Returned from the 11-night to Vanuatu (23rd May to 3rd June) on the Pacific Aria and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Looks like all the teething issues were fixed and the food was delightful! I have to admit the reviews scared me a little, but the cruise went so smoothly, I really enjoyed it all (with the exception of the creaky bed in the cabin; more in cabin review).
I think the reason for varying reviews is differences in expectations, and also differences in itinerary. (The three-day ones seem to have Angelo’s and Dragon Lady booked out much more easily, for some reason; on my cruise, people didn’t even know they were free at first, so there was no mad rush. Neither did it end up becoming unbookable at any other point..more at the Food section.) This is my second cruise and to be honest, all I expect is something better/more relaxing than home! If you're interested in more/want to ask me more questions, feel free to contact me on Twitter (@bythebraids).
** Embarkation and Disembarkation **
We arrived to embark at the allocated time. There was a short wait, otherwise everything was smooth. Disembarkation on the way back went super-quickly as well. We were told to vacate our rooms at 7.30am and we did so at 7.20am or so. Our allocated time was Self-Assist 2 (carry your own luggage) which was slated to leave at 8.15am, but an announcement told anyone with their luggage to go to deck six at about 7.40am or so. There were many people at the lifts on deck 8 so we walked down the stairs two floors and disembarked super-quickly, barely a line. Small luggages got to skip waiting for the lifts and just take the escalator down, and from there, it was a straightforward walk out. If you had luggage you needed to wait for, this would obviously take longer. Wooden fridge magnet passed through customs declared, but green braided headband from Isle of Pines didn’t -- I was told that if it were brown and dried, it would have been fine, and we did see some brown ones around when we were there, just didn’t pick up one! So an option if you’re interested.
** What to Bring **
I traveled with my partner and we always try to travel light, which means a carry-on each. (I've also gotten paranoid about missing luggage of late..) I used Asana for my packing checklist, but since I can't link that, have a Pastebin: http://pastebin.com/viimn6mv
|| Notable items: ||
- Fancy clothes: Bring some to dress up for dinner, and if you want to participate in the party nights/really dress up/take pictures with the professional photographers they have around (and join the raffle to get a few of those pictures for free the next day), you can bring props too. On this 11-night cruise we had the Bianco (White), Back to School, and Gatsby parties.
- Snorkel: We got a $25 snorkel from Anaconda. It was okay, but the mask didn't fit me very well, and after the first snorkel, it kept leaking when I used it with the snorkel. :( Was fine without the snorkel. Probably the way I breathed or something..couldn't figure it out. You can also hire a snorkel and mask at locations ($15 at Mystery Island, could not recall any at Champagne Bay, which is the place I enjoyed snorkeling the most), or buy it ($15 or $20 at one kiosk at Mystery Island, only place I've seen it for sale), or 'hire' the mask and fins from P&O for $50. You get a new snorkel for 'free' with that package but it's a cheapo plastic tube P&O one and I don't think it's worth even $10. ^^"
- 12 cans of non-alcoholic drinks: Check this part in case it's changed. Tap water from their desalination plant is freely-available at various locations (bars and food locations) on board, and during every meal. It tasted a bit chlorinated to me on a few occasions (though my partner did not notice a different) but was otherwise fine. Bottled water in the rooms is NOT free. Drinks from the bar (soda, cocktails, wine, etc) are NOT free. Basically, if you can't live without your soda, bring some along. We brought five there and four back..
- Toothbrush and toothpaste: Bring this, but if you forget, $3.50 for a toothbrush is not that much of a ripoff. Soap, shampoo, and conditioner (of dubious quality) is available, more in Cabin review.
- Seasick pills. I didn't get seasick on the Pacific Sun, and was fine on the Aria until the last few days or so, which were pretty rocky. I forgot to check how much they are sold on-board, sorry! Since I brought some from home. But they are definitely not free from the Medical Bay like I heard is the case for some other ships.
