I just returned from the 10 day New Caledonia & Vanuatu cruise and here is my experience as well as some tips.
I have special needs (on crutches, limited mobility) and going on a cruise without knowing what would and would not work was quite interesting.
I was taken to a separate area where tables and chairs were provided to complete all forms. Wheelchairs were at hand to take those requiring assistance all the way to their cabins. I had requested this when booking. Hint Please advise beforehand if you need assistance, it is available. If you identify it on the day, you may face delays and/or delay others that have pre-arranged this. Unfortunately there were limited numbers of wheelchairs/assistants to meet the need.
CABIN The cabins are great, I had an extended balcony cabin, and the balcony was fantastic. However, the cabin and balcony door are extremely heavy and difficult to open if you are on crutches. I ended up asking for a wedge to keep my door open when I was expecting others to drop in. I had read much about the smell in bathrooms and brought a slow release air freshener with me, never smelled a thing! If you like to hang up your clothes, including t shirts, bring extra hangers. The hangers provided are not shaped to hold a dress or any top with a large opening. I bought collapsible hangers on-line and they saved the day by having the right criteria to hang up dresses etc. Dont bring a bulky bathrobe; there are bathrobes in your cabin. The same goes for beach towels. The beds are like a cloud , I wanted to take my bed home, the same goes for the pillows.
Beware the hair dryer. Unfortunately you are not permitted to bring your own, apparently anything with a heating element is prohibited, that would include hair straighteners, kettles, hair dryers etc. You are advised on day 1 that these item will be confiscated if they are in your cabin. There is just a single power point at the dressing table, if you are planning on charging a laptop, phone or iPod, bring a multi board. Beware, the stewards tend to unplug items that are using the power point, check after the cabin has been cleaned. Your cabin steward will make you a towel animal every night; you can also participate in a workshop how to make a towel animal. I tipped my cabin steward twice, once halfway through and then again at the end.
HINT Your steward is available 24/7, just press the button on the cabin phone and nothing is too much, just ask. I was a bit reluctant to do this in the beginning, but it's really helpful.
Great! Limited menu but ever so cheap. If you order pastries, you get 4 pieces for $3. It seems everything on a cruise comes in multiples. Sometimes you have to wait a while, the distance between kitchen and cabin is big, please be patient.
You will find a paper Laundry bag in the drawer of your dressing table. Wait until the laundry special is offered, around day 3 of the cruise. That means you pay just $15 for a full bag, delivered clean the next day. HINT Roll your items up tightly, that way you can fit more into the bag.
There are 3 pool areas, one undercover, one on the open deck and the Serenity area which is for 18+ only. Unless you are travelling with children I doubt you would enjoy the other 2 pool areas, I will say more about children on the cruise a little later. Unfortunately the Serenity area fills up really quickly, I guess there are a lot of people like myself who are either single or a couple without children that appreciate this child free area. There are never enough sun lounges or even chairs to sit and have lunch. This could have been much better. The spa attached to each pool requires children under 12 to be with an adult, this not happen, the kids own the pools. In the Serenity area it is requested that you leave the spa after 15 minutes in consideration of other guests. Unfortunately 80% of guests did not adhere to this nor the rule NOT to bring any drinks into the spa.
For those of you who smoke (I am not a smoker) you are not allowed to smoke on your balcony, if you do, you will be charged a refresher fee of $240. The people next to my cabin smoked on the balcony and were respectful enough not to smoke when I was outside. Overall I do think it would be better if people were allowed to smoke on their balconies, providing they only do so when the adjoining balconies are not in use. Here is why: There are 2 designated smoking areas, I totally disagree with one of them hence my comment re smoking on balconies. The designated areas are on Deck 10, no cover, and Deck 9 next to the pool, there are tables and chairs under cover. Here is my beef about that.
1) The smoke is persistent, there are often up to 30 people at any time smoking; the smoke drifts into the adjoining pool and food area.
