Having downsized our large property after our children left home we’re now in a situation where we can spend money on traveling to the places that we have been dreaming about for years, the question was where to start first? Having done a reasonable amount of Australia when our children were growing up, we decided that a trip to our local House of Travel in Motueka to investigate cruising was the best place to start.
Friends and family had already been on Princess Line cruises with great feedback on how much they had enjoyed themselves. After seeing what was available to suit our schedule and what we considered to be the best value we decided on the Fiji Encounter with P&O and promptly booked and paid for our tickets.
Excitedly we returned home and started further researching our dream breakaway only to be horrified by the online reviews of what seemed to be the holiday from hell so if you’ve just found yourself in this situation I want you to take a breath and relax, Pacific Aria is not five stars but be realistic you haven’t paid for five stars so if you board Aria with a determination to have a great holiday you won’t be disappointed.
The ship; Pacific Aria is the smallest ship in the P&O fleet but still packs in all the features that you would expect on the larger ships just on a smaller scale. I would have to say that the Aria is not the greatest ship that I’ve traveled on after we encountered a few days of rough weather, neither of us suffers from motion sickness but there were onboard reports of our fellow travelers struggling with the conditions. Our advice would be to take a sea legs tablet the day before you depart and keep taking them for the remainder of your cruise if you’re concerned about seasickness.
We had a balcony room on deck 10 and the condition of the room had lost a bit of its gloss from new and could do with a refresh up. Still, it was very clean, and our room Stewart’s were amazing at keeping it spotless. Again, the Aria is not five stars and we spent very little time in our cabin anyway. The restaurants and bars have faired better and still retain a lot of the original shine.
Dining; This is where we feel that the Aria has been unfairly slammed the most in online reviews, so we took special note of what was on offer. The Pantry, is where you can eat as much as you like pretty much when you like and has a good selection on café type food it looked well stocked and clean we only had one quick lunch here and it seemed to be on par with other cafes that we’ve grabbed a quick bite at when in a hurry. In short nothing spectacular but by no means bad.
The Waterfront restaurant is where you can dine for all three meals on sea days and has a varied menu with great service. We tried a bit of everything, and it was nicely prepared if slightly lacking in imagination. Again, they’re preparing a lot of meals and dealing with a lot of dietary needs, so we gave them a solid 7 for food and a 10 for service.
Angelo’s is one of the two specialty restaurants onboard the Aria that is included in your fare and is well worth a visit. We dined there twice and sampled both menus A and menu B. Angelo’s has beautiful décor and good service. We gave Angelo’s an 8 for food and an 8 for the overall dining experience.
The Dragon Lady; “Wow” This is not what we expected when we paid our fare, we would have to rate Dragon Lady as one of the best restaurants that we’ve dined at. This is qualified by over forty years of combined experience in the hospitality and service sectors. We gave menu A, a well-deserved 10 and Menu B a solid 8. Service was exceptional. We dined there on four occasions and would’ve gladly eaten there every night. This is the best GF menu that we’ve ever seen, anywhere! Just needs another GF dessert option on menu B.
Salt Grill by Luke Mangan; This is billed as the best dining experience onboard P&O and is the only place where you have to pay an additional surcharge so we were looking forward to something special and at the risk of upsetting our Aussie brothers and sisters we were underwhelmed with both the menu and the service. The food is good, it’s just not as good as it’s hyped up to be and we found the service to be slightly arrogant. In fairness, I do have a GF diet so maybe some of the ingredients had to be removed from the dishes, but this wasn’t an issue elsewhere on Aria. We gave Salt Grill a 7 for the food and a 7 for service.
Entertainment; this is where the Pacific Aria shines as the production shows held in the Marquee are world-class with slick choreography and singing which is supported by great lighting and sound. Our favorite was Johnny Balance the Comedian Magician who had us laughing so much that it hurt. Name that tune with Georgie, Cruise Director Cole’s morning Trivia, Bingo with Cameron, Pacific Popstar and the riotous Rock the Room were some of the other standouts for us.
Unfortunately, the Ocean Bar is just not big enough for all of those wanting to participate in the fun. This is also where the Aria fell short with the themed parties that were a bit of a let down as we had visions of us dancing the night away in a grand setting, but full marks must go to Cole and his wonderful team. If you can’t find something fun to do on the Aria, we would suggest that you check your pulse.
Music and Bars; There is a range of theme bars with matched live music that is of a high standard our favorites were Kawai and Ian Berry, but they were all great. As far as the bars go the Blue Room was the standout for us due to the excellent service and late-night coffees. It’s a great place to chill out reading with a premium coffee during the day or to enjoy live music and a cocktail in the evening.
We would also like to rebuff the online nonsense regarding short poured drinks as the drinks that we watched being made were always prepared using the correct standard measures. Bar hygiene was also of a very high standard.
We weren’t cruising with any children of our own and there was plenty on board, but we hardly ever saw them we can only assume that they were locked away in the engine room or having the time of their lives in the kid’s clubs and pools.
Shore excursions; These were of an acceptable standard for us but we would suggest that P&O send some undercover team along from time to time to make sure that standards are being maintained our tour guides were great on the bus but left us to our devices once we arrived at our destinations. We found a lot more was on offer once we moved away from the group and went exploring on our own. The standout was the amazing cultural shows and singing. The only bad point was the tender trip into Port Denarau which took an hour in very hot and humid conditions.
Overall, we had a great time cruising with P&O and would do it again on one of their bigger ships but in saying that the letdowns due to the size and age of Pacific Aria were expertly papered over by the outstanding crew. Pacific Aria is still a fun place to spend a value-packed holiday and a great introduction into the world of cruising.
David and Gaylene, Motueka NZ.