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Cruise Ship Information

Pacific Aria enters the P&O fleet on 25 November 2015, after departing service with Holland America. In Singapore she’ll undergo a complete make-over of her cabins, furnishings, dining venues, and activity areas, taking on all the Australian features of the P&O fleet. As Pacific Aria is slightly smaller than the existing P&O ships, she will access new and interesting ports, such as Queensland’s Sunshine Coast (Mooloolaba). Until early April 2016 Pacific Aria will be based in Brisbane. Cruises visit Pacific Islands, PNG, and the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a 5-night Hunter Valley cruise that visits Sydney on Australia Day. And the Bounty Adventure 14-night cruise in March 2016. For a short 4-night break, head for Hamilton Island also in March. From mid-April to mid-June 2016 Aria sails Sydney, with short trips to the Sunshine Coast and Moreton Island. Longer trips head for the Reef and Melanesia. For the remainder of 2016 Aria sails from Brisbane to some exotic locations.

Atmosphere on board

P&O Australia's latest ship, Pacific Aria, debuts in Sydney in November 2015 before shifting to Brisbane, just in time for the summer cruise season. Its fresh look is modern with stylish touches and new, intimate spaces.

Signifying P&O's biggest-ever presence in Queensland, Pacific Aria will spend eight months sailing from the capital on a range of new cruises, such as an 18-night voyage to Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, and a seven-night New Year's cruise to Hamilton Island and Cairns. From Sydney, it will also explore the South Pacific and offer short cruises along Australia's east coast.

Like the line's other newcomer, Pacific Eden, 1,500-passenger Pacific Aria will move over to the P&O Australia brand from the Holland America Line fleet, shaking off its former identity as Ryndam. The transformation is set to change everything from the dining to indoor and outdoor decor.

Pacific Aria will showcase P&O Australia's largest selection of dining options, with 15 venues in total. Replacing the traditional buffet, The Pantry will be an area of fresh-food stations to include items like fish and chips and a delicatessen. Dragon Lady (serving a range of Asian cuisines), Angelo's (an elegant Italian venue) and the Open Kitchen cooking school will also be added.

Back by popular demand are P&O favourites Salt Grill by Luke Mangan and the exclusive 14-seat Chef's Table in a private wine room. The Waterfront Restaurant, the main dining room, will continue to serve classic Australian meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner in an updated, stylish setting.

New lounges include Cellar Door for wine tastings and the Salt Grill Bar, complementing the MIX cocktail bar and Dome nightclub.

For kids, activity clubs include Turtle Cove (ages 3 to 6), Shark Shack (ages 7 to 10) and HQ for teens. Adults can escape to the child-free Oasis on the top deck, while all ages can enjoy the swimming pool on the Lido deck and the adventures of the P&OEdge program, held all over the ship, featuring a zip line across the top deck and a climbing course on the funnel.

Family with Kids/Teens

P&O has always been popular with families, thanks to a wide range of activities and age-specific clubs for children. Although there was a healthy number of kids on our cruise, they were hardly seen, except during mealtimes and around the pool area on sea days. The minimum age to cruise is 12 months, and kids club admission is available on a first-come, first-served basis, so make sure you get in early to register your kids for participation, as space is limited. Especially during school holidays, there can be up to 700 junior cruisers onboard.

Like all P&O ships, Pacific Aria has a Youth Activity Team that organizes everything, and clubs stay open until 10 p.m. Kids clubs include Turtle Cove on Deck 6 for ages 3 to 6, offering movies, cartoons, scavenger hunts, talent shows and disco nights, with arts and crafts for a fee. It's an airy space decorated with a bright palette of yellow, pink and blue, with low-rise yellow tables and blue and white chairs. In the same location on Deck 6, Shark Shack is where 7- to 10-year-olds can enjoy a range of activities similar to those of their younger siblings, with the addition of PlayStation 2 and 3 competitions and an iPad activity program. This space is also bright and airy, with colorful bean bags, decorative surf boards on the walls and a wall of TV screens for computer games.

