As first time cruisers we did not really know what to expect when we committed ourselves to a cruise to "somewhere" warm, in the middle of winter, so we went into this experience without any preconceived ideas or opinions and without any other cruises as points of comparison. A couple of pre-trip aspects were not particularly well covered eg Despite paying for our trip about nine weeks prior to departure, we did not receive our travel package until six days before we set out for Sydney. This meant that we were unable to do any pre booking of shore trips and, consequently missed out on the popular ones that filled up quickly. Two days prior to our departure we received a telephone call detailing the embarkation arrangements and telling us that embarkation would be on a deck-by-deck basis, with times allocated to each deck. We arrived at the check-in and found that this was not the case and that embarkation was being carried out according to what time you arrived for check in
These were two minor points that actually did little to detract from an overall worthwhile experience
Briefly - Our cabin - An "upgrade", or so we had been told a few weeks before we left, but is high up and right at the front necessarily better than lower down and mid-ship. Not really, when boat movement became accentuated. Nicely appointed with enough room, an excellent en-suite and storage , comfortable beds etc, , mirrors to give the impression of more space but no fridge.
The Ship - 20 years old, but it has had a recent refurbishment. I thought it had everything, almost There were noisy places and quiet places, busy bars and not-so-busy bars. It would have been good to have a TV screen which showed the ship's progress, other than the map on Deck 12 which had the course pencilled in. The deck crew were always present, cleaning and maintaining the vessel
The food - Great selection in both Waterfront and Plantation always well cooked and presented. We tried both and didn't feel a need to go to the surcharge restaurants. It did get crowded at times in Plantation but the long hours meant that there was plenty of time when it wasn't. Booking Waterfront was more of a hassle. Reservations opened at 8 am, but were usually full by 8.15 am. The cafe made excellent coffees and hot chocolates and the coffee machine in Plantation provided drinks and Pastries for early (5.00 am) risers
The crew - polite, usually friendly, efficient. The captain's talk on the running of the ship was an early highlight. He held my attention for a full hour and a half with his information and sense of humour. I'm pleased to see that tipping is going to be re-organised later this year. It seems unfair that a room steward can automatically get recognition but any other staff member has to be named and nominated. They are all doing their job. it is the extra smile or attitude that is displayed that sets one above another. Some staff seemed genuinely happy to be serving the passengers, while a few treated you as if you weren't really there.
Entertainment - The Cirque Pacific artistes were top-quality. The Pacific Jewel dancers/singers were excellent, polished and professional. Yes it was the same eight people singing different songs and doing different dances, but it is a reflection on their talent, that they are able to adapt to the different themes of their shows and put together such a quality performance. We also thoroughly enjoyed Mr Fish. The other keynote entertainers gave mixed performances, with some placing too much reliance on the audience singing along and tired old jokes. A bouquet to Sarah Jane the Cruise Director and her team for keeping the various programmes humming along, with enthusiasm and a genuine wish for the passengers to have a good time. The karaoke sessions saw the usual range of talent, or lack of it, but the final of the Pop-stars competition was a real highlight.
Ports of call - Some people were very uncomplimentary about Noumea. Personally I liked the place. Our choo choo train ride (paid for on shore) took us past beautiful beaches, resorts and affluent neighbourhoods. The city centre, near where we berthed, is quite old and dilapidated in parts, but it is also the largest city in Melanesia, a major port and industrial centre and its funding comes from a colonial power on the other side of the world. Mystery Island, Lifou and Isle of Pines were all beautiful spots, giving a view of how these Pacific Island people live and Vila was a long lane of market stalls and waiting taxis and minivans, unless you went further afield to do Duty Free shopping or on a shore tour
Shore tours - we did one ship arranged excursion and two independent trips. The only difference would be the cost. Why are the P and O trips, for the same experience so much more expensive? Is the company receiving an overly large proportion of the cost for each trip it sells? Don't necessarily expect your guide to speak English, or to be too forthcoming with information about what he is showing you, although they do vary. The numbered tickets for the tenders was a good system, with very little waiting and the ship's end and, if you decided to leave the island before the deadline, the queues weren't too long there either
Overall we enjoyed our 10 days. I am a nervous sailor. We met some interesting people who were all out to enjoy themselves and who contributed to making our cruising experience a memorable one. Thank you P & O and the passengers and crew on JO21