The excitement had been building for a few weeks, and finally the day of our very first cruise had arrived. Sailing out of Brisbane aboard the P&O ship, The Pacific Dawn, we had booked the 7 night Pacific Island Hopper cruise. Check in was straight forward, and we were soon welcomed aboard by the captain and crew, and directed to our cabin. We had opted for a cabin with a porthole window, the mid-range of what was available. We would have felt too claustrophobic had we chosen an inside cabin with no window, and the balcony cabins were a lot more expensive. As it turned out, we spent very little time in our cabin other than to sleep as there was always something to do on board.
We had 3 stops scheduled, Noumea and Lifou (both in New Caledonia), and the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila. The first 2 days onboard were ‘at sea’ days, followed by a day at each port of call, and another 2 ‘at sea days’ on the return trip to Brisbane.
As you would possibly expect on a cruise the average age was quite high, although there were plenty of families aboard. The children were well catered for in the kids clubs and to be honest we hardly saw any children for the majority of the time.
There were several bar areas onboard, some with nightly entertainment, a large theatre with nightly cabaret style shows, and numerous scheduled activities to keep passengers entertained. We attended a Martini making class (at an additional cost), and obviously got to drink our creations, thus recovering the cost of the class. We also had a go at a couple of quizzes, teaming up with a nearby table, and just losing in the ‘decider’.
For the more active there was of course a gym, spa, walking circuit on the top deck and some nutritional classes. We attended one of the nutritional classes and soon realised it was a promotion for some ‘wonder’ supplements that would instantly make your life better. At $600 a course, they would likely have made my life a whole lot worse.
There was also a nightclub area for the night owls, and a couple of nights we were treated to a comedian, who was surprisingly good. In short, they provide an extensive list of classes and entertainment to keep everyone fully occupied. For those who like a little flutter, there was of course a small casino area also.
No time to be watching calories
The dining options were between the more casual buffet, and the slightly more formal seated, set menu. For each day, apart from one, we chose the more formal restaurant. Partly because the food was so good, partly because the staff were excellent, and partly because there were less kids. The same dining locations were available for breakfast, and again we usually chose the more formal option.
For dinner we were usually seated at a table of four, giving us a chance to meet other passengers. We became friends with another couple after the first couple of days, so ate with them for the remainder of the trip on a table of four. Overall the food was excellent, and we both left a few kilos heavier than when we had first boarded.
The cruise had been booked partly for my birthday which fell midway through our trip. Upon returning to our cabin on my birthday, the door had a birthday greeting from the crew and some balloons which I thought was a nice touch. I suspect someone (mentioning no names) had dropped a hint the previous day. Our evening meal on my birthday was also quite eventful, as not only did the restaurant staff give me the loudest (and possibly most out of tune) rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, but the other couple on our table had a proposal. Quite a memorable meal.
First stop Noumea
We arrived in Noumea around 2pm, and were greeted by a lovely dry winter’s day (it was June). We hadn’t booked any excursion onboard and just decided to go with the flow. There were lots of tour operators vying for business, and once we noticed that there wasn’t much else around, jumped on a hop on hop off tour bus. All tours seemed to go to the same places. A pretty uninspiring look out point over Noumea, some park area, and a drive through the town. We were beginning to regret not staying onboard. The bus went through Lemon Bay (“Baie des Citrons”) and we decided to get off. There was a small beach area, and a row of restaurants and pubs. We had a drink and something to eat in one of the pubs and got the bus back to port in time for the 9pm departure. If we do this cruise again, I don’t think we’ll even get off at Noumea.
Next day Lifou
The jetty at Lifou cannot support such a large ship, so we were ferried over in the ‘tenders’. Again it was a lovely day, and we were greeted by the locals, who had set up some stalls and make shift massage areas to service the passengers. The options are to hire a driver and explore the island or stay where you are. Well, we were here now, so we hired a driver and set off to explore the island. We were taken to the oldest church on the island, to a beautiful turquoise beach, and a couple of other stops that I’ve already forgotten.
