Having only sailed on the Pacific Dawn four months prior (Xmas 2010), we knew what to expect. Once again we were sailing to New Caledonia and Vanuatu from Brisbane but with some different ports of call this time. The Pacific Dawn is apparently only a 3 star cruise ship but it is very comfortable, more than adequate and everything seems to function well. In fact, our cabins on both trips were equal to or better than most 4 or 5 star hotel rooms in regard to the cleanliness and amenities.
We drive up to Hamilton wharf from the Gold Coast which usually only takes 50 -- 60 minutes and we leave our car with Portside Parking. I'd recommend their services and they provide a shuttle bus to take you and your luggage around the corner to the terminal. Since we arrived quite early and before the crowds and queues, we only waited a few minutes until we were checked in. This was followed by a wait of just over 30 minutes before going into Customs and then on board.
Our family of four shared an ocean view cabin on this trip, C179 on deck 9. The layout of two single beds with bunks above was a bit tight on occasions but had more room than an equivalent cabin we had on Sun Princess. Likewise, the bathroom was roomier and a better layout on Pacific Dawn and had much better wardrobe space. The cabins on the Dawn have bar fridges, something that the grander Rhapsody Of The Seas doesn't have!
There's always plenty to do on Pacific Dawn. Both times we sailed on her were 9 night cruises and we were never bored. P&O go out of their way to ensure that there is plenty to keep passengers entertained on sea days, much more so than other cruise lines. During the day ... between eating (as there's plenty of that on offer!) we did the usual stuff like trivia, song competitions, deck games, juggling classes, new release movies, lectures, virtual bridge tour (very interesting), how-to classes or laid around the pool for some R&R. After dinner there's plenty of shows to choose from, movies, karaoke, Pacific Popstars competition, the staff talent show and The Dome nightclub. At times it can be quite hard finding time to catch up on sleep! On our previous PD cruise we weren't aware that there was access out onto the front observation deck from a hidden doorway on deck 10. We often went out there to sample the weather head-on. In a strong gale it's fun trying to stand up and hold on! We've been on ships with public areas that are slightly cleaner than Pacific Dawn. The windows surrounding the top deck don't appear to be cleaned very often and some of the upholstery in the buffet restaurant is grubby in places (probably due to little kids) but the cabins and indoor areas are fine.
We had afternoon tea (on sea days) in the Palm Court Dining Room. The tea was really nice, albeit a little weak, beautiful fresh scones (still warm) with jam and cream and petit fores and sandwiches. But be careful, afternoon tea is held for about half an hour or so from 3:00 pm and you may need to delay dinner to a later sitting. Comparing it to Sun Princess, Pacific Dawn doesn't have the string quartet playing but has much nicer scones!
Most nights we had dinner in Palm Court at our usual table for the four of us. The waiting staff are always excellent, they try really hard and are always smiling. We even had some of the same waiting staff as on our cruise 4 months before. They often entertained us teaching us napkin folding techniques and did the odd magic tricks etc. On a 9 night cruise the variety on the menu does tend to get a bit monotonous but the quality is always excellent. Anyhow, who cares when someone else is cooking, especially when the standard of food and service is better than most restaurants on land.
We rarely ate in the buffet as it can get busy at times and the visible gluttony can put you off eating! There's plenty of variety and I could always find things I really like. It all tasted great and was well prepared. I often read reviews where people make negative comments about buffet restaurants on ships. Maybe some people have unrealistically high expectations but I'd consider them to be above average compared to most buffet services on land. We need to keep it in perspective. Most of us wouldn't or couldn't prepare anything close to what they offer here and then there's no cleaning up afterwards.
The Coral Sea crossing from Brisbane to Noumea was remarkably calm, barely even a visible swell. Our previous crossing had slightly more action which is always fun. Even the nights between Noumea, Mystery Island, Port Vila and Pentecost Island were reasonably calm. The day after we departed Pentecost Island the Captain announced that they were planning to scout around a tropical depression in the Coral Sea to avoid high winds and storms.
