'em with the extras. Priced-up alcohol, shore tours and meal refinements can soon add some ballast to the bill.
In 2017, four adults can take this seven-day cruise for $799 per person. In purely holiday terms, this includes all transport to PNG (the ship!), all accommodation, all meals and a lot of on-board entertainments. Which is not bad for a week.
The big shock for me is when my wife and I eat at the Luke Mangan restaurant, Salt Grill. This is one of four fine-dining options that cruisers can treat themselves to outside of the regular dining rooms priced into their cabin rates.
Within Salt's smoothly tailored space, we have seven plates that do justice to the Mangan reputation and leave us with at least two dishes that will forever bear recalling. ("Remember that enoki mushroom in miso broth we had at Salt? And that liquorice parfait?")
I'm expecting to be keel-hauled for indulging in a meal that would probably have cost $200 on dry land. But dining in the Salt Grill comes with a surcharge of just $49 each.
Alcohol has got some fair-go priced into it, especially when compared with the piratical demands of many Australian resorts and restaurants. A Corona beer is $8. A bottle of Moet is $89.
Oddly enough, the most outrageous expense I can find is for bingo – it's $30 a card and the cash prizes are mean.
Like I care.
SURPRISE 5: YOU ARE GOING TO THE HAPPIEST PLACE IN THE WORLD
… And that's the place of deep, deep, DEEP sleep.
I am astonished by the quality of sleep on a big vessel. It is nothing like ordinary sleep. It is like falling through a bottomless hole filled only with strawberry-scented feathers and sounding to wind chimes.
I suppose the combination of fresh sea air and the gentle motion of the ship has much to do with this. However, my "cabin" also contributes: where I would normally find a narrow bunk piled with smelly, expensively branded polar fleece, I find a dreamy double bed. I also have a flat-screen TV showing movies, a balcony and a small bath tub.
So it's a tiny resort room. One which someone thoughtfully rocks each night.
SURPRISE 6: YOU ARE GOING TO PLACES IN THE WORLD WHERE YOU WILL BRING HAPPINESS
… And hard currency. Which is kind of the same thing.
I first get the measure of this off the remote island of Kiriwina, where I wake to see 10 kilometres of jungle fringed by turquoise shallows. Offering the perfect perspective is a dotted line disappearing out to sea. The line is formed by scores of villagers paddling their outrigger canoes from other islands and villages, heading for the sleek, steel city that has washed up with the dawn.
When we alight at the beach, we are garlanded and bid to wander the palm-fringed pop-up market. Like most of the vessel we do a couple of hours walking past people offering all manner of carved wooden thingums, stopping to watch small painted children doing tribal dances, or buying from stalls selling everything from beer to charred fish.
Most things cost $5 – including a visit to see skulls taken as trophies and the grave of a Tasmanian copra trader called John Cameron. My best $5 investment is a whole fresh crab, boiled to a luscious pink. A lady sitting beneath a thatched shelter cracks it open for me so I can devour it, just as a warm fat rain begins to fall.
Purely by chance I end up sitting cross-legged with the village chief, a man with an economics degree who once served under Sir Michael Somare's government. He tells me 17 cruise ships visit these islands each year, considerably boosting the average monthly income of 50 kina ($21).
SURPRISE 7: SOMETIMES YOU'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE AT ALL
"Tendering" is an art which I come to appreciate. In our case it is the business of taking 1506 well-fed, sometimes frail people and getting them from a large moving ship on to small bobbing "tender boats". These little lifeboat-sized craft then ferry us to jetties poking from otherwise inaccessible Papuan beaches.
The Conflict Islands are very little visited and a veritable hero in the sailing schedule. Alas, the wind blows one way and the current races another and the little tenders just won't stay still enough to safely connect with the mother ship.
The Conflict Islands remain very little visited. At least by us.
SURPRISE 8: YOU WON'T REALLY CARE BECAUSE THEY'VE PUT A LOT OF THOUGHT INTO ON-SHIP ATTRACTIONS
You can zip-line from the funnel. You can play laser-tag. You can climb a rock wall. You can burn off calories on gym machines that are wired to video games (pedal as hard as you can to catch dragons and earn points). And then you can lie on heated ceramic lounges beside a spa pool that sloshes gently.
Sometimes they double-think on stuff: for instance, before a scheduled Gatsby Party, ladies are invited to attend workshops on how to make the perfect headband.
And it's well mixed. For every line-dancing class, there's a photography workshop. For every karaoke session, there's a chess challenge. And yes, there's bingo, held in the theatre – but in the same theatre, there's also a four-part, somewhat highbrow lecture on PNG from a Queensland uni professor who plays to an appreciative and full audience.
A testament to Surprise #8, is just how well behaved the kids are on board. Painful kids are bored kids. Neither are in evidence.
SURPRISE 9: THEY HAVEN'T PUT THE SAME AMOUNT OF THOUGHT INTO ON-SHORE ATTRACTIONS
There's some implied safety – both for passengers and for P&O – if the herd sticks together. And indeed, most of the 1506 Eden passengers are content to do their circular tours of duty among the island's pop-up beach markets.
But it soon becomes apparent that it pays to stray.
On Kiriwina I catch sight of P&O crew members returning with a whopping trevally after a fishing expedition on a powered boat. After some inquiry I pay $20 for the same, and enjoy an exhilarating one-hour trolling expedition through deepest Hemingway country.
When I land (without fish), the souvenir sellers have packed away and most passengers have been tendered back to the ship. Which is a shame – because at that very moment, the village fishing fleet returns, scuffing onto the beach loaded to the gunnels with fish heaped like silver coins. In the late afternoon light, the villagers swarm around the boats, buying up the catch.
A pre-landing talk by someone who'd previously explored might have steered people towards experiences that went beyond buying souvenirs.
SURPRISE 10: YOU MIGHT SURPRISE YOURSELF
Cruising should be my private hell – ostensibly a floating casino-cum-shopping-mall-cum-feedlot with some fast, furious and occasionally fatuous incursions into foreign lands.
And truthfully, cruising is not my idea of travel. But I shrug my shoulders and surrender to some basic pleasures. I eat too much, sleep too much, drink too much, laugh a lot and even find I'm quite good at blackjack.
Cruising is not my idea of travel. But it's pretty close to my idea of a good time.
Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar have regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Cairns.
A nine-night cruise from Cairns to PNG on Pacific Eden departing on August 24, 2017, and visiting Alotau, Kitava, Rabaul, Kiriwina Island, Conflict Islands and Doini Island is priced from $849* per person quad share
Max Anderson was a guest of P&O Australia