Pacific Pearl cruise P131 Sydney October 9 - 20. 'Pacific Sunsets' - 5 Ports: Vanuatu - Luganville, Wala, Champagne Bay, Port Vila; New Caledonia - Lifou.
Travel to Sydney was easy via private vehicle and the parking arrangements at Darling Harbour for the cruises are easy to deal with, with no cost.
Embarkation process was fairly easy and painless, and seemed to go smoothly. Given that our cabin was on deck 5 midships near the Atrium we also easily located it, and subsequently had a smooth trip (mostly). The first three 'sea days' were quite smooth, as were the subsequent sailings to the ports. There was then about a day and a half of rough swell, I estimated at times up to about 8 metres, with what I would describe as about a constant 5 metre swell, thankfully not too many actual waves. The sick bags were put out and at times many people appeared to be in their cabins (based on the lack of people seen). This being my families second cruise we prepared for it this time, by taking medication as a preventative measure, and no doubt the fact our cabin was in a fairly central location helped as well. Our precautions and cabin selection certainly seemed to save us the hassle and pain experienced two years ago (granted, first cruise) of our son getting a needle. No such problems this time. I definitely recommend going for a mid level and midship type window cabin as a minimum.
The 'stateroom' for the three of us (Mum, dad, child) seemed spacious enough and there was loads of drawer space for the too many clothes we took with us. I would say however, that in regard to being 'refitted' the extent of that in the cabins is likely only the flat screen Tv's. Further evidence of this was discovered on a search one day when we thought we had misplaced a piece of clothing, and subsequent pulling out of a drawer found items of clothing not belonging to us, along with photographs of people from a 2008 cruise on Ocean Village (Pearl's previous name). We have decided to try and find the people ourselves (perhaps with this websites help) through the internet. Our cabin steward was friendly and kept the cabin clean and tidy, with a good supply of towels and had the uncanny knack of hardly being seen, but tidying up as needed (even when we had the occasional sleep in).
Others had some issues with their cabins, and there appeared to be more than one location on the ship where toilets had overflowed in cabins, with blowers seen in halls and from what was heard carpets replaced, but no major gripes heard in regard to this.
The placement of public access toilets seems to need some work, or at least some co-ordination of the cleaning schedules, with many occasions finding a toilet being cleaned, directed to another level and that one also being cleaned (for us being midship, often quicker and easier to go to our own cabin). Not too many breakdowns of the public toilet system, though most are probably caused by persons putting items down them that they shouldn't, of course depending on where a breakdown happens it can affect cabins as well (obviously a system that needs some work). For us personally though, no real dramas with access to facilities.
Kids club. Our son was in Turtle Cove, with friends also having children in Turtle Cove and Shark Shack. All of the kids known to us (7 in all) always wanted to go, and were by no means 'dumped' by the parents involved. With the ability to be able to authorise friends to drop off and pick up, along with older kids (8 and over) being able to be given sign in/out privileges (up to a certain time) the process wasn't too painful. Though the entrance to/from is fairly narrow and bottle necks occurred at times when group 'non sign in' activities had finished and the club was re-opened with the subsequent rush creating a bottleneck. Though there seemed to be no issues with a laid back bunch on this cruise. The kids seemed to like the activities, and for those that didn't want to do them, there were PlayStation's and the like. There were activities advertised for shark shack to play playstation up on the big screen on Deck 12, but apparently only a few were selected for this, which no doubt may cause dramas for some parents with certain types of children, though no major issues were heard on this cruise.
Activities/Entertainment. Activities generally seemed okay, particularly for those of us into trivia (apart from the 65 cruise 'veterans' who new all of the recycled questions, but were beaten a few times). Though given the presence of children and teenagers many 'adult' type comedy shows and the like were on late, which for those of us with children meant at times missing out. I did hear some complaints of others about the lack of activities, and perhaps for those that don't like trivia, bingo or a lecture on quilling, activities would be lacking. The entertainment such as the singer/dancers put on a good show, as did the comedian. The magician/illusionist was excellent, but unfortunately was only on for one show. The 'Marquee' where shows are held has seating and sight issues that should probably be addressed. The cruise director Zoltina-J (apparently the only Australian crew member on board) was vivacious and outgoing, with an exceptional assistant director Willie, ably assisted by Gareth. The 'entertainment team' was apparently down on two members but still managed to run the activities with assistance of dance crew members. Outside activities may have suffered due to the missing two members.
