At first glance, set­ting sail on a cruise was an un­likely hol­i­day choice for this land-lov­ing cou­ple

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - ME­LANIE EGAN

Set­ting sail for the first time can seem daunt­ing.

Glis­ten­ing un­der the con­fi­dent gaze of Syd­ney’s Har­bour Bridge and Opera House, the Ex­plorer of the Seas isn’t out of place among these en­gi­neer­ing mar­vels. At five me­tres taller than the tip of the Opera House’s high­est shell, the lux­ury cruise ship’s sculpted curves are re­ceiv­ing just as much attention from the crowds gath­ered at Cir­cu­lar Quay.

As my hus­band, Liam, drags our heavy suit­cases over the cob­ble­stones of the Rocks district and down the Bethel Steps to­wards the Over­seas Pas­sen­ger Ter­mi­nal, his eyes widen to take in the sheer scale of the Ex­plorer’s 138,000-tonne bulk. “We’re go­ing on that mon­ster?” he asks, smil­ing ear to ear.

Less over­come, I hus­tle him through the em­barka­tion process, march him up the ship’s gang­way be­fore shep­herd­ing him into a ritzy glass el­e­va­tor that whisks us up to the main lobby. My con­fi­dence is part bluff – I’ve never been on a cruise ship be­fore and have no real idea of how we’ll find cabin 6324 – our home for the next six nights. For­tu­nately, a high-tech Wayfinder touch­screen in the lobby helps us quickly find our bear­ings.

Still, anx­ious thoughts race through my head: Will our cabin feel cramped? What will the food be like? Will I fit into the ‘smart ca­sual’ dress code?

Within min­utes we are look­ing around our cabin – far big­ger than I an­tic­i­pated – with Royal king-size bed, sofa and flat-panel TV. I open the slid­ing glass door and we make our way onto the pri­vate bal­cony. We can’t re­sist the urge to wave madly at ferry passengers head­ing in and out of Cir­cu­lar Quay be­low.

“We can’t miss boat drill,” I re­mind Liam, check­ing the ship’s daily news­let­ter. “You learn to don a life jacket and size up the passengers that you’ll be shar­ing a lifeboat with.”

He looks un­a­mused by my pred­i­ca­ble at­tempt at hu­mour. “And if it’s women and chil­dren first, I can al­ways wear one of the four kaf­tans you packed,” he fires back.


sig­nal cast- off and the be­gin­ning of our six- night re­turn cruise to Melbourne and Tas­ma­nia. On an open-top deck, the Sail Away Party has be­gun, ca­lypso mu­sic is pump­ing and we join other passengers in hav­ing a blast as we glide through the sun-blessed Syd­ney Heads and into the open wa­ters of the Pa­cific Ocean.

As one of the key ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, Ex­plorer of the Seas sails all year round. In sum­mer, she cruises the warm wa­ters of the South Pa­cific, vis­it­ing trop­i­cal New Cale­do­nia, Van­u­atu and Fiji as well as New Zealand and mak­ing shorter trips up and down the east coast of Aus­tralia. In win­ter, she nav­i­gates North Amer­ica and the scenic icy straits of Alaska.

I’d al­ways equated cruises with wealthy wid­ows in taffeta ball gowns, who spent their evenings dancing with gigo­los or play­ing canasta. But as the sun sets, passengers of all ages, from

Long blasts of the ship’s horn sig­nal cast-off and the be­gin­ning of our six-night cruise

kids and teenagers to baby boomers and re­tirees, are out en­joy­ing the three swim­ming pools and ten whirlpools.

Liam and I are keen am­a­teur cooks, but hol­i­days are a time for din­ing out. So on the first night we head to Chops Grille, an Amer­i­can-style steak­house. It’s just one of three spe­cial­ity restau­rants on board, the other two be­ing Gio­vanni’s Ta­ble, an el­e­gant Ital­ian trat­to­ria, and Izumi, a tra­di­tional Ja­panese restau­rant.

While the main din­ing room’s meals are in­cluded in the charge, these three restau­rants are a more ro­man­tic, tai­lored ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter an im­pres­sive starter of prawns and lob­ster, I en­joy a filet mignon steak with a Béar­naise sauce, while Liam gives the desserts top marks. From Chops Grille’s liquid-cen­tre chocolate cake with caramelised ba­nana to the main din­ing room’s pis­ta­chio ice-cream and kiwi-straw­berry pavlova, he spends the next few days on a sugar high.

I take a be­hind-the-scenes tour of the kitchens with ex­ec­u­tive chef Lee Goble. Goble is calmly pro­fes­sional as he guides us past long stain­less-steel coun­ters, gleam­ing lock­ers and store­rooms pro­tect­ing the vast amounts of fresh pro­duce stored within.

Each day, the cater­ing staff serve more than 20,000 meals. “The op­er­a­tion has to be stream­lined with strict pro­to­cols in place,” says Goble, who has worked at the Lon­don Ritz Ho­tel, as he gen­tly steers me away from some de­li­cious- look­ing chocolate eclairs. “Bread rolls, pas­tries, crois­sants, cakes and bis­cuits are baked daily – us­ing roughly 1400 kilo­grams of flour – while the stocks, soups and sauces are made from scratch.”

As in any high-end kitchen, separate teams are re­spon­si­ble for food prepa­ra­tion, cook­ing and plat­ing-up. “We try to in­clude dishes with re­gional flavours, such as sal­mon when we travel to Alaska, as well as plenty of choices for guests with di­etary re­stric­tions,” says Goble. He adds that the menus in the main din­ing room aim to strike a bal­ance be­tween dishes for those with

more ad­ven­tur­ous tastes and the classic favourites, such as snails in gar­lic but­ter – which I en­joyed three nights in a row – and prawn cock­tails.

