Neil Porten takes a slow boat back in time to Napier's annual Art Deco Weekend.

Time travel is difficult-but not impossible: witness the nostalgia-seeking horde that descends on Napier for the Art Deco Weekend each February. It doesn't seem to matter which Tardis-like speakeasy door they slip behind, or flux capacitor-enabled jalopy they rely on to get them back to the future: nothing stops those flappers and flyboys from escaping the clutches of the modern era to make whoopee while the sun shines in the Depression-less Hawkes Bay.

Joining that horde this year, I discovered another way to cheat time: squeezing a week's worth of relaxed holidaying into a four-night Auckland-Napier-Auckland cruise aboard the Pacific Pearl.

P&O is basing the Pacific Pearl in Auckland for a five-month season, with 18 cruises starting and ending there, including three- and four-night cruises and a 10-night circumnavigation of New Zealand, with stops in Picton and Stewart Island and scenic sailing in Fiordland. The shorter voyages are a good way to introduce cruising to new travellers, who, like me, are unsure whether it's the kind of holiday for them.

This "event cruise" to the Art Deco Weekend in Napier was a virtual sell-out straightaway, and it's not hard to figure out why: what better way to transport you back to the 1920s and 30s, the golden age of the ocean liner, than aboard a white-hulled cruise ship?


The Pacific Pearl was launched in 1989, not long after heritage advocates in Napier formed what is now the Art Deco Trust to preserve buildings put up in the few short years after the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake. The 30 years since have seen interest in Napier's unique architectural time-capsule explode like an Art Deco sunburst motif.

The venerable ship has kept pace, enjoying a refurbishment in 2015 that has given passengers a number of distinctly different public areas in enjoy, particularly the Waterfront restaurant, Connexions lounge and Orient bar.

The showpiece is the three-level Atrium at the heart of the vessel. The shops are here, as well as the nightspot Mix and Charlie's cafe. But it is the chrome and geometric decor - a sort of 80s Dynasty meets 20s Luhrmann Gatsby combo that just works - that is the setting for the cruise's swankiest party.

The Gatsby Party, one of P&O's mainstay events, hits stratospheric heights of audience participation on this time-travel trip, and why not? Putting on the Ritz gets you twice the bang for your buck: hoofing it up all night onboard, then getting dolled up in boaters and boas, sequins and seersucker to do it all again the next day in Napier.

And what a day in Napier. The crescent of Hawkes Bay, from the Mahia Peninsula to Cape Kidnappers, draws the ship into port on a cloudless, still morning. It's hot by 9am and already the distinction between participant and spectator in the Art Deco events is meaningless: fedoras and feathered headdresses, beads and tasselled frocks, black-and-white wingtip shoes and braces bring the Twenties roaring back into the present. It's a swell party the whole world is invited to. Reluctantly, the ship leaves port at 11pm, heading back to reality, although thankfully not before another 30-odd hours of restful cruising.

As a newbie, what did I discover about cruising itself?

We got priority embarkation and were onboard and having lunch well within an hour of arriving at Queens Wharf. That beats schlepping to the airport, cramped airline seats and hours in the air.

At the end of the voyage I was at work in the city within 15 minutes of disembarking on Monday morning. Minimum inconvenience, maximum holiday. I clearly recall, at dinner on our second evening, struggling to believe we'd only had one night's sleep in our cabin: surely it was a least two... or was it three? Total relaxation at short order is valuable currency for those of us with busy lives.

There's no getting away from the fact that there are a lot of older folk aboard. But looking around I saw plenty of family groups-with children of all ages-and the full range of adults, from millennials to boomers. And everyone seems intent on having a great time - doing everything, or doing nothing.

For a short trip, a key for me was to be able to relax and do nothing whenever I wanted. Though there is a full roster of organised activities available from breakfast time until late into the evening, there were plenty of places to lounge in peace, something that surprised me given the full complement of 1800 passengers.

That's not to say I didn't involve myself in any of the things to do onboard. I'm a sucker for a quiz and there were at least three each day; the two I went to were chocka, as was the karaoke session I caught the end of on the last night.

A good crowd was genuinely interested in the lecture on surrealist art. I learned that Salvador Dali, in order to quickly render the fleeting images of his dreams, slept sitting on a chair in a large metal tray with a spoon in his mouth: as he fell asleep the spoon would drop into the tray and the clanking would wake him. Tidbits like that - handy for a future pub quiz - make it worth having a look through the activities list delivered to your cabin each evening.

Make room in your holiday budget, and your stomach, for enjoying the dining options available aboard. Your meals at the generally excellent Waterfront and Plantation restaurants are included in your fare, but you won't be disappointed paying extra for high tea, a meal at Luna Japanese restaurant (the white chocolate and wasabi brulee and black sesame seed icecream are indelible memories) or the superb experience of dinner at the Chef's Table.

The executive chef is responsible for the exclusive menu of this seven-course degustation in a private dining area; you get pre-dinner bubbles and canapes, a tour of the galley which turns out 9000 meals a day, and a procession of great food and wine.

P&O will be repeating this Art Deco Weekend cruise next year. I'd happily do it all over again then, especially with a group of friends or family.

We time travellers think nothing of looping back to the golden days of our past, be it the glamour of the 1920s, or recently remembered nights aboard a cruising dame named Pearl. Like a gin sling in a jumping juice joint: who can resist a slow boat to Napier?

Not me.


P&O Cruises have Auckland to Napier Cruises for Art Deco Weekend 2017 for sale, from $549pp. Or take the Kiwi Explorer around New Zealand from $1049pp.