Tropical beaches, fine dining, cooking and dance lessons – Lynley Bilby finds her every whim is catered for on a Pacific island cruise.
It might seem strange a monogrammed apron sitting in a kitchen drawer ties me to a week of luxury and fine living on board a cruise ship in the South Pacific.
But the beige-coloured staple of cooks the world over is a treasured reminder of a week at sea where housework was swapped for tripping the light fantastic, days spent in picture postcard settings on tropical islands and the hardest decision was selecting what to eat from the fine-dining menu.
I'm not a seasoned traveller but I know for certain that cruising is my ideal holiday. It's simple. You pack a bag and go. You unpack once and someone else takes you to far-off lands and waits upon you every step of the way.
Even so, travelling by sea is never my first choice. In the deepest recesses of my handbag is a herbal prophylactic to avert motion sickness. I've been caught out one time too many and didn't want this holiday blighted by nausea. It turns out it was one less thing
I needed to pack. The bottle remained firmly in my bag; the sea a millpond day after day as we enjoyed a stunning blue-sky journey to tropical ports in the middle of the South Pacific.
My passage was on board Dutch-owned liner the Oosterdam. I joined about 1800 passengers, mainly from North America and Australia, for a six-day voyage from Sydney to Fiji, making two stop-offs at New Caledonian capital Noumea and the Loyalty Island of Lifou.
The ship is 10 storeys high, has three restaurants, two pools and spa, shops, two theatres, speciality rooms to sit and enjoy music, cards and art. When you want to sun yourself there are rows upon rows of nautically striped deckchairs. It is nothing short of
a floating city.
There's something incredibly awe-inspiring about being at sea. As I step on to my private balcony and cast my eye to the horizon I am surrounded by the vastness of the inky blue ocean. This is a moment of perspective. I am dwarfed by my surroundings.
It's a similar moment of wonder as we arrive at Easo Beach, a tranquil bay in Lifou. The door to my balcony is my magical wardrobe to Narnia. I have stepped into the pages of a travel brochure; white sand beaches, crystalline turquoise waters, lush tropical foliage and a whitewashed colonial church standing sentinel at the headland. Then the butterflies arrive, wave upon wave. This enchanted island, where time has stood still, is showcasing nature at its finest.
It takes three days to arrive at the French Pacific colony. I've brought a book but it remains unread. Instead I sign up to a cooking masterclass to learn how to prepare traditional Australian fare with an executive chef. I attend daily dance classes, meet friends by the poolside and enjoy live music late into the night.
Getting involved in on-board activities proves key to linking up with fellow travellers from around the globe.
On the dance floor I meet my dance partner, Monique, an accountant from Canada who, like many on board, are cruising the world. We have both come to lessons without partners. I will later meet up with Monique and husband Tom to show them around my hometown when they circumnavigate New Zealand on a second South Pacific cruise.
In the early evening I join a group of Australians for the pre-dinner quiz. It's not long before I have found new companions the ship over. We will dine together, bump into each other on guided tours, enjoy shows or simply unwind at the end of the day in the spectacular viewing room at the front of the liner, marvelling at the sun dropping beyond the horizon. This is relaxation 101.
It's a thrill to see land after several days at sea. As we berth at the capital's port a small group of Kanak people in grass skirts and ceremonial headwear compete against loud industrial machinery as they belt out a traditional greeting on drums to the international visitors.
I decide to wander around the town centre before joining a bus tour of the island. I am left unsettled by what I see. Gendarme patrol the shops; large numbers of Kanak youths aimlessly wander the streets and gather in the central square. Buildings are rundown and the footpaths and roads are in a state of disrepair. I look forward to seeing beyond the central business district.
When our German-born local guide Gunter introduces himself, he explains he is feeling a little cold today and is wearing jeans. I know this is going to be a good tour. The mercury is in the mid-20s, the capital bathed in brilliant sunshine and I haven't experienced this level of heat since last summer. I'm relieved we are on an air-conditioned bus.
For a first-timer in New Caledonia, the four-hour tour, which includes a visit to the aquarium, is eye-opening and informative. It's a journey of the old and new. We visit key political and cultural landmarks hailing from early French colonisation. We observe the large American footprint left on the island in the wake of World War II. We see scores of people enjoying a variety of water sports in the warm waters lapping the island or enjoying a mid-afternoon game of petanque on pitches peppered throughout the capital. And we notice only one make of car, made in France, driving on the city's streets.
The next day the ship berths in a beautiful cove on the island of Lifou. It's a new stop on the cruise line's itinerary. Passengers travel by tender to the white sand beach to enjoy a day exploring the island, snorkelling or relaxing on the beach.
Butterflies are adding a magical dimension to this stopover. They flitter everywhere, resting in their hundreds and thousands on frangipani and hibiscus plants. It is as if time has stood still in this bay.
Homes are traditional thatched huts, the paths are dirt underfoot and schoolchildren are being taught in the coolest spot under a large tree. Easo is a taste of paradise where you can imagine unplugging from the rat race and enjoying one day at a time.
But heaven must wait for now. We are back on board and making our way through the steamy tropical night towards Fiji. And then it comes to an abrupt end. The fine dining, the attentive stewards, the carefree existence. I am disembarking and heading home.
As I slip the chef's apron over my head in my kitchen, I can't help but smile at the memories conjured by this simple domestic act. I am back at the masterclass carefully dicing tomatoes. I am turning my hand to shuffleboard on the top deck. I am seated at my dining table on the first night on the ship, watching Sydney's lights fade into the distance.
Cruising for beginners
1: Pack some flash clothes for dining. Cruising is not all about lying on the deckchair in your bikini sunning yourself. There will be several nights where formal dress is required at the evening meal. Simply imagine you are going out to dine at a top city restaurant every night of your cruise and pack accordingly.
2: Take a converter plug. They are available for hire but it's easier to take your own.
3: Use the ship's entertainment schedule. Every hour of every day is filled with organised entertainment to suit all tastes and ages. It's worth taking a look at the timetable issued daily to your cabin and selecting events that especially appeal.
4: Pack lightweight comfortable walking shoes and a rain jacket. When you leave the ship, there's always going to be a fair amount of walking.
5: Find out what currency you will need if your cruise takes in several ports of call and exchange money ahead of starting your cruise.
Lynley Bilby was a guest of Holland America Line.