Family friendly cruise

By Janetta Mackay

Titanic may be a dirty word for cruise companies, but for impressionable moviegoers it sets the scene for what embarking on a voyage should be all about. The start of our first cruise didn't disappoint: on Auckland's Prince's Wharf one wintry day, it was all bustle beneath a shiny ship about to head north for an ice-free break in the Pacific.

Although I had no manservant to help with my bags like Kate Winslet, and I was running almost as late as Leonardo DiCaprio, being dropped dockside and handing over the suitcases to a porter certainly beat carting luggage through customs queues at the airport.

And so I wafted on board in jeans that might have looked better worn with a corset, a la Winslet, freed of the bags carrying cabana wear that would have done Seinfeld's Frank Costanza proud.

I had plenty of time to observe that while George and Jerry's parents were well represented among my fellow passengers there was also enough of a younger coffee shop crowd that we wouldn't feel out of place.

As we breezed through security a matronly fellow passenger who had set off the beeper recounted how she'd been quizzed: "Have I got some metal on me."

"It's gold," she said with indignant glee.

That Vegas feel continued when another of the blue-rinse brigade asked the whereabouts of the duty-free perfume. "We've got Elizabeth Arden here," she was told, but quick as a movie star remarriage, she retorted: "What about Elizabeth Taylor?"

As you may have guessed, all my ideas of what to expect were borrowed from a very mixed media.

Throw in The Love Boat - cruise directors in white shorts suits giving us our safety briefing and singles obviously not going steady - and I was well prepared for the ensuing theme nights and sunset departure cocktails, but oddly I'd overlooked the fact it was mid-winter.

So I spent the next three days in the same jeans and tweed jacket as we surged north into stinging winds that made the top-deck jogging circuit a fitting set for a children's action adventure fantasy called Toddler Nearly Overboard.

It took days to get our daughter back on open deck after she blew over in near gale-force gusts. But soon she was wanting to lean over the (fortunately high) railings to watch our wake churn behind.

Yes, there have been jumpers. The last one survived, fished out with only a broken arm at a cost of many thousands of dollars to the company for fuel and lost time in turning back the boat.

I can only guess he didn't go off near the propeller, as it was stomach-churning just looking over the stern. Mercifully, no one succumbed on our voyage and, with the bow off limits, we were also saved any "I'm King of the World" clowns.

As the weather warmed, gaily printed Hawaiian shirts started to get an outing and the other-world feeling never really went away. And therein, I think, lies the appeal of cruising.

The shipboard routines become familiar - hand-sanitiser sprays to ward off tummy bugs at the dining-room entrance, sheet turndown by your steward, and deck by deck loading on the tender boats that take you to shore at smaller ports - but the sense of dislocation from real life remains.

Let's face it, real life doesn't usually consist of watching people dance the macarena in the dining room. Or watching your karaoke-fan husband sing Barry Manilow with a 10-piece orchestra and two glam 20-something backing singers. Or have your daughter show hitherto unknown talents with a precocious impromptu Angelina Ballerina routine during the kids' talent contest.

All while you're feeling woozy. And not just on the $6 cocktails. We blamed the motion sickness pills on our need to take naps most afternoons, but it could have just been the shock of holiday de-stressing with the need to do nothing.

Miss three-and-a-half didn't want to be stranded in the cabin with layabout parents, she was off to the kids' club as often as we would let her.

The Coketail party - a junior version of the Captain's cocktail evening - was a Hi-5-age highlight until it was rudely interrupted by an over-excited toddler emptying his tummy in front of the rotund chap in the white uniform. This let us see the ship's hygiene policies swing into action: within minutes the ship's disco was off limits for decontamination.

A fellow passenger with a tummy bug was similarly whisked from view to be locked in his cabin for 36 hours lest the horror of any cruise ship take hold.

It was bad timing for the poor chap, who missed a day idling in the Isle of Pines. We woke at dawn for the excitement of seeing land after five days surrounded by nothing but sea. It was an absurd thrill peering through our cabin's small porthole then rushing on to deck as we drew closer to New Caledonia's drawcard destination, where peculiar primeval pines thrust through a turquoise horizon.

Except for the port day in Noumea we ate onboard - and if you wanted you could pretty much eat from dawn to dusk, which seemed to be what some passengers did. That is if they weren't drinking from the nine bars serving coffee and cocktails - fancy a Fanta Sea - where teenagers prowled asking, "Can we get mocktails in here?"

From pre-breakfast pastries, through varied buffet breakfasts and lunches, high tea at 3pm, through to good, hotel-standard a la carte dinners, meals are part of your upfront fare and punctuate the ship day as a cheery voice over the intercom summons you to sitting after sitting with a sign-off, "bon appetito".

We ate breakfast and lunch as a family, took turns supervising our daughter at the special children's dinner sitting stacked with fried favourites, but other than that we were surplus to her requirements.

My husband relaxed and read and I explored and discovered it was possible to holiday without manic shopping and sightseeing.

With only drinks to pay for and, of course, a few unnecessary extras such as photos from the ship's photographer that you're bound to fall for, it was 10 days of cold turkey for a credit-card junkie.

In the evenings we would sometimes meet a group for pre-dinner drinks before adjourning to the 8pm second sitting at our allocated table. Our cabins, with their airline toilet-style melamine doors rimmed in steel were more Quality Inn than the 80s glitz of the public areas may suggest, but the facilities onboard were just fine, swimming pools excepted.

These were disappointingly small, deep and cold, reflecting the age and size of Pacific Sky, which is coming up for a refit.

From plunge-pool to deckchair, the real business of the Lido deck, though, is lounging and people-watching.

"Your mum took off her bra," said one teenager to a mate.

For grown-ups, entertainment ranged from lounge singers and old-time dance bands to discos and slick shows or recent-release movies.

The Horizon lounge, with armchair seating and wide ocean views, won out over the casino - one of the last bastions for smokers - and a delightfully faux gentlemen's club library was another place to while away the hours.

Activities included sport and spa sessions, and those with a self-improvement slant such as yoga and reiki.

Or so I believe.

We were too busy enjoying our freedom and napping.* Janetta Mackay travelled as a guest of P&O Cruises.

Pacific Sky

The 1550-passenger liner has three pools, a health spa, gym, jogging track, show lounge, cinema, casino, internet centre, nightclub, library and children's centre.

Winter cruising

South Pacific cruises to or from Auckland this year include school holiday departures. Destinations include Samoa, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Tonga and Fiji.

Prices: From $1945 a person in a four-berth cabin for an 11-night cruise (meals, activities, entertainment, childcare and taxes included) from Auckland to Fiji and Tonga (Ref No p525). Departs July 17. From $3102 a person twin-share. First child (up to 12 years 11 months) sharing with two adults $528. Second child free.

Summer Season

Four Pacific voyages from Auckland in December and January. Prices: From $1944 a person quad-share or $3020 twin-share for a 10-night cruise from Auckland to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Departs December 7.

Autumn, 2005

Cruising from Singapore to destinations in Thailand and Malaysia. Seven and nine-day voyages, which can be booked back-to-back, take in nine ports. Flights available.

Pacific Star

The addition of this 1400-passenger liner will double the capacity next summer for New Zealanders to take Pacific cruises. Prices: $1364 a person for a 7-night summer cruise from Brisbane to New Caledonia, Vanuatu.

Pacific Sun

1900-passenger liner cruises year-round to the South Pacific and North Queensland. Prices from $1545 a person for an 8-night summer cruise.

Princess liners

Upmarket cruising.

Details

Travel agents, P&O cruises on 0800 951-200 or use link below.

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