Party of one Helen van Berkel boards an ocean liner for a Pacific cruise and learns that being on your own is far from lonesome.

What do you do if your family doesn't like to travel? Leave them behind.

Thus it was that on an early winter afternoon I wheeled my suitcase aboard the Pacific Pearl in Auckland and into Room 10246, my home for the next 10 days. Mine alone.

Travelling as a single can be an isolating experience, or it can be immensely liberating and enjoyable. For 10 days on the Melanesian Discovery cruise, I was free to behave as I liked. No partner to frown silently and criticise; no teenager to embarrass.

There is an emotional tug as one's homeland fades slowly into the darkening shadows of a glorious sunset and work worries, thoughts of loved ones ashore, can niggle. I thought about these things for a second or two - but I had new friends to meet and a ship to explore.

Advertisement

My port side stateroom, with its view of the Auckland wharves' gantries, was on deck 10 of 14 on P&O's 247m-long liner.

The ship was built in 1987 and its dated interior is showing its age; the number of buckets in passageways increased disturbingly as the days went by.

After I'd tossed my winter jacket and boots and unpacked, joyously tucking shorts and T-shirts into every single drawer and shelf just because I could, I set out to investigate the gym, the spa, the library and internet cafe, and the nine bars and restaurants.

The top three decks are dedicated to entertainment, eating and drinking - all of which began before the Ports of Auckland pilot boat left us with a cheeky 360 flourish. Jugglers lined up by the pool and a band played Kiwi favourites on the open deck while waiters circulated.

The first thing I lost was my sense of direction - which was not good in the first place. Even though I leaned over the stern watching as the tugs pulled us backwards from our berth, took photographs from the top deck as we glided past North Head, even though I waved to my imaginary wellwishers as we regally passed my East Coast Bays home, I awoke the next morning, by now well out of sight of land, with my internal compass insisting we were heading south. It was about two days before I realised even-numbered rooms were all on the port (left side) of the ship, odd numbers on the starboard (right) side. Just like newspaper page numbers, I reminded myself. Photographing my room number on my phone ensured I'd remember which one it was. I made the port-starboard connection around the time I realised P&O elves were not changing the artwork in the stairwells each day but that I was taking different stairwells. Other passengers reported the same loss of direction.

There's always someone to chat to at the deckside bar. Photo / Supplied
There's always someone to chat to at the deckside bar. Photo / Supplied

Other passengers were numerous.

The Pacific Pearl takes 1800 but as far as I could tell from watching couples hand-in-hand on deck, I was the only Single Traveller.

Well, until the next morning, when I met the mum from Invercargill in the breakfast queue. Her son was travelling alone, too, she told me. She wanted to introduce us. It got awkward when she told me his age - at 21, approaching half my own. But travelling with parents, siblings and a bunch of mates, albeit as a "single", doesn't actually count as "travelling alone".

Advertisement

Invercargill Mum told me the young 'uns often cruised in groups like this - it's a cheap holiday for them and their mates. True, but still cheating.

Buffet dining proved too solitary - people look at you sideways if you ask to join them in a near-empty dining room - so, to lone "cruiselings" keen to meet people, I say go to the a la carte Waterfront, say, "Yes please" to sharing a table and follow the waiter.

Over the coming days I dined with Mr and Mrs Hot Rod Enthusiasts from Orewa; a sweet anniversary couple from Christchurch, the down-to-earth calf-rearing couple from Cambridge who'd won their trip; hungover sisters from Auckland and Wellington; the ship's chaplain on board for Anzac Day services; the Whangaparaoa couple with their teenage daughter and her best friend; lone traveller Brian who was in his 80s and may have been widowed recently (some questions are best unasked). He was immensely proud of his son and daughter; and - finally - an inspirational woman from New Plymouth travelling All By Herself, with whom I bonded as we shared stories about our children.

Only once did my table invasion feel awkward: when I felt I'd just interrupted a couple mid-fight. But by the end of lunch we were discussing what tree should be planted on One Tree Hill and the hideousness of Auckland traffic like we'd known each other all our lives.

Embarrassingly, all my new friends said they were devoted devourers of the Herald Travel magazine so, guys, if you are reading this now: hello!

Evenings are party time on the Pacific Pearl. Photo / Supplied
Evenings are party time on the Pacific Pearl. Photo / Supplied

The Pacific Pearl offered numerous ways to meet people and "join in" on board. I was a little nervous of having to waltz into a ballroom dancing class or weave my way into a basket-making session but, although those activities are offered, there is no compulsion to join them.

Daily newsletters let you know what's on: from Pilates at dawn to party music at midnight. I'm a trivia freak so most afternoons found me eagerly gatecrashing quiz teams in the Connexions Lounge. This was a goldmine of interesting people: the gorgeous, incredibly brave young woman on board for a wedding despite the sudden death recently of her own partner; the mostly retired construction supervisor from West Auckland whose international project experience made him invaluable for geography questions; the doctor's wife from Hokitika; the honeymooning mum from Otara whose pop-culture knowledge helped our team of three to a win - and the boys from Torbay.