** Lifts **
Only time some lifts were not in service was when there was baggage to be loaded on/off the ship, which makes sense. We really enjoyed the lifts too; they were all themed to different locations with wallpaper and custom carpet sets, so stepping in them was a surprise each time.
** Ports **
We had three sea days, five ports, four in Vanuatu and one in New Caledonia.
|| City-type: Luganville (Santo), Port Vila ||
|| Island-type: Champagne Bay, Mystery Island, Isle of Pines ||
Tender process was super smooth for me! I'm not sure why people were still complaining. ._. We woke up at about 8am or so, went for breakfast at the Waterfront for half an hour, (partner) went to get the tender ticket, (while I) came back to change and prepare, and shortly after that our number would be called. I didn't even feel like there was much of a wait at all, it was that fast. Head over to the exit, short queue (at most one tender boat before us), and you would be in. I only had trouble on one time when we returned and they were waiting for the tender boat before us to unload/reload. It took an extra 15-20 minutes or so and I got a little nauseous.
Weather was absolutely beautiful on our trip. We didn't go on any shore tours, nor did we eat anything on shore, but we saw people gorging on lobsters at Champagne Bay ($15 and up) and Mystery Island ($50? and up). We did, however, snorkel a bit. I enjoyed Champagne Bay the most for this; aside from the fizzy sound and the bands of cool water on the end of the beach away from the jetty, it was fairly easy snorkeling. You didn't have to go too deep/far from shore to see quite a bit of intact coral, some with beautiful blue and purple colours, and some fishes. Mystery Island was quite rough, both the waves and the coarser sand, and there were some steep drop-offs that may have had pretty coral formations beyond them, but I wasn't confident enough in my swimming or my snorkel to venture out. Isle of Pines had beautiful soft, fine powder sand. On the side across from the jetty, The Rock was huge and it's really pretty, great for pictures. Unfortunately, the coral and seaweed area was fairly boring snorkeling for me, mostly brown. You could, however, see many fishies there. On the jetty side, there was nothing to see close to shore while snorkeling, but you could enjoy the soft fine sand.
We didn't really do much at the city ports since we didn't go on a shore tour or charter a taxi; it's possible to walk to Luganville from the port, though it's not altogether a pleasant walk with the sun and the rocky surfaces. We did find some nice clear water, though we didn't take out all the gear to snorkel, just sat and waded a little. We didn't try to walk to Port Vila since it seemed substantially further and it was a Sunday (some shops would be closed), and we were lazy. :P
** Internet/Wi-Fi **
The satellite internet on board is a rip-off. You and I both know this without really having to ask. ($10 a day for unlimited social media, I think? Up to something like $99 for the platinum package.) However, if you need it for work or don't mind paying, that's the way to go. An alternative if you don't need it as much as us, and if you're going on the same itinerary, is to buy a SIM in Vanuatu. Your phone has to be unlocked from any other provider. We chose Digicel, which gave us 200MB and 400 Vatu of calls for 700 Vatu (about 8.50AUD). There are a couple of Digicel retailers and one large Digicel shop (conveniently beside an ANZ for currency exchange) on the walk from the wharf to Luganville town, and also a Digicel kiosk at Unity Park. All of them only accept Vatu so you’ll have to have some/change some. We actually got a French Mother's Day bonus so we got 400MB, but don't count on there being a promo when you're there. 200 Vatu for the data package + 500 Vatu for the SIM card. An alternative is the Tourism SIM (1GB) for 1000 Vatu, but I can't find info about this on their website. We went with the cheaper option since didn't expect to use that much, ended up using about 280MB or so. Didn't use the calls, but the internet reception was okay. Especially with the larger ports, it was available on board for hours even after leaving the port. Probably traveled close to shore/a cell tower.
|| Mobile Internet reception at various ports: ||
Luganville, Port Vila: 3G
Champagne Bay, Mystery Island: G
** Food **
The food was good!! Three-course meals all day every day, how can I complain?! The food was of a high quality overall, and I enjoyed it. It was also interesting to have a behind-the-scenes look at the chef's galley, and the cooking presentation given by the maitre d'hotel and head chef was amusing and entertaining.
