Although Pacific Dawn has been plying the waters of Australia and the South Pacific for more than four years, there was plenty of news surrounding the veteran ship when we boarded for an 11-night Pacific Islands cruise from Brisbane last September. One was a new itinerary, affording passengers an overnight stay and some new shore excursions options in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital. Another was that Dawn had undergone a major makeover earlier in the year, updating not only the ship's tired decor but also its less-than-sparkling facilities, bringing it more closely in line with Pacific Jewel and Pacific Pearl, the more recent newcomers to the P&O Australia fleet.
Like many of our fellow Australian shipmates, we booked this cruise to shake off the winter doldrums and doff swimmers and shorts to hit the beach once again. A leisurely itinerary, featuring plenty of idyllic beach havens in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, was ideal. We were also keen to check out the ship's new improvements. After arriving in Brisbane to early spring high temperatures, and with great weather forecast for the trip, the only thing left to do was to hop onboard and spend the next 10 days exploring a revitalized ship and some lovely islands. Bring on a cold beer and some sunscreen!
On a warm spring afternoon, we cruised out of Hamilton with the skyline glittering behind us and the open ocean stretching away from the mouth of the Brisbane River. The sailaway party was on the Lido Deck, and it was great to catch our breath after the bustle of boarding a cruise ship with nearly 2,000 other holidaymakers. Everyone ventured outside into the sunshine to join the party, and it undoubtedly set the stage for some of the festivities to come. There were drinks all round, live music and even a brief appearance by the ship's famous acrobatic troupe, Pacific Cirque. The party rocked on well into the open ocean a few hours later, until the task of unpacking and the need to make ready for the first evening onboard beckoned.
They'd given us a snapshot of their skills during the sailaway party, but Pacific Cirque still had some surprises in store for its full-production performance on our first sea day. When the show was announced, it caused quite a flurry of excitement among passengers, from repeat cruisers who'd seen this amazing Colombian group's acrobatics before to us, who'd only heard about them. During the sensational 45-minute display, the half-dozen artists, dressed in dazzling costumes, performed segments of juggling and acrobatics on the floor and impressive trapeze art in the air. The performers swung upside down from harnesses and circled the room while hanging by their feet from a hoop suspended from the ceiling three stories above us. A word to the wise: Arrive early, or you won't get a seat.
We arrived in Noumea on a sunny but cool morning. With a good forecast, we ventured out on a ship's tour to visit all the local sights, including the Church of La Conception and the Ouen Toro lookout. A highlight, however, was at the end of the tour. With some free time to spend in the small beach community of Ansa Vata, many headed for the nearest shop or bar. But, for a small group of romantics, the rapidly setting sunset proved too alluring, so we headed across to the beach to enjoy it. Before heading back to the bus, we had the chance to watch some locals playing a game of boules in the dying light, paying homage to the island's distinctly French heritage.
We're caffeine addicts, and finding a decent espresso or cappuccino on a cruise ship can be a huge challenge. The first thing we did after boarding was seek out the new Cafe, formerly the fresh juice bar on Deck 14. It has an air-conditioned interior and some outdoor seating, so you can enjoy the fresh air and the entertainment on the new outdoor movie screen. We mainly cared about the quality of the coffee, and we weren't disappointed. In fact, the crew working there were so efficient they learned our names and our habits very quickly. "Two double-shot cappuccinos for Mr. Ben and Ms. Joanna!" they'd declare, before we'd gotten through the door. Now that's service.
In our second port of call in New Caledonia, the Isle of Pines, we had inside information from a crewmember that snorkeling the Natural Aquarium was the best thing to do. After a scenic bus ride to Oro Bay, we walked through a waterway for about 15 minutes to a lagoon hidden inside the reef. Depending on the tide, the water can be as little as ankle deep to as high as waist height, so it's a tour requiring only swimmers, a rash vest and a towel. Although the air temperature was a little cool, the lagoon's azure water was surprisingly warm and teeming with tropical fish and marine life. The result was a truly unique snorkeling experience, combined with a great way to walk off a bit of that cruise ship cuisine.
