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A short cruise makes for a perfect birthday present for Mum, writes PETRA O’NEILL
To soften the blow of a big birthday looming on the horizon, my daughters gave just a day’s notice and told me to pack for a surprise – 3 nights away with no hint of the cruise we were about to take. On the day of our departure, carrying small overnight bags, we caught the 442 Balmain bus to Sydney’s White Bay Cruise Terminal.
Nicky and Lauren had never cruised before and what surprised them most was the friendly welcome on arrival and ease of check in. How different to an airport with no queues, no stress, just an escalator ride up and we were on-board. Their other surprise were our fellow passengers. They thought they would be the only 22-year-olds but there were families, friends, couples and solo travellers of all ages.
After a quick unpack, greeted by our cabin stewards and tour of the ship to find our bearings, we headed for the upper deck to catch the sail away. Sydney has one of the most beautiful harbours in the world but to sail past Darling Harbour, under the Harbour Bridge, past the Sydney Opera House, Manly and the eastern suburbs before passing through the heads is an experience you’ll never forget.
With a sharp turn southwards, we followed the coastline past Bondi and Botany Bay. As day turned to night, the twinkling lights from Wollongong came into view.
Since launching in Australia in 1932, P&O Australia, our only home-grown cruise line, has become our largest fleet to cruise year-round with 5 midsize ships. The Pacific Eden is the perfect size, with a maximum of 1500 passengers and 600 crew. With smart contemporary Scandinavian influenced decor, design touches are not dissimilar to a kind of upscale Ikea, with a relaxed ambience and lots of nooks for you to achieve a sense of privacy. Public rooms are concentrated on three decks which creates a spacious feel to the ship’s interiors. Cabins come in different configurations from interior to ocean-view, balcony and penthouse.
With families in mind, a kids’ club for 3 different age groups provides lots of entertainment, so while there are children on-board you don’t see too much of them. Adults have a wide range of activities to choose from and while we enjoyed trivia, jazz and a magic show, with just two nights on-board we missed the gauntlet of entertainment on offer that included comedy shows, the casino, nightclub, Zumba and cha cha, karaoke, party under the stars, flying fox, bocce, shuffleboard and beauty promos at the spa.
For dining there are 15 bars and restaurants, with our favourite casual dining venue The Pantry, a modern take on the traditional ship buffet, set up like a marketplace where staff prepare your choice of cuisine from the corners of the world – from south east Asia to India and Mexico, with roasts, fish and chips, healthy salads and a tempting dessert bar. Narrowing down our dinner choices proved too hard so with a toss of the coin we missed out on Asian cuisine enjoying Angelo’s Italian instead.
Next morning for our day at sea, I slipped out early for a healthy breakfast of fruit and muesli, toast and preserves and was promptly delivered a birthday cake. We then explored the ship, visiting the gym, spa and retail outlets of which there were quite a few offering jewellery, cruise-themed clothing and souvenirs. While poolside was a popular place we found a small outdoor area with deck chairs that we had to ourselves. Our attempts at reading were only marginally successful, instead we gazed out to sea where there were seabirds flying overhead and we could glimpse the shoreline, the highlight scenic cruising past Wilson’s Promontory renowned for its beautiful bays and beaches. Forget the idea of leisurely hours at sea spent slumped in a deck chair with so many activities on offer for every waking hour.
That night dinner at Salt Grill, the restaurant of Luke Mangan, one of Australia’s most renowned chefs, was the cruise highlight. The savoury tartlet of flaky puff pastry, the hand-made gnocchi, even the vegetable sides were memorable, but the gooey chocolate tart with caramel ice cream and honeycomb was heavenly. And then just as we were leaving, along came another birthday cake. What a lovely night and under a sky filled with stars, we did one last turn around the deck.
Next morning feeling refreshed by the salty air, we disembarked catching the tram from Port Melbourne and a connecting train south for a day exploring the stunningly beautiful Mornington Peninsula of hills and valleys, wineries and farms and a rugged coastline with waves pounding the shoreline stopping to pick fresh berries at a strawberry farm. At the pretty beachside settlement of Flinders we joined my sister and her daughter for dinner and another birthday cake before arriving at our apartment in central Melbourne at the stroke of midnight.
Melbourne has retained much of its imposingly grand historic architecture, with broad streets flanked by majestic plane trees, trams with the familiar clanging of bells and the Victoria Markets and surrounding streets a reminder that this is the food capital of Australia. A vibrant city, we explored Indigenous art at Federation Square, the quirky laneways and Block Arcade linking Flinders to Bourke streets and enjoyed Italian coffee at Pellegrini’s, the café that took delivery of Australia’s first espresso machine in 1954. At Hosier Lane with graffiti artists competing for space, we dined on Spanish tapas at Movida ending our day chatting to the owner at Brunetti’s in Carlton, enjoying an assortment of utterly delectable Italian small cakes. Flying home to Sydney that night, I thought back to our cheerful cabin stewards and the nice touches they made to our cabin – our towels shaped like swans, chocolates left on the pillow and the note to say Happy Birthday. How enjoyable a time we’d had together travelling between Australia’s capital cities by cruising there.
Cruising represents great value – given the quality of the food on offer and inclusion of all entertainment becoming even more affordable with 3 or 4 sharing a cabin. The cruise allowed us to spend time together while having the freedom to join in on the ship’s many on-board activities. Cruising is a great way to discover Australia as well as New Zealand, the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Well suited for families P&O offers great deals throughout the year.
For accommodation, Accor Hotels have a wide range of hotels to suit all budgets with great offerings in Melbourne. The Sofitel, Mercure and Ibis are all centrally located.