This is more of a review than a question, as there did not seem to be any way to leave a review by the usual means for a cruise. It is long and detailed, so if you make it to the end, well done!
I have recently been on a cruise on the Pacific Dawn to Noumea, Lifou and Port Vila. There seem to be so many mixed reviews out there about P & O, and more specifically the Pacific Dawn, so I thought it best to share my own personal experience, and comments for what they are worth. So here goes:
Myself, my wife, 2 children (14 & 11), my cousin & his wife (no children) embarked on the 'Week Fantastique' from Brisbane (W327). I did a HUGE amount of research and planning leading up to this cruise, both via the Internet, and talking with friends who did the same cruise with a large group earlier in the year. The first thing I'll say is, no matter how much research you do, nothing can compare to first-hand experience, particularly if those you are travelling with have not done similar research for themselves. I will try to be as honest and clear as I can, based on my experiences.
Embarkation: Pretty well done, considering they have only just (roughly an hour earlier) disembarked the previous cruise, and now have 2000 new passengers to enthusiastically welcome aboard. All up it took us around 3 hours to complete the required Customs forms, check in, and board. We were on our way not long after the scheduled departure time of 2pm (I know that others have not had such good experiences, but that's the luck of the draw, and weather!). My cousin and his wife were in a mini-suite, and therefore had priority check-in; this was not as smooth as it should have been, and somehow we ended up on board before them!
Weather – Anyone giving P & O a bad rap due to the weather is just being unfair. Safety is their main priority, and if it is unsafe to dock at a particular port, then they are not going to – simple! We were fortunate in that we visited all 3 ports of call, but the weather was average. This didn’t at all stop us from enjoying our cruise, it just wasn’t as warm as we had hoped. No big deal. One cannot expect a refund due to bad weather.
Safety - Prior to leaving, all passengers were required to attend a safety presentation at their Muster Station. This was brief, and relatively painless, although I am glad we did not experience an actual emergency, as I think it would be very difficult to contain the panic! On board security had a good presence, although we were uneasy about our girls being out after dark alone (perhaps that's just us being over cautious).
Sail Away - The Sail Away party was a great affair, with many of the passengers on Deck 12 sharing the excitement as we left Brisbane.
Cabin - All along, I knew that this would be a challenge for us; this ship offered few options for a family of 4 (a standard cabin, or a full suite; if you had a child over 16 you could have adjoining cabins, but then you lose the discount for 3rd passenger/child price etc.). So we had a standard cabin on Deck 10 (as high as we could get with this grade of cabin), with 2 sets of bunks. Let's just say it was clean, adequate, and had plenty of storage. Only 1 of the 4 safes in our room worked, but fortunately it was the largest, and that was ok. The bathroom was small, but again adequate, unless more than 1 needed to use it at the same time! But I did not intend to spend much time in the cabin anyway, so I survived. My cousin and his wife in the mini-suite were spoilt for space, had a huge bed, and a balcony, and I see no reason as to why 2 fold out beds couldn't be used in here for the children, other than they simply did not want too many little kids in these rooms. This cabin was very nice I would thoroughly recommend it to a couple who has a few extra dollars.
Food - OK, let's get straight to it! I am extremely surprised at all of the negative comments that I have read about the food on board. There are 2 restaurants included in the price: The Plantation Buffet, and the Waterfront al a carte. We ate mainly at the Plantation for breakfast and lunch, and the Waterfront for dinner (although I did have 1 breakfast at the Waterfront, and a couple of dinners at the Plantation, mainly due to timing). There is also The Grill, which is an extension of the Plantation, outside on Deck 12, and this offers slightly different food at each meal time; e.g. Egg & Bacon Rolls at breakfast, and Hamburgers at lunch. I must say that we had no problems at all with the food, choice or quality. Yes, at times the Plantation felt a bit like a cattle muster, but once people worked out how to use the serveries properly (i.e. if you want hot food only, then don't line up at the start with those who want cereal or salad, PLEASE!!! Just grab a plate and skip past). The variety was great, as was the taste. The Waterfront was a class above, with very personal waiting staff, and a supreme choice of top quality restaurant food. No limits to what you can order, and if you didn't like something, you just ordered something else. Brilliant! You just need to book for the Waterfront, and they only hold the booking for 10 minutes past the allotted time, so beware. Most nights it is booked out. My cousin is a chef, and therefore a very good judge of food preparation and presentation, and he agrees with me. There are also two other restaurants on board that attract a surcharge; Luke Mangan's Salt, and La Luna Asian, which we didn't eat at, but by all accounts are very good (La Luna, however, is simply located in a section of the Plantation that is sectioned off at dinner, so not an intimate setting). There are also other eating options on board that attract a fee: The Grill serve different food outside of meal times (e.g. wedges, pizzas), 2 cafes serving good quality coffee and sweets, and a New Zealand Ice Cream bar. If you are hungry at any time on board, then there is something wrong!
