Marquee Theatre (Deck 5): The main theatre seats 550 people and has two nightly sessions to give everyone a chance to catch each show. Expect to see song-and-dance routines, magicians, comedians, tribute bands and the new swing music production, Let's Misbehave, set in a 1930s nightclub. The venue was upgraded in the 2017 refurbishment, receiving a massive LCD screen on stage to displays the set. This avoids the cumbersome wheeling out of sets for each new scene, and no doubt frees up some backstage space for the performers. With ever-changing backgrounds, this new screen adds a lot of high-tech oomph to the stage design. During the day, the Marquee is used for bingo, game shows, culinary demonstrations (followed by a galley tour), a kids' talent show and some of The Edge activities.
Black Circus (Deck 7): Pacific Explorer benefits from a second, smaller theatre, effectively doubling the live show options at night. Intended for cabaret performances, Black Circus aims to have a supper club vibe but the layout lets it down. There are no full-size tables where you could actually eat supper, nor any electric-candlelit booths to snuggle into with your partner, so it's basically just a theatre with rows of seats and ledges to place your drinks. But it's adequate for its main purpose -- Love Riot, an adults-only romp blending burlesque and circus acts, like a raunchy Cirque de Soleil with nudity. The dinner aspect of this dinner-and-show ticketed event is held in the Waterfront restaurant, which defeats the purpose, but whatever; the show was so incredibly entertaining that we forgive it. During the day, Black Circus is used for the TC & Skipper's Island Adventure Show for kids, early evening movies and The Edge's laser tag.
The diverse range of daytime activities, held in various venues, includes trivia, bingo, indoor and outdoor movies, dance classes, single and solo gatherings, photography lessons, arts and crafts workshops, sports contests such as hole-in-one challenges and table tennis tournaments, a hosted walk-a-mile around the promenade deck, pool games, water aerobics, book club, beauty, health and fitness seminars, guest choir rehearsals and performances, and live music in the atrium.
Aside from the great Aussie recreation of drinking, passengers can find plenty of things to do after dark, from live music and karaoke to dancing at theme parties. Every P&O cruise of more than two nights has a Bianco party, where everyone wears white. On cruises of three or more nights, people dress up in 1920s glamour for the second theme night (Gatsby), while on cruises of five nights or more, the Back to School night provides an excuse to drag out your old uniform. This means you may have three dress-up nights on one cruise if your itinerary is a week long, but it's optional to get involved.
At least three gigs of live music are performed each night. The casino is also lively; it was revamped in the 2017 refurbishment, boasting new card tables and the latest in gaming machines, including modern poker machines with giant curved screens. Pokies tournaments and Texas Hold'em tournaments are also held here.
Every bar has a different ambience and design, allowing passengers to choose depending on mood or drink preference. Most venues are clustered around the same area on one deck so it's possible to do a bar crawl and figure out your favourite, or try a different one each evening. This Deck 7 drinking precinct is a lot of fun, without getting rowdy, with security beefed up at night.
The Bonded Store (Deck 7, midship): P&O's new concept bar mimics an underground speakeasy in Sydney or New York, hidden behind a secret door. The funny part is that when you finally find the secret door (clue: it's disguised as a large portrait of a woman in sunglasses and scarf), you then realise that the back of the room is totally open to a busy thoroughfare where people are walking past all the time and somehow never notice it.
The decor is warm and wacky, with dark green velvet lounges, black leather stools, bookcases of leather-bound encyclopaedia and peculiar artworks. Shelves are lined with things you'd find in your eccentric grandfather's shed, from a jar of snakeskin and an insect collection to old-fashioned pharmacy bottles, an antique clock and typewriter.
Specialising in gin and whisky from Sydney's Archie Rose Distillery, The Bonded Store's cocktails are magnificent. Presentation is top-notch: one of the concoctions is revealed in a smouldering glass skull, while the negroni arrives in a smoky mist.
The downside of all this fancy work is the service is too slow, with only one bartender and one waitress. Although the idea of a speakeasy is to savour the art of mixology in an unhurried fashion, even cocktail connoisseurs may get impatient. This kind of place needs an outgoing personality to carry it and two extra pairs of hands to alleviate the 20-minute delays. The Bonded Store won't appeal to thirsty Aussies who just want to drink, but it will suit those seeking a sexy hideaway for a leisurely libation.