We returned to the area where the tenders had dropped us, and the locals were putting on a demonstration of local dance and basket making. The atmosphere was very nice and relaxed, and we had a few drinks at the bar, including some Kava. It looks (and tastes) like muddy water. Kava is found in most of the islands of Polynesia and Melanesia, traditionally young girls or boys would chew the roots to a pulp before the kava was made. Today the roots are pounded into a powder which is mixed with water and sieved before serving.
Corinne even got into the spirit and had a massage from one of the local women. She had to lie on a woven mat underneath a makeshift covering in full view of passers-by. The lady doing the massage was totally disinterested and sat next to Corinne and rubbed her back with one hand whilst looking in the opposite direction and talking with her friend. I guess they’re not concerned about repeat business. Overall though, we enjoyed Lifou.
Finally Port Vila
Arriving in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, we again decided not to book any excursions on the ship, but discover the area for ourselves. The first thing to hit us when we disembarked was a market area of the usual tacky tourist mementos, and a never ending line of taxis. This is the only time I have ever seen the military controlling a line of taxi drivers. It was total chaos with dozens of drivers screaming at the bewildered passengers and beckoning them to their cars. We had been told the town was about a 15 minute ride away so had no choice but to get a taxi. We saw a couple of young ladies looking as bemused as us, and offered to share a ride with them into the town.
After choosing a driver, he waved for us to follow him to his car. We walked 50 metres, still no car, then 100 metres and I said to him “where is your car?”. “Not far now, please come”, and he again waved us forward. Five minutes later and I’m starting to get concerned and smell a scam. Were we walking to the town? I stopped and told him no more, we are going back. He pleaded with us to go just a little further, and we reached his car after walking for what seemed like 15 minutes. He was near the back of the line. He told us that the cars in the front of the line had started queuing the previous morning, and I then had a lot more sympathy for the plight of these drivers.
A quick look around the pretty drab town and we were done. Some duty free shops, a few cafes, nothing to get excited about. We still had most of the day before we needed to return to the ship so decided to hire a driver and get out of the town. We flagged down a mini bus style taxi and agreed a price for the rest of the day.
The first stop for us was at the Cascade waterfalls. Undeterred by the extortionate $25 AUD per person entry fee we walked for approximately 20 minutes to reach the falls. As you near the waterfall you can take a dip in the many cold water pools to refresh yourself on this lengthy ascending walk. The pathway is not suitable for wheelchairs, and I found the terrain pretty difficult to navigate.
The falls themselves are nice but not exceptional, and after about 10 minutes of taking in the view we headed back to our driver. He must have expected us to spend a lot longer here as when we returned to the car it was locked and he was nowhere to be seen. After some discussion with other drivers who were waiting for their passengers, we found him fast asleep in another car nearby. He seemed a little embarrassed, but we just had a joke about it and moved on.
He then took us to a pretty ordinary beach which we felt didn’t warrant getting out of the car, and then to a local village so we could see how the people lived on the island. This was by far the most interesting aspect of the day for us. The village conditions are similar to those experienced in the South African townships, and it was interesting to see, although left us feeling a little guilty as to how easy we have it sometimes.
After this we asked to be taken back to the ship as we felt we had seen enough. On the drive back to the ship the car suddenly stopped and picked up another man, who was obviously a friend of the driver. We were sat in the back, and became a little uneasy now that there were two of them talking in their own language, about what we had no idea. The atmosphere changed for us, and we started to fear being robbed or worse. Thankfully it was a false alarm, as he dropped the new addition off in the town and proceed on to the ship.
Our overall impression of Port Vila was, well, pretty disappointing. Booking a Pacific Island cruise we had visions of grass skirts, drinking coconuts on a tropical beach, and lying in a hammock being fed grapes. The reality is however quite different. I’m sure we could have had our expected experiences had we stayed longer, but when you’re limited to a day at a time in each location it is not easy.
Would we cruise again?
To summarise the trip, we really enjoyed our time on the ship, so much so that we felt like the 7 days wasn’t quite long enough. However, the excursions ashore were for us, disappointing. We would definitely do another cruise as this holiday style suited us, relaxing, pampered and comfortable.