I had zero issue with getting bored with the food offered. I traveled with my partner, and we try each other's food. The breakfast menu at Waterfront wasn't very large and we did overlap a few times, but for lunch (Waterfront) and dinner (Mix of Waterfront, Angelo’s, and Dragon Lady) we basically never ordered the same main. (Except intentionally) In 11 days.
We mainly ate at the Waterfront when we could wake up in time, otherwise grabbed something quick from the Pantry. Now, some of the Pantry food didn't look that great -- I basically avoided anything from the Roast section since it looked dry and it's not really my thing anyway. (I did miss a night when they had ham..don't think you can overcook that but pity I was too full to try it.) But if you don't like how it looks, you don't have to have it. Just head on down to Waterfront instead! Or for dinner, Angelo's or Dragon Lady. Pantry does have many desserts and, of course, fruit salad. The Sugar Bar was my favourite part of the Pantry. :) I would actually go up to the Pantry to have my second dessert dinner there, ahaha. Kettle Bun is open even when the rest of the Pantry stalls are closed, so you can grab a lunch at a weird time. Their soups can be quite nice, and you can ask for plain breadrolls to dip in it. They also sometimes offer cheese plates, with swiss, brie, cheddar, crackers, dried apricots, dried bananas.
All meals are served with a carafe of water (tap water from their desalination plant, I think). At Waterfront, breakfast comes with butter, milk and small containers of marmalade, raspberry jam, honey and vegemite at the table. You are offered tea/coffee, orange juice/apple juice (you can also request grapefruit juice/tomato juice), white/brown toast, and croissants/danishes. We barely touched the containers and butter! You know why? Too busy eating two courses actually from the breakfast menu!
Waterfront lunch and dinner comes with butter and a generous basket of something like six bread rolls. The two of us ate at most two rolls each, mostly just one or none. I felt so bad sending it back thinking it would probably go to waste, and once tried to send it back when we started the meal, but it didn’t really happen until the waiter got around to it anyway..
I have to be honest. One of the main reasons I went on this ship is for the wasabi creme brulee. And it didn't disappoint! My first tasted great but was a bit overcooked. Undeterred, I returned on the second last day and this time, it was the perfect creme brulee. (Though a bit too much jam. ^^")
Service was good and attentive. Breakfast at the Waterfront took about half an hour, give 45 mins for dinner, which I consider fairly reasonable for two/three courses.
All the food is currently free, but this may change in future.
-Waterfront (sit-down dining breakfast, lunch, dinner. Dinner menu changed daily, breakfast menu changed once halfway through the journey.)
-Pantry (assisted-style dining at least one stall is open all day until night, though it may only be serving things like wraps and soup if it's between major mealtimes.)
Waterfront food was often fancier version of food served upstairs in the Pantry, which I didn't mind since it was all fairly good. (Some of the items are unique, but you could tell others shared major elements.)
Currently free, but may have a cover charge in future:
-Angelo's (Italian dinner)
-Dragon Lady (Pan-Asian dinner) * Try the wasabi creme brulee, apple milkshake, tofu stir fry, soft shell crab
Bookings taken via phone or in person on 8AFT from 9am to 4pm daily. No need to wake up super early for this, there were plenty of spots sometimes even in the afternoon, if you don't mind eating earlier at 5.30pm or later at 8pm. On our cruise, it was obvious that Angelo's was more popular than Dragon Lady.
Definitely not free:
-Luke Mangan's Salt Grill ($39 for lunch, $49 for dinner, bookings required)
-The Grill (hotdogs, pizza, and stuff)
-New Zealand Ice Cream
** Entertainment **
We mainly went for the craft lessons (those ran by Maria in the Dome were great; those ran in the Ocean Bar, not so. I don't think it's the best location for craft lessons, it always seems crowded, plus it's not easy to instruct at that area.), dance lessons, and the feature shows. Not really into the live music scene, though some of it was nice. (Also shout out to the Sound Blasters, who provided passengers with Live Karaoke on the last night. You guys are awesome, thank you so much!)
