A deluxe family cruise with P&O Lines from Sydney, Australia highlights the pirates’ lore and pleasures of the South Pacific.
Modern travel can make my head spin. Jump on a plane, whiz into a different country, whiz around the place and jump back home. Cruising is the perfect antidote for those of us who believe the journey should be as enjoyable as the destination, and the South Pacific is an ideal family friendly region with beautiful weather, lovely ports to explore and calm seas.
Once upon a time sailing the oceans involved a long and tedious undertaking in cramped quarters on sea routes fraught with dangers. One never knew if one’s home port would be seen again. Monsters lurked at the edges of world, mermaids lured the unwary to the bottomless depths and scurvy created more space on board as the voyage progressed.
Now, like other necessities-turned-recreation activities such as horseback riding, people sail for the fun of it. Cruising is one of the fastest growing areas of international tourism and cruise lines are expected to add more than 50 new ships to their fleets in the first half of this decade.
Floating Facilities To Suit Every Guest
Ships are getting bigger and more sophisticated, sporting state-of-the-art technology and innovations in engineering. Once in Australia, its a short hop by plane to the South Pacific from the east coast, but by sea, it’s an indulgent nine-day roundtrip over warm tropical waters to New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands: a far better way to experience the beauty of this region.
On offer along the way are all the facilities and programs you would expect from a luxury cruiseship such as the one we were on: P&O’s Pacific Sun. Five-course meals, child-care centers, entertainment venues, day spa, beauty salon, Internet, in-cabin movies, a library, art auctions, well-equipped medical center, cocktail parties, fitness facilities, seminars and fun competitions.
We were surprised to find the broadest range of people, ages and backgrounds among the passengers. There are five levels of cabins accommodating everyone from comfortable couples enjoying the balconies of the Verandah Deck to young foursomes sharing the lower Riviera cabins. It made dinner table conversation lively and diverse, with the friendly waiters from around the Pacific, providing occasional additional input into the cauldron of topics and opinions.
Embarking From Sydney, Australia
Leaving land had been dramatic. We stood with other passengers on deck and waited, silent for the only time during the entire cruise. People watching from the shores of Sydney Harbour, also fell silent.
The Pacific Sun, recently launched by P&O, is the largest cruise ship based in Australian waters. So big that, as the two diesel engines took us through one of the most beautiful harbors in the world, past shiny skyscrapers and elegant mansions, past historic old buildings and the segmented Opera House, past the flotilla of yachts enjoying the soft breezes, none of us believed it could possibly clear the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Of course we knew it would all be fine, we laughed to each other. We were in safe hands, the staff knew what they were doing. Proof of this hit home again later in the cruise when I was confronted with the problem of pirates.
“Pirates!” I gasped during a tour of the bridge. “Oh yes” confirmed Boris, the Third Officer, casually. “We get them occasionally trying to board ships, intending to rob passengers.”
“What do you do?” I asked. “Oh we just hose them off the hull with high pressure hoses.”
I looked around wondering if we had been magically transported to the 19th century. No, this was still the Pacific Sun, big, modern and as impressively impenetrable as that other great ship, what was it called? The, er… Titanic.
But Boris assured us that pirates were more a problem in Asian waters than the South Pacific region. Unfortunately the wheels of my imagination clanked uncontrollably.
“What about icebergs?” I asked suspiciously. Boris looked at me silently for a moment, then shifted his eyes to the hot sun throwing dazzling light onto tropical waters.
The only pirates we met hid in the dress-up box in my son’s childcare room, where he spent much of his day forgetting he had parents. We forgot we had a child, and spent much of our time on the top deck, in one of the large group hot tubs offering uncompromising views of the blue South Pacific rolling out in all directions whilst sipping on cocktails – a cruise ship specialty.
This was where the football and rugby teams recovered from their nightly alcoholic overindulgences, by consuming more drinks. The Australian and New Zealand sports teams came on these cruises to ‘bond.’ Sent by their clubs (whether they win games or not), it seemed an effective way to allow mateship to develop to lubricate the on-field teamwork.
Surely the funnel would be knocked off by the arching steel girders of the Coathanger, as the Bridge is affectionately known. Even our 2-year-old clung to his father gaping, as the top of the ship neared the underbelly of the Bridge. People shook their heads in disbelief, even though we knew the harbor authorities and ship staff would surely know what they were doing. Surely?
