I feel like I've become a cruising expert. You can read about my first cruise and my second cruise experience via the respective links. As this was my third, I was well and truly prepared for everything - the potential rough seas, the dressy formal nights, every meal being an all-you-can-eat session, and being forced to go offline.
I decided to cruise again during the recent Christmas break because I'd so busy that I just wanted a holiday to relax, and I didn't quite care where in the world I was, as long as it wasn't at home or at the office! Plus I've heard plenty of good things about Diamond Princess... Although we ended up cruising with Sea Princess because the Diamond Princess cruise wasn't a round-trip and I didn't want to have to get off and check-in to a flight.
My biggest tip to anyone looking to cruise is to shop around. Check out websites such as Cruise 1st for awesome last minute deals. Because they feature all cruise liners on one page, researching on which to go on is easier as well. If you've never cruised before, you could also sample the experience via various one-night cruises.
According to a Transport for NSW media release, 265 ship visits are scheduled for Sydney this cruise season! That's up by a third on the previous year's 199 and almost triple the figure set just five years ago. So I guess I'm not the only one big on cruising!
The Sea Princess cruise ship way below us (pic taken at Dunedin):
Surprisingly though, I think the average age of passengers on my cruise ship must've been in the 70's! This does come with advantages - such as having pools and spas to ourselves!
Food-wise, felt like a 14 day degustation where breakfasts rolled into long lunches followed by four course dinners and complimentary 24 hour room service.
Some of the dishes from the 'Sailaway dinner': Prawn cocktail with lemon myrtle dressing (on the Always Available menu), baked seafood parcel with lobster cream; fillet of rockfish with grain mustard sauce, baby marrow batons, herb couscous and fresh lemon; roast prime rib of beef with natural jus, grilled tomatoes and jacket potato.
The first set of consecutive at-sea days pass easily. There's lots to do, see and eat. In addition to that, I'd brought a few books to read and I had a wedding to plan! The gym was also pretty decent and I spent every morning of the first few days there doing intensive cardio!
Most free time while not eating is spent outdoors on the deck or indoors at the many cafes and bars. We signed up for the coffee card which offered unlimited hot chocolates and 15 espresso-based coffees at $29. Unfortunately, no two coffees were the same, so we celebrated most port days with a real coffee.
Sailing around Fiordland National Park, in particular, Mildford Sound was such a highlight. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the pristine landscape is simply postcard perfect from any angle. Despite the mammoth size of the Sea Princess, the cruise ship seemed to just glide over the waters, without so much as a splash. The spectacular scenery kept unfolding with every corner we turned. In some areas, the water, gorges and sky blended into 50 shades of blue.
Another highlight would have to be the themed lunches and dinners where staff go to extreme efforts to pull off incredible feasts and food displays. The Mongolian BBQ night was like a Teppanyaki buffet. Pick your own veg, protein and noodles or rice, and it would be cooked to order. The sushi party, and cake extravaganza both took my breath away. The amount of creativity that went into organising these meals was amazing. I love that something as simple as a lemon and orange could be carved and arranged into a ninja.
The cake extravaganza
While all food is inclusive in the cost of the cruise, my experience from the previous cruises is that the restaurants which charge a small surcharge are well worth it. Where P&O has Luke Mangan's Salt grills, Princess Cruises has their Sterling Steakhouse. For just an additional $20/person, we devoured premium steaks with all the trimmings! Different cuts of meat were displayed on a trolley and the waiter took the time to explain the variation in flavour of each. Options included a traditional thick cut New York strip, a bone-in New York steak, a classic filet mignon, porterhouse, and a juicy ribeye steak with heavy marbling. I even had a clam chowder in a bread bowl as a starter!
Although, I think the dining table allocations arrangement for dinner also deserves a special mention. Taking the hassle out of making reservations, all guests are allocated a dining table and time slot prior to boarding. We're served by the same two waitstaff at the same table, every night. The menu changes daily and if you're not up for the table service experience, there's always the buffet, grill or pizza bar.
Zen and I celebrated our 10 year anniversary again on the cruise. Our waiters Ben and Alnofo sung 'happy anniversary to you' in the tune of 'happy birthday to you'. It was a very cheesy moment but memorable nonetheless.
Other highlights of the trip:
Depending on the style of holiday you're after, cruising is probably one of the most chillaxed methods particularly for families and the elderly. At certain destinations, it'd be worth spending more time on land, eating and exploring... but sometimes, a break where you don't want to fuss over anything at all is necessary. And this was just one of those breaks.