Quick Getaway
A midwinter escape to the South Pacific on board Pacific Jewel didn’t offer perfect weather but as your editor discovered, there’s plenty to keep you entertained. By Sally Macmillan

It had been raining for weeks in Sydney but on the afternoon that an almost-full Pacific Jewel departed Circular Quay the clouds cleared briefly, allowing the sailaway party to get underway by the pool on Deck 12. My cruise companion, Mary, and I had two sea days ahead before our first port of call, Isle of Pines in New Caledonia, so plenty of time to explore this popular ship.

The first surprise was seeing how many young people were on board – perhaps because it was term time fares were cheaper – and the second was how quickly the queues moved in the always busy Plantations buffet, where we sampled a couple of breakfasts and lunches.

We generally preferred to have breakfast, lunch and dinners at the Waterfront restaurant (the main dining room) and while we enjoyed the healthy-sized portions a fellow passenger told us that some people like to eat an early dinner at the Waterfront and then head upstairs to Plantations for a second one! Well, it takes all sorts.

The weather continued to be cool and wet until we reached the Isle of Pines, which meant the pool was almost deserted and the giant screen pumped out films and shows to a small but hardy audience who refused to let a bit of rain spoil the holiday mood. Meanwhile we had fabulous facials in the Aqua Spa, joined a lunchtime line-dancing session, attended a talk about metabolism and watched a dance show by the Pacific Entertainers in the Marquee theatre. I’ve never been a fan of ‘production spectaculars’ but have to say I was thoroughly impressed by the performers’ professionalism and energy.

At Isle of Pines we took a guided walk through rainforest and shallow water to the ‘natural aquarium’, a traditional fish reserve at the lagoon edge of Oro Bay. The snorkelling here was spectacular – the water was warmer than the air outside and teeming with brilliant fish and marine life. Rick, our guide, had an engaging sense of humour as well as being very informative about the island’s flora and fauna.

We disembarked at Vila in Vanuatu but before returning to Sydney we took a local taxi tour of the island of Efate. The ship offers a large range of tours and if we had been doing the complete cruise we would have enjoyed seeing more of this island’s cultural attractions.

The ship: Entered service 1990, refurbished 2009; 70,310 GRT; 1,950 pax (twin share); 712 crew; 1,068 cabins including 628 outside, 198 with balcony, 36 mini-suites; 3 stars.

Cabin: Our cabin on the starboard side of Deck 10 had a balcony, plenty of storage space for two people for five nights (more hangers would be good) and a small but adequate shower.

Décor: The ship is old and shows it in places, but venues such as the Waterfront, Salt grill and La Luna restaurants, Aqua Spa and the Oasis deck are light and contemporary. Not keen on those red-and-yellow carpets and strange pillars by the lifts though.

Food and drink: We sampled every eatery but restricted ourselves to cappuccinos at the Chocolate Café. Within the Waterfront is a lovely private dining room, the Wine Room, which can seat up to 14 people. It can be booked for special parties (check with the Maitre’d) and on selected cruises you can book the three-hour Chef’s Table evening.

The gourmet standout was definitely Luke Mangan’s Salt grill, although La Luna (Asian fusion cuisine) came a close second. There is a $40 surcharge for Salt grill and a $20 surcharge for La Luna, and in my opinion both are worth every cent.

I’d recommend booking a table at La Luna and Salt grill as soon as you embark on your cruise; you now also have the option of breakfast at Salt grill.

The verdict: Good fun, good value and wonderful crew!