2) It is just a few metres away from a pool full of children
I will just cover the main areas rather than break it down into individual food stations.
EMPIRE DINING ROOM: AMAZING!
It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the surroundings are beautiful and all the staff are incredibly nice. I've travelled a fair bit and have never come across staff who are always friendly, go out of their way for you, and make you feel like you have known them all their life. I wanted to take them home, apparently that is a common wish. The Maitre de made an announcement that they belong to her and no, we can not take them home. Breakfast was great every day, lunch was a mixed bag, dinner was mostly great.
BREAKFAST & LUNCH at Empire
I think the cruise line has adjusted a bit too much to the supposed Aussie palate, when you order Eggs Benedict or anything with bacon, it comes with a slab of meat. The toasted croissant has so much ham in it that you take 70% out. Just a bit over the top. Once you know this, you can avoid particular dishes. The same applies to the Club Sandwich, just too much meat. Of course, if you like this sort of food, you'll be in heaven! The daily lunch specials were all great. Seating for breakfast and lunch is random but you can choose to share with others. This is a great time to get to know some of your fellow travellers and makes going ashore a heap more fun when you travel with people you have gotten to know. During port days there is no lunch on Deck 9 and the Empire runs a brunch from 7 am to 1 pm, meaning you have a combined breakfast and lunch menu plus a few extra special treats, so worth it! The pools are also nice and empty and you can get prime seating around the pool.
DINNER at Empire
Most of the time dinner was great, lovely everyday menu and when you do not want anything from the daily menu, you can choose from the everyday menu. There are 5 choices for all courses. When the chef gets it right, it is fine dining. When he doesn't, it can be pretty bad. Considering we had 10 dinners and 2 of these were not good, I still would go back because the moment you point anything out, it is fixed in no time. My adult daughter has a range of serious food allergies and it was awesome how they took care of her. Every dinner the Hostess would sit down with her and discuss lunch and dinner for the following day to ensure her needs were met. OUTSTANDING! I am not giving away all the secrets, just know besides eating there is also flash mob type entertainment during dinner.Loved it!
This is on deck 9 and has a vast range of food stations, something for everyone! It is quite casual, expect to wait for a while if you come at a popular time.
Great choice of food, not accessible to me since everything is buffet style and it is not possible to carry a plate when on crutches. I found out towards the end of the cruise that I could ask any of the staff clearing tables to give me a hand.
Same as breakfast, difficult for me to access, especially since it was very crowded and kids were running wild, several running into me and almost pushing me over. While they had staff on board to ensure that children were not roaming around on their own or running, none of this was enforced. The food was ok, the 3 lunches I had there (I had asked a staff member to assist me) were all luke - warm to cold. Listening to others, that was the case most of the time.
BEVERAGES You can purchase a beverage package for $7 per day. This includes all soft drinks but does NOT include water. I drink only water and getting a large bottle of water cost me $9 per day which I was fine with. Coffee and Ice tea are for free, but if you want something other than plain coffee, you pay for it. There is a myriad of alcoholic beverages at a reasonable price.
STAFF What can I say 11 out of 10! They are the ones that really made the cruise such an enjoyable experience.
Throughout the cruise there are public announcements to advice of going on shore, special events, weather conditions etc. These are only audible on your balcony or in the hallways and public areas. I think this could be done much better, by the time I made it to the hallway or balcony from the cabin, half the announcement was over. There is a system that allows for announcements to be heard in your cabin in emergencies, but it is at the discretion of staff. It would be so much better if all cabins could have an ON/OFF switch to hear public announcements in their cabin which could still be overridden for emergencies.
There are many areas catering offering a variety of music in public areas. These are always next to a bar and dance floor. In most areas the music is incredibly loud, you cannot hear a single word a person sitting next to you is saying and this is repeated throughout the public entertaining areas. The noise levels are way above comfortable and in most of these areas parents are sitting at the bar drinking whilst their children occupy the dance floor.
