As first-time cruisers, we took the Pacific Pearl's 3 night Food & Wine Cruise from Sydney in August 2012. We travelled as a small group and wanted to try out a short cruise with a theme that appealed to us, to see if a longer cruise might be for us in the future. Pacific Pearl certainly confirmed that cruising is something we want to do again, but, there were a couple of issues along the way.
Embarkation was not a great start. The Pearl was delayed on its return to Sydney due to rough seas, so we were delayed leaving. This was ok and not a big deal. We all received text messages and recorded message phone calls from P&O explaining what was happening and how they would manage the embarkation process. The process was meant to be that you arrived and embarked according to the deck number of your cabin. As we were Deck 11, we were the first required to arrive at 4pm. To make sure we weren't late we arrived at 3.30pm, but this is where the positives ended. Basically the staff told us that whatever message we got from P&O was absolutely meaningless and they were running their own process, we wouldn't be boarding first and that all depended what embarkation card number we were handed when we turned up. We got number 14 out of a possible 20, despite being in the group of passengers who were meant to arrive first. This meant that we waited and waited and waited and did not board until 6.30pm. Something went badly wrong with this system and P&O need to look at it and work out how to manage things better in the future so that people like us doing what we have been told to, don't get messed around.
Despite a disappointing start, we really liked the Pearl once we got onboard. The staff were almost always helpful, pleasant and friendly and we felt happy with the level of service we experienced. The cabins were a lot roomier than I was expecting, and also more modern than I had anticipated. It was very easy to get around, although the lifts tended to be a bit temperamental.
We were happily surprised by how reasonably priced alcoholic drinks were - cocktails generally under $10 and reasonable bottles of wine could be bought for $20-$30 a bottle. We all enjoy a drink, so this was a big tick for our group. An improvement would be a wider selection of beers - local, craft and imported. The choice was very limited. Also, some bars had very limited selections of wines, so it would be nice to see that broadened.
Food was pretty reasonable. The food at the Waterfront is not fine dining, but considering the number of diners it serves a night, it was usually very tasty and quick. We did the breakfast buffet at Plantations, and this was probably my least favourite food experience. As far as buffets go, it's pretty average. We missed out on the Salt Grill by Luke Mangan, despite trying to book as soon as we could. This was disappointing and I have to wonder why they don't limit bookings to a 24 hour period like they do with Waterfront, just to open up the opportunity. Or maybe run more services in a night, such as offering a reduced menu/shorter sitting service. I think the Pearl needs at least one other dining option because it would start to get a bit samey after 3 nights.
There were some good entertainment options from karaoke, acoustic guitar, piano bar, comedy, stage shows and a nightclub, The Dome. I would like to see another late night option for dancing other than The Dome, perhaps with a more retro focus. The Dome's DJ played largely current Top 40 music and this became monotonous after the first night, but there was nowhere else to go after midnight. We ended up having earlier nights on our last two nights because we just weren't into the music.
The food and wine component of the program was fine. There wasn't anything particularly special about any of it, but it was quite innocuous. We participated in cheese tasting class, wine tasting class, cocktail and martini class and a pizza masterclass. This cruise did not have any port stops or shore tours, which is fair enough given the length, but I think it would really enrich the food & wine aspect by including relevant shore tours - eg New Zealand for the Marlborough wine region.
Disembarkation was a breeze and very easy and orderly, particularly considering our experience at the start of the cruise.
Really enjoyed my first cruise experience and to top it off we had fantastic weather considering we are still in the middle of Australian winter. I think the Pearl is a completely reasonable cruise ship, particularly for shorter cruises and I was happily surprised at how much I enjoyed it, as I have been a bit of a cynic in the past. Am keen to experience a cruise in the warmer months and also now thinking about what ship and where to next.