"Ah, with the newlyweds and nearly-deads," someone said to me when I told them I was going on a cruise.
And I didn't know any different: I had visions of swarms of large, loud, rich, silver-haired Americans; of a lot of sequins, bumbags and leisure suits.
I envisaged a holiday of quiet sunbathing, surrounded by the elderly. A few trips to the ship's gym, perhaps. Some sunny tropical destinations. Maybe a few evening cocktails.
My preconceptions were wrong on all counts - except the cocktails. For a start, my cruise on P&O's Pacific Star departed from Brisbane, so there weren't any Americans. There was also a distinct lack of sequins, bumbags and leisure suits (although the Aussies were sporting a few mullets and handlebar moustaches).
My friend Cathy and I flew to Brisbane to experience Pacific Star before its Auckland season starts in May. Ours was a seven-night cruise with the scheduled destinations of Noumea, Lifou (one of the Loyalty Islands, off the coast of New Caledonia - I hadn't heard of them either), and Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Clearing customs at port in Brisbane and getting on board was relatively smooth, and we commented that if the ship was leaving from Auckland, how lovely it would be just to pop down to Princes Wharf, get on, and leave the country without the bother of airports.
Heading around the ship for a thorough explore, we were happy to note the huge range of bars, lounges and restaurants, all benefiting from a recent multi-million-dollar refurbishment. Once we'd got our bearings, it was time for the first (of many) pina coladas, to sip on the deck as we watched the land become a speck in the distance, and eventually disappear.
It soon became clear that my perception of who chooses to cruise was quite wrong - there were as many teenagers, children, families, and parties in their 20s, 30s and 40s as there were mature folk. And they weren't all rich either - many of them were taking advantage of the relatively economical four-berth cabins. And by the time you factor in meals, entertainment, nightclubs and activities into the fare, the whole cruise ship deal is pretty affordable(see Need to know below).
By the time Cathy and I had cocktails in hand, the party was already in full swing. However, when dinner was served at 8pm, it felt like 11pm to us, so we staggered straight to bed afterwards. This meant I was able to spring out at 7am the next day and smugly use the jogging track (18 laps of the funnel equals one mile) - although my first time jogging was also my last. Once I became adjusted, I began to have other priorities.
There is a lot to do aboard Pacific Star. Salsa classes, table tennis, quoits, earring-making, culinary demonstrations, trivia, bingo, cards, and movies, to name a few. There's also the Lotus Spa, which offers not only sumptuous treatments, but seminars on subjectssuch as body sculpting or detoxification.
There's a gym, three pools, shops, a library and an internet cafe. Or you could just as easily fill your days with sunbathing, a long lunch, and a siesta. We did, admittedly, get a lot of sunbathing in but we tore ourselves away from the loungers to try a few activities - trivia (intensely competitive, making our victory even sweeter), bingo (we lost miserably), shopping (there's a huge range of duty-free shopping as well as the usual souvenirs), and of course, the spa.
If you're still stuck for something to do, eat. So much food passed my lips on board that ship I'm sure I went up a dress size. There's the option of buffet or continental breakfasts; buffet or dining room lunches; afternoon and morning teas; and an internationally themed five-course dinner every night, with the alternative options of the steakhouse or pizzeria. There are healthy options available, but my willpower was far too weak. It's all delicious, and dinner every night is a long, indulgent ritual.
The nightlife plays a big part in your cruise ship experience. Every night is themed - from formal nights to pyjama parties to island nights (optional, of course) - the bars are open late and the cocktail list is extensive, tempting and reasonable. It may take a day or two before you warm to the idea of costume parties, but the unique atmosphere of the ship will have you doing plenty of naff things you wouldn't usually do (believe me) and you'll be dancing around in your boxer shorts in no time.
Our first destination, two days into the cruise, was Noumea. It was hot, humid, and pouring. Most of the scheduled shore tours (which you can book on board) such as kayaking or cycling, were cancelled but our very pleasant bus tour of the city, with wine and cheese tasting at La Bastide Hotel, went ahead.
We didn't have much better luck with Lifou, the second destination. A lush, sparsely populated island with not much more than a church, a strip of white beach with turquoise water, lots of turtles and butterflies, and a vanilla plantation, it sounded too good to be true. In this case, it was, as there was no port and, although the day was gorgeous, the sea was deemed to be too choppy for the small boats we were supposed to travel over in. We were disappointed, but a new schedule of on-board activities was immediately put in place and we set sail for Port Vila, arriving that night instead of the following morning.
Vanuatu was even hotter than the last places put together, which made the overcast sky and drizzle almost welcome. Our 8am start and the 25-minute pitching yacht ride to our snorkelling destination, Paradise Cove, were forgotten as soon as we slipped into the warm water and began swimming among thousands of neon fish and stunning coral formations. We also had a walk through the rainforest with a tour guide who, rather worryingly, informed us that cannibalism had only died out in Vanuatu around 40 years ago. Mindful of traditionalists possibly lurking in the trees, we kept to the middle of the line.
Locals had set up market stalls at the port, and provided my costume for the island party that night - a grass skirt, lei and flower crown. And my outfit was tame - most of the males at the party had their hair braided and were walking around in coconut bras.
There's actually a lot about cruising that seems a bit surreal. It is so removed from reality, but the huge ship very quickly becomes your home, your cabin becomes your little corner of the world and spending days swaying around at sea doing whatever you please quickly seems perfectly natural. And while it's a bit of a jolt to arrive back home, it's a unique experience that will leave you refreshed, or utterly, happily exhausted. It's really up to you.
NEED TO KNOW
Cruises: Pacific Star sails eight South Pacific cruises departing Auckland between May 27 and August 11. Cruises vary from eight to 13 nights and destinations include islands in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Noumea and Vanuatu.
Fares: Fares vary considerably depending on the length of the cruise, your cabin grade and how many passengers per cabin. For example, the eight-night Seabreeze Lullaby cruise will cost between $2884 and $4624 per person twin share, but the fare becomes considerably cheaper when a third or fourth person is included, as they pay a flat rate of $864 each - much cheaper per person when it's added up and the fare is divided.
When to book: Before April 30 to take advantage of the special Pricebreaker discounts - you can save a further 35 per cent.
More information: See www.pocruises.co.nz and click on "New Zealand's May-August 2006 season" (link below).