HQ and HQ+ are completely separate lounge-style venues, located aft on Deck 14, where the 11- to 17-year-olds hang out to enjoy a range of activities and entertainment like sporting competitions, pizza parties, talent shows, mocktail parties and hip-hop classes. With the bonus of a small outside deck to call their own, the lounge has a funky design marked by comfy bright-red couches dotted with black and white cushions, flat-screen TVs on the walls, and gaming stations. Teens also enjoyed a number of special events during the cruise, including a Teen Prom Night and Teen Farewell Disco.

For adults seeking some alone time late at night, group baby-sitting is available from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. at a cost of A$5 for one child, per hour, with a second child costing an extra $2 per hour. Parents of kids aged 3 to 6 are given pagers, and they're encouraged to check on their kids regularly.

Past Passenger Programs

Reception and the shore excursions desk are located on Deck 5, an impressive space with a sweeping staircase, plants and plenty of comfortable seating. Above, on Deck 6, there are duty-free outlets selling beauty products, perfume, jewelry (including the popular "inch of gold"), and alcohol and tobacco products. Another collection of shops on the next level up, Deck 7, sells resort and beach gear, P&O memorabilia and souvenirs like ship models and T-shirts.

If you need to stay in touch with the outside world, there's an Internet cafe located on Deck 8, port side, near the Marquee, but it has no IT manager. If you have any problems setting up an account and logging on, you won't get help. There are plenty of computer stations, however, but it's a stuffy, windowless room that we found we couldn't use for long, especially in rough seas. There are several time plans to choose from, starting at 100 minutes for A$55, or you can pay as you go for A$0.75 a minute. The ship doesn't have Wi-Fi throughout, but if you bring your own computer, you can get a signal on decks 5, 6 and 7, near the center of the ship.

On the same floor, on the other side of the ship, ahead of the show lounge entrance, is a library stocked with a range of classic and contemporary titles and some board games. There are also self-service laundries with coin-operated machines, irons and ironing boards located on decks 5 and 10.

Fitness And Spa

There are two small, square-shaped pools located on the Deck 12, one of which is for adults only, and both of which are 6 feet (1.8 meters) deep. A large outdoor stage with an awning separates them, along with two decent-sized hot tubs. The Lido Deck is also home to the impressive new outdoor LED big-screen, which is used for showing full-length movies, concerts and sporting fixtures popular in Australia.

New to Deck 12 is a New Zealand Natural ice cream parlor, serving ice cream from A$4.50 a scoop. The Oasis, added in the 2010 refurbishment, is an intimate outdoor retreat for adults only, aft on Deck 10. It has luxury sun loungers, comfy couches and chairs for relaxing, and a bar that's open all day. The only drawbacks are a lack of shade and no plunge pool or hot tub; if you want a dip or a relaxing soak, you'll have to go to the deck above.

On Deck 14, at the very top of the ship, you'll find an AstroTurf jogging and walking track and a sports deck with activities like deck quoits and table tennis.

The Aqua HealthSpaFitness facility is located as deep as you can get on this ship -- Deck 2 -- and it can only be accessed by the center stairwell and elevators. The fitness center is on the small side, although it has good-quality cardio equipment: four treadmills, stationary exercise bikes and a couple of elliptical machines. There are also some free weights and weight machines. Besides having no view and being somewhat stuffy, with the air-conditioning appearing to struggle, it was also very busy, particularly on sea days. There is a water fountain, and fresh towels are provided free of charge. The fitness center is also the place to sign up for complimentary health seminars or fitness classes for a fee. Pilates and yoga, for example, cost A$13 a class, while a Boot Camp program will set you back A$55.

