If you'd told me I'd spend part of my cruising holiday smothered in a guacamole-like paste and cocooned in a waterbed, I wouldn't have believed it. But here I am painted green and wrapped in a large foil sheet and mattress, which is slowly inflating with hot water. I feel like a human burrito.
This is part one of a seaweed massage, a two-hour "detoxifying" treatment available on board P&O's refurbished 21-year-old cruise ship, Pacific Aria. The mild claustrophobia is worth it for the massage that follows, an hour of bliss that has me drifting off, much as the gentle swaying of the ship did in the night. I'm also praying the alkaline concoction has worked. In the 24 hours since boarding, I've done little else but eat and drink. This included an actual burrito for lunch in the ship's new casual eating area, The Pantry.
The nautically decorated floating food hall does away with the traditional cruise ship buffet, the variety of stalls offering everything from yummy Mexican, Thai and Indian to sandwiches, fish 'n' chips and desserts. If we'd had more time we would've worked our way around them all. Meanwhile, playful artworks, including a French bulldog taking up a wall in reception, a sculptural light installation in the Blue Room bar and optical illusions in each of the lifts, are stylish additions to the ship's public areas.
Ours was a three-day taste of a seven-day cruise from Brisbane, popping in at Hamilton Island, Cairns (where we'd disembark), before the ship continued to Port Douglas, and Willis Island on the return voyage. A cruising virgin, I'd never imagined myself, well, "retired" enough for this sort of holiday. On board however, many of the 1500 mostly Aussie holiday-makers were young couples and families.
As the ship pulled out of the Brisbane River mid-afternoon, we got a sense of what makes cruising so popular. Reclining in a swinging basket chair, cocktail in hand, the sun pouring on to the top deck, the world drifted by as if in a heavenly dream. We soon discovered cruising is as relaxing as you want it to be, with plenty to satisfy every whim or mood. Having over-indulged in the Pantry or the a la carte Waterfront restaurant, you could nip down to the Elemis Spa for a treatment, or head to the gym. On the first morning, I skipped the scheduled yoga class - and an odd contraption that allegedly does all the work via electrodes you stick on your torso - and went for a run on a subtly swaying treadmill, jogging towards the ocean yet forever moving sideways.
If we'd wanted to, we could've whiled away the hours between breakfast, lunch and dinner by watching a movie, joining a pub quiz, colouring in, playing bingo, doing a jigsaw, having our teeth whitened and wrinkles tightened, trying acupuncture or, as we discovered during a serene wander around the outer decks, playing basketball, tennis or table tennis. The adventure park was still being built but when that opens, guests will be able to flying fox their way across the ship, or throw their arms out Titanic-style from the top of the funnel. A quick peek at the kids' club upstairs, complete with Foosball table and endless games, had me feeling a little envious. On our first night we visited the nightclub, only to find this, too, wasn't off limits to the underage. We were the only ones on the d-floor, until a group of boys no older than 14 challenged us to an 80-style dance-off.
At the other end of the busy main bar and pool, complete with frolicking dolphin statue, is where we found a slice of adults-only serenity the next day. Sort of. As we basked on deckchairs by the resort-style Oasis pool, AC/DC's Thunderstruck played, an odd soundtrack to mark the tranquil scenery perhaps but somehow strangely fitting. We were sharing a Toblerone cocktail at the time.
The sophistication level ascended in the evenings as we trialled a few of the ship's 15 dining areas. Gin and tonics at the elegantly appointed Blue Room, then dinner at the new
modern Italian restaurant Angelo's, for antipasto, stuffed pork loin and ricotta pastry puffs. On the following "Formal Night", a chance for passengers to dress up in their most glamorous outfits, a wine tasting at the cellar and pan-Asian sharing plates at the new, seductively blue-lit Dragon Lady. Finally, a stand-out meal of kingfish sashimi, goat's cheese tart, lobster tail and liquorice parfait at Luke Mangan's Salt Grill.
By day three, we were ready for a change of scene, the respite of our balcony proving more tempting than the Pantry, casino and shops. (I'd also discovered that if you buy a bikini on a cruise ship, there's a good chance you won't be the only one wearing it by the pool.) Today we arrived at Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays. It was a short-lived stay. The majority of Aria cruisers were free to enjoy the sights and take on a scavenger hunt with buggies. But Taylor Swift was holed up at the private island's resort where we'd planned to lunch, so our media group was whisked away faster than you can say "silver lining". Fifteen minutes on a luxury launch later, and we'd motored to sheltered Turtle Bay for snorkelling around the reef, spotting colourful corals and fish. Then it was off to Dent Island by ferry to the golf club, an airy, clifftop paradise serving oysters, Champagne and delicious food. This is the beauty of cruising of course; turning up at a new destination in as dreamy a manner as possible, eating, drinking, socialising, then hopping back on to do much the same.
Back on board, you could entertain yourself for hours simply by people-watching. A passenger giving his best Dean Martin impression at karaoke. A man in a dress, nonchalantly wandering around the pool. A jazz pianist, bantering with the crowd. That evening we went to a new show called Sideshow Alley, singing and dancing performances set to a carnival theme. After dinner we couldn't help but check out the nightclub again just to see the evening's school uniform theme in effect.
Early next morning, the tropical greens of Cairns loomed into view. Lying on our balcony deckchairs, soaking up the last few hours, I realised that, despite the fun of the cocktail-fuelled Acca Dacca, the seemingly endless supply of food and the company of strangers, this secluded appreciation of the sea gliding past was the part of cruising I'd miss the most.
Although the Pacific Aria refurbishment is a work in progress in the rooms, our suite was spacious and comfortable, with a settee, walk-in wardrobe and balcony, and two lovely housekeepers who'd routinely drop off surprise drinks and nibbles. Notable extras: a huge mirror on the wall. Missing in action: an iron. Because it's a cruise ship, there's a special room for that if you need to work out the kinks in your shirt before dinner. All in the name of safety, of course.
Aria will cruise from Brisbane and Sydney in 2016 throughout Australia, to the Pacific and Papua New Guinea, plus event cruises. The ship features 15 dining options including a private dining room, new bars, a penthouse suite, a pool deck and the child-free Oasis with private cabanas. A 7-10 night Pacific Island Hopper cruise from Brisbane departing on March 3, 2017, starts from $713.50pp*, quad-share.
*Offer valid until March 1, 2016, subject to availability.