Don’t tell The Beach Boys (who you can thank, or blame, for the headline inspiration) – but a cruise is still a divisive kind of holiday.
I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that we live in a land-locked territory, but the idea of a holiday at sea has real appeal for many Canberrans. Waves gently lapping at the boat, fresh salty air, that sense of taking a real step away from everyday life. Sometimes, the Pirate Party Boat on Lake BG just isn’t enough.
In fact, more than 100,000 of us, or almost a third of our population, are drawn to the ocean and make the trek down to Batemans Bay and beyond every holiday season.
But let’s be honest – there’s a certain stigma attached to cruising. It’s seen as a soft option, a too-easy kind of holiday, snubbed by genuine travellers. Best left to families who don’t want to actually see their kids too much (hello Kid’s Club!), or the blue-rinse set.
Of course – lone wolf that I am – I am entirely unfazed by these stereotypes. But I wasn’t sure how many of my friends would share my reckless, fear-nothing, come-what-may approach to holidays at sea.
I’d taken a short cruise previously, through the Greek Islands, and had a blast. This was due in no small part to a last minute booking error that saw up upgraded to a king suite. It’s fair to say my expectations were set high.
(Incidentally, that cruise was also responsible for one of the worst hangovers of my life. Being hungover on a boat is second only to being hungover on a plane – I know this from experience. But you haven’t see the face of fear until you’ve seen the face of a Turkish street merchant who was brave enough to spray the detestable Thierry Mugler ‘Angel’ perfume into your face on that terrible, terrible, hungover day. Poor fella almost wore his own version of the technicolour dreamcoat.)
Overcoming this past horror, when I was planning celebrations to mark an upcoming *cough* milestone birthday, it didn’t take long to decide upon a cruise. I reasoned it would offer the perfect balance of keeping the group together (no way to go home early!) while also allowing everyone their own time and space if they need it. And of course, I’m much more mature now, and much less likely to drink too much (ha!).
I’m often right, but I was particularly right on this occasion.
If you decide to book a cruise, there is a huge array of choices available. Different cruise lines, different ships, different lengths of time, international or domestic destinations – you can even book a ‘cruise to nowhere’, where you sail out to sea and back to the same port.
With so many options, it’s a good idea to set your parameters early. The inclusion of an 8-month-old baby to our group ruled out any international ports (12 months and over only); so we based our choices on length of trip and type of ship.
Cruise ships regularly depart from every major capital city of Australia, so Canberrans who wish to cruise can take a short trip to Sydney or Melbourne. Alternatively, and for more of an adventure, you could take one of our fabulous new direct flights to an overseas destination, and cruise from there.
A key factor in choosing a cruise is timing as well. Remember, they’re not like planes – there aren’t several leaving each day. You’re limited to the scheduled departure dates, and you’ll need to book any leave accordingly.
When we realised Royal Caribbean’s sparkling new behemoth, Ovation of the Seas, was making its first trip to Australia after only hitting the water of the first time in February 2016, it was a no-brainer; and fortunately, the timing was perfect. We knew she was special, but to be honest, we had no idea quite how special until her arrival in Australia was splashed across the Sunday papers and the Today Show was broadcast live from her decks. ‘Be part of history!’ they cried, as it turned out she’s the biggest, newest ‘superliner’ to ever visit Australian shores.
Yes, there are dodgem cars on board
The up-front cost of a cruise can be a little startling, but cruises generally make good financial sense, especially if you have kids.
You’ll usually find your fee includes your accommodation and all your food, plus most of the on-board activities, child-care or kids club, plus some extra treats. It’s a nice ‘no surprises’ kind of holiday, but that being said, there are plenty of ways to spend money on board so you should budget accordingly.
Inclusions and freebies vary enormously as well, so don’t assume what one cruise offers is included on another as well, and double-check if you’re not sure. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines offer free pizza and ice cream all day, but so did our Royal Caribbean ship – it just wasn’t promoted that heavily.
Because we were booking as a group, we decided to go through a booking agency and chose Cruise Sale Finder. You can book directly through the cruise line too, and this is often good for last-minute deals. Prices otherwise seem fairly comparable either way.
Unfortunately, I can’t say our booking process was entirely smooth – we had quite a few hiccups and communication errors – though I’m not sure whether these were the fault of Cruise Sale Finder or Royal Caribbean. I will say our Cruise Sale Finder consultant Cameron was extremely helpful, always readily available and very prompt with his responses.
