Eat, drink - and learn to cook - aboard the Pacific Pearl, writes Kerri Jackson.
There are oysters in the Pearl - someone has that backwards. But it doesn't seem to be bothering those slurping down the shellfish delicacies inside Sydney chef Luke Mangan's Salt Grill restaurant.
It's as fine a place you will eat at anywhere, with an extensive menu of tapas, seafood, fish, steak grilled however you fancy it and the house speciality crab omelette. But this is not tucked away in some chi-chi Sydney suburb. The Salt Grill is currently bobbing through the Hauraki Gulf; one of many restaurants on board P&O Cruises' Pacific Pearl.
Dinner at Salt Grill is one of the highlights of a three-night cruise out of Auckland and that's a big call because the focus of this cruise is all on great food and wine.
The trip is hosted by Kiwi chef Anne Thorp, best known for her focus on fresh New Zealand ingredients and healthy dining. Over the course of the cruise she offers guests cooking demonstrations before preparing the final night banquet - a triumphant seven-course degustation served to 1200 people over two sittings in the Pacific Pearl's large a la carte restaurant, Waterfront.
First, though, we have four days of masterclasses, cooking demonstrations and tastings to "struggle" through, while finding time to unwind from all that with a massage in the Aqua spa or a cocktail in a lounger or a soothing dip in the hot pool on the adults-only Oasis deck.
As well as meals and cooking demonstrations by Thorp, the Pacific Pearl's four-day food-and-wine cruise is also host to winemakers - Charles Simons from Blind River in Marlborough's Awatere Valley; Steve Farquharson from Central Otago's Wooing Tree Vineyard and Duane Roy of Glandore Estate in Australia's Hunter Valley.
Those wanting to learn more about wine can choose between large tastings hosted by each winemaker that seat 120 people to smaller masterclasses where you can chat to the winemakers directly.
They're a great way to really familiarise yourself with the wines being served on board, and they prove hugely popular with everyone from wine novices to experts.
From there, it's a quick race to the ship's vast Marquee theatre; home to nightly entertainment, including stunning circus acts (with almost-real elephants that will have the kids open-mouthed in awe) to music and comedy shows. Today, though, the two levels of seating are packed to the brim with hungry guests watching Thorp prepare a preview of dishes in her degustation menu. The offer of tastings at the end requires strict crowd refereeing by staff to prevent a stampede.
It's a good time to point out that, though the ship is full for this cruise, with 1800 guests on board, the only time you ever notice the crowds is before and after a big event, when almost everyone finds themselves in the same part of the boat. The rest of the time they're spread evenly over the ship's 11 passenger decks, whether they are bobbing around the pool bar (even in autumn), lolling on loungers, having a drink in one of the many bars, or, come the wee, small hours, shaking their booty in the nightclub.
And, if you head up on deck first thing in the morning, there is a steady flow of walkers and runners beating a path around the top deck. There are even a few hardy souls who've signed up for the punishing 45-minute boot camp class.
It's not a bad idea, given how much eating is going on below decks on this cruise. Somehow though I find it just so much more relaxing to watch, rather than participate, as those boot campers lug tyres from one end of the ship to another. As they grunt past, I take in the stunning views of Great Barrier Island with the shimmer of the Coromandel coast in the distance.
As this is only a four-day cruise, and the focus is very much on the indoor eating and drinking activities, the ship has anchored just off Barrier overnight. We will remain here most of the time we're on board, and the captain has picked the perfect spot. Though it's May and rain clouds are kissing the horizon, we remain in warm, bright sunshine. Though we are barely out of the city, it feels as though we are moored at a Pacific Island.
With the view admired and the cobwebs blown out it's time to head below decks again - this time for a masterclass in cocktail making in the excellent Mix bar, followed closely by caviar tasting at Salt Grill.
And that is all followed by the degustation dinner, enjoyed from the Wine Room - a private dining area within the Waterfront Restaurant.
After those seven courses of treats such as prawn and scallop salad, baked snapper and a beef fillet, I waddle back to my cabin and there I recuperate on the balcony in the surprisingly mild night air, with the soothing lap of the water below.
My waistline may never forgive me, but it's not a bad way to spend four days.
IF YOU GO
* P&O Cruises' short cruises are an excellent, budget-friendly way to see if you like cruising - rather than committing to a 14-day voyage and finding out you hate it.
* Your fare covers accommodation, main meals and some activities on board. Special classes or events are extra.
* Families are well-catered for on Pacific Pearl, with entertainment facilities set up for kids aged 3-6 in Turtle Cove and aged 7-10 in the Shark Shack. There are also facilities for teens, with jukeboxes, gaming and sports equipment.
Like that? Try this:
P&O Cruises' next short break is on board Pacific Dawn. Departing from Auckland for the Bay of Islands, the cruise will include a range of activities, including cooking demonstrations, wine-tasting, coffee appreciation and cocktail-mixing classes, as well as fabulous locally sourced cuisine in the ship's restaurants and evening entertainment, including some great comedy shows. The cruise's drawcard celebrity chef and comedy performers will be announced over the coming weeks.
Fares for the four-night trip start from $379 a person quad-share, or $499 a person twin-share. Cruise departs from Auckland on October 5. Call P&O Cruises on 0800 780 716.By Kerri Jackson Email Kerri