The front of the ship passed under the bridge and the funnel came up to the steel girders, appearing to be higher then the bridge and an involuntary gasp escaped from those assembled. A dreadful start indeed for the nine-day cruise to the South Pacific if the ship hiccuped at the bridge only an hour after setting off. However, perspectives are dramatically deceiving. The funnel passed under the Bridge with just two meters to spare and I collapsed on my deckchair in relief.
Exploring The South Pacific
The South Pacific has been visited and lived in by many different types of people over the centuries. Its lure lies in a warm climate, stunning natural beauty, exotic cultures and history. Cruising into harbors or anchoring off the islands in the South Pacific follows a proud local legacy of traveling by water. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first recorded white person to cross the Pacific, followed by Spanish and Dutch expeditions. It was Englishman James Cook, in his search for a great southern land, who mapped most of the islands. Missionaries and traders followed to convert and exploit the indigenous people and the islands resources.
While most of the islands are volcanic, New Caledonia is actually a fragment of the Australian continent that broke away 100 million years ago. In modern times, it became a French Pacific outpost and was used as a penal colony for criminals. During World War II, it was visited by a massive number of American soldiers and this once peaceful archipelago became the main advanced base in the South Pacific. The native Melanesians (also known as Kanaks) who had lived on the islands for 4,000 years after migrating from Southeast Asia, kept a foothold on the islands and are still proud of their heritage.
The main island is relatively large for the region. At 50-kilometers-wide and 500-kilometers-long, it is third in size in the region behind New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Having been isolated for so long, the flora and fauna evolved uniquely and there are 3,500 plants, 4,300 animals, 1,000 fish and 6,500 shellfish species recorded.
The west coast is open landscape while the east coast is heavily vegetated. A magnificent mountain chain runs down the center, cutting it in half. Weather is typically tropical with the main surge in heat emerging during November to March, cooling down from June to August. The colors of the region are dazzling; the emerald and olive greens of the vegetation, cobalt and royal blues of sky and sea, ochre yellow cliffs; all contrasting against dazzling white arcs of sand.
A Taste Of Noumea, New Caledonia
On our arrival at Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, we eased right next to the harbor terminal allowing easy access to the center of the city. Noumea offers a strange but appealing mix of French and Polynesian influences affecting architecture, food, language and people. The city is situated on a peninsula whose green and blue lagoon was created by a 1600-kilometer belt of coral running along the entire length of the main island. Exploring the fish and coral with the help of snorkel and fins became our main offshore pastime.
Walking through the central park where people ate, drank, walked, washed their dogs and strolled, gave us a feeling for the place before we ventured out into the streets to explore old churches, museums and shops. The city is serviced by an efficient network of spluttering buses. This turned out to be very useful, as walking the hilly city and its hinterland became very tiring, very quickly, in the heat.
Ever curious about indigenous culture we headed to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, a tourist hotspot of Kanak culture. With it’s striking architecture looking like great spiky leaves pointing out of the lush green forest, the Centre houses Polynesian cultural art and artifacts from around the Pacific.
We were a little disappointed in not finding historical Kanak material, which, according to our guide, resides far away in France. “We keep asking for our heritage back, but they won’t budge,” she explains. This helped us reflect on French colonialism in the Pacific, which has not always had a positive history. The best part of the visit however involved the walk around the indigenous gardens, accompanied by explanations of the native plants from which Kanaks get their food, building and craft fibers and spiritual sustenance.
To the east of the main island lie the Loyalty Islands, consisting of several islands with their own sweet names; Lifou, Mare and Oveau. We stopped off in Lifou, an isolated spot with a little village and a relaxed lifestyle steeped in traditional culture. These islands were annexed by France but were left to themselves, thus leaving the native Melanesians to get on with their unique lifestyle. The people still have tribes with their own totems and legends. The tribes are ruled by chiefs, and visitors need to observe local customs which include bringing a gift to the chief if you want to visit a village.
Cruise Rates: all main meals (not drinks), cabin accommodation, some entertainment and activities included.
Itineraries: The Pacific Sun departs and returns to the port of Sydney on the east coast of Australia. P&O offers a range of cruises to the South Pacific, from nine to 13 days in length.
Climate: Tropical. Wear light clothing but be sure to cover up if visiting a village, as the locals are conservative in their customs. Best time to go if you don’t like hot weather is the Southern Hemisphere winter, from June through August.
Currency: On board there is a credit system, You pay for a card used for all extra costs, and your bill is paid at the end of the cruise. In New Caledonia, the currency is French Pacific Francs. Most shops accept major credit cards.
Health: Safe drinking water and levels of hygiene, little pollution.
Further information: Contact your travel agent or visit the P&O Cruises website.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.