Aqua also features a spacious beauty salon if you are looking for a manicure or to have your hair done for cocktail night. The spa is located in the same area, and it has a good range of Elemis treatments, from massages to facials, as well as acupuncture and teeth whitening. Besides high prices, however, there were other issues, largely due to the spa's location next to working parts of the ship. During what should have been a relaxing facial, I could not only hear a conversation between workers on the other side of the wall, but also what sounded like a generator firing up repeatedly.

Food & Dining

Since we first cruised on Pacific Aria in 2008, just after her debut, both the dining choices and quality of cuisine have improved markedly. The primary dining venue is the Waterfront Restaurant, located on Deck 7 aft. A colorful, contemporary and airy space with touches of blue, lavender and pink, it has plenty of cozy nooks and crannies, with tables accommodating two to 10 people. At the rear is a space called the Wine Room, which has groups of tables flanked by impressive display cases filled with bottles of wine and Champagne.

Meal times vary from sea days to port days. Breakfast is from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on sea days and 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on port days. Lunch is from noon to 2 p.m. on sea days, and it's only served on select port days. Dinner is from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every night. There are no traditional seatings; it operates on a Your Choice Dining basis, allowing you to choose who you dine with and when.

Breakfast is a choice between a variety of a la carte dishes, including cereal, yogurt, bakery items like toast and Danish pastries, healthy options like fruit, cold cuts and eggs served several ways. There are also daily specials like Eggs Benedict. Lunch also has variety, with options ranging from steak sandwichs and big salads to sausages and mash. The dinner menu offers a selection of entrees, pasta, mains, sides and desserts available every day, as well as selections that change daily. There are plenty of local dishes in the mix, such as pork and ale stew, combined with a choice of international favorites like Asian stir-fry noodles. If you get friendly with your waiter, you can ask for extra steamed vegetables, too.

Local ingredients and producers are a focus across the P&O fleet, and they include items like cheeses from the King Island Dairy in Tasmania and Australian grass-fed beef. In the ship's onboard cafes, Vanuatu-grown Tanna Coffee is available, an initiative which financially benefits the communities and famers on Tanna Island. There are also options for kids, which change daily, including family platters at Waterfront for everyone to share. Choices might consist of tasty lamb shoulder, roast chicken and a tapas menu during dinner for an informal dining experience.

The Plantation Restaurant is the casual dining option located on Deck 12 aft. A large buffet-style restaurant, it serves breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. on sea days and 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. on port days. Lunch is from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on sea days and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on port days. Dinner is offered from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. daily. The venue was updated in the 2012 refurbishment with a new color scheme and furniture, but it has limited outdoor seating, which is a drawback in pleasant weather.

Breakfast was hearty and well done with a wide range of hot and cold selections on offer, and for lunch there was usually a choice of two high-quality premade deli-style sandwiches, as well as a variety of hot dishes like pasta, chicken, fish, vegetables and daily roasts. For some reason, salad was a bit thin on the ground with mostly greens. No tomatoes, cucumber or raw veggies (such as broccoli) are available, and only occasionally could we find any chopped olives or pulses (beans). Dinner offerings include selections similar to whatever is on offer in the Waterfront Restaurant, with a better of choice of salad and more desserts. We only had dinner there once, however. We were put off by bright lighting and the lack of outdoor seating.

Another major improvement in Aria's culinary offerings is Luna (recently rebranded from La Luna). Occupying an aft area of the Plantation Restaurant at night, it's a contemporary take on Asian cuisine for a cover charge of A$29 per person. Menus change regularly and have been upgraded to include some Japanese selections, with popular favorites including Thai red curry chicken soup, Thai prawns with egg noodles, beef massaman curry and twice roasted pork belly with caramel dressing.

