At first glance, setting sail on a cruise was an unlikely holiday choice for this land-loving couple
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.
LONG BLASTS OF THE SHIP’S HORN
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.
LIFE ABOARD THE SHIP
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