George, the beaming maître d’, has a ticklish problem.
We are insisting on a table by the window in a particularly secluded part of his restaurant, SHARE by Curtis Stone. He is convinced we won’t be happy. He points to a brighter, cosier nook. We stand – or sit – our ground.
George is torn between our welfare and his reluctance to expose even the slightest flaw in his establishment. Finally, his desire to ensure we have the best time prevails and he confesses. Our table is close to the engines and the captain is going flat out. Our cutlery is already performing a tango across the table, and he discreetly explains this is unlikely to change for the better if Emerald Princess continues through the Pacific at top speed.
We move and enjoy our Curtis Stone experience in comfort, heading off into the night well fed and remarking on a golden rule of dining: the maître d’ is always right!
George is a treasure – and confirms why his ship earns so many stars for service. He tells us the problem will be fixed for the next cruise as he ushers us out.
Emerald Princess is one of the latest and largest additions to Sydney’s homeported fleet and she is sailing one of Australia’s favourite routes – Maré (New Caledonia), Vanuatu and Fiji.
Emerald Princess is a mighty ship – 3,080 passengers with 1,200 crew. But the numbers are where the similarities to other megaships end. No robot barmen, 10-storey water slides or surfing pools aboard this ship. Yet she is virtually sold out.
Princess Cruises occupies a special place in the hearts of Australians. The line is such a consistent winner of our Readers’ Choice awards, and its Elite loyalty program bulges with Aussie members.
This season, Princess has five ships in Australia and New Zealand waters – the biggest fleet outside of the US. Vessels such as Sun Princess have an enormously loyal following, and Emerald Princess looks set to receive just as much fan mail.
Down in the bowels of the ship, hotel manager Andreas Pitsch laughs at the thought of robot barmen plying his guests with algorithmically concocted cocktails. “You can teach a monkey to serve beer,” he says. “But that’s not what service is about.”
Australians obviously agree. Two-thirds of the passengers (2,058) on her second journey from Sydney are repeat Princess customers, and part of the line’s reward’s program. “We love the Aussies because they know how to party and they know how to have fun,” says Andreas, who has spent 22 years at sea.
Princess repays the adoration. The line invested a lot in the “Aussification” of Emerald Princess. “We have converted the whole ship from US to Aussie. We’ve changed all our menus, we’ve changed beverage selections, coffee. We’ve added 80 seats in the piazza because we know Australians love their coffee,” says Andreas.
Food and beverage manager Dieter Welp adds: “We’ve got local dishes, we are using a lot more lamb. Pavlova is always available.
“In the hamburger bar, we’ve put in beetroot because we understand Aussies love their beetroot. We’re buying local mayonnaise because it is sweeter than the American one.”
But Andreas repeated the secret that what beats cutting-edge technology is still good old-fashioned service. “I know Royal Caribbean have ice skating rings and rock climbing – but people are blown away with the service they get.” And after five days basking in the Pacific, we’re inclined to agree.
The line has only recently joined the race for celebrity among its food venues. Curtis Stone’s SHARE is relatively new.
As one of only three ships to launch SHARE restaurants, Emerald scooped tremendous online publicity. “Thirteen million read the reviews of the restaurant online – almost half the population of Australia,” says Andreas.
We tuck into prosciutto, tomatoes and burrata and lemon poached prawns, followed by butter-poached lobster tails and scallops. For $39, you are served a six course “dining experience” – it is amazing value. And you get seated by George.
But despite it all, our favourite was the wood-panelled and very traditional Crown Grill: the best French onion soup outside of Paris, and wagyu steak and lobster to die for.
An occasion restaurant, the staff sang happy birthday five times while we were eating. The service was attentive, friendly and faultless. We had such a good time, we went back twice. And it was only $29.
But there were plenty of other culinary adventures. In the main restaurant, a pop-up bistro called The Crab Shack was a fun surprise. Dressed in bibs, we downed steaming clam chowder, Bayou-style boiled crayfish and spicy sausage, and a hotpot of snow crab, shrimp, clams and mussels.
The Salty Dog Gastropub where Japanese chef Ernesto Uchimura produced burgers made from rib-eyed beef, accompanied by chips and washed down with beer or cocktails. All specialty restaurants have a cover charge from $18 to $39 per person.
There’s plenty to do on Emerald. There are three pools and nine hot tubs – our favourite was on the back deck Terrace Bar, where few ventured, making it the perfect haven. There is a huge gym with trainers giving help with everything from stretch and cycling classes to pain management.
The Lotus Spa has some great treatments and a fabulous aroma steam room. There is a very private Sanctuary deck with cabanas for those who want privacy and a massage – though you do pay a charge.
Our Stateroom (B 751) was at the back of the ship, with plenty of storage, a mini bar and a Princess luxury bed. Our balcony gave us views over the wake of the ship, with a lovely reassuring sound wafting in through the open doors. There was a large steel girder which partly obstructed views from the cabin, but not from the railing where sunsets could be seen through a glass of champagne.
Most mornings, breakfast is at the Horizon Court when a buffet of cold and hot dishes is available. We took our plates and sat on tables overlooking the pool, a pleasant way to start the day.
One of our best experiences was taking a glass of wine, free popcorn and a blanket and watching The Legend of Tarzan on the big screen. But there were plenty of alternatives, from musical trivia – reserve a table, it was packed! – to big shows in the Princess Theatre, including song-and-dance and comedy.
Princess manages to attract extraordinarily polite and tolerant guests. Even when the main act lost his voice minutes before performing, a full house happily sang along to Rod Stewart records with cruise director Duke Christopher.
The line has started its new entertainment series: The Voice of the Ocean with talent face-offs. Passengers get to compete, receive coaching from crew members and then face judges sitting in red chairs similar to those on the hit TV series. Former Hi-5 star Nathan Foley is one of those taking part. The series has been a hit among guests. On evenings when competition is stiff, it is a lot of fun.
Our best shore excursion by far was a visit to a traditional village at Port Vila. Iarofa is popular – but our host, dressed in a banana-leaf hat and grass skirt, was extremely attentive and dramatically brought home the effects of climate change.
He told us local fish are now tested for poisoning using ants. If the ants walk away, the fish is contaminated. Amid the skirt-weaving and fire walking, it was a real life lesson in how these precious people are learning to survive.
We also spent a day swimming, snorkeling and sun-bathing on South Sea Island, an uninhabited idyll. The clear waters and hundreds of fish darting in and out of the coral beds are a delight. A Fijian barbecue lunch of fish, chicken and sausages made it a perfect day.
The 3,080-passenger Emerald Princess is making 13 round trips from Sydney to New Zealand and the South Pacific before heading north to USA and Canada.