Explorer Hotel (Deck 7, forward): One of the most popular hangouts is the Dawn Princess's former Wheelhouse Bar. The much-loved dark wood and nautical theme have been brightened up with a Plantation-style, summery scheme that would not look out of place in Port Douglas or Byron Bay. There's lots of seating for groups with a long bar, L-shaped lounges and an abundance of cushions bearings patterns of birds, fish and ferns. This is where karaoke, trivia and other games are held, drawing a large, loud crowd. At other times, it's a comfy base for imbibing beer, wine and cocktails, with some natural light coming in from the windows across the corridor.
Blue Room (Deck 7, midship): This dimly-lit venue starts the evening with live music before morphing into a dance club with a DJ at 11p.m. The lack of windows and jazz bar decor, literally jazzed up with musical instruments as decorations, will make you forget you're on a cruise ship. Sinking into white leather and green velvet lounges, passengers can settle in for several hours.
Don't miss the late-night blues session called Blues@Blue when several of the ship's most talented musicians get together for an hour-long jam, rotating with different singers and excellent guitarists. We would love to see a longer session performed every night; after all, it is called the Blue Room. One problem with the lounge, however, is its layout, with poor line of sight to the stage; only half of the audience can see the band, so get there early if you like to watch while you listen.
When used as a nightclub, the average age halves; 18 to 30 year olds will be thrilled to find each other on this big, family-friendly ship. All the action takes place on the dancefloor and in the queue at the bar. Music is your usual club hits and top 40, played loud and proud.
Ocean Bar (Deck 8, midship): A more casual option, Ocean Bar is indoors but is so named for its views as, bizarrely, it's the only bar on the ship with windows. This area gets a lot of passing traffic so it's also good for people-watching. Tables and chairs are lined along the busy thoroughfare while a middle section with sofas and ottomans overlooks the atrium. Live music is performed nightly.
Top Deck Pool Bar (Deck 12, midship): With only one bar on the main pool deck, these bar stools are prime real estate. An ideal spot for a cold beer in the sunshine while watching poolside games and entertainment.
Oasis Bar (Deck 14, aft): The other outdoor bar is inside the adults-only Oasis retreat, which has a small pool and hot tub. Get an elevated view of the ship's wake or the sunset while sipping on beer, wine or cocktails.
The ship has four pools: two on the main pool deck (Deck 15), surrounded by double sun lounges, some of which are big enough for two people; and a small plunge pool in each of the adults-only areas: Oasis and The Sanctuary (both on Deck 14). There are also hot tubs next to all of these pools. The Oasis pool is slightly larger and overlooked by stadium-style seating; The Sanctuary's looks like a kiddie paddling pool but is reserved for over-18s to cool off while sunbathing. The youngest kids play in the waterpark, which could be considered a fifth pool, complete with a giant dunking bucket and squirting poles.
On Pacific Explorer (and Brisbane's Pacific Dawn, refurbished earlier in 2017), P&O has finally joined the cruise ship tradition of offering waterslides, no doubt inspired by the local popularity of Carnival Cruise Line's Green Thunder. P&O's Disco Diver has multi-coloured lights and music, while the Super Slider is transparent. Positioned side by side, the dual slides allow you to race your friend, spouse or sibling, but don't expect a high-speed contest. The design is far from steep and powerful; in fact, on our first attempt we stopped sliding halfway down, so make sure you give yourself a good push to get going and then lean back as far as you can manage, with your ankles crossed, to be in prime position.
The fear factor is low compared to the free-falling terror of the Green Thunder but (spoiler alert) when the lights go out on the disco slide, you will scream in shock. (Don't tell non-Cruise Critic-readers about the dark section if you want them to be scared. On that note, young kids who are afraid of the dark should stick with the transparent slide.) There are no age restrictions but you need to be at least 120cm tall and weigh less than 120kg to ride. Crew with walkie-talkies are positioned at the top and base of the slides to control the flow of riders but children under 12 should be supervised by an adult.
A nod to the popular Australian pastime of lawn bowls and barefoot bowls, a green of artificial grass has been laid on Deck 11. Open to passengers of all ages, The Lawns can be used at any time between 10am and 5pm; singles and doubles tournaments are also held at designated times noted on the daily newsletter. Bar service is available, with white wine, beer and Pimms sold from a cute yellow kiosk. Other sports include shuffleboard and table tennis.
For additional costs, the P&O Edge program offers a wide range of outdoor adventure activities at various locations around the ship. Exclusive to Pacific Explorer and Pacific Dawn is "Walk The Plank" where daredevils can test their courage by walking out on a narrow ledge that extends over a railing -- behaviour not normally condoned by cruise lines -- while harnessed and wearing a helmet. Other Edge activities include laser tag, the flying fox, bungy trampoline and a Segway course. Pricing ranges from $14 to $45 depending on the activity; adult prices are an extra $5.
