The pull of life at sea

Having travelled from England to Australia with my family as a boy when we migrated to Australia in the 1960s, I got a taste for life at sea quite early, and it has never left me. When we first migrated to Australia aboard RMS Strathaird, we disembarked in Melbourne where we lived for for two years before moving to Perth, Western Australia. Back then, it was not unusual to travel from one Australian capital city to another by ship, and that was how we made our move to Perth - on a five day sea journey aboard SS Southern Cross.

SS Southern Cross

As a teenager living in Perth, I used to go down to the docks at Frementle and watch the migrant ships come and go in the school holidays. Back then it was easy to pop into the office of P&O in Perth and get a pass to board any of their ships when they were in port.

My wife and I moved to Sydeney in 1985 and by then there were far less passengers ships in Australian ports than there used to be. The arrival of the jumbo jet not only reduced the flying time between international destinations, but made flying both affordable for the man in the street and cheaper than travelling by sea. From time to time I'd go down to Circular Quay and indulge in a little maritime nostalgia. On most occasions it was to say farewell to a ship I used to visit back in Fremantle, as they made their last visit to Australia before being scrapped. By then, access to these ships was almost impossible unless you were sailing on them. My dream of being able to sail once again on one of these grand ladies of the sea began to dimish by the year as one by one the old ships I knew so well were retired.

That all began to change over a decade ago when the idea of a holiday at sea came into vogue again, thanks in no small degree to the TV sitcom, The Love Boat, which brought the idea of a holiday at sea to a whole new generation. Every year more and more cruise ships began inncluding Sydney as a port of call, and a number of cruise lines began to base ships in Sydney to service the ever growing demand for cruise in and around the South Pacific. I began going into Circular Quay more frequently and started taking photographs of the new breed of mega cruise ships that begaqn to grace the waters of Sydney Harbour. It wasn't long before I got intchy feet to sail the seas again.

Arrival at Station Pier, Melbourne

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Our First Cruise

When I suggested we take a short cruise so she could 'try it out', my wife jumped at the idea. As we lived in Sydney but the rest of her family including her parents lived on the outskirts of Melbourne, a short cruise between the two cities as a leg of a visit to see them seemed like the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. The months of September and October are change of season months in the cruising world, a time when the northern hemisphere season comes to an end and the southern hemisphere cruising season begins. At this time, there are plenty of cruise ships moving from one region to another, and lots of opportunities to catch both short and long cruises on ships travelling from one destination or region to another. My wife's family members had already taken a number of cruises with Princess Cruises and liked their ships and service, so when we saw a 3 day cruise from Sydney to Melbourne on the Golden Princess on the list of cruises available around the time we were free to travel, we made our booking. On this journey the Golden Princess was heading for Melbourne begin its time based there during the summer season.

Being the owner and operator of this and a number of other websites that have a number of travel booking services as advertisers, it was logical that I booked through one of them. Initially though, I was a little apprehensive about making a booking online, given that it was our first time. Once I had made my initial reservation and paid my deposit online, my fears were immediately allayed when I was contacted by a lady at the Brisbane office of the company through which I had made my booking (Expedia). She invited me to contact her at any time by phone or by email at any time up until our departure and forwarded to me information that answered all my questions and took me step by step through anything I needed to do before sailing (passort requirements etc).

Our sailing day was a Wednesday, we would have two nights and one full day at sea, and arrive in Melbourne early Friday morning. We then planned to catch the train out to see our relatives. A few days later we would return Melbourne and spend a day or two there before travelling home to Sydney by train.

We were required to check in around midday on Wednesday for our 3 pm sailing. We live on a railway line that passes through Circular Quay station and it was so go to get off our train right next to the ferry terminal where the Golden Princess awaited us. Check in was very similar to that at an airport terminal. Our bags were taken and we were advised they would be delivered to our cabin some time during the afternoon. We were also offered a free upgrade to a cabin with a balcony, an offer we gladly accepted. From then onwards it was a matter of following the signs, boarding the vessel and checking out our cabin before going on deck to get a view of Sydney that we'd never experienced before. We looked down on the harbour ferries scurrying too and fro on one side of the ship and people going about their business in The Rocks on the other.

It seemed like forever before the ship blew its horn and we began to move away from the Overseas Passenger Terminal on Circular Quay. It was only then that we realised just how big these modern day cruise ships are. Getting in and out of Circular Quay for these monsters of the sea is quite a challenge - first they slide silently sideways away from the quay before inching gingerly backwards in the direction of Kirribili. As the stern comes alongside the Harbour Bridge the front swings around in a move that seemed to take the bow perilously close to the sails of the Opera House, the top of which loomed straight ahead of us. Look back towards the stern of the ship and you esxpect to be able to reach up and touch the roadway of the Sydney Harbour Bridge any minute.

It was obvious that the Pilot had done this many times before as we were soon on our way down the harbour, sailing past Pinchgut and Garden Island on the starbord side, then around Bradlys Head before swinging east and out of Sydney Heads into open sea. Once the excitement of leaving Sydney Harbour was past, we did the obligatory emergency evacuation drill and were invited by the crew "to party".

Initially the Golden Princess didn't seem much bigger than I recalled the Strathaird to be when I sailed on her as a boy in 1960. When you are a child, of course, everything seems so much bigger than it does when you grow up, and that was certainly the case here. The Strathaird had a 22,284 gross tonnage and carried 1,252 passengers and 490 crew; the Golden Princess is 109,000 and carries 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crew. The Strathaird had seven decks above the waterline, the Golden Princess has twelve.

The ship's size means there is plenty of space for four swimming pools, nine whirlpools, 10 restaurants and cafes, and a wide range of entertainment venues. More than half of the cabins have private balconies, which suits its scenic destinations. Its distinctive stern has drawn comparisons to the handle of a shopping trolley or a car's spoiler. This long, narrow section, suspended above deck 15, is actually a nightclub called Skywalkers, which is reached by a moving ramp along a bridge. It also makes the perfect setting for photographs towards the stern.

Golden Princess' demographics apparently change with the seasons. Asia sailings tend to attracts families and multigenerational groups from a more international mix. In Australia, passengers are largely local families and older couples; on short cruises, the crowd is younger, with more singles and groups of friends, but mostly couples and some families. Evening attire is typically "smart casual," but on longer cruises two or three nights will be formal; a standard seven-night cruise will have two formal nights. On formal nights, most women wear gowns or cocktail dresses, and men wear tuxedos or dark suits. There were nho formal nights on our cruise. Men don't need to wear jackets or ties on smart casual evenings, though some do; open-neck shirts are just fine. Shorts and T-shirts, frayed jeans, and swimwear are not acceptable attire in the dining rooms. Passengers generally tend to dress more casually on Australian cruises.

Horizon Court, Diamonmd Princess

As with all cruises, food and some drinks are included in the fare. We were initially drawn to the Horizon Court buffet for meals. We hadn't brought any "dress-up" clothes with us so we were a bit reluctant to go too up-market, but decided we'd try one of the more formal restaurants for dinner on the second night. So pleased were we with the spead Horizon Court we ended up having all our meals there and left the pleasure of restaurant dining to another time. For an in-depth review of the Golden Princess, we recommend you check ot the vessel's write-up on the Cruise Critic website.

The full day's sailing (Thursday) was very enjoyable and relaxing. I'm not sure how many people were on board during our short cruise, but there seemed to be plenty of room for everyone to do whatever they wanted without it feeling crowded. Friday morning came way too soon, and if it wasn't for the fact that we had planned a trip to Britain and Europe the following year, we would have started planning our next cruise for that time.

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