Drinks – Self serve water is available in all eating/drinking venues, and there are 3 stations to get a basic tea or coffee. 2 cafes sell premium coffee, and there are countless places to buy an alcoholic beverage or soft drink, including roaming waiters with or without drinks carts. I think the price of the alcohol and soft drinks was a tad high, however, I can see that if the prices for alcohol were too low, then some passengers would go a bit crazy with the booze. Beers were from around $6.50 - $8, wine around $7+/glass and $25+/bottle, base spirits around $7 + mixer, and cocktails from $9.90 - $$15+. Tea/coffee from around $3.50. So budget for this expenditure, based on your drinking habits. BIG TIP: you are allowed to take bottled water and soft drink on board. We took a 24 pack of water, 30 slab of Diet Coke cans, and 10 pack of lemonade cans. I wouldn’t take so much soft drink next time, but we used almost all of the water (you aren’t allowed to refill bottles at the water serveries due to hygiene, so don’t plan to do this). Others at the port seemed surprised to see us carrying around our drinks). This saved us quite a bit on board.
Entertainment – One word: AWESOME! The entertainers on board were professional, friendly, and a lot of fun. From the ‘Pacific Cirque’ acrobats, to the singers, dancers, musicians, a magician, and a couple of comedians, there was something for everyone. Don’t be like the couple we met on the last night who were complaining about the lack of shows on board, because they had not realised that there were shows in the Marquee Theatre every night, sometimes twice a night. How they had managed to miss this is beyond me! The magician, Jonas Jost was from Sydney, and provided a show that was not just about magic and illusion, but great fun and entertainment too. There were 2 comedians who performed in ‘The Dome’ on different nights, funny, but not for the light-hearted. The specific themed shows were spectacular, given the venue, and the bands/musicians were excellent. The best part was that all performers spent time around the public areas, so you could meet them and chat with them, which was nice.
Staff – Let’s be honest, the P & O staff do an amazing job, given the amount of time that they spend working, and at sea. Many of them (from senior officers and staff through to cabin stewards and behind-the-scenes crew) spend over 8 months at a time at sea, working at least 11 hours a day, and are expected to be friendly, courteous and helpful at all times; no mean feat! Our cruise director was a vibrant and fun woman from England, who did her best to be cheerful and excited all of the time, as did all of the entertainment crew. We had opportunity to meet many of the senior officers, in particular the captain appeared at one of the on board markets for a chat, photo or autograph. Our cabin steward was fantastic. He was so friendly and helpful, and did everything he could to help us feel welcome and at home. He was honest, and made us aware of all the things we would be charged for in the cabin (i.e. the bath robe if we used it, likewise the bottles of water). For what he has to do, hardly getting to see the light of day, it is amazing how he manages to remain cheerful at all times. We had similar experiences with the wait staff throughout, both in the restaurants, and around the general areas. All very helpful and courteous. We even had one waitress, who, following a compliment from my 11 year old about her hair clip, subsequently insisted that my daughter accept it as a gift! An amazing gesture. P & O staff is diverse in their origin and culture, although there are none from Australia. I will say, that as a participant/finalist in the fun ‘Pacific Pop Stars’ competition, I did get the feeling that those acting as ‘celebrity judges’ really would have preferred to be doing something else, but hey, it’s hard to be enthusiastic all the time….
