When I hear the word Cruise, two things come to mind – my Grandmother and Chelsea Handler. Thankfully these two are relatively unrelated apart from that one similarity.
My Grandmother is a rocking 85ish year old Chinese woman who seems determined to keep dancing into her twilight years, only a few years back she left for a trip to Egypt and Greece with one of my aunties on the RMS Queen Mary 2, the largest ocean liner ever built. As for Chelsea Handler, if you’ve read her autobiography then no more words are required.
There’s a moment of disconnect when we arrive at the dock, the Pacific Pearl seems larger than life and all my neck is capable of is leaning further back, back to try take it all in. It’s hard to believe, but this floating boat of 1800 passengers is about to become my home away from home for the next three days, I have to resist any urges to make Titanic references as we board but for my own reference I silently call dibs on a promising looking lifeboat (that’s right LB9, I’m looking at you).
We’ve been invited to experience the Pacific Pearl as she sails on a 9 day journey to the Pacific Islands, our particular journey will only be taking us to the first stop of the trip – Noumea. It’s a flight of only 3 hours but one that will take us 3 nights and 4 days to cover by Ocean Liner.
Our first stop after boarding is to our rooms, our allocated rooms are all located on level 11 and all have private balcony’s for our pleasure. Despite my expectations nothing in the room has been bolted down apart from the sturdy looking connections between the doors. I discover pretty early on that the rocking of the boat helps me get some of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in a long time!
We’ve yet to set off and the view from my room incidentally overlooks my workplace. Laters work peeps!
There’s a dizzying 11 floors of cabins, restaurants, stages and entertainment on the ship, it’s easy to get turned around trying to trace our path and after more than a few circles we make the consensus to head up to the deck where all of the action is.
It’s just coming onto the end of Winter as we head off on the cruise, although it’s a brilliant winter’s afternoon it’s nowhere near warm enough for me to even contemplate getting close to the pools! It’s a bit of a shame as there are two pools on the top deck, one conveniently situated in front of the main stage and the other nestles aside the bar. Fun for all.
The deck is packed out with passengers wandering around the deck as the Pacific Pearl slowly draws away from the wharf, it’s a slow steady journey which is smooth enough that I hadn’t even noticed we were moving until the sun was shining in my eyes. There’s a quick 180 turn before we’ve got Cocktail drinks in hand and are officially off!
We’re not the only ones taking advantage of the sunset, an intrepid group of climbers are tackling the Harbour Bridge and take a moment out of their arduous climb to wave to us as we pass below the bridge.
Before the Pacific Pearl the longest boat ride I’d been on was an epic 20 hour journey from Bari, Italy to Patras, Greece, it was decidedly non-luxury and our entertainment was stalking out seats that had been vacated by our following backpackers in an attempt to find somewhere soft to sleep. I also distinctly remember trying to watch House dubbed in Greek, fascinating but somewhat pointless.
Knowing that the full Pacific Islands journey takes 10 days I’m fascinated to wander around the ship to see what type of things are planned to keep 1800 people entertained.
The amphitheater is where the action is at! After initially hosting the safety demonstration we find ourselves back on multiple occasions for a night of musical theatre, comedy shows, bingo sessions, an introduction to the crew and even a live cooking show featuring Luke Mangan and some very dirty humour.
I’m surprised at the absolutely wicked sense of humor that Luke Mangan has, he has zero hesitation pulling out the cutting wit when confronted with a vegan of all things with his first volunteer. Despite this set back he still flirts relentlessly taking every opportunity he has. Things aren’t nearly as cuddly with the following volunteer, a buff Aussie guy who isn’t afraid to admit that he loves his BBQ.
The live shows aren’t restricted to only to the amphitheater, the main foyer of the ship opens up to the ceiling almost 3 floors up. It’s mix and match what show you’re getting on the night, our first night we’re treated to a laser show that’s mesmerisingly vivid. There’s a strange trance-like soundtrack going on in the background, but somehow I can’t pull myself away…
Another night sees a beautiful slow dance of circus style performances, with trapeze acts swinging from the ceiling and my favourite performance is a young woman who winds her way up towards the ceiling with the assistance of a silent crowd, a vibrantly pink ribbon and some impressive thighs.
