Dream Cruises is one of the most intriguing cruise lines to enter Australia. So strong is the interest in its 1,856-passenger Explorer Dream, it’s risen from out of nowhere to become the fifth most visited ship on Cruise Critic. The low fares -- less than $600 for seven nights if you snapped up a recent deal -- have attracted many people. Others, from true-blue Aussies to Asian-Australians, may be wondering how the company’s Hong Kong heritage affects the experience. Nostalgic curiosity has also played a part for past passengers of SuperStar Virgo, the former identity of Explorer Dream.
After four days onboard, we have had enough time to form our first impressions. But here’s the most important point: the ship is in a transitional phase as it settles into its summer home of Sydney. CEO Michael Goh is onboard, along with Dream Cruises’ local sales and marketing team, so they are still learning what we do and don’t like. In response to all the feedback, changes are already being made, such as adding pop-up bars to the pool deck and extending dining hours.
Here’s what we have noticed, keeping in mind that some of these things may change in the future.
1. The ship is spacious, clean, quiet and refurbished.
While other lines are deploying bigger ships down under, it’s refreshing to have a mid-size ship. Explorer Dream is 75,338 GT, with wide, open spaces and an old-fashioned promenade deck that can be walked around without obstructions. There are no queues, no crowds, plenty of seating and fewer bars than other ships in Australia. The quiet ambience is more like a luxury line, and the lovely crew are doing their best to meet Australians' expectations.
Refurbished this year, the whole vessel received new carpet, new or revamped restaurants and lounges, a Lobby Cafe and 42 additional suites. All cabins scored new bed linen, new mini-fridges and new wallpaper to brighten up the decor. It's not a total transformation, but it's a wonderfully spacious ship that doesn't pack every inch with more and more stuff.
2. The Palace is the place to be.
The Palace is a VIP section at the back of the ship with larger, luxurious suites and an exclusive pool, restaurant, bar, club lounge and even a private casino. Outdoors is a cascade of cabanas, sofas and sun-loungers spreading across three tiers, like a stadium, overlooking the ocean. Only people booked in The Palace suites have access, as well as free dining and drinks, in these venues.
Other passengers can see The Palace from the Lido’s outdoor deck (what a tease!) but we haven’t observed anyone sitting at the tables and chairs, and only a few couples in the cabanas. This area might get busier when more Australians dominate the passenger mix as the local season progresses.
The Palace guests receive free Wi-Fi, in-suite minibar, butler service, a cocktail party with the captain, poolside barbecue, seven meals at four of the specialty restaurants, fitness classes and access to the spa’s pool and sauna. They also get a beverage package that otherwise costs $338 per person (for unlimited beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks) or $615 with the addition of spirits.
Our Suggestion: If the sun deck continues to be largely unused, consider offering a limited number of day passes for non-Palace guests -- for a fee, to keep it semi-exclusive.
3. Activities and entertainment offer something new.
If you want to try new things at sea, Explorer Dream is your ship. Ladies Night features Dream Boys, described as “sexy and muscular male dancers… who will melt you down with their powerful, hot and seductive moves”. Whoa, we can hardly wait for Friday night!
Other theatre productions are impressive, presented by a talented cast. The Voyage of a Lover's Dream is an entertaining variety show of singing, dancing, acrobatics and aerialist performances. Love Around the World is one of the better music and dance shows at sea, starring ballroom dance champions who take the enthusiastic audience on a whirlwind tour through salsa, samba, tango and more.
Explorer Dream has seven different parties for the seven nights of every voyage. Themes include 70s, glow-in-the-dark, masquerade, Mexican fiesta, pyjama party and a white party. This week, as it's late October, we have Bierfest and Halloween, too. Not many people have got into costume on our cruise, but Halloween should be fun tomorrow as the afternoon program is full of face painting and craft classes to make spooky accessories.
Regular daytime activities include bridge tours to meet the captain, magic and juggling classes, laughter yoga, soap carving, balloon twisting, virtual reality experiences and various workshops to make friendship bracelets, bookmarks, potpourri and finger puppets. Of course, there's the usual bingo, trivia, sports and fitness, video games, spa treatments, live music, lectures and movies on the lobby's big screen, too. The spa prices are cheaper than other cruise lines, by the way, and we've heard the one-hour foot reflexology ($68 + tip) is amazing.
4. Fare inclusions are different.
Experienced cruisers will notice some things are included that usually aren’t, and some things not included that usually are.
