We recently undertook a 9 night P & O cruise departing from Brisbane visiting the Island of Lifou, Port Vila, Mystery Island and Isle of Pines.
Here is my honest assessment of the experience and tips for future travellers.
Firstly the answer to two basic questions:
Did I enjoy the cruising experience enough to do it again – Yes!
Would I cruise with P&O again – No!
1. Great value for money
2. Check-in and boarding and then embarking and dis-embarking at ports and at islands was extremely efficient
3. Cabin layout and size exceeded expectations
4. Cabin staff and wait staff in the restaurants were exceptional. Friendly and attentive.
5. Waterfront Restaurant experience exceeded expectations
6. Drinks prices including tea and coffee were equivalent to on-shore Australian bar and restaurant prices.
7. The on board entertainers in the many bars and the evening feature shows were excellent.
8. Snorkelling at Mystery Island and the Isle of Pines
9. Port Vila – ‘third world’ but very interesting
1.The on-board temperature was very variable in different areas of the ship. The restaurants and the ‘Dome’ were simply too cold
2.Some of the daytime activities were a bit lame and the seminars relating to heat land beauty were basically infomercials (hence the poor attendance)
3.Some of the staff conducting daytime activities were condescending
4.The Waterfront restaurant is the classier of the two ‘included’ eateries but sometimes the food was just warm and occasionally cool
5.The Plantations Buffet – It’s a buffet for the masses although suitable for breakfast
6.The prices for treatments at day spa not realistic having regard to demographic on board. Prices were pitched at middle to high income earners. The cruise attracts many lower income earners.
7.The milk added versions of the free tea and coffee available form a number of machines is simply dreadful. It tastes like powdered milk is used. When water and milk is added to tea it was a frothy mess which we nicknamed ‘cuppateano’.
8.The gym was too small and a couple of pieces of equipment were out of order for the whole cruse.
9.Dumb passengers who have little regard for coral reefs
10.All smokers (allowed on the main deck but still annoying
11.Sparkles’ - one of the on-board entertainment staff. Groan!!
12.The wages paid to board staff. But that’s why it’s so affordable.
Tip 1 - If arriving from interstate, the Admiralty Airport Motel on Nudgee Rd Hamilton is a good pre-cruise accommodation option. It's a 15 minute, $30 cab ride from the airport and an easy flat 10 minute walk to the Portside Wharf where the ship leaves from. While there are others a lot closer on Kingsford Smith Drive, it's a major road and is extremely busy and noisy. The motel was very comfortable and clean. There is no on-site restaurant but fish and chips are about 200 metres away and the Portside Wharf and Racecourse Rd precincts are within easy walking distance.
Tip 2 - Buy a lanyard for your cruise card (your on board money).They are available on-board but at a premium.
Tip 3 - You can take bottled water and soft drinks on board so don't be surprised when you see passengers checking-in and boarding with slabs of either or both. Soft drinks and water are about $3 each on the ship.
Tip 4 - Arrive early for hassle free check-in and boarding. Boarding is done in numbered groups based on time of check-in. If you check-in early you'll have time for your last decent coffee at the Portside precinct and also time to pick up any last minute supplies at the IGA supermarket.
Tip 5 - Assuming you check-in early, use the first hour on board to get familiar with the ship.
Tip 6 - Lunch is served on board on the first day but there is a mandatory safety presentation half an hour before departure (i.e. so 1.30 pm for 2 pm departure) so factor that in.
Tip 7 - Keep a daily eye on your spending by swiping your cruise card at the computer terminals at main information desk and reviewing your transactions.
Tip 8 - Unless you are impressed by lots of food on display, love loading up your plate with a mountain of food that you probably won't get through, want to bum around in shorts and thongs all day long or have kids who can't sit still, then dinner in the Waterfront restaurant is the best option. It offers table service and 3 courses - all part of your cruise fare. It's also open for breakfast and a 3 course lunch. There are lots of choices and daily specials for dinner. It’s a much nicer experience than Plantations. On 'land' days you can return to the ship for lunch before exploring the islands again but you will have to put your snout in the Plantations trough as Waterfront does not serve lunch on these days.
