Cruise Review - P&O's MS Pacific Pearl - P326, 3 night, Xmas in July Cruise, 2013 (Cabin on Deck 10).
This brief cruise, of only 3 nights, went from Sydney to Sydney via nowhere, although we actually sailed north, off the east coast of Australia, as far as Coffs Harbour, where we turned around and headed back to Sydney. Prices mentioned in this review are in Australian dollars and correct as at 29July2013 (while the spelling is British/Aussie English).
Getting to the ship:
Departure from the (relatively) new cruise terminal at White Bay No. 5 in Sydney proved to be much easier than I had feared. This was mainly because I had previously done a 'recce' and worked out the best means of public transport to get there. For us, that involved a short train trip to Town Hall Station, a very short bus trip (Route No. 442) to Robert Street, and a 20 minute walk along a well-paved, flat surface (on luckily, a beautiful, clear day). We wouldn't have enjoyed the walk if it was raining and we'd have been forced to catch a cab!
I've read other reviews, both positive and negative, about this ship, and I've also cruised with other larger and more expensive cruise lines (like Celebrity, RCI, Princess, Scenic Tours, etc.). However it is very important to remember the old adage: 'you get what you pay for' when you travel on a cheaper cruise line, and I'm keeping this in mind as I'm critiquing this cruise/ship, which was considerably cheaper than any other cruise I've ever had.
It is important to state at the outset, that despite a number of problems and issues (all covered below), we were very happy overall, with the ship, the ship's crew and with P&O, and we will certainly be booking another cruise on Pacific Pearl in the not-too-distant future. I believe in giving credit, where credit is due; but also in providing (what I sincerely hope) is constructive criticism, when that is due; and this review has both.
Some of the positive things that we were very happy with included:
* The Christmas in July Theme. My wife and I were impressed with the cruise's theme, Christmas, which was continued throughout the entire (3 day) cruise, with Christmas Eve (Friday), Christmas Day (Saturday) and then New Year's Eve (Sunday). The entire (visible to the public) crew maintained the theme, by always wearing their Santa hats and wishing us 'Merry Christmas', 'compliments of the season', etc. The ship was beautifully decorated with lovely Christmas trees, Christmas garlands, ginger-bread houses and 'snow'; not to mention the Christmas carols, the Crew Christmas Choir, party crackers/bon-bons (the ones you pull apart with someone else), falling balloons and so on. This was all very well carried out by the entire ship's crew. Congratulations!
For any reader who isn't aware, Christmas in Australia (in the southern hemisphere) falls in the middle of summer, the hottest part of the year. The weather is usually too hot to get motivated, or to cook hot food, like turkey, ham, chicken, etc. and usually there are blowflies buzzing around your (outdoor) Christmas table. However, in late July - in the middle of our winter - we have snow on our highest mountain peaks, the temperature drops considerably, there are few (if any) flies, and we do feel like cooking and eating hot food. So it's become a tradition to have a (second) Christmas, known as 'Christmas in July'. We don't necessarily have big family gatherings, nor give presents, but we do put up Christmas trees/decorations, have nice, hot meals & do the things that northern hemisphere folk would do at their Christmas time.
* The ship being beautifully decorated (for Christmas in July);
* The Sail Away Party was absolutely fantastic, and one of the best we've experienced. We had the perfect combination of a terrific Cruise Director, a brilliant mix of music (better than Sail Away music on RCI or Celebrity), perfect weather (not a cloud in the sky), smooth seas (barely a ripple in Sydney Harbour), and great timing (with a 16:15 (4:15pm) departure, which meant that we were out of the Heads as the sun had almost set). Plus as an added bonus for us, this was our first time sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a cruise liner, which was an amazing experience! We could almost touch the bridge's roadway. Usually we sail from Circular Quay;
* Most of the crew (95%, but not all) were very courteous, friendly and helpful;
* The Aqua Spa is magnificent, and so too, its staff who couldn't be more charming and helpful;
* A great, quite well-equipped gym, which is free to use;
* Being a smaller ship (247m long, 63,786 tonnes & only 1,817 passengers) it's quite easy to get around and you do actually get to see fellow passengers more than once!