The good news is all cabins have unexpected freebies, including bottled water (two per day), slippers (which you can keep), bathrobes (which you can’t) and toiletries such as toothpaste and toothbrushes, along with shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion. You can request complimentary shaving kits, cotton pads, cotton buds, shower caps, sewing kits and combs. Every cabin has a fridge and a kettle, plus tea bags and instant coffee, and a flat-screen TV with lots of movie channels for no extra charge.
On the other hand, the kids clubs are only free for two hours per day and then it costs $30 an hour ($45 an hour for children aged two to five). This is likely because Asian families prefer to spend most of the day together, but this expense will not be popular with Australian parents who value the option of all-day free childcare on cruises.
Unfortunately, there is no free poolside food or free icecream. Some small items attract an extra charge, such as $3 for a muffin or $1 for a cookie at the Lobby Cafe on Deck 7, even if you buy a coffee; however, you can get free cake slices, brownies and other desserts at the Lido on Deck 12.
The onboard currency is Australian dollars, which is great, but 10 percent GST and 18 percent service charge is added to all food and beverages, so a $12 cocktail turns into $15. Daily gratuities used to be charged to your account but are now included in fares.
Our Suggestion: Scrap the charges for kids club and small food items. Most Australians would rather pay an extra $30 on the cruise fare than get a bill for $30 worth of cakes and cookies. We would also prefer to see the final price, including tax and tip, on menus before we pay.
5. Passengers are different, too.
Our roundtrip cruise from Sydney to Newcastle, Gladstone, Mooloolaba and Brisbane is a mix of Asians and Australians. It’s expected that locals will make up a greater proportion of remaining sailings. Most couples are aged in their 40s to 60s, and there are very few children onboard this week (60 kids out of about 1,200 passengers).
People are polite and friendly and we haven’t spotted any drunken debauchery. Reading and relaxing by day, then a few evening drinks with live music seems to be the routine. Despite the emphasis on themed nights, it’s not a wild party boat. (Ask us again after Ladies Night with the Dream Boys.)
6. Smoking is permitted on cabin balconies.
Explorer Dream is the only ship based in Australia that allows smoking on balconies of cabins, which is a rare treat for smokers. However, this policy may turn off non-smoking Australians from booking a cruise -- or at least choosing a balcony cabin. As non-smokers, we were concerned but we haven’t smelled any smoke when sitting on our balcony. Honestly, we smell more smoke on other ships where everyone is concentrated into one area that you have to walk through. Smoking is also permitted in the casino (which we have avoided), the humidor room and designated areas on outdoor decks.
7. Dining is a mixed bag.
Free food is available in the main dining room (Western), Lido buffet (international) and Pavilion (Chinese, breakfast only). When those are closed, snacks are served from the Lido’s outdoor deck, which is also where they hide the chef making omelettes and fried eggs. Aside from those freshly cooked items, our selections have been tasty but often lukewarm; however it’s too soon to judge the overall quality. Live cooking stations sometimes appear on the pool deck, but these events aren't always listed in the Dream Daily newsletter, so are easy to miss.
Non-included dining venues are excellent, except for the price tag. For example, Umi Uma Teppanyaki (Japanese) is lots of fun, fresh, delicious and very generous with multiple courses, but starts at $62 per person, which is around twice the price that other cruise lines charge for specialty restaurants. A good bargain is Blue Lagoon, where meals are around $8 and there's a late-night 'supper special' from 11pm to 1am, when everything is slashed to $2. Many of the officers eat here, so it must be good.
Later this week we will have dinner at Australian chef Mark Best’s new Seafood Grill. If his cooking demonstration and champagne brunch are any indication of what’s to come, it might just be the best meal on the ship. We’re also yet to try the new Italian eatery and pizzeria, Chinese fine dining at Silk Road, the matcha ice cream parlour and poolside gelato.
Our Suggestion: Reduce the cost of specialty restaurants. Extend the inclusive restaurant hours for breakfast on port days when everything is shut by 9.30am.
Mid-Voyage Verdict: Explorer Dream doesn’t hide its Asian background; in fact, it celebrates its various cuisines and offers some fresh ideas for activities and entertainment. It's likely to appeal to Australians who don’t need everything to be full Aussie or half American as well as those who prefer a quieter, mid-size ship. Base fares are good value but some tweaking of onboard pricing would be warmly welcomed. Our full review will be published soon, after the cruise line has finalised its changes for Australians.