I have done 24 cruises and cruised on P&O on 3 previous occasions, with all the rest of my cruises with Princess. This cruise was a very last minute thing, booking only a week prior to the cruise (I was desperate for a holiday). Unfortunately, there were no Princess ships in Australian waters at this time and this cruise was the only cruise available that suited price and timing.
The cruise was named Week Fantastique, Voyage W120 and was for 7 nights on the Pacific Dawn. It left Brisbane on a Saturday afternoon, had a day at sea, then arrived in at Noumea mid afternoon on Monday departing at 11.00pm that night, then the next day at Lifou, followed by a day at Port Vila, then 2 days at sea arriving back at Brisbane at 6.00am the next Saturday.
Like most cruise lines, it was drop your baggage at the front of the terminal. If you had printed off your baggage tags from the internet prior to arriving, it was super quick. Otherwise, a rather lengthy wait entailed to obtain blank luggage tags. Once in the terminal, it was queue up to receive your cruise card, provide credit card info, passport inspection and customs. P&O do not have a Past Passenger Program in place so it is join the queue for everyone. People who have cruised with P&O many times queue up with people who are first time cruisers. The Only exception was people who had booked suites or mini suites who had their own express check in. From time of dropping off suit cases to time we walked onto the ship was just short of one hour.
We booked an ocean view cabin and were on deck 6. The cabin was right opposite the lift well, so we had lift foyer noise and often could hear conversations outside, including in the middle of the night which was annoying. The cabin itself was adequate and more spacious than Princess cabins. Plenty of clothes storage and hanging space. Bathroom was the usual compact size, but only soap and shampoo provided. No conditioner or moisturiser provided like Princess do.
The Aqua spa on board provides access to a gym, spa treatments and a thermal room consisting of a small sauna, a small steam room and 2 tiled hot beds and a relaxation area consisting of 6 lounges and complimentary fruit and chilled water to relax after spa treatments. However, for some unknown reason, the Aqua spa is situated on Deck 2 mid ships, yes that's right....deck 2, below the actual water line!!! It don't get much lower than this on a cruise ship and is certainly the lowest I have ever been!! There is no natural light and whilst sitting in the thermal room or in the relaxation area, all you can hear is the mechanical clunking of the workings of the inner bowels of the ship. Not very inviting I am afraid. The Aqua spa is well appointed and nicely colour toned, and is obviously an addition at a recent dry dock renovation, but why they couldn't have put it somewhere else is beyond me. There is a kids centre up on deck 14 (above the buffet) which surely could have housed the Spa and the kids centre could have gone down to deck 2. Would be much more attractive and inviting and much easier to get to.
I just want to touch on the costs of the Spa. As with all ships, the spa treatments can be quite costly. Well, the Pacific dawn is no different. I always enjoy a sauna and/or steam at the end of the day on a ship, something I don't have access to at home. Well, the only sauna and steam on the Pacific Dawn is in the Thermal room and they charge $99 for the privilege of using it for a 7 day cruise. No pay as you go or daily rate, it was $99 or nothing. Sure you have unlimited use and they throw in one "free glass of champagne" after each time you use it to enjoy whilst laying in the relaxation lounge. So, after the first day, I thought I could do without it, but into the second day, I was longing for a "sweat" so I went and signed up. The sauna and steam were quite hot and served their purpose, but no where worth the cost. And to obtain your "free glass of champagne" (Now I was going to get my money's worth!!), you had to go to reception and ask for it, which became quite uncomfortable the second time around. And on the second time, the champagne they served up was flat, dead flat, and I had to ask for another glass. I didn't ask nor was I offered for champagne again. They sold a maximum of 20 couples spa passes per cruise (that's 40 people) and it became very crowded in the thermal spa at times. Late afternoon was always popular and there were a couple of occasions when people came in and literally could not fit in.