* Children were well-catered for, although I personally prefer quieter ships, without kids (as mine are all grown-up);
* The best self-use laundrettes I've ever seen on a ship (usually there are none) - not that we needed these on such a short cruise;
* Terrific cabin layout with the most drawers and storage space that I've seen on a cruise ship (we had 16 large drawers, 4 shelves and plenty of hanging & suitcase storage space) not to mention the usual under-bed storage, if necessary;
* Every passenger who had a birthday or anniversary was recognised by a sign & balloons on their cabin door. This was a lovely touch by P&O, and one that I haven't seen before (you didn't have to ask, or pay, for this);
* The food was surprisingly good (for a lower-priced cruise), albeit with fewer choices than other lines, but still absolutely delicious, and certainly plenty of it;
* Breakfast fruit juices (real fruit juices, apple & orange) were much tastier than RCI's 'fruit' juices;
* The coffee (albeit Nescafe instant) was also better tasting than RCI's coffee, and easy to obtain for oneself (24/7 & free) from the dispensers; however, curiously, at no stage did I ever see a teaspoon on board!;
* There was a wide range of teas to choose from (24/7 & free), if you prefer tea;
* Xmas dinner was wonderful and the gratis party crackers/bon-bons were a nice touch;
* Drinks, especially cocktails, were as good as I've found anywhere and no more expensive than other ships (at under $A10 up to $A11.50 per cocktail), while martinis, for those who enjoy them, were $A11.50;
* On board entertainment was better than that provided on my last RCI cruise, but still well below the standard of that provided on overseas cruise lines (those not cruising around Australia);
* Best of all, this is one of the last cruise ships that still has a couple of quiet areas, where one can sit quietly and read a book without too much interruption or background noise (usually these are - unfortunately - the first places to be removed during ship refurbishments and turned into paying restaurants). Why can't cruise lines realise that not all passengers need to be entertained, all the time, in every single lounge?;
* We found the staff at Reception (on Deck 5) to be very knowledgeable and most helpful, and we did not encounter the usual long queues/lines found at Reception on other ships (possibly due to the cruise duration);
* Our cabin attendant was very polite, friendly and efficient, yet unlike some others we've encountered on different cruise lines, he wasn't always 'in-your-face' hoping/pushing for a big tip. Other passengers also described their cabin attendants as efficient and discreet, for the same reason. This was very much appreciated, although I admit that it must be very difficult to know when to 'lurk around', ready to assist at the 'drop of a hat', and when not to 'lurk around';
* In fact, we found that the whole idea of serving passengers without expecting a tip, made for a much nicer, and much more pleasant, situation for both (the one serving and the one receiving the service);
* After our cruise, we spoke with P&O's Check-in Supervisor at the terminal, who was most apologetic and very kindly clarified what had happened during our check-in and the reasons for this (see below). This nice lady is a real asset for P&O, and she was much better as a Future Cruise Sales Manager, than the lady (coincidentally with the same first name) who actually filled that role on board! (see below);
Sadly, despite very smooth seas, it wasn't all 'smooth-sailing'; we did encounter some problems and some differences between other ships and cruise lines. Some of these problems were just the (bad) 'luck of the draw' and they may never occur again, while some problems could be overcome by better crew training. Among the problems we experienced were:
* Our check-in was done incorrectly, by an inexperienced operator (see below for the consequences of this);
* A ship-borne, computer crash apparently caused numerous problems, along with an untimely computer/IT system change-over. The result was a painfully slow, manual embarkation of the 1,800 passengers, with only one (1) person checking names off the very long list, at the ship-side of the only gangway;
* This was compounded by an X-ray machine breakdown in Customs, during boarding;
* Once on board, there were gigantic queues/lines for lunch (in the Plantation Buffet Restaurant);
* The cafeteria-style buffet (without individual 'islands') made it difficult to go back, if you missed something. For example, jam & marmalade were in the line before the toast, so if you got to the toast & then realised you wanted jam with that, you had to go all the way back to the start of the queue/line (unless someone would kindly let you in);
* On many occasions, we witnessed passengers not sterilising their hands prior to dining (and/or refusing when told by staff to do this), or allowing their children to open salt shakers, play with the salt & then return it to the shakers!;
* Many passengers complained of missing out on food, especially on embarkation day. This was because all the restaurants on board close at 2:30pm every day, and remain closed (except for tea & coffee) until dinner;
* You can only reserve a table in the Waterfront (main) Restaurant, one day at a time, and not for entire cruise. This meant missing out on getting a seat at your desired times;
* There were also long queues at Waterfront Restaurant, mainly due to insufficient numbers of staff to handle the number of passengers, and to assist in crowd control;