A pretty, uninhabited islet nestling at the extreme southern end of the island chain of Vanuatu, Mystery Island has remained virtually unchanged over time; there are no phones and no electricity, with only a few huts for overnight visitors and some walking trails. Imagine my surprise, then, to meet a gorgeous tabby cat within five minutes of setting foot on dry land. Turns out that he belonged to one of the local families, who come over to the islet by boat from a neighboring island to serve drinks and sell crafts when cruise ships are in. Normally a haven for snorkeling, the sea was a little choppy that day, and it was slightly overcast, so we opted to walk along the trails and beaches instead.
Wala is the unspoiled home of some 300 friendly and smiley Ni-Vanuatu locals. Besides chatting with the locals, visitors have three things to do there: go for a walk, snorkel or just laze on the beach. The white-sand beach is fringed with palms and has coral gardens just offshore. You'll find plenty of quiet spots to call your own, even with some 1,500 other overexcited cruise passengers ashore. While waiting for a tender to the ship, we watched a group of local Vanuatuan children, who had hooked up with some Aussie kids from the ship. They were playing chase, chatting and burying each other in the sand. It didn't seem to matter that they were from very different worlds, and not all could speak the same language.
Lee Oliver, Pacific Dawn's cruise director, is a breezy character who flits around the ship, mingling with passengers on his way to host one activity or another. When we first met him, he made a point of telling us not to miss Island Night, one of several theme evenings on our 11-night cruise. Island Night is a massive deck party, where everyone is encouraged to dress up in Hawaiian shirts, sarongs and flip flops and dance the night away to the Village People and ABBA, brightly colored cocktails in hand. Captain Wilson had tipped us off that he was planning to steam across the strait from Wala to Champagne Bay so we could anchor offshore for the evening, giving us plenty of shelter from the evening breeze. He did, and a balmy, fun night was had by all.
Champagne Bay, Vanuatu, is a gorgeous slice of paradise, famous for its sweeping curve of pristine white sand, fringed by palm trees with a movie-set mountain backdrop. Located on the northeastern coastline of the island of Espiritu Santo, it's unquestionably a highlight of the itinerary; passengers were talking about it days before we dropped anchor. There isn't much to do there, but that's rather the point. Once the tender drops you off, the only thing you have to concern yourself with is deciding on which quiet patch of sand to lay your towel, and getting into the enticing azure water to swim and cool off. You may feel compelled to just stand there and drink in the tranquility and unspoiled beauty of such a remote spot.
The overnight stay in Port Vila is a welcome new addition to the itinerary. With so much to do in Vanuatu's capital, it gave everyone an opportunity to see the sights, pump some adrenaline in the more active shore tours and shop for duty-free goods. We opted to try a new tour -- a lighthearted bar crawl of Port Vila, combined with some food-tasting. Our two friendly guides, armed with a guitar, escorted our initially demure group to four popular watering holes. Three had great views of the harbor, and by far the favorite drink had by all was the local brew, Tusker beer. There's nothing quite like some alcohol to loosen up one's inhibitions; the tour may have started out quietly, but four hours later, on the way back to the ship, we enjoyed a hearty sing-along and some outrageous storytelling.
On our second day in port, we headed into town for an exhilarating 20-minute bird's-eye view of Port Vila and its surrounds. We boarded the chopper with two other Aussies, a former air force pilot and a woman who'd never flown in a helicopter before -- and who was both petrified and overexcited as a result. As we swooped into the sky, she quickly became intoxicated with the scenery revealing itself below, as we all did. Our chopper pilot, a New Zealander, whisked us around the area, pointing out various landmarks, including millionaire villas, fancy resorts, and a lavish "captured by police" mega-yacht anchored offshore that was believed to have been used for drug running.
If there's one thing that has improved hugely on Pacific Dawn, it's the culinary offerings. From Luke Mangan's fine-dining Salt Grill to the new Pan-Asian venue La Luna, there's plenty for budding and seasoned gourmands to enjoy. Another addition to the lineup in the makeover, however, is a New Zealand Natural ice cream bar. For those who aren't familiar with the brand, we're talking premium quality, seriously good sweet treats. I rarely eat ice cream, but with warm weather every day, it became harder and harder to ignore the brightly colored bar on my way to the open deck. Eventually I succumbed -- and paid the AU$5 for a single scoop of Chocolate Hokey Pokey, a flavor custom-made for P&O Australia. It was absolutely delicious.