For­tu­nately for our fig­ures, there is plenty to do to fill in the hours be­tween break­fast, brunch, tea, lunch, snacks, af­ter­noon tea and din­ner. Keep­ing in shape is pos­si­ble, thanks to a huge fit­ness cen­tre with a sauna and steam room, cy­cles, tread­mills, strength units, free weights and other gym ap­pa­ra­tus that I could only guess the pre­cise pur­pose of. There are daily yoga and stretch classes and pep talks on health.

Decks 13 and 14 are loaded with out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, in­clud­ing the 12- me­tre- high rock-climb­ing wall that tow­ers above the sea, a bas­ket­ball court, mini golf course and the Flow Rider surf stim­u­la­tor.

Passengers can choose to am­ble, walk or run along the jog­ging track, play shuf­fle­board or com­pete in ta­ble ten­nis tour­na­ments. Watch­ing en­er­getic climbers scam­per up the rock wall and teenagers shoot­ing hoops sends me to the pool­side lounge chairs, where the Sexiest Man Com­pe­ti­tion is hot­ting up to roars of an ap­pre­cia­tive crowd.

While I could have learned to iceskate on the ship’s rink or to line dance, I pre­ferred in­stead to take in the ship’s col­lec­tions of art, photo­gra­phy, sculp­tures and mo­saics while catch­ing my breath at ev­ery land­ing.

In the ship’s bridge, white-shirted of­fi­cers stand at con­soles with real-time elec­tronic charts, nav­i­ga­tion and radar sta­tions, ra­dio con­trols and safety sys­tems. Mas­ter of the ves­sel is Cap­tain Kjetil Gjer­stad. Born in north­ern Nor­way, he was drawn to­wards a sea­far­ing life while work­ing as a deck boy dur­ing his school hol­i­days. “The max­i­mum speed this six-en­gine ship can reach is 23 knots (42.5 km/h), and it can cope with a 48-de­gree list,” he says. One rea­son that it feels so sta­ble and Liam doesn’t find him­self in his berth pros­trate with sea­sick­ness, as he direly pre­dicted, is the four hy­draulic sta­bilis­ers on the port and star­board sides – which are sim­i­lar to wing flaps on an aero­plane. “Sen­sors au­to­mat­i­cally di­rect the sta­bilis­ers to ex­ert the right pres­sure to counter move­ment, and this re­duces most of the roll (side­ways mo­tion) of the ship,” Gjer­stad ex­plains. Much like a pi­lot de­vi­ates his flight path to avoid pock­ets of tur­bu­lence, our cap­tain re­as­sures us that he goes to great lengths to steer clear of rough seas, re­ly­ing on the ship’s ad­vanced nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem to give him plenty of warn­ing.

Ho­tel di­rec­tor Gary Waugh tells me that with more than 1600 cab­ins and a ca­pac­ity for 4200 passengers and 1200

Life aboard the ship soon takes on a pace of its own – sea days and shore days

crew, Ex­plorer of the Seas is one of the big­gest ships to call Aus­tralia home. Yet even with 3400 fel­low guests on board, there is plenty of space and it very sel­dom feels over­crowded.


soon takes on a pace of its own – sea days and shore days. We go to bed one night, lulled to sleep by the gen­tle rock­ing of the ship, and when we wake we are chug­ging into a sleepy Melbourne har­bour. A fleet of buses fer­ries passengers to the city for a day of shop­ping and sight­see­ing. Some choose ex­cur­sions fur­ther afield, tak­ing a cruise of the Yarra River or vis­it­ing a wildlife park.

Two days later we sail up the Der­went River and dock at Ho­bart’s newly ren­o­vated cruise ter­mi­nal at Mac­quarie Wharf No 2, a short walk to the city cen­tre. Old friends meet us at the his­toric Con­sti­tu­tion Dock, bun­dle us into warm fleeces and take us to the sum­mit of Mount Wellington. From the look­out point, 1271 me­tres above sea level, Ex­plorer of the Seas looks small as it awaits our re­turn.

The fol­low­ing day it’s time to take it easy with a re­ju­ve­nat­ing hot-stone mas­sage and pedi­cure at the on­board Vi­tal­ity Spa, fol­lowed by a hot stone of a different kind – ishi-yaki, or grilling our own beef and veg­eta­bles at Izumi. For dessert, we stroll to Johnny Rock­ets, a 1950s-themed diner, and or­der old-fash­ioned malt sun­daes.

Part small town, part re­sort, part peo­ple- trans­porter and all- round good time, cruise ships are an easy, ef­fort­less way to hol­i­day. For me, spot­ting dol­phin pods while tuck­ing into room-ser­vice blue­berry pan­cakes on our bal­cony is an ex­pe­ri­ence I’ll long re­mem­ber.

We em­barked as scep­ti­cal and anx­ious first-time cruis­ers, but left sea­soned sailors, hav­ing well and truly found our sea legs. And as for the dress code, I needn’t have wor­ried. There wasn’t a flouncy taffeta ball gown to be seen. Me­lanie Egan was a guest of Royal Caribbean.

Deca­dent desserts; Gio­vanni’s Ta­ble of­fers up­scale Ital­ian fare

Cafés and shops on the ship’s Prom­e­nade deck; an ice-skat­ing show

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