Of course it’s not all shows and performances, the Ocean Liner is essentially a floating hotel with the amenities that we’ve come to expect of a hotel. There’s an afternoon spent being blissfully pummeled by a trained professional masseuse in the largest floating spa in the southern hemisphere, our nights are taken up by dodgy karaoke bars, cocktails and some very sketchy nights at the Dome nightclub where we simply take over the dance floor.
But for all of the entertainments available on board, I usually find myself enjoying the sun, the breeze and a good trashy romance novel up on deck.
It’s almost 2 days on board before our scheduled Galley tour, we’ve been on board long enough for us to become immensely curious about the mechanics of how this massive ship of 1800 passengers and a crew of 700 are supported and fed every single day.
The doors to the kitchen are clearly visible from the restaurants and while I’d taken the occasional glance while walking past, nothing prepares me for the immense size of the operations hidden within the heart of the ship. The mind boggles at the sight of a dedicated escalator in the midst of all the action, I take a moment to quietly covert the bottles of wine as we head deeper into the ships.
The kitchens operate on a 24 hour basis, with up to 85 chefs currently on board ready to be rostered on. The Pacific Pearl boasts an impressive 5 restaurants on board which means there’s a lot of food being prepared at once, with a kitchen located on a separate level dedicated for staff members.
The chefs rostered tonight are endlessly curious at this strange group of people walking around taking photos, and more than half break out into immediate smiles and waves the moment a lens comes pointing around.
With 2500 people on board, all I can wonder is how on earth do they know how much food to bring on board? In the end it’s a game of averages, we know that the most popular items on the menu are Steak and French Fries, everything else is a batting average. Contrary to what I would have expected, the ships actually leave Australia with up to 99% of projected food usage already stored away.
When I ask if bad weather has any effect on the Chefs and their cooking the answer is simple enough, apart from a single days warning for bad weather its full steam ahead! It’s interesting to note that after all of the Top Chef challenges I’ve seen, the kitchens on board aren’t nearly restrictive as I would have thought, pots and pans are available in abundance with only one key difference, there’s not an open flame in sight – all of the stoves are electrical.
The desserts are easily the most eye-catching section of the Galley, there’s something about the endless row of cakes and sweets that just stops us in our track. Gee, I wonder why?
But of course not all of our days are taken up by musical shows and tours, in fact most of our time is spent feasting (and recovering!) at 3 of the main restaurants on board, The Plantation, The Waterfront and Luke Mangan’s Salt Grill.
And oh, how we ate.
What’s a hotel without a buffet? The Plantation occupies almost a fifth of the top deck and is a dedicated buffet service, rotating through the hours with breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings.
Because they’re insatiable, within an hour of setting foot on board Helen and Jen have persuaded me to check out the Plantation for a quick snack before dinner. There’s a compulsory application of hand sanitiser before we’re allowed to even get near the buffet lines, understandable considering the insulated nature of these Cruise Liners. Helen’s indulged in a serving of freshly carved Roast Pork but I manage to resist knowing dinner is just around the corner.
Another morning sees us back at the Planatation this time for breakfast, not normally a big eater first thing in the morning I put together a simple ‘Big Breakfast’. My newest breakfast weakness is easily baked beans, I’ve never been a massive fan of this tin can staple but after watching the Heston Blumenthal special on Little Chef I’ve become a convert!
The Waterfront is easily the largest restaurant available on board, taking up what seems like a third of a level it’s a long expanse of tables reaching down the sides of the ship and offers a more up-class menu for people who want a little bit more refinement with their food.
There’s a moment as we ponder whether or not to make a booking, but since we’re going to lunch at midday sharp decide there’s not much point. It’s a whole other ballgame during dinner though, when the queue reaches out the door!
Lunch is a light affair for us today, we’re getting used to the demands of our stomachs but knowing that I’m headed down for a massage in only 2 hours my primary interests are keeping that food inside my belly! There’s a long array of foods listed on the menu, from your standard burgers and steak all the way up to Vietnamese Pho available as a soup starter.
It’s a strange amalgamation that sees us combining a Thai Beef Salad, steamed vegetables and calamari for lunch.
Mere hours later, all relaxed out after a session at the spa we find ourselves back at Waterfront again this time for dinner.
One of the pleasures of eating with Food Bloggers is knowing that everyone understands that in order for the meal to work, we all need to order something different. Somehow this arrangement manages to work out for us over the next 4 days, and between the 4 of us I’m certain we manage to decimate the majority of menu at Waterfront and Salt Grill.