Now, every travelling Kiwi will testify that no matter how remote you are and in what unheard-of village with a population of 17, you will meet someone who knows your next-door-neighbour's niece's beautician. Meeting the blokes from Torbay, who lived only streets from me, shopped in the same stores, whose children attended my daughter's school and played the same sports as her, made me excited to finally make a connection. But I'd never seen them or their children in my life. And it was mutual. Later, I did meet someone who knew one of my colleagues.

After two days of Trivial Pursuit and bar-hopping, we arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia. From the numerous shore excursions offered I took a quick City Highlights bus trip to see "typical French architecture blended with a South Pacific lifestyle". This meant a lookout on a hill, a drive-by of homes and business properties, and views of the harbour, including our very own picturesque ship. Yes, the views were lovely (marred somewhat by a smoking nickel mine across the bay), but Noumea is a disappointingly ugly city. One or two convict-built brick structures and the fabulous Catholic and Protestant churches on the hill are worth a click or two of the camera but, otherwise, Noumea is a city of functional buildings designed by a foreign state to maintain its foothold in a part of the world in which it has little relevance. This view was echoed by many I spoke to back on board, who also said they found the locals unfriendly.

Evergreen Cascades at Port Vila. Photo / Helen van Berkel
Evergreen Cascades at Port Vila. Photo / Helen van Berkel

The next day, Mare made up for it: here was the typical South Pacific isle of white sand beaches, perfect coral and turquoise water. Traditional thatched roofed houses edged the beaches; their inhabitants selling coconuts and tourist tat from woven stands.

Then, oh, the Isle of Pines. Beauty leaked from every pore of the island Captain Cook named for its distinctive trees: a war memorial visited by beach-strolling cows, mysterious Kanak ruins, French prison ruins that spoke of a foreign power's barbarity, a sacred rock and clear, green-blue waters.

Cruises attract all types and I swear one of my companions on this trip had prison tattoos on her hands. Nor was I surprised when we almost left some of her group behind - because they took too long at the prison. But, again, some questions are best left unasked. Pacific Pearl was the first cruise ship to call into Port Vila after Cyclone Pam rampaged through Vanuatu and led to our slightly changed itinerary. The ship's return visit brought humanitarian aid - much of it donated by passengers - to a nation still reeling from the deaths and infrastructural damage Pam wrought.

Bare trees and the sound of hammers on wood greeted our early morning arrival at Port Vila. The devastation was clear. Potholed roads. Corrugated iron roofs peeled like oranges. A hardware store that looked like a giant had taken a bite out of it. Ships wrecked on the shoreline.

The Cascade Waterfalls trip caught my eye, but even on the drive to the mountains, the destruction was apparent in uprooted trees, Unicef tents in schoolyards and road crews repairing bridges.

As we walked through the rainforest on our return from the falls, our guide told me he was heading to New Zealand soon to join vineyard pruning crews. His work had dropped from a tour a day to one a week. He had children to support. Most of Vanuatu's resorts were wrecked so only cruise ships were calling. He pointed out the coconut palms denuded of the fruit Vanuatu relied on to get through the months ahead. After humanitarian volunteers and aid agencies have moved on, Vanuatu faces a long recovery.

I'd saved my souvenir money for Vanuatu so my shopping had a pious edge here. I hoped my daughter would like her muumuu.

After Vanuatu came the cleanliness and orderliness of Lifou, New Caledonia. My chosen tour took us past carefully tended gardens and beautifully maintained thatched homes to a vanilla plantation and on to the postcard Cliffs of Jokin.

Coming in to Lifou the water is jade green. Photo / Helen van Berkel
Coming in to Lifou the water is jade green. Photo / Helen van Berkel

Lifou feels like an old-fashioned Sunday afternoon in which the sun is shining, the people are quietly reflecting on the week past and all is well in the world.

Church - of whichever stripe got there first - plays a big part in community life in the nations of the Pacific and their architectural legacy remains long after the missionaries have gone to their God.

Lifou is littered with churches and although you'd have to be a particularly pious soul to climb the hill to Sunday services at the Catholic church, the view is well worth it.

Lifou was our last landfall before steaming south to New Zealand. The Pacific Pearl is a pretty big boat and I did think that the odd Pacific swell wouldn't faze her. But the up-to-4m swells we experienced on this leg of the cruise did cause a degree of rocking that some passengers found uncomfortable.

"The Pacific Ocean is huge," explained one passenger with a background in the Navy when I mentioned my surprise at the degree of pitching. "This is nothing."

The Queen City put on a sunrise that was worthy of trumpets: I wasn't the only one waiting for the sun to emerge from the clouds and when it did, yes, I was home.

So would I go alone on a cruise again? That's the question I've been asked most often since I've been back, along with "What did you buy me?" And the answer is: "Yes, definitely." Cruising is an easy, eye-opening and cost-effective way of exploring parts of the world we - particularly Kiwis - may only otherwise see on a seven-day resort package.

And by truly travelling alone you not only discover new sights and cultures and learn more about the world around you, but you also explore internal landscapes.

The outcome is you come back changed for the better.

CHECKLIST

Details: Pacific Pearl will depart Auckland on March 14, 2016, on a 10-night cruise visiting Mare, Vila, Lifou, Noumea and Isle of Pines.