The ship's outdoor heart is in the middle of Deck 12 with two pools, hot tubs, a big movie screen, ping pong tables, lots of stylish sofas, tables and chairs, a bar at one end and New Zealand Natural Ice Cream at the other. Surprisingly, there is only one poolside bar on the main pool deck but what used to be Dawn Princess's pool bars are now taken over by Luke's burger joint and a check-in desk for P&O Edge adventure activities. However, a pop-up kiosk opens up on sunny days to sell cocktails by the jug (for a whopping $59) or by the glass ($12); another mobile bar sells wine with flat prices of $30 for a bottle, $9.50 a glass, as well as various bottled beers.
Dance classes and contests such as beer quoits are held on a small stage throughout the day. The space is crowded, with the pools and hot tubs frequently overtaken by children, and all the new sun lounges and sofas usually full.
One side of the deck allows smoking.
Oasis (Deck 14): Restricted to passengers aged 18 and older, this aft deck has a small pool with grandstand-style benches around it, two hot tubs, a bar and plenty of sun lounges. It may be an escape from the kids but not from the many adults that crowd in here. Still, it's not very noisy and the view of the ship's wake is delightful. Entry is free.
The Sanctuary (Deck 14): P&O didn't ditch the Princess equivalent of the Oasis in the makeover, leaving a bonus adults-only refuge at the other end of the ship. The Sanctuary has a wheelchair-accessible ramp leading to the entrance, a small pool and more deck chairs and lounges. This lesser-known area is often empty and there's a lot of unused space but it's good to have some room to spread out. Head here if you want a quieter spot to read a book in the sun or gaze out over the ship's bow. Unlike Princess Cruises, P&O does not charge an entry fee, but that's because it's unattended; there is no bar or food service, massage tents or crew to spritz you with Evian water.
Passengers can use the guest services desk on Deck 7 for general enquiries and paying accounts or the shore excursions desk for advice about tours in each port. Self-service laundromats are located on Decks 9, 10 and 11. Open from 7am to 10pm, each laundry is equipped with washing machines ($3 per cycle, $1 for detergent), dryers ($3 per cycle), a sink, an iron and an ironing board. Payment is via tokens (not coins) which can be purchased at the guest services desk.
On Deck 7 is a round table of six computers for internet access once you have purchased a package.Wi-Fi isalso available shipwide, including in all cabins. When sailing in the remote regions of the South Pacific, the connection varies from non-existent to painfully slow to bearable. Packages include an unlimited Platinum Voyage Plan ($99 for the whole cruise), Gold (500MB for $69), Silver (250MB for $39), Bronze (100MB for $19) and a Social Media Plan ($10 per day) for unlimited access to sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and WhatsApp. Don't plan on streaming a lot of movies or music or making video calls, except for rare periods when the satellite connection is strong enough.
There's also an art gallery and a photo gallery. The photo studio sells camera equipment and prints and digital formats of photographs taken by the ship's photographers. A new shop for P&O is Home, selling homewares such as cushions and ornaments similar to those found around the ship. Other shops stock duty-free items including alcohol, cigarettes, jewellery, watches, cosmetics, sunglasses, handbags, hair straighteners and hair dryers, electronics, souvenirs, beach wear, lollies, pharmacy items and travel gear. Branded stores include Guess and Billabong.
Located opposite the fitness room, the Elemis Spa At Sea on Deck 12 provides services such as massage (from $149 for 50 minutes) and couples massages, facials (from $149), manicures and pedicures (from $42), brow and lash treatments (from $15 for eyebrow shaping), waxing (from $20 for a lip wax) and teeth whitening. A separate hair salon offers a shampoo, cut and blow dry from $74, colouring from $86, and a range of conditioning treatments.
Men can have a 30-minute shave for $57.
Note: A five per cent gratuity is automatically added to all spa and salon services. If you want it removed, you must request it before signing your receipt at the spa; it can't be deducted later.
Inside the day spa is a thermal suite comprising a sauna, steam room, relaxation room, heated ceramic beds and tropical shower, which can be used before or after a treatment or by buying a thermal suite pass (single $149/couple $199) for unlimited access throughout your cruise. Spa lovers can also purchase the 10-20-30 deal, which allows you to choose three signature treatments with 10 per cent discount off the first treatment, 20 percent off the second and 30 percent off the third. Flyers advertising other special offers are delivered to cabins, so keep an eye out for these money-saving deals.