My favourite part of dinner without a doubt is meeting Romeel, he’s endlessly enthusiastic about life and clearly loves his job. A quick quirk of his eyebrow, and he asks if we’re interested in napkin folding at all. Within moments he’s fashioned the most elaborate looking swan napkin I’ve ever seen, I’m still impressed!
It’s a strange world on board the Pacific Pearl, your entire currency life revolves around your room card which is linked up to your credit card. None of the stores on board accept any cash and your card becomes your key to everything. The majority of the restaurants on board are included in the price of your cruise, with a few exceptions – there’s a surcharge of $75 for the chef’s table at the Waterfront and $30-40 for dining at Salt Grill.
The Chef’s Table is located in the middle of the Waterfront restaurant, it’s a private room veiled by wisps of curtains that conceal an elaborately set table that would easily seat 12 people. We’re told that the Chef’s Table is run once only every few days as it requires the full attention of the head chef to create the menu.
We’re back again at Waterfront for another dinner, at the Chef’s table dinner is an elaborate 7 course affair, flirting from Duck galantine and Ocean Trout, to my favourite dish of the night, a delicate coin of Steamed Crab, topped with fish roe all surrounded with a soup of shellfish soup. It’s wonderfully fragrant and moreish and I’m utterly unable to stop eating it until all of the soup has vanished from my plate.
The final main of the night is a beautifully pink slice of Wagyu Beef Tenderloin, it’s made all the better by the ridiculously creamy Potato Mash and sweet peas adorning the plate. For all of my vegetarian yearnings lately, I’m a meat eater at heart.
Our dining experience at Waterfront ends with a 3 textured dessert plate of Mango, a mango cheesecake, creme brule and slice of opera cake have all carefully been tweaked to include components of mango. Being the end of Winter, it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything close to a mango and it’s a lovely sweet way of ending the night.
Salt Grill by Luke Mangan
We’ve had fun eating our way around the ship, but there’s no doubting that Salt Grill is the reining champion of the restaurants on board. It’s the only restaurant on board to boast its own restaurant, yet it’s also the smallest of the restaurants that we dined in, and also is the only one that charges a surcharge for dining, $30 for lunch and $40 for dinner, the dearer items on the menu such as Oysters and Lobster also have an additional surcharge on top of this rate.
It’s not a small amount to charge for a single meal, but when I consider the calibre and sheer amount of food we eat on our two visits for dinner and lunch, it’s worth every penny. The restaurant is booked out within days of our departure and by the 4th day of the cruise it’s nearly impossible to get a dinner booking.
The kitchens at Salt Grill are a much quieter affair than the main galleys, they’re fully open to the restaurant and have a final prep area up front and center. It’s not a stage for the meek, and Luke Mangan runs a tight ship (terrible pun, apologies) with a Mediterranean slanted menu.
Our first dinner at Salt Grill is purely chef’s choice, Luke Mangan is in the kitchen and is sending out dishes on a whim after confirming dislikes and allergies at the table. What comes out is a veritable list of Salt signature dishes and a celebration of old favourites.
Unsurprisingly my favourite of the starters is the Coconut broth with Sydney spice, it’s a tiny cup of amazingly fragrant broth that has all the milkiness of coconut without being too thick, all with a tiny aftertaste of spice on the tongue. The Prawn toast is another favourite of mine, but I’m easily biased towards anything with corn. The Kingfish Sashimi is a strange miss, the quality of the fish is beautiful but the dish has a strange sweetness to it that becomes overpowering.
The cameras are out in a flurry when we realise that Luke Mangan is actually cutting up the servings personally, it’s slightly embarrassing for a moment when the rest of the customers turn their heads to see what’s going on, but by the second dish they’re seasoned pros and ignore the clicks with poise.
It’s the Miso Mustard Broth that’s poured over every serving of the crab omelette that gives it that last final touch, but for me it’s the amazingly tender slices of the Black Angus Sirloin that is easily the winner of the entire meal. The Sirloin is accompanied by 2 staff floating around, one offering a selection of sauces (red wine jus please!) and another with a selection of mustards. It’s a delicately choreographed dance of service and leaves us all a little dazed by the end.