Dining. Plantation. The plantation is the buffet and we used it at all times for breakfast, sometimes for lunch, and never at dinner time. The breakfast selection seemed to leave very little for anyone to complain about and we had no complaints in regard to the variety on offer, with Soy milk available on request, and full cream and skim always on hand in jugs. The cutlery, trays and plates were always initially issued by a crew member and all people entering Plantation and Waterfront had to use sanitizer (a good thing upon seeing some not washing hands in rest rooms).
The lunch service generally had a good selection, but the drink service left a lot to be desired. On more than one occasion it was quicker to go out onto deck 12 to the bar or a cart to order a drink and bring it back in, than wait for the at times non existent waiter to come and take drink orders.
We took a few lunches in the Waterfront Restaurant and the drink service was bordering on appalling. At times, it would take 20 minutes or more just to place an initial order, and if you had managed to order and receive an initially drink, you could just about forget on ordering a second one later. There seemed to be a distinct lack of drink waiters on the lunch service, luckily they always filled up the glasses on the table with water, or you would have gone thirsty.
At dinner service, ourselves and friends had the same table each night and our waiter did an admirable job along with his assistant. I say admirable as when he was with us he was very attentive, particularly to the children, but appeared rushed. A cake was also organised by him for one of the children in our group who had a birthday on board. I believe they may have been down on wait staff as well. The meals seemed generally good, but temperature was at times an issue, as was timing of entrees and mains, and I found the dessert selection disappointing. My wife requested in advance lactose free meals and this was accommodated, even on an evening when she indicated that the menu the next day had nothing to appeal, our waiter had the food and beverage supervisor approach us and organised for specific meals for my wife. We were quite happy just to go to the buffet, and certainly made no fuss about it, but they went above and beyond in providing a special meal the next night, with the supervisor coming by to check. That was exceptional service. The drink service again suffered in the Waterfront, but was not quite as bad as the lunch service. The staff and supervisors all seemed to do good jobs, and likely just a bit of tweaking is needed to improve drink service. I suspect that staff numbers is likely an issue.
Other. Photographs. Overpriced. The photographs taken by the onboard photographers were overpriced, and at times poorly taken (eyes closed, come on!!). Worse still, even after people had gathered all of their photos behind one (thus saving space) and were considering possible purchase, they were all thrown out without warning, signs were then put up after the fact requesting that unwanted photos be handed in. Personally didn't do shopping on board, but I was reliably informed that everything is overpriced. Better to shop at ports (Vila) for genuine duty free.
Ports. The tender service to Wala, Champagne bay and the like was well run, a vast improvement on our Pacific Dawn experience two years ago. I would caution the value of P & O run shore excursions. Took one in Luganville, and the van was un air conditioned with vinyl seats (advertised as A/C), luckily being from a hot weather area not too much of a concern for us, but others would have issues. The 'free' walking tour (donations requested) we took on wala seemed like better value than the paid trip at luganville, with more tribes people involved and more activities shown. The water at all ports was beautifuly clear, but unfortunately a few of us got some rashes from the Champagne Bay visit, which was likely down to sea lice of sorts, not too bad though and lasted only a day or so. Vila is the place (in Vanuatu) to save any duty free shopping for. All ports on the cruise accepted Australian currency, and given we were in Vila on a Sunday we still had quite a few shops to look at, a long with self organised tours. Some may find the touting of the local taxi drivers at the port confronting, but our group of seven managed to get a good air conditioned van with a good driver for the day for a good price. Vila is a place my family and I intend to return to.
Disembarkation was well organised and painless.
In summary, I would say that as long as someone isn't expecting a 5 star experience, then P & O offer value for money. If someone goes on board ready to pick nits, they'll find issues, but if you go on in holiday mode and go with the flow, it's a good experience. Even those of us laid back and relaxed, notice things like poor drink service, but even then you generally manage to live with it. The ship had some creaks and groans when in the rough seas, and the cabins certainly haven't been refurbished, but I would say that for a family after a value for money experience, you can't go much wrong with P & O Australia.