Salt Grill by Luke Mangan was also added to Pacific Aria in 2010, a stylish space with a highly polished wooden floor and accents of purple and silver throughout. Located on Deck 12 forward, it offers the same menu for lunch and dinner, with the only difference being the cost. Lunch is A$30 per person, while dinner is A$49. Menus change from time to time, but signature dishes are the chef's famous Glass Sydney crab omelet and dishes from Mangan's land-based venues, such as Salt and Pepper Prawns with Thai Salad and Cajun-spiced Spatchcock. It's popular, but it's easier to get a reservation for lunch than for dinner. Salt Grill isn't open on port days. On Pacific Jewel and Pacific Pearl, afternoon tea can now be enjoyed on sea days for a per-person fee of A$20; it will be introduced to Pacific Aria in the coming months.

A new addition to Pacific Aria's dining lineup is the Chef's Table experience, which costs A$95 a head and is limited to 14 people. Reservations are essential, and they're restricted to once per passenger, per cruise. The evening begins with a cocktail reception and canapes hosted by the Executive Chef, followed by a galley tour. Then passengers are seated in the Wine Room in the Waterfront Restaurant for a degustation menu paired with wines.

The Grill on Deck 12 serves traditional Aussie BBQ fare (think pie and mash and grilled sandwiches), although we'd recommend it for emergencies only, as it's basic. Although cooked fresh, a hamburger with salad we ordered came with just a bun, a patty and a tiny sliver of lettuce. Most items are included in the fare, but some carry a charge after 5 p.m.

Room service is available, but the menu is limited, and items are charged a la carte. A Caesar salad is A$8, while an Aussie Outback Burger will set you back A$9. The bonus, however, is that you're not at risk of tripping up on many dirty trays and plates in the cabin deck hallways. Also new, passengers can have pizza delivered to their cabins for A$9.50 between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., following the recent installation of specifically designed pizza ovens. Pizza can also be delivered to the top deck if you're watching a movie or sports on the big screen.

If you follow a special diet, such as gluten-free or vegetarian, let your travel agent know in advance, or the cruise line if you book directly. A la carte menus for dinner feature at least one vegetarian (without meat or fish) dish, and there are usually plenty of options available in the buffet for lunch. If you follow a gluten-free diet, you can request gluten-free bread and preorder a specially made dish for each dinner a day in advance.

Generally service is attentive and offered by an enthusiastic and well-trained international crew, these days largely hailing from Indonesia, the Philippines and India.

Entertainment

When it comes to keeping busy, Pacific Aria offers something to suit all ages and interests. Daytime activities range from a martini mixology class and whiskey tastings to quilling and salsa dance classes, and you can find karaoke, trivia and bingo almost every day. On sea days in particular, the daily itinerary is packed with activities, which can make finding a quiet spot tricky. The new big-screen on the pool deck forward has also proved to be a big hit, largely used for broadcasting movies, full-length concerts and live sports, including rugby league and AFL (Australian rules football) during the season. Major international sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup, are also shown onboard.

Evening entertainment is largely standard cruise ship fare -- a mix of lively Broadway-style production shows and guest entertainers from the worlds of song, dance, magic and comedy. In the refurbishment, the already impressive two-level Marquee theater received new carpet and upholstery, as well as a huge LED screen wall to enhance live productions. On our cruise, the best shows included Motor City, a big production show capturing the sounds of legendary Motown performers, as well as a Neil Diamond tribute concert from legendary Irish-Australian singer Peter Byrne. But shows have now been expanded to include Pirates of the Pacific, a fast-paced, interactive show for all the family, taking you on a virtual pirate voyage, and DisConnected, featuring music from the past few decades and a storyline revolving around how communications drive our lives.

Many of Pacific Aria's public areas were refreshed in the 2012 upgrade, but a major change involved the ship's bars. The Promenade Bar on Deck 7 used to have TV screens showing old Fred Astaire movies, with Frank Sinatra hits playing quietly in the background. Although it hasn't changed much in style, it now has live music at night, which, albeit top quality, was intrusive if you were only after a quiet pre- or postdinner cocktail.

