This was our first ever cruise and after picking up a number of ideas from these forums before the trip I thought it only fair to add some of our own.
We did the 8 night 7 day cruise from Sydney up to New Caledonia with stop offs at Noumea, Mare and the Isle of Pines.
CHECKIN AND BOARDING
Having checked in online, we arrived at circular quay too early, as they don't let people into check-in prior to their scheduled boarding time.
No problems with the bag drop or security checks. Mixed messages on whether you had to leave your bags unlocked for security checks.
We had a starboard window room amid ships on level 1, the bottom deck, with ample space for two adults and one child (9 years). The single bed folds out of the roof like a bunk. The room was small, but comfortable with enough space and storage for the time we spent in it. No noise from above or below. Minimal engine noise. Expect there would have been more noise towards the back.
Inside the room there is a free safe and one Australian 240v powerpoint. We brought a traditional double adaptor on board, but were unable to use it due to the position of the plug. Ie it was nearly flush with the bench height. No sign of power boards being prohibited. iPhone particularly search aggressively for network, so best to consider Airplane mode and then just enable WiFi.
Two cruise long plans where available
* $50 for a single device
* $120 for a plan you could move between devices
Upload and download speeds where quite reasonable ~170Kbps, very viable for email, posting photos Facebook, iPhone games etc. There were notes about the blocking of Skype / YouTube and other high bandwidth apps, but these controls didn't appear enabled on our cruise.
With either plan you need to log in again roughly once a day. i.e. When it stops, you just login again.
We found the food to be fantastic. The bundled meals at Empire were particularly good, supported by really friendly waiter staff, in our case a team from Indonesia. The menu had two halves, the first half consistent for the cruise, then second half varied by night.
Nouveau, their up class steak restaurant was nice and certainly the Canadian Maine Lobster tail was great, but from a value perspective the bundled Empire cut it down, making the $35 per person supplement seem expensive.
Lido deck Buffett was not as flash as Empire, but provided a great range. Lido coffee and hot chocolate (7x24 bundled) was just as good as the premium coffee from the Cafe (paid).
We bought the bottomless soft drink option. Adults $56 (~$8/day), Children $42 (~$6 /day). We only saw a desk setup for this on the first day.
DAYS AT SEA
Our cruise started with some rough weather, the inbound trip had 9m swells which delayed then 3-4 hours. For us this weather system cleared up in the Coral Sea, no signs of sea sickness on the 86,000 ton vessel.
The Green Thunder was running on Sea Day 2, Noumea, Sea Day 3 & 4 and is well worth a ride. It's all over in about 5 seconds, so very quick. The twister was also open on Mare port day.
As to closure due to wind, both the Green Thunder and Twister are high up in the air at the back of the boat, so quite cool in the breeze even on a still day. The boat steams about 21knts, so even with no wind you are still looking at a close to 40km breeze, quite cool once you are wet. Add a 20 km headwind, not unreasonable for time of year when out to sea and it would be very very cold and likely to blow small children off the stairs.
We were on board in the second week of the school holidays, so quite a few kids (maybe as many as 500+). Despite that, there was no problems getting on either slide as often as we wanted, generally with no more than say a 7 min wait.
BEHIND THE SCENES TOUR
This only seemed to be offered on the route home and seemed initially pricey at $95 / person.
It is a three hour tour that covers the boat from the engine control room up to the bridge via the kitchens, cool rooms, laundries, crew mess, behind the stages etc. The tour is led by a guide from HR, but the information at each stop along the way is provided by a department head with time for questions etc.
Along the way you get fresh pastries straight out of the oven, complementary photo with the Captain up on the bridge and Champaign and orange juice at the end, plus some other souvenirs.
On reflection, we found it very interesting and well worth it to see what it takes to move around 2,600 guests and 950 odd crew.
PORT DAY 1 - NOUMEA
Had a day in Noumea, so we took the 10:45am 2 hour Tchuo Tchuo train and did our own thing in the afternoon. As this meets you on the container pier (Spirt is too large for the Ferry Teminal), we should could have gone for an earlier trip to have more time in the afternoon.
The little train is a good way to get a view across the island and provides an overview of what you might go back and see in the afternoon.
We had lunch at one of about 4 cafes at the ferry terminal, all took Credit Cards, AUD or CHF as well as French and English menus.
