Set sail for Australia's Whitsundays

Chief-subeditor Denise Bowden ups anchor for an amazing encounter in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Ready to dip your toes back into cruising? Well, life onboard P&O Cruises' Pacific Encounter will well and truly float your boat!
Departing from Brisbane, ahead of us is a four-night, 1911-kilometre trip that will take in the Whitsunday Islands National Park, a part of Australia's marine-lover's mecca, the Great Barrier Reef.
During Covid, this grand 17-deck vessel – which accommodates 2600 guests – cooled her hull in Cyprus and returned to our waters with a brand-new Adventure Park. A thrillseeker's dream, the Pacific Encounter now has the longest flying fox of any ship, as well as a first-of- its-kind 142-metre long twin racer waterslide, where family and friends can challenge each other to score the fastest time. I'd advise a onepiece, as your modesty could come undone on all those twists, turns and plunges!
From classes in mixology (cocktail making) through to macrame, idle hands are kept busy on sea days, but for those wanting to up the chill-out factor, a pampering session at Elemis Day Spa is in order. A deep-tissue massage with Mercy from Zimbabwe hits the spot and her tales of home are a delight. Fifty minutes later and a plunge in a pool evens me out.
Of course, eating is a big attraction for holidaymakers, and there are an astonishing 21 dining options, so it makes sense to choose a food (and drinks!) package that is pre-paid, then unlike other vacations, there's no kill-joy credit card surprises. With freshly sourced food from Australia, seafood lovers are in for a treat with scallops, Moreton Bay bugs and barramundi in abundance, but no sailing experience should pass without booking a table at Luke Mangan's Bar & Grill. Save room for dessert – his signature liqourice parfait and meringue dessert is heaven! If you're lucky, a waiter may even seranade your table!
With dinner done, it's time for a live show from a cast of top-class international singers and dancers. Roughly going for 40 minutes each, my favourite productions were Seven (based on the Seven Deadly Sins) with bangers from Madonna, Chris Issacs and the Pet Shop Boys; international hit Blanc de Blanc, an adults-only number that has hilarious hosts, big tunes, lots of skin and more than a few naughty surprises!; and Musicology that is a rollocking tribute to popstars through the decades.
Then it's time to make your own fun! With most evenings having a theme, the Gatsby Party is a throwback celebration of a decadent era. Our casual daywear is discarded and we cruisers are greeting one another as flappers and debonair dudes. With Champagne flowing, we're dancing the night away to the Charleston some of us learned in a class earlier in the day, but this time to live music and confetti falling from the atrium ceiling. On my way back to my cabin, via a berry cheesecake cocktail nightcap, bits of boa leave a happy trail for me to follow, but by morning all traces of a party are gone with the cleaning crew working their magic.
Well, I think my audition went well!
Which brings me to our amazing hosts. Making the whole experience unique is Cruise Director Sophie and her team, who get the party started in the evenings and then are up bright-eyed in the mornings calling bingo, hosting pub quizzes and are always up for a laugh and a chat. Behind the scenes, there are 1100 amazing people making our cruise seem tailor-made just for us. From cooks in the galleys, personal cabin stewards to restaurant waiters, all these amazing people are so efficient and friendly, quickly making guests feel like family.
On a special trip to the bridge, a meet and greet with English Captain Roger Bilton is a delight. After an interesting Q&A session, I cannot help but ask on those quiet nights on the bridge, has he ever seen anything of the extraterrestrial kind? He had not but it was the first time he had been asked and I did discover Roger has a wonderful laugh! What a good sport.
Plain sailing with Captain Denise at the wheel.
As hard as it is to leave the ship, we are here, of course, to visit Airlie Beach, which is located inside the Whitsundays' protected marine park. Ferries transport us to our destination, where luxe holiday homes are nestled in pristine bush overlooking an impressive marina and a golden sandy beach. Again we kiss dry land behind for a 40-minute trip to Butterfly Bay for some snorkelling. In the safe hands of Ocean Raft skipper Heath and assistant Emily, all thoughts of a leisurely trip are scarpered after Shania Twain's I Feel Like a Woman blasts from the speakers, and, yes, we're warned, it's going to be a bumpy ride! And hilarious too. If swimming with the odd turtle and loads of brightly coloured fish and coral aren't enough of a buzz, eating a delicious packed lunch with a sweet treat of lamingtons on your very own deserted island (well, a sandbank) as superyachts breeze by is the perfect castaway experience. It's been a full-on day and I'm exhilarated – but knackered – and ready for a lie down.
Back on board our floating palace, our massive anchor is pulled up and we are bound for Brisbane – our holiday is coming to a close. A civilised high tea of savoury and sweet delights seems to be a fitting send-off to the Whitsundays.
Then, as the sun sets, we don our brightest white for our final theme night. Too early for sunnies at 7am for disembarkment? I think not!
Tip: Before leaving home, have everything in tip-top shape for your return because after four nights of being pampered like a princess, you're going to be royally hacked off to be back in domestic mode. Afterall, unpacking is chore enough.
But there is happiness on the horizon. P&O Cruises' Pacific Explorer is currently based in Auckland, offering round-trip cruising from Auckland to Fiji, New Caledonia, Tonga, Vanuatu and Norfolk Island, as well as around NZ. Now it's even easier for Kiwis to say "bon voyage". I'll sea you there!
For more, see pocruises.co.nz

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