Cruising in paradise
AS MORE and more Australians look to cruising holidays, one of the biggest cruise companies in the world is starting to focus on Down Under.
Royal Caribbean, with a fleet of 22 super liners, is moving towards basing three of its super ships out of Sydney.
One of these is predicted to be the Rhapsody of the Seas, a magnificent vessel that can cater to almost 2500 passengers at any one time.
On the invitation of the company, I boarded this liner in Hawaii recently for a 14-day cruise across the Pacific taking in Tahiti and the French Polynesian pleasures of Moorea and Bora Bora.
Along with me on the cruise were more than 800 Australians and 500 Kiwis.
The remaining guests were nationals from more than 51 other countries.
A surprisingly large percentage of passengers said they had sailed with Royal Caribbean before.
The only other cruise I had ever done was with a European company. It was memorable but I did find it a little stuffy for my liking.
On this cruise, the message from Captain Rick Sullivan to his 800 staff was to make this trip as relaxing and as friendly as possible for the passengers.
The crew on the Rhapsody of the Seas was named the best in the Royal Caribbean fleet last year and they lived up to that ranking.
Unlike on the European cruise, there were no language difficulties. Even though the crew was drawn from more than 50 different nationalities, they all spoke fluent English: a prerequisite to get a job with the company.
So let's get down to the basics: what was great about the cruise, what was okay and what was annoying?
Before I left, I checked out an internet site called "Cruise Critic". Plenty of bile and venom.
The biggest whinge is that you can't take your own alcohol on board.
My advice on this is to accept it as part of the cruise cost.
The prices aren't as bad as you'd find at your local pub.
A stubby costs you under $5 and a glass of good quality wine around $7.
The next biggest gripe was about boarding times.
It was true of Honolulu port.
For most, it was a case of waiting for two hours before you finally set foot on the ship.
Blame strict US immigration security and the en masse arrival of most passengers at noon, even though the ship wasn't scheduled to leave until after 5pm.
This cruise carried 1883 passengers so any mass movement created the risk of bottlenecks.
It wasn't a catastrophe but some passengers complained about it for days.
Royal Caribbean, or any cruise liner for that matter, should prioritise boarding for passengers 75 years of age and over and for the disabled.
The one thing no-one could ever complain about on this cruise was hunger pains.
The food was varied and excellent in quality and never boring.
The wine list was mostly American wines but you could find a good drop of Peter Lehmann Shiraz for $33 which was one of the cheaper on the list.
Splashing out on the best champagnes and wines set you back from $60 to $90 so it matched up to a good local city restaurant.
I am sure everyone put on at least 5kg during the 14 days but if you are going to be worrying about putting on weight because of great food, then don't go on board a cruise ship.
When we departed port, the five-day first leg that took us to Papeete in Tahiti felt like a long haul.
The stop here is a necessity for the liner to take on fuel and fresh supplies although, at a pinch with the right weather, the Rhapsody of the Seas can sail for 14 days without requiring a port visit.
Papeete Tahiti sounds a magical place, doesn't it?
Don't be deceived. The area is dirty and unfriendly and the island has few magic spots.
I hired a car for the minimum price of $145 and in just five hours, drove around the entire island.
I won't be going back.
But my disappointment with Tahiti was quickly forgotten the next day when we landed in nearby Moorea.
Here was the real magic you expected from an island paradise.
A tour to swim with stingrays proved an incredible experience as they gently nestled up to you, looking to be fed.
I was fortunate to share a dinner table throughout the cruise with Betty, a spritely 79-year-old woman, from Mount Maunganui, in New Zealand.
Betty was the talk of the cruise after she jumped off the small tour boat fully clothed during the stingray experience so she could join in.
She'd forgotten her swimmers, but what the heck. She wasn't going to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If Moorea was wonderful, then Bora Bora was incredible.
The turquoise of the waters, coral outcrops and shoreline bungalows were enchanting.
Mind you, at $800-plus a night to stay in them, they should be.
Here you could also swim with placid giant stingrays and, as an added bonus, you could also get up close and personal with sharks.
We watched in awe as the young men on our tour boat swam down three metres to grab hold of the fins of lemon sharks and ride them around the ocean depths.
These were the only three stops on the cruise before we upped anchor and embarked on the long cruise across to our destination port of Auckland.
There was plenty to do on the ship and even my teenage daughter who accompanied me never uttered those famous words: "I'm bored".
That was quite remarkable as this was a cruise dominated by retirees. This is logical as many of them have all the time in the world and enough savings to enjoy it.
My dislikes were but a few and barely rate a mention.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience, worth the money and made even better because you can spend a few days in Hawaii before you join your cruise for a shopping fix with the strong Australian dollar.
Out of 10, I rated the cruise a 9.
I took one point off because nothing is perfect, although this was a close as you could get.
The writer was a guest of Rhapsody Of The Seas.
Five helpful cruising tips:
1. Go for an inside cabin and save big dollars because you rarely use the balcony.
2. Be aware, you are expected to tip your three dinner waiters and cabin attendant at the end of the cruise. These tips will cost you around $130 per person for the trip. This is not mandatory, but is expected as most staff rely on this gratuity to top up a low wage.
3. You can save 40% by booking your excursions on shore.
4. If you start to feel ill, get immediate attention and medication.
5. Don't plan to get online every day to stay in contact. It costs 65 cents a minute.