Holidays aboard cruise ships are no longer the domain of the elderly, discovers Heather Wright.
I'll admit it. I had reservations about cruising. Was being stuck on a ship at sea really my kind of holiday? Isn't it more for geriatrics? But standing on the top deck of P&O Cruises' Pacific Jewel as she pulls out of Sydney, I'm forced to rethink my preconceived ideas.
Music reverberates around the top decks as acrobats twirl and swoop, contorting their bodies into seemingly impossible positions while suspended high above the decks on ribbons, hoops and swings. People walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge pause to look down as we pass under them, Pacific Cirque acrobats in full flight and music still booming.
Looking around my fellow passengers, it's hard to pick one dominant market for this cruise. There are elderly couples, mums and dads with their youngsters, multi-generational family groups, business groups, people celebrating special occasions and a surprising number of women-only groups.
Most of them are on the top decks for the Sailaway party as we head off on a three-day food and wine cruise bound for, well, nowhere in particular - with these cruises you simply follow the good weather and the ship itself is the destination.
We boarded several hours earlier after flying in from Auckland, but from next month, Jewel's sister ship, Pacific Pearl will offer similar food and wine short breaks, plus longer cruises, right from our doorstep in downtown Auckland.
Our ocean-view cabin is surprisingly roomy and bright. It features a queen bed, television, desk and chair, private ensuite and a large window.
The high energy Sailaway party sets the tone for the next two days at sea where, as the ship plies the coast of Australia, passengers are free to do as much, or as little as they like. Lounging by the pools with cocktails, having time out at Oasis (a child-free zone), getting pampered at "the largest spa afloat in the Southern Hemisphere", catching a movie or shopping in the on-board duty free shops are among the options. For the kids there are three children's clubs.
Pacific Cirque continues to wow with another acrobatic performance, this time suspended high in the three-story Atrium which dominates the centre of the ship. We Run Away to the Circus - an on-board circus, complete with mother and baby elephants Ertha and Dubbo (surprisingly realistic replicas), and catch a magic show and a laser show.
Of course, this is a food and wine cruise and food and wine there certainly is. The main 850-seat Waterfront Restaurant offers great a la carte dining - grilled swordfish steak, pumpkin ravioli, or in our case an asparagus risotto followed by Tasmanian salmon and finished with triple chocolate mousse, for lunch - all included in the cost of the cruise. For a small cover charge, you can head to La Luna for a contemporary take on oriental cuisine including an eight-course banquet featuring dishes from across Asia.
However, the star of the show has to be Salt Grill by Australian celebrity chef Luke Mangan where, for a cover charge of A$30 ($39.70 - a fraction of what you would pay at his Sydney, Melbourne or Tokyo restaurants) we get to sample one of his signature dishes, crab omelette, enoki mushroom salad and miso broth; a main of grilled barramundi, truffled mashed potatoes and crushed peas; and another Mangan signature dish, liquorice parfait with lime syrup.
The cruise also offers a range of themed experiences including martini lessons and wine-tasting masterclasses, where winemaker Duane Roy from Hunter Valley's Glandore Estate Wines provides a class interesting enough that even I'm inspired to learn more once I hit the shore again.