As we glided past the billowing sails of the Sydney Opera House aboard the Pacific Princess, sipping champagne and basking in the sunshine, my wife Jan and I toasted the prospect of 10 days of sailing from Sydney to Far North Queensland, overindulging in fine food and wine with a few shore excursions to relieve the 'monotony' of the good life.
We found cruising on the Pacific Princess was rather like staying at a top-class hotel that moved between destinations. Our cabin was certainly hotel-sized with all the comforts — sitting area, queen-sized bed, in-house television entertainment, air conditioning, private bathroom and a private balcony — a perfect setting for breakfast. As we finished unpacking our luggage — along with our workday worries — there was a knock at the door. It was our personal steward delivering the daily selection of fresh canapés — a pleasant introduction to the 24-hour cabin service.
After several days of being spoilt for choice — four restaurants plus a poolside barbecue and pizzeria, eight bars, cabaret lounge featuring nightly live shows, casino, library, Internet centre, an outdoor swimming pool and two jacuzzis, a health and beauty spa, gymnasium, jogging track, and shops we understood why cruising is leaving other sectors of the tourist industry in its wake around the world. And we were a little surprised by the wide cross-section of age groups on board, which certainly dispelled our preconceived view — shared by a lot of people — that cruising is for 'oldies'.
Indulgence made easy
My attitude towards exercise is simple: when I feel the urge coming on I lie down till it passes. I therefore felt no pangs of guilt basking poolside with a book and bending my elbow with the occasional beer — well, a little exercise does no harm — while Jan worked out in the gymnasium and indulged herself at the luxurious Lotus Spa. Of course, she did spend time poolside with the cocktail of the day in hand.
Dining certainly exercised my imagination — and my digestion. The daily themes in the lunchtime Panorama Buffet included Mexican, Thai, Chinese, French (including foie gras), South Pacific and seafood offerings were so extensive it took a couple of days before wisdom prevailed and we chose small plates. And also opted for the low-fat dressings — sundried tomato and capsicum were just two.
Come dinner, the formal Club Restaurant — the main eatery — offered a five-course, international menu. However, if you had overindulged during the day, then the alternative, a lower cal Lotus Spa menu was always available.
The speciality of the Sterling Steakhouse was aged, corn-fed beef. Melt-in-your mouth fillet, simply seasoned with rock salt and black pepper — divine.
Sabatini's Italian Restaurant offered a 'bellisima' three-hour degustation menu — antipasti, zuppe e insalata, pasta, secondi piatti and dolci. We felt obliged to take a walk around the ship's jogging track between the main and the dessert.
Next on the menu each evening after dinner was a choice of entertainment. A live show in the Cabaret Lounge, dancing in the Pacific Lounge or, if you're feeling daring, putting your talent on show in a karaoke competition in the Casino Lounge. I was conned into leading the 'Mike Smith Quartet' in a unique version of A Hard Day's Night, which had the audience in tears — tears of laughter. We weren't game to enter the real talent quest held a few nights later.
All hands ashore
Of course it wasn't all sunning, sipping and eating. There were several ports of call to be explored, each offering a choice of activities. Our first shore excursion was in the Whitsunday Islands on the Great Barrier Reef where we opted for a day trip to Daydream Island, lazing away a few hours on the beach then rousing ourselves for a leisurely amble through the rainforest.
The next morning we berthed in Cairns where we decided it was time to liven ourselves up with an adrenalin rush by trying something new — white-water rafting. After a couple of hours paddling, bobbing, bouncing and 'wriggling' — a bum-bruising technique required to extricate the two-person rubber kayak when we jammed it between rocks — our way down the Barron River, we felt like participants in an episode of Survivor.
In the evening we were treated to an evening at the award-winning Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park — a spectacular display of indigenous culture with an opportunity for the audience to participate in an ancient corroboree ritual. The dinner show that rounded off the night was a delightful blend of theatre and tongue-in-cheek humour.
Overnight we sailed to Port Douglas. The Low Isles — an hour's sailing away across azure waters — is an historic part of the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Back in 1928, these cays were the site of the first scientific study of a coral reef. My wife and I did our own research, snorkelling amongst the colourful local residents. We enjoyed their company so much that we lost track of time and almost missed our transport back to the ship.
A couple of days of more sunning, sipping and eating brought us to Brisbane, our final port of call before the home run to Sydney. A laid-back lunchtime river cruise lulled me into false sense of security — as we were walking back through the central city we were hit by a bout of retail therapy. But then, a truly relaxing holiday does tend to lower your defences.
Gliding up Sydney Harbour after ten days of sheer relaxation, I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson's observation, "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to keep moving." Exactly. We would have preferred to keep cruising towards the horizon.
Michael Ryan and Jan Bilton travelled as guests of P&O.