Simple life of having fun

By Andrew Austin

It was well after midnight and not unusually - we have a young daughter - I was wide awake. The only difference this time was there was not a restless child in sight. Plenty of agitated adults, however, and even more water. The whole Pacific Ocean, in fact.

The ocean was calm but the scene was far from tranquil because a party was going on. Not just any party, but a party on board a ship, with lights ablaze and music thumping.

So, what was the party for? No reason. You soon realise that when you are cruising - in our case on Pacific Star's 11-day winter cruise to Vanuatu - you don't need a reason for anything.

Yes, cruising is a difficult life to get used to. Difficult because it is so easy. You have lots of time to do a lot of things, none of which are that important. You can't use the free time to finish that quick DIY job, run that errand, or play with the children. All you can do is relax and enjoy yourself.

But make sure the person you go with is someone you like or better still, love, because you do spend a lot of time together.

We took advantage of P&O's winter cruising package on the Pacific Star out of Auckland to get away from the cold and rain of winter, leaving the kids with their grandmother, and headed for the sunshine of the Pacific and the mystery of Vanuatu.

We soon discovered life on board is simple. The most difficult decisions are what to choose from the lunch buffet or whether you should read your book on the aft deck or the Casablanca lounge. The crew of 540, one for every 2.5 passengers, make sure of that.

Although, it's best to remember that ships have a certain rhythm to them and if you are to survive with your lunch intact, you have to go with the flow, literally.

"Feel the ship, feel the ship," a regular cruiser intoned before we left. Even on calm days, the ship lurches and rolls. On rough days, like the day we were surfing through 4m to 5m waves, there are only two things to do: ingest anything with ginger in it and keep as still as possible, preferably prone.

Once we found our sea legs we were fine, but I still wondered how the crew could carry on as if they were on terra firma.

The 35,000-tonne Pacific Star was built in 1982 and refurbished twice in the past five years. It features four dining venues, two swimming pools, spacious decks and a choice of queen or twin bed configurations in most cabins.

Facilities include six bars and lounges, a nightclub, open-air spas, a jogging track, gym, Lotus Spa, extensive open decks, show-lounge, a casino and kids' clubs. With so much time on your hands, you find yourself getting into a bit of a routine, which proves difficult to break later.

The day is full of highlights that in normal life would not really be highlights: breakfast, movies (I got through three hours of Munich without getting seasick because it was so gripping), lunch, the compulsory afternoon nap, sundowners, getting ready for formal dinner, attending the formal dinner, and then plenty of late-night entertainment. Exhausting stuff.

But even with all this available, two days at sea do make land seem quite appealing. Our first stop was the aptly named Mystery Island, the closest of the Y-shaped chain of 83 islands making up Vanuatu, to which we were ferried in the ship's tenders.

It's a beautiful spot, with clear water and glorious fish and coral on show, but locals believe it is haunted so it has no inhabitants, though it didn't stop the islanders from next door popping over to sell a few of their wares when they saw the cruise ship on the horizon.

This was the locals' chance to supplement their meagre, subsistence-based lives with some cash. Many items were for sale, including beads, grass mats and other curios. All very nice and cheap, but a lot of it simply not permitted back on board the ship.

Passengers disembarking were given warnings about eating local food. And then there was the kava. It seems Vanuatuan men do not need any excuse to drink the stuff - stronger than Fijian kava, I am reliably informed - and visitors are welcome to join in. One of our party wandered off to partake in a ceremony with the words of his partner echoing after him, "Now don't come back all daft."

With the first stop out of the way, it was time to head further north to Lamans Bay, another picture-postcard destination.

A group of school children were thrust in front of us by their American teacher, who said: "They want to ask you something." I focused on one small boy as he shyly mustered the courage to ask what I increasingly believed was going to be a deep, philosophical question. Eventually, it came tumbling out, "How are you?" Fine, indeed.

A few hours of wandering around Lamans Bay, doing things like chatting to a man who was worried about his sons' schooling and helping a young family carry their dugout canoe down to the water, certainly helped put our lives and theirs in perspective.

In some ways it was like stepping between two worlds. We lived in this fully functional, self-contained city, which occasionally sidled up to another port where we returned to the real world, albeit not a world like ours back home.

That contrast became even sharper when we moved on to our next port, Luganville, Vanuatu's second-biggest town. You always know that poverty is lurking around the corner when a town has large numbers of men just hanging around and even larger numbers of taxi drivers demanding that you catch a ride with them.

And then there was the rain, not Auckland-style, but island-style, soft mist-like, warm rain that is quite enjoyable. Because of the weather, a trip to a nearby resort was cancelled, so all there was to do was wander the streets and dodge the taxis. Then it was back to the ship for the next stop in our island-hopping exploration.

Unfortunately, what was shaping up to be the best part of the cruise, a stop at the home of the original bungy jumpers, Pentecost Island, was thwarted by bad weather.

The captain, a stern looking but likeable Italian by the name of Marco Fortezze, deemed the conditions too rough to drop anchor off shore.

So off we went, full steam ahead, to the capital city, Port Vila, situated on the south coast of the island of Efate.

My wife and I had pre-arranged a shore excursion that would see us travel around the coastline. "You're mad. Imagine spending the day in a bus," said our fellow travellers, who had opted for a boat trip and some more snorkelling.

Things did not look too promising when one of the two minibuses that would cart us around the island had bald tyres.

The bus we opted for was slightly more roadworthy, but certainly not a shoo-in for a WOF.

How thankful were we that we decided to undertake this long (at least six hours) but thoroughly enjoyable experience. We witnessed a fire-walking demonstration and got to see the remnants of the World War II American presence on the island, including a derelict old tank and an old airstrip.

When we returned to the ship, it was time to leave Vanuatu and head for Auckland. Three days later we would be back home, vowing to return with the kids at some stage. I think we will wait a few years before taking the children, because witnessing other couples with their toddlers made me realise this was no break for them.

The ship, however, was child-friendly. On a tour of the bridge, one small boy asked Captain Fortezze two pertinent questions. "Do you like children?" was a bit of a curveball for the captain, but he recovered well with a genuine, "Of course".

The second question was slightly trickier, "Do you have a prison on board to lock bad people up?" The reply, "There are only good people on board."

Well, that might be debatable, but one thing I'm sure of is they were all happy people.

We certainly were.

Checklist

Pacific Star Cruises South Pacific Programme

Next winter the 1350-passenger liner will undertake nine cruises to the South Pacific, including:

A 10-night Timeless Treasures voyage to Tonga and Fiji visiting Nuku'alofa, Vavau, Suva and Dravuni Island departing May 29, from $1819 each .

A 10-night Island Dreams voyage to Vanuatu, Loyalty Islands and New Caledonia, departing June 8, from $1819 each.

An eight-night Precious Treasure voyage to the Loyalty Islands and Vanuatu departing July 10, from $1514 each.

Pacific Star's first summer season based in New Zealand will include:

An eight-night Holiday Heaven voyage to New Caledonia and Loyalty Islands departing various dates in December 2007, January and February 2008 from $1395.

An 8-night Summer Daydream voyage to Loyalty Islands and Vanuatu departing in December from $1880 each.

Special fares of up to 25 per cent off are also available aboard Pacific Star's two repositioning cruises, which take in ports in New Caledonia and Vanuatu as the ship travels to or from Brisbane.

Further information

Details of all cruises are available through travel agents or P&O Cruises on 0800 95 12 00 or visit website (link below).

* Andrew Austin travelled as guest of P&O Cruises.

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