My stomach is suffering so much by this point that I’m starting to look over at the side dishes with a feeling of despair, what’s even worst is the fact that they’re so damn good that I push past the suffering to eat just one more piece of sweetly Caramelised Pumpkin with feta pieces and practically finish the Truffle Mash by myself (I dream of that Truffle Mash, it’s that good). Even more worse, I then think about ordering seconds before the others remind me of dessert.
Once we’re on a roll we know there’s no turning back, a selection of desserts sees us switching plates with military precision to ensure that we all get to taste each dish. The Liquorice Parfait is an anticipated dish, there’s that strange childhood aversion to liquorice within me when I first try the dish but it’s actually rather refreshingly mild especially when teamed with slices of intensely sour lime.
Surprisingly it’s the Floating Island that’s my favourite of the three, they’re all careful balances of flavours but the simplicity of the fruit and anglaise combination wins me over.
Luke Mangan notices us gazing over at the Cheese Trolley with envy and laughs at us, asking if we’d like some cheese as well. By this point we’ve moved past pain into torture but I’ve just located my Cheese stomach and all is good with the world! The cheeses are easily my highlight of my Pacific Pearl eating, they’re a fantastic array of choices and I’m delighted when we sneak back at 11pm the following night for one last cheese plate.
It’s only 2 days later that we’re back at Salt Grill again, it’s 11.30am and technically we’re creeping closer to lunch than anything else. Because our stomachs know no bounds, we’ve decided simply to order the half of the menu we didn’t get to try at dinner!
It’s never too early for oysters! They’re plump, deep-fried and delicious. The Prosciutto has Helen’s eyes lighting up but not as much as the sight of the Ondarroa Anchovies that has me in raptures. Love them or hate them, with a slice of warm garlic toast it’s a great way to start off the morning.
Even though I’m keen on oysters early in the morning, for some reason my stomach isn’t liking the idea of red meat. I’ve gone for a lunch of salad and seafood, sometimes I surprise even myself! The Roasted Beetroot salad seems perfect for my purposes, but really I’m after the Buffalo Mozzarella… After all that, it’s actually the anchovies in the dish that blow me away!
I’ll confess to having major dish envy when Rebecca’s Seared Sea Scallops arrive, they’re perfectly golden on the outside and the scent of truffle and blue cheese coming out of the polenta is a potent and delicious combination.
Jen and Rebecca have gone down the seafood route as well. With two orders for Barramundi up, Luke Mangan has done us a special service and served up an entire slab of Grilled Barramuni while Jen’s Lobster Tails are amazingly enticing under their light coating of sauce.
The true meat eaters of the table are clearly Helen and Greg, our representative tour guide from Carnival, they’ve gone for the steak with no hesitation whatsoever and have identical looks of satisfaction when the red meat arrives at the table. I manage to steal a bite of both in a blind taste test experiment and conclude that I can’t tell the difference!
It’s not a proper meal unless we end it with dessert! In the interests of a well-rounded meal, and also to say that we manged to try all of the desserts from Salt, we go for a single order of the Coconut Rice Pudding and Mango. In the end I desperately wish that we’d had a chance to try this dessert on the first night, it’s that good. The Coconut rice pudding is sweet, but not so much that it’s cloying and the mango is a refreshing hit after all of the savory dishes.
Salt is an experience unlike any other on the Pacific Pearl, when you’re dining in the tiny restaurant with the curtains closed it’s easy to forget that you’re sailing on the middle of the ocean and you’re just floating in a bliss that is good food coma. The only thing I regret, not getting one last cheese platter!
Our four-day cruise has come to an end, I wake up one morning and peak outside my window only to realise we’ve docked at Noumea. It’s a shock to see something other than an unending horizon of blue ocean but it’s also a relief to hit dry land again. Of course, we’re not here for long and are soon headed for the airport on our way back home.
Cruising has been a fascinating experience, in some ways it’s everything and nothing like I would have anticipated it would be. The people on board are immensely diverse, from the expected families of four, the group of chinese grandparents playing Mahjong up on deck every morning, the group of strapping young chavs strutting about the dance floors of Dome, it’s been an interesting mix.
Would I cruise again? It’s hard to say, I’m still a backpacker girl at heart and while I loved the downtime I couldn’t help but think in that time I could have travelled across all of Europe on a train. Cruises aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I think with the right people and location I’d give it another go.
What do you say Grandma, up for another visit to Egypt?
eatshowandtell was a guest of P&O cruises on the Pacific Pearl.