As a long time independent traveller, I was interested to try the cruising experience, so we took a 13 day Dawn Princess cruise from Melbourne in March 2014. It called at number of New Zealand ports (plus a day in Fiordland) and returned to Melbourne. It was our first ocean cruise and a factor in choosing it was that it was Melbourne based.
Embarkation was straight forward, taking a little over half an hour. Apparently the cruise before ours suffered a gastro outbreak and the ship was disinfected before we boarded, which we were told was the reason for a slight delay in the commencement of boarding and hence the minor congestion as we boarded. The ocean view room we had was comfortable and offered a large window, adequate storage and good use of mirrors. The bathroom quite small but adequate.
The weather in this part of the world is variable, and there were very few days suitable for sun-baking. We didn't feel that we missed anything at all by not having a balcony. However, perhaps the ability to have some fresh air would be good in warmer parts of the world.
The ship itself was clean and well-maintained. The vast majority of our fellow passengers were Australian, many from Melbourne and nearby. Princess has obviously identified that there is a market for Melbourne-based cruises amongst people who don't wish to travel to Sydney to join their cruise. The next largest contingent was from New Zealand (who are offered a round-trip from Auckland). There was a smattering of other nationalities, but overall the atmosphere was Australian/New Zealand. The profile could perhaps be described as “middle Australia”. All age groups were represented, although weighted towards the 'senior' age category (complete with walking frames etc!) and as this wasn't during school holidays, there weren't many children. A number of the crew told us that they were happy to work on this ship because of the “laid back” atmosphere, and they often relaxed and joked with passengers (quite acceptable to Australians). This was also reflected in the tipping culture: you could add a gratuity to your bar tab, but I suspect many people didn't. There were envelopes available to use at the end of the cruise, and I think these were well used (Australians aren't quite as mean when it comes to rewarding good service as is sometimes claimed!). I was told that a “suggested” gratuity was added to the tabs for spa services. The staff all around the ship were hard-working and helpful.
There are a number of different areas where you can eat and relax. There's certainly no risk of going hungry (quite the reverse, the temptation to overeat is ever-present). In the main dining rooms, the only option for dinner was to have fixed time dining (5.45 or 7.45 pm). The service in these rooms was always very good and the menu choices invariably offered a good range. We have a minor allergy issue, and the handling of this was professional and faultless.
The other eating options included the burger and pizza restaurants and of course the Horizon Court buffet. However, at busy times during the breakfast and lunch services, the Horizon Court became very crowded and it was sometimes difficult to find a seat. Likewise, at times the bars sometimes appeared under-staffed and there could be delays in the drink and specialty coffee service. Perhaps Princess haven't come to terms with the love that Australians have for their morning cappuccino, and things apparently weren’t helped when faults developed in the coffee machines (which we were told was the case at times). And the quality was merely passable too.
There's also a specialty steak restaurant ($25 extra) but we didn't try this because we were more than satisfied with the service offered at the Venetian restaurant. We opted to sit at a table for 8, which was an excellent choice because of our great tablemates. We varied in age and it was fun to catch up each evening and share our different experiences.
The itinerary had 3 sea days on the voyage to New Zealand and 2 on the return. I read that other voyages on a similar itinerary had encountered weather difficulties which affected the ability to visit some ports but this voyage ran to schedule. However, it should be noted that the Tasman Sea can be a bit bumpy. Our crossing to New Zealand was quite smooth but we had a few bouncy patches on the return!
We only took a couple of the (expensive) organised excursions (to see things that were of particular interest), but at each port, there was usually plenty to do without the need to go on an excursion. In Auckland, the ship's berth is right in the heart of town. At Mount Maunganui (where the harbour for Tauranga is), there was enough to do within walking distance without using the shuttle into town. There's a free shuttle into town at Napier, and the cost of the shuttle at Wellington was $5 each way (but the distance is quite walkable). True, Akaroa is very small, and Christchurch is over an hour away, but the cruise companies have no alternative because Lyttleton has had major earthquake damage. Tenders are used at this port. At Port Chalmers, there's shuttle into Dunedin (about 12 kms away) at a cost of $NZ10 each way. One day is spent cruising in Fiordland. A couple of hours in the morning was in Dusky and Doubtful Sounds, and in the afternoon, the cruise is in Milford Sound. These were probably the high-point of the cruise. There was an on-board expert who gave a running commentary which was greatly appreciated.
There are plenty of opportunities to spend money on board, including on photos, drinks (prices are not too bad, except water at $4.95 for a 1.5 litre bottle seems steep), specialty coffees (a $35 coffee card gives you 15 coffees), in the casino, at the art auction and of course in the boutiques. Internet is expensive (casual rate of 79 cents a minute, but if you buy 100 minutes, the cost is $69). A quota of free internet is available to “frequent cruisers”. I usually used the free wifi offered in town at each port (except Akoroa) but ended up paying $NZ10 for access at Port Chalmers because I didn't take my netbook into Dunedin.
There was a lot of entertainment on the ship, which was quite varied, and always good, usually excellent. The venues were often filled to capacity. I was impressed that Princess still had interesting new experiences in store for us towards the end of the cruise (such as the tour of the galley and passenger and crew talent shows on the second last sea day), although the last sea day was quieter.
Overall, the cruise was satisfactory and as I had done my research, it was in line with my expectations. As a long-time independent traveller, I didn't expect to be converted to a “cruise junkie”, and I wasn't. Hence, I won't be rushing to book another one. However, I can see the appeal of cruising to those who are less interested in making their own arrangements