The spa treatments on the Pacific Dawn were, in my opinion, quite expensive. An example follows...on most ships I have been on, they offer a sampler of 20/20/20 which consists of 20 minutes of different spa treatments of your choice, a sampler of each. For the one that you like, you can come back and get the full treatment. The cost of this on the Pacific Dawn was $139, with a 15% discount on port days. We have seen this as low as $99 on other ships on port days.
On our day on the ship in Noumea, my wife decided to have a facial. She rang up and enquired. They could fit her in in 15 minutes and the 15% applied. The facial was very nice and when she went to pay for it, she got over charged by $30. When she queried the price, they said she had had a facial and another treatment, bringing the total to $30 more. She complained and they then charged her the initial agreed price.
The one and only dining room was very spacious and quite nice in decor. It had a high ceiling which gave it the "more space" look. You had to book and could not just walk up and be seated. They stated you could only book on the day of the meal, and no matter what time you rang or personally attended to book, the only time available was 8.00pm or 8.15pm. I found out on the last night of the cruise that some passengers had permanent bookings each night. I don't know why this wasn't offered to all.
The menu in the dining room was the same every night. The lunch menu was also the same every day. However, it was vast and provided lots of choice and the meals were very nice. Staff were not friendly and not attentive. On one night, we were not given a menu for 40 minutes after being seated. At lunch one day, we arrived at 1.45pm and were told to "order quick" as the dining room was closing.
We did eat in Luke Mangin's Salt Restaurant one night and would highly recommend it. One of the nicest meals (I had the steak) we have had in long, long time and well worth the cover charge. Book early as it does book out. We were fortunate enough to have Luke travelling on our cruise for the first couple of nights and he was in the restaurant the night we ate in there. Waiter attention in here was excellent.
The buffet was dual sided and plenty of eating space. It is not open 24 hours, only for meal times. Quality of food was average.
Afternoon tea was below standard and the worst I have been to. Waiter service was atrocious,
Alcohol was very expensive on this ship. The cheapest glass of wine was $8, and that was bar prices. It was dearer again in the restaurant. In the bars, they do not print on the wine list what the cost of wine is, which was very strange. They just list what sort of wine they have in one sentence. When you asked the waiter the cost of a glass of Shiraz or Riesling, the waiters did not know and you were surprised what the cost was it arrived. A drink that costs $9.85 on Princess ships cost $13.80 on this ship.
Coffee was also more expensive on this ship than Princess ships. Coffee cards are not available, which are so handy on Princess ships. At afternoon tea, you had to buy your cookies, whereas on Princess ships, they are free. However, with every cup of coffee you purchase, you receive a free chocolate, which was a nice touch.
Entertainment was good. The circus acrobats in the Atrium were very good. On the last night, they had different entertainers/musicians gather in the Atrium and they would sing or perform whatever they wanted. This was excellent. Very low key and informal, but excellent entertainment.
The Pacific Dawn is the old Regal Princess from the Princess Fleet. I was a bit sceptical about what condition she would be in, but I was not disappointed....truly a magnificent ship and in very good condition. The makeover she would have had prior to joining the P&O Fleet has certainly beautified her. There were 5 main entertainment areas, the Bengal Bar, the Promenade Lounge, the Show Lounge, the Dome and the atrium.
The Bengal Bar was host to most of the game shows and trivia during the day and the Promenade Bar was the piano lounge, which had perfect ambiance at night with candle lights and soft lighting. The Show Lounge is badly designed I think and could be better done. Unless you are sitting in the first few rows directly in front on deck 7, the view elsewhere is not that good. The seating incline in not that great so you are always looking at the person in fronts head and the side seats actually side behind the action, so you can't get a front on perspective. The seats on the upper level (deck 8) you have to look over/under the safety barriers. Seats at the side on this level have the same level as below.
The Dome is the Night Club on board and was well attended by many passengers, dancing their cares away until the early hours of the morning. Got extremely crowded on occasions.
The Atrium spanned over 3 levels and was very comfortable. It hosted the acrobats performances and some informal music renditions.