As the swell picked up that evening, the absence of crowds of passengers around the buffet and restaurants indicated that many were confined to their cabins, either with seasickness or fear! The swell picked up to about 6 metres that night accompanied by a Force 7 gale. I remember being jolted awake and was amazed at how much movement there was. But after returning to bed from the bathroom in a sleepy daze I realised that the movement is not so noticeable when you're on your feet.
This continued into the next day but it had reduced a bit. The official log of the cruise mentioned that seas were moderate to rough the previous day and confirmed the wave height was 6 metres. Fortunately it didn't affect us as we have never been seasick. At the Captain's Cocktail Party that evening he mentioned that he was aware of some movement of the ship and that the stabilizers were in operation. I'm glad he knew what was going on!
Ports of Call
Noumea: This was our first time to Noumea and we'd heard a few stories from passengers on one of our previous Dawn cruises recounting a violent encounter with some locals in Noumea one night so we were a little wary. To make the most of the visit we booked a P&O shore tour on board the day before to take a tour on the Tchou Tchou train. At $59 per adult it wasn't cheap but was well worth it. We had heard that there were several similar street trains (sometimes referred to as Bumble Bee trains) charging around $25 per head departing from the wharf area but we took the safe option. Our tour also included morning tea and lasted a little longer, around 90 minutes. We had quite a bit of fun with some of the other passengers during the tour, mainly at the expense of the tour guide ... an older pompous English lady with a very monotonous voice who had lived there for over 30 years. It was a great way to see the city, visiting a few lookouts, passing the grander homes, the back streets and plenty of the foreshore and beautiful beaches. Being Easter Sunday the streets were relatively quiet as not many shops were open. We stopped for about 20 minutes at the big cannon lookout where they served tea, coffee, soft drinks and a variety of very nice gateaus and petit fours. What better way to enjoy your stay in France!! The huge distant mountains, the biggest lagoon on earth, the undulating hills dotted with pines and the architecture make Noumea one of the prettiest cities I've ever seen.
Mystery Island: Our second time here. It's a beautiful spot, very small and mostly unspoiled. It's possible to walk around the whole island in about 40 minutes. From the tender jetty, it's only a two minute walk to the other side of the island and a beautiful little bay. Most of the island is surrounded by a reef/atoll with waves breaking in the distance. The swimming and snorkeling areas are therefore in a lagoon, the white sand giving the water a quintessential tropical island aqua colour. It takes about 10 -- 15 minutes via tender as cruise ships need to anchor oust side of the lagoon. The water is very clear and teeming with brightly coloured fish. The island has a few huts on it where the locals from nearby Anetyum Island hold their market stalls. The only other structures are the recently constructed toilet block, the airport terminal (similar size to the toilet block!) and a radio tower. Air Vanuatu services the airport with twin engine propeller aircraft. The airstrip was carved out of the foliage by US Marines during WWII, so there's some interesting history here. The locals also sell freshly cooked lobsters for AU$10 each. Although several passengers bought and ate the lobsters we were advised that it was risky to have them cut in half as P&O couldn't guarantee the hygiene of the knives. We didn't hear of anyone encountering any problems after eating the lobster. Some of the local men have a really good band playing near the jetty, a few acoustic guitars and a thong-o-phone! They sing traditional spiritual tunes in brilliant harmony. A few classes of the school kids from a nearby mission also sing for the tourists and are very thankful of a few donations of Aussie dollars, they're really cute and funny! There's usually two small boys dressed as warriors complete with a bow and sharp looking arrow. They'll pose for a photo with you but make sure you give their mum a dollar or two or leave it in the tin. Overall, Mystery Island is a highlight of Vanuatu, it's an idyllic place to spend an hour or two or most of the day.
We learned from our previous visit that we wouldn't go into town in a taxi but do a shore excursion instead. We were a bit disappointed on our visit a few months prior, it was a bit seedy in town and we saw a few drug deals going down. Although, we have since visited Bali on a cruise and the Port Vila CBD is a breeze in comparison! This time, we did the glass bottom boat snorkeling tour which was brilliant. Although the day was overcast, the brightly coloured coral fish were in abundance. The boat leaves from the port immediately behind the Pacific Dawn, about 2 minutes walk away. The 3 local guys running the tour were very helpful, informative and polite. Snorkeling equipment is included in the price of AU$59 and the snorkels appear to be hygienically treated before use. They offered refreshments of bottled water and Weston's (made in Brisbane) biscuits! There wasn't much to see from the glass bottom boat itself due to the weather but there was plenty to see while snorkeling in Port Vila bay, just off the Iriki Island resort in about 4 - 6m of water. The tour ran for about 90 minutes in total, the snorkeling for about an hour. In brilliant sunshine the snorkeling would be even more amazing.
