Designed to please
The buffet has been banished aboard Pacific Aria
There are granite-topped dining counters with groovy stools, a chic Asian restaurant that looks uplifted from a Shanghai Tang emporium, and elevators with trompel’oeil effects that have you all but entering tulip-filled fields, gazing upon Tuscan hills or strolling towards an island jetty. Superchef Luke Mangan is in charge of the gourmet offerings at Salt Grill and its adjoining bar has wing-backed pod seating that would not be out of place in the lobby of, say, a New York or London boutique hotel.
At Angelo’s, where the menus are as Italian as its name suggests, there’s a white Vespa motor-scooter parked by the doorway that, with a glass panel popped on top, serves as the maitre-d’s desk, leather chairs and crisp napery, and framed pictures of continental movie stars on the walls. Lavishly featured in these coolly elegant surrounds are images of Sophia Loren at her most sultry. Crunch on rosemary-scented breadsticks. Tuck into the likes of osso bucco, linguine vongole or garlicky, lemony sardines. I’ll have a Campari, per favore.
This is P&O’s newly launched Pacific Aria, which takes the expected design template of a mid-market cruise ship and elevates it to something quite remarkable.
Revolutionary, too, is the notion of that cruise stalwart, the all-you-can-eat buffet. Simply put, there aren’t any smorgasbord spreads. The bright and airy Pantry, on Deck 11, is more a semi-circular marketplace of food stands where passengers line up to be served and then take their laden trays to dine at eclectic seating, from tall benches and banquettes to sofas and clusters of tables with cherry-red chairs and groupings of potted herbs and lavender (not real plants, but forgivably so). Expect displays of coral-shaped ornaments, shells and coffee-table books; towers of brightly coloured coffee tumblers; and cafe blackboards. In style, it’s a little bit Aussie beachhouse meets Scandi-influenced Ikea, and it works a treat.
There’s the expected fish and chips and Mexican wraps on offer, but also thick deli sandwiches, Indian thali sets of curries and condiments, pan-Asian stir-fries, a salad bar known as McGregor’s Garden (a nice homage to Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit), the unambiguously named Fat Cow for committed carnivores, and Sugar Bar to scoop up all manner of sweet indulgences. Even the a la carte main dining room, the high-ceilinged Waterfront Restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, has a residential hotel feel with fashionable designer conceits such as big glass jars, table lamps with drum shades and a caramel-latte palette.
Pacific Aria, and its twin, Pacific Eden, were officially named at Fort Denison on November 25 by “godmothers” Jessica Mauboy and Kate Ritchie respectively, all part of a Five Ships spectacular that sent Sydney into a spin as the three other members of Australia’s P&O fleet — Pacific Jewel, Pacific Dawn and Pacific Pearl — joined the harbour spectacular, culminating in all-white Bianco deck parties on board each liner as the sun went down and a spray of fireworks over the Opera House. The annual so-called wave season was thereby launched in splashy style.
I board Pacific Aria that evening for its two-night maiden voyage to Brisbane. This sampler cruise is very enjoyable, although service is still in shake-down mode and needs to be much sharper. The 630 cabins and suites are being progressively refurbished but come with good beds, fine linens and plenty of storage; it would be worth the extra to book a balcony cabin, of which there are 120. If you go for the Penthouse, with its rambling series of rooms and full-length windows, you may well feel as if you’ve scored top digs at, say, a Ritz-Carlton hotel. But no matter which category, little extras are abundant — call for a yoga mat or an ice bucket to be delivered, ask the pillow concierge to sort your sleeping preferences, place shoes outside for an overnight polish. Do be aware this is not a new ship — it was built for Holland America Line as Ryndam in 1994 — but when the accommodation up- grades are complete, you’d be hard pressed to guess its age. Pacific Eden was launched in 1993, also for HAL, as Statendam.
There’s an adults-only pool area, the Oasis, with curtained cabanas and retro swing chairs, and a top-deck allweather pool with clever retractable roof and lounges in groovy navy-and-white stripes. Entertainment and activities fit the cruise-ship formula of trivia quizzes and jackpot bingo but there are also cooking classes conducted in an open kitchen, an “adventure park” of 14 “bloodpumping” activities for the fit and fearless (you can walk the plank or abseil, if you should so desire), and a pretty good selection of shops, including a Pandora outlet. In the main public areas, such as the central atrium, expect theatrical lighting and voluminous curtain drops.
Clockwise from top, chic bar design; Dragon Lady restaurant; the Pantry; Lido Pool on Deck 11; Vespa outside Angelo’s restaurant