Activities on Board – To those who have commented recently in the negative about on board activities, I say “phooey!” There is that much to do, that if you can’t find something, at all times, then there is something wrong. OK, if there was an activity missing from your last cruise, don’t you think they are simply trying to bring variety, particularly so that repeat cruisers don’t become bored or complacent? Some activities attract a fee, but then you don’t have to do them (wine tasting, bingo, casino, cocktail making etc.). Free games, competitions, trivia, movies, demonstrations, lectures (if you’re into that) are on all the time. Or, just relax and soak up the cruising atmosphere.
Gym – Small, but I used it once, and my wife a few times, so it was ok.
Children’s Activities – There was plenty on board for children of all ages. My girls were both within the ‘HQ’ age group of 11-14, and theirs, along with the ‘HQ+’ 14-17 year old club rooms were in a bit of a strange spot; on the top deck (14) right at the back of the ship. These rooms were not real big, but were OK, but we really did not feel comfortable allowing them to go to and from this room late at night, as it was right above the Plantation restaurant (Deck 12), and the adult’s only Oasis Bar (Deck 10). If you are travelling with children, then the Pacific Dawn is a great option, as there are plenty of activities aimed directly at kids. Of the 2000+ passengers on our cruise, over 600 of them were children under 18, and by our magician Jonas Jost’s own admission, from his experience with different cruise companies, P & O crowds are usually the most fun!
Shopping – There are a few shops on board. These include watches/jewellery, souvenirs, small amount of clothing, and a small amount of very expensive snacks, lollies, and over-the-counter type pharmacy supplies. Nothing really exciting. There are 2 different market days, which are interesting, and from memory 2 or 3 art auctions, that were interesting to attend. Some prices of items on board in the shops were good, others, you’d be much better off buying on land (e.g. a camera that I purchased before I left home was about 40% more expensive ‘duty free’ on board!). I did buy my duty free alcohol on board, as I didn’t want to mess around with this in Vila for the sake of a couple of bucks per bottle. Also, when you compare the prices on board to those back home in a bottle shop, you save a lot. (I spent just under $95 on what would have probably cost at least $250 back home, so I’m happy).
Shore Tours – This is a tough one. After all the research I did, I went intending to book a shore tour on board for Noumea, and do our own thing at Lifou and Vila. However, others had reservations about this, as, understandably so, there were concerns about making sure we were back at the ship in time each day for departure, and doing tours through P & O guarantees this. So we ended up booking tours at each port through P & O. So this was a very expensive exercise, but we did enjoy the tours, and got to do and see things that we couldn’t have if we did things privately. (If anyone wants specific details of the tours we did, please let me know). Doing the tours did mean we missed out on things that I would have liked to do and see, particularly at Port Vila, like Hideaway Island, but such is life. If I was to repeat the same cruise, I would be more inclined to do my own thing. The other thing I will say is all port stops accept Aussie Dollars. I repeat, ALL port stops accept Aussie Dollars. All my research led me to believe that Lifou and Vila would accept Aussie Dollars, but that in Noumea we would need Pacific Francs. So we did a currency exchange on board, only to find out on shore that nearly every shop or market stall holder in Noumea accepted Aussie Dollars, or that we would have gotten a much better exchange rate on land.
Aqua Spa – My wife and cousin’s wife both had different treatments at the spa, and both enjoyed themselves. Both did not, however, feel the sales pitch that followed was necessary, following spending at least $180 already!
Photos – Wow! From the moment you step on board, someone is taking your photo. They have professional photographers, along with other staff, who at different times are roaming around capturing every moment. On both formal nights, there are several different stations set up on deck 7 at which you can have your photo taken. Whilst some fell for the standard vomit inciting poses (hand on heart on hand etc.) my wife resisted these, and we ended up with some nice shots to choose from. There was a gallery set up in the Atrium on most days, and deals available for multiple photo purchases. They are not cheap, and we paid around $180 for about 10 8x10 photos all up. They are a nice memento of the cruise though. There is also a DVD video that you can order that contains footage of different parties and activities from your specific cruise for around $50, but we did not purchase this, mainly because friends who did the same cruise earlier in the year did, and were disappointed with the footage.