KIDS and PARENTS
I would like to sit the parents of all the children down and ask them do they know what the word consideration means. Whilst it is in written information including the daily news sheet, many do not seem to know this word. Throughout the information materials parents are asked to monitor their children, accompany them if they are under 16, and be considerate towards other cruisers by not running etc. 80% of parents failed and nobody enforced the rules. Parents are sitting at bars drinking whilst their children use the dance floor for gymnastics, there are children as young as 5 on their own in lifts, hallways (running and screaming, it wakes you up) and all public areas. Children are also in the casinos, I wonder if that is even legal. Parents, there are clubs where your kids will be entertained and for the remaining time, be PARENTS! The majority of children had zero manners, if you are too interested in having a good time yourself, leave them at home with family. I did come across a lovely young boy in a lift who offered to help my daughter carry something, this was such a breath of fresh air. To the parents of this lovely young man, aren't you concerned that someone could easily take this child? Everyone I met who was there without children was horrified at the total lack of parenting. This included young and middle aged couples as well as singles of any age.
Photographers are there on the first night of your cruise, the two elegant nights, and whenever you go ashore to take photos. You only pay if you purchase any of these photos so feel free to have them taken. There are also photographic areas on the ship with varying backdrops for portraits which is a nice idea. All photos are displayed in the photo area as of 4 pm, you just have to find yours in amongst 1000 others, you soon work out how to do this. Photos are expensive but it is worth it if you purchase just the once you REALLY like. I spent $250 on about 15 photos, this included photos of my daughter. It is easy to get carried away, be careful. I saw people purchase albums which start at $500 and honestly, it was not worth it. Leave purchasing any photo albums or picture frames until the last 2 days; many are then reduced by 50%.
There are daily information sessions which you can revisit on a TV channel in your cabin. They go forever though and most people were not interested in sitting inside for an hour listening to it. Here is a suggestion; how about you have this information in a written format on one of the TV channels in the form of a continuous dot point scroll. This could include things like weather, swells, activities etc. Cruisers would be able to access the dot points in no time at all. I would also suggest that a directory for those with special needs is compiled, advising those requiring support (such as myself) what is available where, and how to access the different supports. Guest Services, for example, can be really busy and standing in a line for half an hour is not possible for me. There is no alternative; this applies to the self serve food areas as well. I worked out after a few days that it was better to call Guest Services and be placed on hold rather than trying to access the service face to face. It also took me several days to just ask a staff member to assist with accessing lunch. Had I known these and other services, I would have enjoyed my cruise a lot more.
I would not take this cruise again simply because it is very much geared towards families with young children and because parents rarely supervise their children. I am saving for my next cruise, making sure it has a different focus. The entertainment was not the greatest unless you are into Hairy Chest competitions or Beanbag Throwing. The alternatives were Trivia and Bingo, which you had to pay for, or else pokies and other gambling. Not my thing. The Entertainment Director thinks that crude equals funny and I, as well as others, found a lot of his so called humour offensive. No, I am not an old grump, I laugh at just about anything, but not when it is at the expense of others. If you are after a family holiday with young children, this is for you, but please consider others.
AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME
The staff made it all worthwhile, I can not praise them enough; it doesn't matter where you go, everyone has a smile and those you connect with regularly call you by name as of day 2. Considering that staff work up to 8 months without a break and mostly work 14 hours with just a couple of hours in between for a rest, they are to be highly commended. I chatted with quite a few, many are from Eastern Europe and Asia and the 2 main reasons why they were working so hard are to provide for their family, or to better their life. One particular member of staff has not seen his family in 8 months and was working to pay for eye surgery for his 9 year old daughter in Indonesia. My heart went out to him; we have it so good here in Australia. I know that tipping isn't part of the Australian culture, but please consider that these are people who do not earn much and yet they provide service with a smile way beyond the call of duty. They are the ones that made this cruise truly memorable!