Tip 9 - Power outlets are scarce in the rooms so a double adaptor or small power board is useful.
Tip 10 - If you like a variety of tea and decent coffee and don't want to pay for it at the cafe then bring your own tea bags and coffee (you can easily take on board a plastic plunger, ground coffee and capsule of UHT milk).
Tip 11 - If you want to use the gym in the morning then get their on opening. It's small and gets busy.
Tip 12 - There are some good duty free alcohol deals on board. $25 for two 1 litre bottles of basic spirits (includes Famous Grouse whiskey and Smirnoff vodka) or $35 for two 1 litre bottles (includes Johnny Walker red and Jim Beam white.) Prices on these were only marginally better at Port Vila so convenience could win out. The biggest and best shop for alcohol in Port Vila is Fung Kuei. On the day I was there they had a massive special – A 2 litre bottle of Jim Beam white label for $19!!! However, other shops did have marginally better prices on certain items but simply did not have the range.
Tip 13 - The temperature in the restaurants and bars is deliberately kept cool so a jacket or cardigan is essential for those who feel the cold. This was one of our biggest gripes.
Tip 14 - There is reasonable clothes hanging space in the cabins but if you have a lot to hang then bring a few wire coat hangers.
Tip 15 - Make sure you head to the feature shows at night about 30 minutes before they start to avoid disappointment. Seating is limited
Tip 16- On island days, get going early and head back to the ship at around 11.30 for lunch. You'll avoid having to queue for the tender boat by doing so and can go back on-shore afterwards. Most people head back for lunch around 12.30pm to 1.00 pm.
Tip 17 - Most of the on island markets are full of junk. You will keep seeing the same thing time after time.
Tip 18 - On Lifou, don't miss the cave with its crystal clear plunge pool. Instead of heading left to go to the church on the hill and Jinek Bay, go right. You'll pass another church and, shortly after, come across a few locals sitting near a sign about the cave. They charge $10 to get through to it but it’s worth it.
Tip 19 - On Lifou the locals offer two tours for a lot less than similar tours offered by P&O.
Tip 20 - At Port Vila, arrange for a ‘taxi’ to take you around. We negotiated a taxi for 5 people from 9 am until 3 pm for $200. We took in the Cascade Waterfalls ($25 pp), the Tanna Coffee house, the Beach House Cafe for lunch (near Hideaway Island), a drive through a real village of, a cultural show ($10pp ), the Port Vila shopping district and return to ship. The driver was very accommodating waiting for us at each stop and accepting payment at the end of the day.
Tip 21 - At Mystery Island, start with a walk around the island on the beach (island is only 200m across and 1km long) then pick your favourite spot. The best conditions are in the morning as the wind can pick up after lunch. The better snorkelling is on the side of the island opposite to where the ship’s tenders drop you off. The locals from the neighbouring island run snorkelling and fishing tours ranging between $15pp and $50pp and small outrigger canoes can be hired for $10 pp. Make sure you buy a fresh coconut for $1 or $2. Make a donation to the local pre-school while watching the kids sing their little lungs out.
Tip 22 - On Isle of Pines, if you have a good level of fitness there is a great walk up Pic Nga (232 metres) which rewards you with 360 degree views if the Island. The walk takes about 35 minutes each way for those with a good level of fitness. The starting point is about 10 minute walk from the jetty/wharf - head out along the road to Vao, turn left at a T intersection, pass the petrol station (Essence) and you will come sign indicating the trail on your right. Don't miss snorkelling around the edge of the little isle at Kanumera Bay. The $60 Island Discovery Tour offered by P&O is $25 on shore with the locals, but you need to be early.