Also on Deck 7, the former Bengal Bar is now the Orient Pub, although you'd be hard-pressed to see what's really changed, except for some of the artwork. It does, however, have a comfy mix of Chesterfield-style couches, easy chairs and a stage. It's a great bar with plenty of beers on tap. If you're not into trivia and karaoke, however, you'll have to whet your whistle elsewhere at certain times. New to the lineup, and to Deck 7, is the Mix Bar, a small cocktail bar above the Atrium. Although it had an impressive cocktail menu, it was flanked by some of the shops on one side and the photo gallery on the other, resulting in it being a bit of a thoroughfare.

The huge Dome Bar at the very front and very top of the ship is a contemporary venue and one of Renzo Piano's signature design elements. As long as a Zumba class isn't being held on the dance floor, it's a quiet oasis during the day, offering delightful views of the ocean. At night, when the blinds are lowered, it takes on a new personality, transforming into an entertainment venue with live music and video hits. After 10:30 p.m., it evolves into a nightclub.

Pacific Aria's bars have live music entertainment nightly, ranging from a guitar-playing and singing duo to a crooning pianist. A highlight of the entertainment programming is undoubtedly Pacific Cirque, an acrobatic troupe hailing from South America. This collection of highly talented young people puts on a spectacular show, featuring a heady combination of juggling, fire eating and daring acrobatics in the Cirque du Soleil style. It's so popular that we found some passengers had bagged the prime viewing spots up to an hour before the start of a performance.

A small casino on Deck 8 doubles as a sports bar with limited seating. It boasts two large screens that are popular when live sports are broadcast. In-room TVs feature a range of channels, including news, ship safety information and a selection of first run movies. You can also find out what's happening onboard that day on P&O's Splash TV.

Theme nights, popular among passengers, tend to not only encourage people to dress up, but also get involved in activities and have silly photos taken. Whatever the theme -- from country and western to '60s rock 'n' roll -- there are always plenty of music and dancing to help spend the evenings. Theme cruises have also grown in popularity, usually two- or three-night jaunts to nowhere with a focus on music, fitness, comedy or food and wine. They generally have a different program of activities and sometimes entertainment, such as boot camp classes or comedy workshops, as well as guest speakers and special presentations.

Pacific Aria's itineraries mostly focus on the South Pacific, and there's a decent number of shore excursion options on offer in each port. They cover a gamut of interests from adventure to culture, making good use of the islands' natural sights with a few unique opportunities thrown in for good measure. On our cruise, an overnight stay in Port Vila allowed for touring on both port days. A new excursion we tried on day one was a three-hour Toast to Vila tour. It took in four popular watering holes the city, including a glass of beer or wine at each, a chance to meet the locals and enjoy some scenery. On day two, we enjoyed a well-priced helicopter flight; we went up in the air in groups of four for a scenic flight over Port Vila and the surrounding area.

In the other islands, examples of some of the more unusual excursions include a chance to snorkel "the Natural Aquarium" in the Isle of Pines and a visit to a traditional fish reserve on the edge of a pine forest and hidden away from the rough ocean waves. In Noumea, you can take a gourmet tour sampling the culinary offerings of some of New Caledonia's top restaurants.

Fellow Passengers

As the ship cruises exclusively from Brisbane, passengers tend to hail mostly from Queensland and occasionally other parts of Australia. There's a healthy mix of younger couples, groups of friends, families with kids and teens, and seniors, although this varies according to seasons and itineraries. For example, there are more families and up to 700 kids during school holidays, and fewer on shorter themed cruises.

Tipping

passenger feedback indicated that tipping is a personal decision for Australians, so we’ve updated our policy to accommodate this as we continue to grow our fleet,” Ms Lourey said.

Our recommendation

P&O Cruises strives to lead the way in customer satisfaction and this change signifies both that and our focus on catering for Australian tastes.”

P&O Cruises presently operates three cruise holiday ships, with a fourth ship Pacific Pearl joining the fleet in December this year.