If a cruise seems like an old-age holiday, think again. By Chris Marriner.
When the opportunity arose to take a 10-day cruise of the Pacific, I admit to a churlish moment of hesitation.
Wasn't cruising for other people? Surely being a hair's breadth from 30 years old meant a holiday should still be an exercise in adventure, of expanding horizons - not watching the sunset from the deck of a cruise ship. What on earth do you do for 10 days on a boat?
As it turns out, you do as much or as little as you like. It's a chance to wallow in total relaxation while being ferried from island to island. The only decisions are the really important ones - olive or a twist? Breakfast in bed or at the buffet?
In the first two days at sea on the Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, any preconceptions of cruising were swept away by fellow passengers. Older passengers were present but outnumbered by young families, all in harmony together.
The more we discovered about what was on board, the more this cohabitation made sense.
For the kids the ship is a well supervised playground where the pool is always open, hot chips are endless and the self-serve soft-serve icecream comes in vanilla and chocolate, and vanilla/chocolate. Forever.
The same infinite indulgence is also available for parents and grandparents, who, while the kids are in Kids' Club, can enjoy at least five bars, two restaurants, a movie theatre, spa or simply the 24-hour room service.
All this activity by the younger set seems to suit the older passengers just fine, as they occupy the quiet corners of the ship, saving their energy for the evening and the dance floor. Elderly couples, immaculately turned out, twirl each other and kick up their heels for an audience over whom they seemed to have both years and enthusiasm. On the second-to-last night on board, a solo septuagenarian stopped the ship with a Charleston that put us all to shame.
Tipping is a well-established practice on board and it takes a while to adjust to the idea of it. Rather than throwing money around everywhere, I find myself a bar and designate it home base for the trip, allowing a few generous tips in the first two days to lay the foundation for a boozy cruise. In no time, the friendly bar staff become heavy-handed, whipping up gin and tonics just like mother used to make.
Out of Sydney the Rhapsody's first stop is Noumea - an opportunity to play at being properly overseas with the French cuisine and laidback Melanesian hospitality. I say play because any illusions we are in any way off the beaten track are shattered by the enterprising people at McDonald's, who have organised a minibus to meet the ship. Those with pedestrian palates are shuttled to the golden arches, leaving a town full of Gallic delights for the rest of us. Patisseries are raided and frites scoffed before we amble back to the boat, trying to make room for dinner.
The constant presence of food on board Rhapsody is a delight, and always served with a smile. The only thing one needs to fret about is which mouth-watering meal to choose every night. I half expect our waiter to start cutting up my food and feeding me and, as I'm nearly comatose with relaxation, I wouldn't have minded.
As it turns out, when on dry land there is still no need to put any effort into the trip. Stepping off the boat at our next stop, Lifou, we are presented with a range of services by the locals. The little girls rush to have their hair braided, while their mums take the opportunity to enjoy a coconut oil massage. Dads supervise from what passes as the local bar, sinking cans of the local brew; the unappetising sounding Number One. The more adventurous take their chances with the local sea snakes and enjoy some of the best snorkelling New Caledonia has to offer, just five minutes' walk from the wharf.
It all seems a little too easy so we decide to explore the island a bit further from the relative discomfort of a Peugeot we're sharing with five others: a couple of Australian cruise veterans, an American mother/daughter combo and our driver.
Sadly, the language barrier turns what could have been an opportunity to visit a land unspoiled by the cruising hordes into a circuitous trip to the supermarche, punctuated by the Americans' bewilderment at seeing graffiti on the walls of paradise.
My disappointment at our lacklustre attempt at exploration is tempered by the discovery of Number One beer at wholesale prices and five fleeting minutes at a stunning white-sand beach, just enough time for a dip and a drink.
Dinner that night is in the main restaurant, a huge open room on two levels where you can go for a three-course meal every night. For those who prefer something more casual, there is the buffet option, which also presents the chance for my fiancée and I to dine alone, as tables in the restaurant are communal and assigned before the cruise. However, the atmosphere is such that strangers soon become friends and dinner provides a forum for showing off sunburn and the swapping of travel stories.
Our next day in Port Vila, Vanuatu, is marred by rain, but that doesn't deter passengers from hitting the duty-free shops en masse for some serious bargains. I settle for the heady mix of kava and some top-notch Vietnamese food while we watch the busy main street come alive with locals out for the tourist dollar.
The following day, at the spookily named Mystery Island, is sadly a washout, with the weather leaving the captain no choice but to cruise past.
That leaves the Isle of Pines as our last stop before we head back to Sydney. We have high hopes. Having visited before, we know that we're in for stunning beaches and a friendly welcome but nothing could prepare us for how perfect it is on this day.
Part of the beauty of a cruise is that arriving at a new destination is so painless. There are no passport controls, you simply take a tender (small boat) over to the wharf and go on your way. So it is on the Isle of Pines, where we make for the settlement of Vao and sit under a tree enjoying a fresh baguette and oozing, creamy Port Salut cheese before heading for a swim at Kuto Bay, where the thought of missing the last tender back is seriously entertained.
After 10 days at sea, my initial ideas about what the nature of a cruise really is had completely evaporated.
It turns out that cruising is whatever you would like it to be. As a way of visiting a few different locations on the same trip it's hard to beat the convenience of a cruise, and it is a truly great way to unwind.
Just remember the golden rule of cruising: be prepared to indulge.
IF YOU GO
* The Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas South Pacific Cruise takes 10 nights, departing from and returning to Sydney. From Sydney, the trip travels two days to Noumea, then visits several other ports in New Caledonia and Loyalty Island, as well as Port Vila, Vanuatu, before the two-day sail back to Australia.
* For details on this and other Royal Caribbean cruises, ph 0800 102 123.
Chris Marriner travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean cruises.