For the afternoon I picked up a $5 all day hop-on hop-off shuttle ticket from the ferry terminal. They have a range of stops around the island and run every 20mins all day.
I took the shuttle bust over to the Aquarium (15-20 mins), very similar to the Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour, but only costing $10 AUD when bought bundled with the shuttle ticket. The acquarium had both large and small tanks with information signs in both English and French. Large tanks where about the size of a large bedroom, not like the underwater walks in Sydney, but providing nice examples of the local fish, coral, sea snakes and reef sharks.
At the main beach there was also windsurfer hire which might have been fun if I had started the day a little earlier. There were probably also more interesting places to eat further away form the Ferry Terminal.
PORT DAY 2 - MARE
Mare was our second island stopover and a tender Port. I think everyone was a little slow starting on this day, so by 9am there was about a 20min wait once we had picked up our tender stickers.
We had decided to skip the Yajelle Beach transfer ($15 per person) pushed by the cruise and the only available on shore tour. Instead we choose to make our own way by foot to the Acquarium Naturelle. It really does look like these photos http://www.360cities.net/image/natural-aquarium-mare-new-caledonia
The Natural Acquarium is, according to our GPS tracked route, about 3.5 km south of Tadine where the tender comes to shore. Getting there seemed straight forward, until we were stopped one of the locals about half way and advised Tourists are not allowed to walk beside the road beyond the police station. However, he was for $15 for the three of us, happy to give us a lift in the back of his ute to the acquarium. Just by chance he also happened to have some bread to feed the fish at the acquarium and already had with him one of the staff from the ship. So we hitched a ride there and back with him. While there, he also picked up two other families for the way back. Travelled in the back of rusty ute, with a local that picked us up on the side of the road... tick.
Once back at Tadine we, at the same friendly locals suggestion, went snorkelling on the northern side of the pier where you can follow the coast round. Lots of fish and coral right at hand in probably 2m of water. No beach or sand to cloud the water and a ladder to get in and out, so basically perfect conditions, and free.
Once done we where right at the markets / tender pick-up spot making for an easy return to the ship.
ISLE OF PINES
Unfortunately our Isle of Pines day experienced 60km winds, which cancelled the whole stopover. Very disappointing but understandable from the conditions.
Talking to other cruisers, it seems this is not uncommon, i.e. people mentioned figures like missing one or more ports on two out of every three cruises. The lesson here is take best advantage of the good days you do have, both at sea and in port.
One advantage of tours booked through the ship is they automatically refunded when we were unable to disembark.
On board entertainmentStereo typical Vegas / captive audience for the big musicals. Bundled
Comedy and magic shows where good fun and all bundled in the price with both Family Friendly and Adults only versions.
Arrive 10 mins early to get a good seat.
Our onboard Cruise Director Stu, an Australian, really topped off the tour and probably deserves a positive mention in every category above. the eternal optimist, Stu saw an upside to every weather challenge. He really does set a great positive tone for the trip and is certainly an asset for Carnival Cruises and their Australian audiences.
CONCLUSIONS - JUST MY OWN OPINION
We did sorely miss the day on the Isle of Pines, sold both before and during the tour as the "Jewel of the Pacific", we had high expectations of that being the highlight of the trip, only to have it cancelled and replaced by simply another day at sea. Being a seven day tour, with only three planned onshore days, this left us feeling a little like a third of our holiday was whisked away even though we could look out the window and rationalise why getting off the ship was going to be a dangerous prospect that morning.
On reflection the nature of cursing is more of a balance between the destination and the journey, rather than our heavy focus on the destination where the cruise was simply an alternate, albeit more relaxing, form of transport to the destination.
In reality, for what you pay for accommodation including room steward, food and entertainment the cruise was still a good deal and a very relaxing way to holiday. Doing it again, I would downplaying my expectations of about achieving all onshore trips. Ensuring you would be happy even if you didn't make it off for any shore excursions would be the best way to make sure your holiday can only exceed your expectations.
If your time is constrained and/or your focus is on the destinations rather than the journey, then perhaps consider carefully the realities of the weather at sea and the complications that creates cruise guests hoping to getting ashore in exotic locations. Indeed expect on the spot revision to your plans somewhere along the way and just go with it.