Big versus small ship Pacific cruising

Cruising in the Pacific will always hold a particularly fond place in my heart. It was 1971 when my parents took me on my first overseas trip aboard the P&O ship, SS Himalaya. 

We steamed the well-trodden route between Noumea, Fiji and Auckland on one of the Women’s Weekly Treasure Hunt Cruises and I bet there are one or two of you reading this who remember these landmark voyages, the streamers and the raw excitement of sailing out of Sydney back in ‘the day’.

Who could have imagined back then that cruising to the Pacific would be where we are now with so many ships sailing not just from Sydney, but from every port along the east coast. When I threw my last streamer to some unknown person at the terminal, the Opera House wasn’t even finished and double decker buses still worked Sydney streets.

Poor old Himalaya, with room for just 1500 passengers, was just two years from the scrappers, but now we have brand new ships sailing almost straight from the yard into Circular Quay – like Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas, just eight months old, ready to pick up three times as many guests and whisk them away to tropical island bliss.

The islands of the Pacific have responded too with new ports and destinations opening up all the time. The destination list was pretty slim in 1971 with just Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand and Tonga featuring most often. Now that list includes Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Vanuatu and French Polynesia with even more frequent visits.

The choice of ship and itinerary is so vast nowadays, that sometimes the choice is a bit overwhelming. So now, many cruises later, I can offer more advice than just how to buy (or not) a carved Fijian letter opener.

First let’s start with the big ships, as most people will end up on one of these.

Let’s take Princess Cruises Dawn Princess as a benchmark vessel suitable for grown-up passengers. When introduced in 2008 and carrying 2000 guests, she was the biggest ship ever to be based in Australia. Multiple themed dining venues ranging from the specialty Sterling Steakhouse to BBQ, pizza and cafe casual, so there’s never going to be a same-old, same-old. There is an enormous range of activities on board for all ages, types and tastes, from old school bingo, movies and shopping to (grand)kids programs, outdoor sports, swimming pools and original musical productions in the theatre.

Any ship of this class will offer a wide range of accommodation options from ritzy staterooms and suites to more modest, entry-level cabins. Each category will likely offer special services like priority embarkation, dining options, spa and laundry in the Club Class. It’s the kind of self-contained resort ship you don’t have to leave to have a great cruise. These type of ships are also operated here by Carnival, P&O, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Next, there are the so-called mid-sized cruise ships which can often be a bit fancy. These won’t be home-ported in any of the Australian cities, but more likely to be passing through on a world cruise and you can pick up a sector (or ‘leg’) of that cruise as a separate voyage. There will always be an airfare involved in these cruises to get you either to or from the ship.

I was invited to inspect the glamourous Hapag-Lloyd ship, Europa2, when in Sydney recently and, wow, was she a lovely ship. With just over 500 thoroughly spoiled passengers, there is 5-star everything from dining to spas, entertainment and shore excursions. Study the itineraries closely and see which sectors pass through the Pacific every year and you’ll find a few interesting stops like Cook Islands, French Polynesia and multiple ports in New Zealand.

These type of boutique cruise chips are also operated in our region by Seabourn, Azamara, Oceania, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas.

Then there are the dedicated expedition or adventure ships that will really get you into some ‘secret’ spots throughout the Pacific. These purpose built ships are set up for remote cruising and place a lot of emphasis on shore excursions, culture, history and nature. The small groups on these ships, often as few as 100 or less, mean intimate exploration with lots of enrichment in the form of naturalist guides and specialist lecturers. If you really want to ‘explore’ the Pacific like the heroic mariners of old, this is the way.

While the standard of these ships is vastly improved from years ago, some compromises are necessary. Not all will offer theatre-style entertainment or extensive shipboard amenities as most guests come for the destination appeal. Guests with mobility issues may find it difficult. There is so much more to the Pacific than the big ports and these cruises offer the chance to really ‘experience’ the special cultures and natural environments that makes the world’s biggest ocean so special.

The more comfortable cruise lines are APT, Ponant, Silversea and Lindblad, while smaller operators like Aurora, Coral Expeditions, Blue Lagoon, Captain Cook and Heritage Expeditions should not be overlooked thanks to their exceptional itineraries.

Writer’s Tip: Decide in advance if you are cruising for a relaxing holiday or an adventurous exploration as this will mean very different ships and costs. If you are unsure about cruising, many cruise lines offer short voyages of just a few days for you to decide if you really have sea legs.