A getaway cruise has food, drink, wall-to-wall comedians and has you back in time for work on Monday, writes Sadie Beckman.
Cruising is basically getting in a floating hotel full of affluent geriatrics and attempting to eat your own bodyweight from a buffet while watching a cheesy lounge singer, right?
Wrong actually — as my partner and I recently found out. First-time cruisers, we were on board P&O's Pacific Jewel for a themed Comedy Cruise and rather than a sea of grey heads heading to the check-in counters at Auckland's Queen's Wharf, I noticed people of all ages — from families with young children to retirees, although those of us who fall somewhere in the middle were by far the majority.
We were all to spend three nights on a weekend mini-break designed around a series of comedy cabarets featuring some of the country's top comedians. We would be leaving Auckland to spend the time, somewhat mysteriously, "at sea" before returning to port some 60 hours later.
Although themed cruises aren't new, the nautical mini-break is increasingly popular. I had thought that trying out cruising would involve thousands of dollars and a couple of weeks away, but it turns out you can hop on the ship on a Friday afternoon and arrive back at port on a Monday morning, without even having to take leave from work.
Comedians as cruise entertainment seems to be working well for P&O, as nine of these shorter-length comedy cruises are on Pacific Jewel's schedule over the 2018-19 season.
They all sail from Auckland and feature a roster of the top comedy talent, mostly from New Zealand, but with a couple of Aussies thrown in for good measure. They are even taking the theme a step further with their Big Laugh festival (August 3-6) — a stand-up series that has been described as a "fringe festival on water" and will see 22 acts perform on the Jewel.
So, ready for a laugh on a wet weekend, and after a thorough screening process, we trooped up the gangway on to the recently-refurbished 70,000-tonne ship and found our way to the balcony cabin we would be calling home. Small, but perfectly formed, the room was comfortable, with a compact bathroom that reminded me of something you might find in a large caravan. Heavy sea doors opened to a small balcony space with chairs and a table, where we could get a bracing faceful of sea air and watch the horizon. Prior to leaving, the view over the wharf revealed an alternative sea of newly imported Japanese cars lined up in rows, glinting. Later, almost imperceptibly, they slid from view as the ship moved away from land.
Getting oriented was first on the list, and with 11 decks of accommodation, bars, restaurants and shops, it took a while. People looked to be settling into the holiday vibe straight away, and the rattle of cocktail shakers mixed with peals of laughter could be heard fore and aft.
After a freshen up, we headed to the ship's Waterfront restaurant, where I happily discovered the Pacific Jewel is buffet-free. The huge restaurant is one of two eateries on board where the fare is included in the fare. It offers sit-down, a la carte dining from a surprisingly diverse and upmarket menu.
I have to admit this was a bit of a relief, as with 2000 people on board I had visions of a buffet being touched by a few too many hands.
At an invitation-only "chef's table" event, the ship's executive chef had designed an exquisite menu with wine pairings that we were talked through by the people who had cooked the dishes.
Later that evening, it was time for the first comedy offering — a late-night cabaret show featuring comics Justine Smith and Mickey D. It took place in the ship's huge theatre, where the cocktails continued and the comedy was clever and bawdy. I found through the weekend that the shows were geared a little differently at different times, with the late-night offerings definitely an R18 affair, but earlier shows toned down to cater for younger ears.
Other comics featured included Aussie-based Kiwi comedy stalwart Cal Wilson, Michele A'Court, and the almost-X-rated but hilarious Jared Fell among others.
Saturday morning brought a behind-the-scenes peek at just what it takes to run, operate and sail a vessel like the Jewel. We were shown through a rabbit warren of corridors and led up some unassuming stairs where we found ourselves on the ship's bridge. The panoramic view through the giant windows gave me a glimpse of our approach to White Island, the active volcanic outcrop some 50km off the Whakatane coast, which we would be circling later that day.
My next on-board port of call was a stand-up comedy "workshop" where the audience heard Justine Smith talk candidly about her experiences, before inviting any comic-wannabes to take the mic and have a turn. I can't think of anything much more mortifying than standing up in front of a crowd and telling them embarrassing things about myself on the gamble of getting a laugh rather than floundering in a desert of silence. However, plenty of people must have an inner desire to try it, as the volunteers ranged from the woeful to the kooky; the genuinely funny to the just plain odd. The top few went on to have some further training with the comedians, and later appeared in a comedy gong show, vying to stay on stage.
A Gatsby-themed party was also on the agenda and more people than I was expecting got into the swing, literally. Sequins, feathers and 1920s finery appeared in every direction. These themed parties seem to be a cruise thing, and as a first-time "cruiseling" they were probably a novelty only to me. The Pacific Jewel has several themes that feature on its programmes and most guests seemed to know what to expect, which in no way dampened their enthusiasm.
That evening's comedy gala was another highlight, where the comedians really got to stretch their comic legs and do a full set each.
Recovery was needed after all the entertainment and no cruise would be complete without a bit of pampering. We checked out the spa menu and enjoyed a Swedish massage, which was great apart from the product hard-sell at the end. With a little time and more than a little money, you could spend hours in the place getting all manner of cosmetic and therapeutic treatments, with everything from acupuncture to new eyebrows available. It doesn't come cheap however, and prices seemed higher than on land.
For dinner on our final night we visited what P&O says was the first Australian celebrity-restaurant-on-a-cruise-ship, in the form of "Salt Grill by Luke Mangan". The renowned chef has opened this top-end brand in locations around the world, including Bali, Tokyo and Singapore, where fresh Australian ingredients are made into signature dishes, such as crab omelette, enoki mushroom salad and Mangan's famous liquorice parfait. It lived up to the hype, and the food was excellent.
The next morning, as the grey light of dawn stole around the curtains, I realised we were stationary, and I looked outside to see we were back at Auckland's Queen's Wharf.
It was a whirlwind of a weekend, with plenty of laughs, and the feeling of really getting away from it all so the cruise did what it set out to do.
Although there are things to be aware of, including extra costs and knowing what is included in your fare and what isn't, cruising is a great option for a holiday where you don't have to take care of the organisation and everything is there for you on a plate (or in a glass).
After all, comedy and entertainments aside, something about getting right out to sea is just good for your head, even if the hedonistic onboard pursuits may not be.