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My thoughts on taking a budget cruise...

I got on this boat because a very, very good friend living in Australia invited me, because I was curious about a cruise, and because I wanted to make it to some Pacific islands at last. I had an idea of what to expect. I'd loaded my Kindle and stocked up on seasickness meds. I didn't get seasick, but I read every last book on my Kindle.

The thing about a cruise ship is that it's a closed system where a society is created. And the society created by P&O on their Antipodean cruise lines is resolutely mainstream.

Courtesy of P&O, boat time was indeed like being trapped in a TV show. The boat, renovated in 2010, looked like a modestly upscale hotel. The boat staff were mostly blandly attractive. The boat entertainments – quizzes, musical song medley performances, cooking demonstrations - seemed carefully calibrated to not discombobulate anyone with an IQ over 100. If your IQ was over 100, attending one of the many, many cocktail workshops would take care of that.

We were encouraged to Have A Good Time! Regardless of whether our actual surroundings called instead for reverent observation. Leaving Sydney harbour, whales cavorted around us. Later, as we were sailing out from Port Vila, the swift, soft tropical dusk came down. Soon the humid air around us was dark velvet veiling the stars. Around the boat’s prow, in the dark water, golden scarves of phosphorescence trailed and broke. And the ship’s sound system heralded us with the ancient tribal rhythms of Joe Jackson. –sigh-

There was a circus team on the cruise, doing adagio and silk ribbon work and fire spinning, performed 4 times in 9 days. All of them had been hired fresh out of Montreal or Colombian circus school. P&O seems to prefer staff with minimal body modifications, by the way – I saw only two tattoos on boat staff. I don't even have any tattoos myself, but I know how unusual this is Down Under nowadays.

We had four meals a day of the finest freezable food money could buy. Was it deliberate that it was mostly high-glycemic, to keep you eager for the carb rush of the next meal? The onboard restaurants were very popular: “I’m here to be waited on!” more than one cruise attendee shrilled. As if it was a heinously degrading task to choose exactly what and how much they wanted to eat from a fifty-foot buffet.

One's fellow cruisers were a cross-section of Antipodean society. Slightly prosperous migrants, sun-baked young bogans looking to party, couples joined at the hip, crabby families, independent travelers with cameras and brains switched on. The 150 boot scootin' line dancers on board as a group were, unexpectedly, uniformly genteel, every last one a tall faded blonde in a pastel ensemble.

Everything I didn’t like on this particular ship was summed up in an announcement over the ship PA on the last day. “I’m your cruise director and I have an important announcement. There is a whale! I repeat! There is a whale!...” Dramatic pause. We stood up from our chairs, ready to bolt to the correct side of the boat, to be reminded that we were at sea. “Of a good time waiting for you in the Marquee tonight!” -sigh-

The things I longed for to make it more interesting – locally sourced fruit and seafood, information about the places we were visiting – seem to be the hallmarks of a five-star cruise.

Would I do it again? Strangely, yes, but on a better boat, with plenty of tipping money to hand, and only with a posse of ten or so friends.

The day we disembarked, running around Sydney, I ate a vivid curry in Newtown that, after the ship's food, tasted like a party in my mouth. Then I went to a burlesque evening that included live performances of the challenging song ouevre of Yma Sumac. I was underdressed for the sleek Sydney crowd, but it was what I needed.
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