* We encountered a lot of pushing and shoving to get into the restaurant;
* After meals, the impatient hordes wouldn't let people out of the restaurant (they really need a roped-off lane to allow for outbound traffic);
* On one occasion, despite booking a time/sitting, it had 'dropped-off' the list by the time we went to the restaurant for dinner (luckily, they still found us a table);
* Asking for a coffee after dinner - even at late sitting - was like asking for a million dollars - although we did eventually get it, but they clearly didn't like it;
* An incorrect disembarkation label provided to us, nearly made us miss our bus to the railway station on disembarkation;
* Our credit card 'max'ed-out' after Day 1, and we were (incorrectly) told it was due to a breakdown in satellite comms, or that our credit card had been hacked-into. In fact, it was due to being incorrectly checked-in prior to boarding. So for almost one day (14 hours out of a 3 day cruise) we couldn't buy any drinks, food, souvenirs, etc. Luckily someone at the Reception Desk figured it out & we were finally able to make purchases again, later that night;
* TV reception, even of the ship's own channel/s, was dreadful and hurt the eyes to watch;
* The On Board Sales Manager (Future Cruise lady), Samantha, I think her name was, was quite rude and did not want to help us find a future P&O cruise. Perhaps it was just an off-day for her, but her condescending and patronising attitude certainly put us off;
* To even open the sealed bathrobe (to see if it fits) will cost you almost $30. Usually you can use a robe and you only pay if you steal (or purchase) it, which is fair enough; but not with P&O;
* I was disappointed that all the pools and Oasis spas close very early at night, not sure at what time, as they were always closed whenever I went to use them;
* Getting off the ship could/should have been much easier, but it seemed to be poorly organised and coordinated; some staff were confused as to what was happening (or didn't want to know) and again, crowd control was very poor;
* On Day 1, at early dinner, we had a 15 minute wait before our drink orders were taken, and then a further 15 minute wait before our food order was taken, and then of course, another 10 minute wait before we actually received any food. The consequence of this was that we (and everyone else around us) had barely started our main course when it was time for the next sitting to commence. This only compounded the large numbers waiting (some rather impatiently) at the entrance to the restaurant. Fortunately, it wasn't quite as bad on Day 2, and by Day 3 we had our entrees within about 15 minutes of sitting down. I think it would be fair to say that additional crew training, and a few more waiters (or crowd controllers), could easily have overcome this problem;
* It was often impossible to attract the attention of any waiter to get a drink, more butter, or whatever;
* It then took quite a while to actually receive the drinks you ordered, on one occasion it took an hour;
* Dinner seating can only be booked on a day-by-day basis, not for the entire cruise. This involves booking something on the way out of the restaurant (often impossible due to the massive crowds), or by continuously telephoning a number (usually engaged or unanswered) to make a booking - EVERY single day;
* After dinner, no more food can be obtained on the ship without paying extra. There's no midnight buffet, late night snacks or open cafes;
* I was disappointed to find no ice cream whatsoever in the buffet (Plantation) restaurant and only a miniscule portion of ice cream at dinner time in the main (Waterfront) restaurant (I love my ice-cream). I imagine that's to force us to buy the 'New Zealand Natural' ice cream from the shop (which I would have done anyway!);
* The main thoroughfare into, and out from, the restaurant (past the Orient Lounge), is narrow at the best of times; but right at the 'bottle-necks' the ship's photographers set up all their paraphernalia (tripods, screens, cameras, stools, etc.), which made it very difficult for both those passengers wanting to have their photos taken, as well as for those trying to get to, or from, the dining room.
Getting off the ship:
We had no problems with the White Bay terminal itself, which seemed to have good traffic flow - particularly as our cruise never left Australian waters, hence no customs & immigration. We utilised the ship's, contracted, bus (at $A12p.p.) to take us, and our luggage, to Central Railway Station, which was a relatively short journey, of no more than 15 minutes. I believe some people had very long waits for taxis however. We'd love to see Sydney Ferries provide a service from somewhere, close to the ship (but obviously outside the Immigration/Customs control zone), or some way of getting up the cliff, immediately beside the terminal, in order to get to Balmain East ferry wharf.
Despite all the problems described above, many of which might have just been bad luck, we still had a wonderful cruise on P&O's MS Pacific Pearl. The positives certainly out-weighed the negatives, for us anyway. At this stage, we might not be too keen to highly recommend P&O to others, but we'd certainly love to have the opportunity to cruise again with P&O, and especially on this ship. Finally, my wife and I would especially like to offer our thanks to those crew members and cruise terminal staff who did try their best to make this a memorable cruise for us; and to thank you, for taking the time to read this review.