It was a real privilege coming to this rarely visited island. Ships only visit here for 5 -- 6 weeks each year during April and May so passengers can witness the ancient vine diving by the Bunlap people (original bungee jumping). We anchored close to shore and were the only vessel in the bay apart from a small luxury motor yacht sporting a roof top helicopter and a few jet skis at the rear. It was only a short tender ride to the jetty adjacent to the small mission village. The Bunlap people who live on the other side of the island are one of the few civilisations who still live traditionally without any western trappings. They wear grass skirts and wraps and were performing dances and singing. The mission people wear t-shirts, shorts and dresses etc. As we walked along a furrowed track through the village to the jumping tower, some of the kids had things to show the tourists like turtles, birds and a python. So most people have a pat, take a picture and drop a dollar or two in their tin. Nice people and very appreciative. Two days before we departed on this cruise we saw a National Geographic documentary about Pentecost Island so we felt very familiar and excited about our visit here. We even recognised some of the Bunlap elders from the doco and felt an affinity with them. As we got close to the jumping area some of the locals offered passport stamping for $2 each. I couldn't refuse this as the stamp featuring the vine jumping tower is a bit of a rarity. As the tower came into view on a steep slope in front of a large flat field with log seating, it felt almost like a religious experience. The tower was huge, made of logs and bamboo tied together with vine with various platforms sticking out at different heights. It resembled a giant crucifix! It was overcast, very warm and humid and some occasional light rain but nobody seemed to care. We found a position not far from the base of the tower and waited for quite a while. Up on the hill next to the tower the Bunlap people did continuous dances, singing and the strange whistle chanting. Eventually, a few men and adolescent boys walked through the crown of around 1,500 people ready to climb the tower. One Bunlap chap patted me on the shoulder on the way past and gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. I felt really special as I didn't see it happen to anyone else. Maybe I was in the way a bit! So cutting to the chase, the first to jump was a kid about 12 years old from the lowest platform. Just like the grown-ups do, he waved to the crowd, blew kisses, did a little gyrating dance and then leapt off ... followed by a loud crack as the platform takes his weight when the vines reach their limit. I can't remember how he landed but there was a loud 'Oooohh' from the crowd. He seemed to recover a few seconds later with some assistance from some of the men. The next to jump was a slightly older lad but he couldn't go through with it and reluctantly climbed back down in tears. The crowd really felt for him and applauded enthusiastically. Then one of the men did a slightly higher entertaining dive, complete with his dance and encouraging the crowd. He managed to just touch his hair on the cultivated soil in the landing area which apparently leads to a good yam harvest. By this stage, a handful of miserable people appeared to be leaving, some shaking their heads mumbling words to the effect of "it's cruel" or "it should be banned". Ok, it's a tradition that's been in existence for thousands of years so let's make them stop it because some boof-head passenger on the Pacific Dawn says so!! As the afternoon went on the senior jumpers leapt from higher and higher up the tower. By the time we headed back to the ship I was kind of relieved as it was getting more and more difficult to watch and I was glad that nobody got hurt. When we got back on board the captain made some announcements and mentioned that the nearby luxury yacht belonged to a famous movie star and his equally famous wife was onboard. What he was trying to discretely elude to was that it was Angelia Jolie. I lent my binoculars to quite a few passengers who swore they could see her. I could make out the name 'Plan B' on its stern and my son went to the internet kiosk to check it out. Apparently, 'Plan B' belongs to Brad!!
Very smooth, no complications. Just sad to be leaving and heading back to the real world!
Overall, a very enjoyable cruise with lots of great memories and nothing worth complaining about. The staff were great, we had lots of fun and met plenty of nice folks. We would have no hesitation sailing on Pacific Dawn again. In fact, Christmas 2012 to Fiji on the Dawn is already booked.