A walking and jogging track wraps around Deck 7 (three laps is one kilometre) and hosted walk-a-miles are held each morning.
Boasting ocean views from Deck 12, the gym is small but there are usually enough treadmills, exercise bikes, steppers, weights and resistance machines to go around. The equipment is old and squeaky but it works. Hopefully this area gets some attention in the next refurbishment. A separate room is used for instructor-led classes, which is nice. Stretch classes (held at 7am and 5.30pm) and abdominal classes (7.30am) are free and very good; it costs $15 per class to do yoga, pilates and boxing. Complimentary water aerobics is also held in the pool on Deck 14 on some sea days.
P&O's core market is families so a lot of effort is devoted to keeping kids happy so that mum and dad can also be happy. Pacific Explorer offers a wide range of activities for children, with or without their parents. Dedicated venues include the kids and teen clubs (free of charge and divided into four age groups, as described below), a virtual reality games room and the P&O Edge adventure centre. The ship's two theatres also have family-friendly entertainment and talent shows, as well as appearances by characters such as TC the Turtle on the pool deck.
Onboard activities that cater for the whole family include barefoot bowls, golf putting, table tennis, board games and karaoke. For an extra fee, more lively activities can be enjoyed from the P&O Edge program, such as laser tag, bungee trampolining, a Segway course, flying fox (zip line over the pool deck), mechanical bull rides, Walk the Plank and the Titanic Experience. One of the scarier options is Walk the Plank, where you are harnessed for safety but do literally walk along a narrow plank over the side of the ship. The Titanic Experience is where you stand on the ship's bow and yell "I'm king of the world!" Kids prices are $5 cheaper than adults and P&O Edge has a minimum age of six years old on all activities.
A kids' dinner for those aged between three and 10 years is held at 4.15pm each day in The Pantry, with highchairs available if required. Baby food and infant formula are not sold on the ship but may be taken onboard (home-prepared food is not allowed).
Family-specific accommodation has also been improved on Pacific Explorer, with 20 interconnecting rooms created for parents and kids to have internal door access to each other. At least one passenger aged 18 years or older must sleep in each room to ensure supervision; however, when families cruise together, children can sleep in a separate room if one child is 16 years or older.
Late-night group babysitting is available from 10.30pm until 1am for $5 per hour per child aged over two. In-cabin and one-on-one babysitting isn't offered.
The minimum age to sail is six months on Australian and New Zealand domestic cruises; for all other itineraries children must be 12 months or older. Infants under two must be accompanied by a parent or guardian at all times in all venues including the kids' club. All children using the ship's pools must also be supervised by a parent/guardian. Infants in nappies (including swim nappies) and children who are not toilet trained are not permitted in the pools and spas.
P&O can provide cots, high chairs and booster seats. Parents or guardians need to bring their own nappies, wipes, prams, baby baths and other baby accessories for the duration of the cruise as these are not available or sold onboard.
Turtle Cove, for children aged two to 6 years old, is supervised by experienced youth staff. The room is like one big cubby house with lots of nooks and crannies to play with games and toys. At 8am, mums and dads can come along for Toddler Time with Parents. Art and crafts, parties, movies and Sleepyheads Storytime are also organised by staff. A highlight is a live on-stage production of TC & Skipper's Island Adventure Show, held in Black Circus.
Shark Shack is a separate, supervised club for seven to 10 year olds that encourages learning. Activities include jewellery making, computer games, dance lessons, scavenger hunts, Lego activities and theme nights.
Security is high for the kids' clubs to ensure safety. Parents or authorised guardians (aged 16 years or over) must show their cruise card each time they sign in or sign out children aged between two and 10.
For those aged 11 to 14, HQ is designed as an ultimate chill-out zone with lounges and booths to hang out with friends, play board and computer games, and watch movies. The youth staff also lead activities from filmmaking and karaoke to performing in a talent show or a rock band. A new Sony PlayStation VR room is located in HQ. Adults are not permitted, which is a shame. We'd like to see 18+ sessions, or a family hour involving parents, so that all passengers can experience the futuristic fun of virtual reality at sea.
For kids aged up to 14 a parent or guardian can authorise sign in/out privileges. After 10.30pm children aged 11 to 14 must be signed out by a parent or guardian, except for those authorised with sign in/out privileges.
Next door is HQ+, strictly for 15 to 17 year olds. A high level of involvement is encouraged with great programs such as Broadshorts, which gets teens behind the camera to make a movie while onboard. Teenagers can also use the club to play computer games, board games or Foosball, watch movies and relax on bean bags and sofas with new friends.