Ever run into someone you haven't seen in years and been amazed by how fabulous they look? That is exactly how my husband and I feel when we board P&O Cruises' Pacific Eden. We have not sailed with P&O since the 1990s, when our South Pacific cruise was memorable for all the wrong reasons, and cannot believe how much the line has changed. The hard-partying, low-budget vibe of old has been replaced by glamorous bars, upmarket specialty dining, attractive public spaces and family fun.

New Itinerary

It had been a long time coming but we decided to give P&O Cruises another try because it was one of the few lines cruising regularly to Papua New Guinea, one of the South Pacific's most stunning emerging cruising destinations.

P&O Cruises launched its first Papua New Guinea itinerary in late 2013, and the region's growing popularity has seen departures available from Brisbane, Sydney and Cairns, with itineraries of up to 14 nights.

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Our route would take us to four ports in the Milne Bay Province, including the area's capital, Alotau, and three stunning and culturally rich islands. Being first-time visitors to Papua New Guinea we decided on a modest seven-night round-trip cruise from Cairns. We agreed this would be long enough to get a feel for the destination (and the new look P&O) but not too long if we didn't like it.

It takes one day to reach Papua New Guinea from Cairns, which gives our family time to explore the ship.

At around half the size of megaships such as Ovation of the Seas, Pacific Eden shows that sometimes good things come in small packages. It might not have the bells and whistles of larger ships, but Pacific Eden's compact size means it can dock at more ports and there is still plenty to do. We challenge ourselves at the P&O Edge Adventure Park, an outdoor activities area on the top deck with 14 options to scare ourselves silly, such as walk the plank, ropes courses, funnel climbing and abseiling. While this costs extra it is worth the spend. We fly through the air on a zipline high above the pool deck, waving at passengers far below, then have lunch at The Pantry, a light and airy dining area, which has replaced the traditional cruise-ship buffet. With a choice of eight different outlets ranging from salads to fish and chips and spicy Indian, this spot is another pleasant surprise.

With no mobile phone coverage or internet access available on the tiny atoll, we disconnect with the outside world and reconnect with each other.

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Dining

Unlike many cruise lines, dining at almost every onboard restaurant including the specialties, Angelo's and Dragon Lady, is free. Our son's favourite is Angelo's, a contemporary Italian restaurant with white linen-napped tables and a shiny Vespa out the front. Surrounded by classic black-and-white photographs, we dine on fennel-and-spinach risotto and carbonara with a twist. Angelo's, and the entire ship, is impressively luxe for a mid-priced cruise experience. However, in some ways, this is also P&O's greatest downfall.

Like all of P&O Cruises' Australian and New Zealand ships, Pacific Eden once sailed for another cruise line. Previously known as Holland America Line's Statendam, the 24-year-old ship was treated to a multi-million dollar refurbishment prior to joining the P&O fleet.

When you are surrounded by such upmarket surrounds, it is easy to forget this is not a five-star cruise line, except perhaps when you are inside your cabin. These have not been renovated and still feature traditional old-world Holland America Line decor, which does not match the ship's otherwise modern look. However, our oceanview cabin is more than comfortable and has plenty of room for our family of three. Provided you keep your expectations reasonable, P&O Cruises generally over-deliver.

Island life

The first stop on our cruise is Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province in south-eastern Papua New Guinea, which played a pivotal role in the Battle of Milne Bay in 1942.

War history tours are popular here but other options, such as sightseeing bus trips, cooking classes and village visits, are also available. While there are no formal cruise-ship shore excursions at many of the other ports, this is a delight rather than a disappointment.

At the tiny island of Kitava, located just off the larger Trobiand Island of Kiriwina, bare-chested islanders greet us with flower leis and shy smiles. Rows of elaborately decorated bamboo rafts line the shore, ready to transfer passengers to a sandy atoll that looks so idyllic it resembles a postcard.

Our rollicking boat ride to the tiny island costs 5 kina ($2.50) and is accompanied by a fierce yet friendly race with another raft. Our win is heralded with a conch shell fanfare and we spend the morning snorkelling over pristine coral and sitting under shady trees, chatting with fellow passengers.

With no mobile phone coverage or internet access available on the tiny atoll, we disconnect with the outside world and reconnect with each other.

That night we move from bar to bar to catch some of our favourite musical acts. With talented musicians and groups playing everything from jazz and blues to rock, R'n'B and cocktail piano tunes, there is music to suit every mood.

Our next stop is Kiriwina Island, the largest in the Trobriands, which is home to over 10,000 islanders, yet similarly undeveloped. We awake to discover Pacific Eden anchored impressively close to shore, in a deep natural harbour created by sheer rock walls that plunge into the sea.

The island looks so close it feels as if we can reach out and touch the ruggedly picturesque shoreline, shallow coral reef and white beaches.

We cool down in the shallows and chat to kids who cruise alongside us in dugout canoes, handling their craft with the skill of seasoned sailors.

English is spoken more widely here and it is easy to strike up a conversation. Back on shore, woven mats form a makeshift marketplace, selling exquisite wood carvings inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Kiriwina is famous for its carving and many passengers return to the ship with souvenirs. We don't buy anything but our memories of this unique cruising destination are priceless.

Conflict Islands

Our last port is the Conflict Islands, a privately owned archipelago of 21 untouched islands surrounded by a cerulean blue lagoon, with one of the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world. P&O Cruises has exclusive visiting rights for the Conflict Islands and this is our family's most anticipated stop of the cruise.

We are up early with our snorkel gear packed, marvelling at the beautiful day outside and ready to board the first available tender boat. However, an onshore wind makes tender operations impossible and, after a sincere apology from the captain, the ship departs for the journey back to Cairns.

This P&O Cruise may have been our first for many years but it won't be our last. As the ship pulls away from the island, we are already planning our return visit.

DETAILS:For more information on P&O Cruises departing from Australia and New Zealand, please see a licensed travel agent, visit pocruises.co.nz or call 0800 780 716.