Overall turnout for small events was from about 10-50, so really not that much for a ship of 1000+ passengers! There was some repetition, especially evident on the last few days, but overall fairly fun.
Feature shows were mostly of solid quality. I was not a fan of Gary Who, but liked Rebecca de Unamuno. Monique Montez was great until she said she would give out free CDs and turns out the autograph you have to get with it is $20. -wry- Dancers and singers worked really hard and though I didn't know more than half of the songs they did in routines, it was still enjoyable.
Also, the Elemis 'Pamper Party' needs to put more Pamper in its Party. It was basically a sit-down-on-hard-chair self-mini-facial where you get to try their products. I wasn't too impressed, guess it's not really for my skin.
** Fitness/Spa **
Aria comes with a fairly-well-equipped gym. There're weights, some weight machines (some I'd never seen before, but then again, I don't frequent gyms. Weight machine for your inner thighs, anyone?!), I think about five treadmills and stepper machines each, and two sit-down cycles. The cycles were sad. One of them had a seat that was jammed into position rather far back. But I guess most people don't use them anyway. XD
The spa is Elemis at Sea, and offers swanky (expensive) treatments such as acupuncture, saunas, various massages, and botox. How does botox at sea even work? What if you just happen to hit a large wave? >.> I went for their tour for the raffle and was worried about the hard sell people mentioned but there was none. Maybe my tolerance for selling is higher than others’. If you join their raffle, be warned that most if not all of their treatments are over the $100 mark, so a $50 voucher isn't going to do you much good; I 'won' the silent raffle and got a $50 voucher for treatments costing $170 or so. I didn't take it. If you enjoy chilling out at a sauna area with its own pantry with cookies (I think), though, there's a package for $200 or so per couple that gives you unlimited access to that area. I have a friend who went for that.
Thoroughly enjoyed the Ladies-only casino event which came with a free cocktail (a Mimosa), $5 non-negotiable chip (might not be the case for every cruise) and taught us a game we were assigned to, which we played with mock chips. I thought I knew about Black Jack but turns out I only knew the surface! We also got to have a chance dealing the cards out, which was fun.
We also got a $5 non-negotiable chip as part of a Cruiseling passport deal, which you can try to get lucky with on the Roulette table, and also used the mobile casino promo (Charge $10, play $10, get $10) as well as ten free 5-slot spins available on certain nights. Mobile casino was available for free, you don’t need a wifi package to visit the site. I got about a 0.75 return rate playing Hi-Lo. Don’t forget to charge your winnings back to your bank and collect it at the casino. (It doesn’t automatically go into your cruise account.)
I enjoyed Champagne Bay the most for snorkeling; aside from the fizzy sound and the bands of cool water on the end of the beach away from the jetty, it was fairly easy snorkeling. You didn't have to go too deep/far from shore to see quite a bit of intact coral, some with beautiful blue and purple colours, and some fishes.
We didn't really do much at the city ports since we didn't go on a shore tour or charter a taxi; it's possible to walk to Luganville from the port, though it's not altogether a pleasant walk with the sun and the rocky surfaces. We did find some nice clear water, though we didn't take out all the gear to snorkel, just sat and waded a little.
Mystery Island was quite rough, both the waves and the coarser sand, and there were some steep drop-offs that may have had pretty coral formations beyond them, but I wasn't confident enough in my swimming or my snorkel to venture out.
We didn't try to walk to Port Vila since it seemed substantially further and it was a Sunday (some shops would be closed), and we were lazy.
Isle of Pines had beautiful soft, fine powder sand. On the side across from the jetty, The Rock was huge and it's really pretty, great for pictures. Unfortunately, the coral and seaweed area was fairly boring snorkeling for me, mostly brown. You could, however, see many fishies there. On the jetty side, there was nothing to see close to shore while snorkeling, but you could enjoy the soft fine sand.