Theme Nights – There are 2 formal nights, which a more stringent dress code is enforced, particularly in the Waterfront (we did see some dressed too casually turned away). This was the only night the dress code was enforced, as at other times they suggest no shorts or thongs are allowed in the Waterfront, but plenty still wore such attire, or worse! Our cruise (as it would seem this trip does tend to have) had a Western theme night, and an Island/Hawaiian themed night. Some people really get into this, others not, and we just went with the flow, without really getting too carried away with costumes. It is just a bit of fun, and the crew seem to really get into it!
Pacific Daily – Each night, when your cabin steward turns down your room, you receive a copy of the ‘Pacific Daily’ newsletter, which gives you updates of the next day’s weather, cruising location, and all the activities on board throughout the day and night. A must to have with you so that you don’t miss that activity/lecture/show/auction/etc. that you have booked or what to see/do.
Medical Centre – Fortunately none of us needed to visit the medical centre. However, from what I can gather it is very good, but very expensive. Those complaining about this really only have cause to complain if they didn’t take out travel insurance, because what you spend should be covered and reimbursed upon lodging a claim when you return home. And you would be a fool to do any overseas trip without travel insurance anyway IMHO.
Tipping – Not compulsory, but if you receive good service from any of the crew you are actively encouraged to offer a gratuity of your choice. A nice gesture, particularly towards your cabin steward.
Donation - I have seen at least one negative comment in a review about ‘hidden’ donations on your account. Well, early on we were advised that a donation to ‘Save the Children’ that would go towards the islands, of $1/adult passenger would be charged to our account. We were also advised, both indirectly through the Pacific Daily, and directly by crew, that if we would prefer not to make this donation, to advise Reception staff, who would remove the charge without comment or judgement. Anyone complaining about making such a small donation is an idiot (I’m sorry, but they are). $1 is a small price to pay, and if you add up all those dollars over a year’s worth of passengers, it is many thousands of dollars that will go towards helping some of the island communities. A wonderful cause.
The Final Account – At check in, each passenger received a plastic swipe card with their name on it. This card provided access to your cabin, and as there is no cash on board (apart from the casino and currency exchange) this card is also used for ALL on board purchases. You are encouraged to link a credit/debit card to your account. This is the simplest option, and allows for a hassle-free checkout/disembarkation (beware that credit cards attract a 1.5% surcharge though, whereas debit cards do not). You are able to check your account balance at any time at computer stations alongside the Reception desk. If you prefer to use cash, you must lodge a lump sum when you check in, and then attend reception the night before, or morning of, disembarkation. We were told that this can be a chaotic exercise, however I had cause for another reason to attend Reception early on the morning of disembarkation, and there was virtually nobody there, so cash would have been an ok option. With regards to how your credit/debit card is charged, be prepared for some confusion! Each day, a hold is put on whatever funds you have spent that day. A few days after the cruise, our card was debited for the full outstanding balance; however it took several more days for all of the holds to clear. Up till that point it appears that you have been double charged; relax, you haven’t. If you have any concerns about this, speak to your financial institution. The one time throughout the cruise that there was an error on our account (we had been double charged for a cocktail), reception staff sorted this out, and we were credited for that amount the next day. So it pays to keep an eye on charges on a daily basis.
Disembarkation – On the last day at sea, we were all given details of how disembarkation would be processed, and one passenger from each cabin is requested to attend an information session regarding these details. Luggage is to be packed and placed outside your cabin the last evening prior to dinner, and you are advised of where to assemble to be disembarked, and at what time to be there. Whilst there will be no one there to force you to stick to this time, my advice would be to do so, because this is a mammoth task for the crew, and whilst you may not want the cruise to end, there is nothing left to do on board at this time, and the sooner you are off, the sooner you are through customs, collecting your luggage, and away from the chaos that is building at the port as the next wave of passengers trying to get ready to board is building. It is just extraordinary that such a turnaround occurs. It is also amazing that, after finishing one cruise off with a great last night party, the crew are expected to once again have the ship in perfect order for the next group, and the entertainers have to ready themselves for the next Sail Away party, where they are back to the beginning, and they do it all again.
In Conclusion – If you have made it through my dribble, well done. I am sure that there are things that I have missed. All I can say is that based on my experience, I thoroughly recommend a cruise on the Pacific Dawn. But don’t take my word for it, experience it for yourself!