Itinerary was good, although we didn't bother to get off the ship at Noumea. A case of "been there before and done that" (a few times) and the day we were in Noumea was a local public holiday with nothing open. Many passengers were disappointed with this port. I know there are valid reasons why cruise ships visit Noumea, but it is not high on our "bucket list". Expensive, streets are dirty and uninviting and the locals are not that welcoming.
Lifou was just divine. One of the reasons we went on this cruise was to go snorkelling at J??? Beach, which we did. This would have been our 4th time at this port and it did not disappoint, although the amount of fish is diminishing, as is the coral. Each time we visit this beautiful island, the amount of coral dying off is noticeable. Last time we were there (late 2010), there was a wooden staircase there that led people down into the water. Although very slippery, it served its purpose. However, on this occasion, the stairs had been destroyed. Nothing left but a small viewing deck. In its place was a ladder about 3 metres high and made from local trees and tied together with vines. It was just leaning up against a small cliff and people had to climb up and down it to get to the water. EXTREMELY dangerous. How nobody fell off it and seriously injured themselves is beyond me and how long it lasts is anybody's guess. Why the locals have not built something more reliable here I don't know. They could easily charge every person swimming at this beautiful beach $1. With the amount of cruise ships calling in and people visiting this port, over a 12 month period, they would easily accumulate enough cash to build something permanent and substantial.
Suggestion - P&O hire out snorkel gear for $49.95 on board the ship. You can hire it for the day for about $20 AUD on the beach here. If this is the only place you plan to snorkel on this trip and don't take your own gear, this is a much cheaper option.
Suggestion - If you can, take French francs with you. The locals charge for their services and wares in both AUD and French francs. However, the change over rate is somewhat vast. Some asking prices are 1000 francs or AUD15, others are asking 1000 francs or AUD20, where in fact the official change over rate is roughly 1000 francs = AUD10.
Port Vila - This port just gets better every time we visit it. We just love it. The choices increase more and more and is becoming a great place to visit for a week, not just the day off a cruise ship. The weather gods were on our side and we were able to do what we planned to do if the weather was nice and that was visit Hideaway Island. This little gem is one of Port Vilas little secrets as cruise ships no longer run shore excursions there. Although, I think the secret is out as there were many people on the beach here with the blue and white striped towels, a dead give away for cruise ship passengers. The snorkelling here on this day was the best I have seen it. As the tide was low, we had to swim out a bit to find the fish in mass, but we were not disappointed......it is on par with the amount of fish we experienced on our Shark Boy tour in Bora Bora.....aquarium sort of stuff.
After Hideaway Island, we did our obligatory duty free shopping at Wing Fei (the last shop on the left of the main drag when heading out of town) and the prices were super cheap and as usual, much cheaper than on board the ship. The duty free shop on board had a sale and guaranteed that they were cheaper than on land, which sucked a lot of people in (including me unfortunately!!), but alas, they are not. DO NOT BUY ON BOARD.......Port Vila is the only place to get your duty free grog and cigs. Don't be tempted to buy anywhere else.
Costs in Port Vila
Taxi into/out of town - AUD5 for 2 people is a good price (Most taxis offer AUD10)
Taxi to Hideaway Island - AUD50 return for 2 people (pay the lot at the end of the day to ensure the driver returns and picks you up)
2 Bottles of Gordon Gin (1 litre) at Wing Fei - AUD20 for both!!
Carton of 250 cigs at Wing Fei - AUD35
Was well organised and spaced out. As the area where the luggage is collected is very small, only 5 colour codes of luggage could be displayed any given time. As one colour code luggage is collected, it is replaced with the next. If you decide to disembark before your colour code is due, your luggage won't be there for collection. Taxis were plentiful and waiting
P&O do things very differently to Princess. After cruising for so long with princess, it was hard to get use to the P&O ways. You definitely get better service and value for money with Princess.
I would not cruise with P&O again I am afraid. If you don't drink alcohol, plan to not do any spa treatments and get mediocre service and attention, then this ship is for you!!
PRINCESS FOR ME!!!!