One thing to be aware of – as far as many cruise lines are concerned, a person is a person, whether that person is an adult, teenager, child or 8-month-old baby. Two parents and a baby, and you can expect to pay triple share for your room. With a couple of singles in our groups, we had to do a bit of room reshuffling to keep it affordable for everyone.
I caught the early train from Canberra to Sydney for my allocated boarding time of 1pm. I’m a huge fan of train travel – it’s a really comfortable trip, and was a bargain at around $35 under a school holiday special. Boarding the ship (and disembarking, for that matter) were incredibly smooth and well-organised however. You can book many of the on-board activities in advance, but they do keep plenty of spots open for people to grab once they’re on board, so passengers don’t board to find everything’s already booked out. The hot tip when you first set foot on deck, then, is to get around and book yourself in for all the activities you want to try, while everyone else is wandering about getting to know the ship. Leave it until the next day and you might miss out.
As for the cruise itself, we couldn’t have hoped for more. Our rooms were small, of course, but clean, modern and well-serviced.
Birthday message from my room attendant
And more towel sculpture shenanigans for Australia Day
We enjoyed sunset drinks on my balcony as we sailed out of Sydney Harbour, spending almost two days at sea before arriving in Hobart (always try to stretch your budget to a balcony room if you can, or a window at the very least – a dark interior room is no-one’s idea of fun).
A day on land included a visit to MONA, but we didn’t even leave the ship for our second day in Hobart – there was just too much to do on board. Bass Strait was a little choppy on the way down, and the more sensitive travellers in our group felt the additional movement, but overall it was much more comfortable than expected.
On our trip, we tried the iFly Ripcord skydiving experience (another hot tip: get in early before too many buffet breakfasts put you over the weight limit!); as well as surfing and boogie boarding at the FlowRider. The North Star raised viewing capsule was probably the least thrilling; nice idea, but you’re already quite high, and it just takes you higher – meh.
Not a bad view of Hobart, I suppose …
The FlowRider, and the large clear cylinder in the background is where the skydiving experience takes place
There were three pools on board, plus seemingly countless spas, but we rarely strayed from the quiet sanctuary of the fully enclosed, adults-only pool area, beautifully located at the very back of the ship.
The Solarium adults-only indoor pool
Food was (too!) plentiful, and great quality, if not quite five-star across the board. It seemed like you could barely walk ten feet without running into another bar or restaurant, including the famous Bionic Bar with its Robot Bartenders – great at mixing experimental new drinks, not so great at listening to your troubles.
Breakfast with a view
Robot bartenders hard at work
The main restaurant (yes, pack your buffet pants)
There are a number of specialty restaurants on board as well …
… including the Vintages Wine Bar accompanying Jamie’s Italian Restaurant. Both are at additional cost to your basic package.
The Music Hall and dance floor with casino in the background (there’s always a casino …)
The novelty of wandering around the on-board shopping plaza with drink in hand, mere metres from your ‘home’, kept us amused for the entire trip. If you fancy a tipple, the drinks package is a good idea for peace of mind, even if you don’t drink its full value. The Ultimate Package, with everything included, worked out at around $75 AUD per day, but you can also get lesser packages for just soft drinks and juice, coffee and tea, etc.
Shopping on board .. for when you haven’t quite blown your entire holiday budget …
It’s also worth noting the quality of modern cruise entertainment. When I sailed the Greek islands, the entertainment crew was generally made up of the same people who were cleaning your room or serving your breakfast. Not so here – from the on-board stage shows to the live singers and musicians to hosts and MCs, we were both surprised and very impressed with the level of skills and professionalism
Not a waiter in sight
On any cruise, it’s not hard to spot the addicts – people who will eagerly tell you it’s their 6th, 8th, even 10th cruise, and offer their critical opinions on which companies and boats are the best. It’s easy to see how you could become an enthusiast though – it’s just a very easy, very relaxing and really enjoyable.
Is it for the hard-core traveller looking for an authentic, off-the-beaten-track experience? Of course not. But the number of friendship groups, families, special celebrations and family reunions on board confirm it’s a great way to spend time with the people you love (with plenty of space to get away from the ones you don’t always like … ). Embrace the kitsch, welcome the cheesiness, and you’ll have a great time.
“Almost finished this boat, team, now for the final touches … bring in the giant pandas! …”
And the best part of my trip? Not one hangover.
How about you? Are you a convert to cruising, or can’t quite bring yourself to step onto the sundeck?