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by Sally Hammond


It's the "do you come here often?" opener, beloved of cruise passengers.

"Have you been on many cruises?"

Not quite a pick-up line, but certainly a legitimate ice-breaker.

I answer it twenty times before our ship, the Pacific Princess, has cleared the heads at Sydney Harbour. I'm almost within sight of my house, and here I am admitting that this is my first 'real' cruise.

I've hardly begun cruising yet. I don't even know if I will like it.

I feel like a cruise virgin.

Actually I'm lying - a little bit. I once traveled on the QE2 from Sydney to Melbourne, and a couple of years back took a Peregrine Antarctic trip, but that was more an adventure than my perception of a cruise.

To me, this was a proper cruise, 12 nights all the way up Australia's east coast from Sydney to beyond Cairns and back again. Bliss!! I imagined endless sunny days on the deck, enormous meals and decadent relaxation.

Here's what I learned.

Now I know what people like about cruising, I thought as I emptied my suitcase and found neat little nooks to stow my goods around the space which would be our home for the next couple of weeks. No more packing and unpacking as the destinations come to you.

I investigate the safe, the fridge and wardrobes. I am delighted to realise that I can buy as much as I want on the shore trips - fill every cupboard if feel like it. What's more, this is Australian waters, so the regular quarantine and customs checks will not necessarily apply, and there's no need to worry about overweight baggage. I indulge in a shopaholic's moment of pure nirvana.

Even the check-in has been painless. After leaving our bags at the kerbside with a ship's employee we don't see them again until they are delivered to us on board.

On Day One I begin learning cruise-speak. No longer do I "just pop back to the cabin". It's the stateroom. I learn to say 'aft' when talking about the back of the boat (oops, that's the 'ship') and 'port' instead of left. We are in stateroom 6072, and I commit this number to memory as every deck looks the same. I also learn that my plastic key, which I am encouraged to wear on a cord around my neck, is absolutely essential as I need it to charge anything extra to my account, as well as to get back into my stateroom.

Day Two I begin to realize that I could eat and drink 24/7 if I want to. Apart from three massive meals in the restaurants and all-day buffet, the ship has coffee and snacks available in the Club Lounge, an outdoor pizza and snack bar near the pool, and a truly decadent afternoon tea somewhere else. A tray of canapes arrives in our stateroom each afternoon and is left beside the fruit bowl which the steward keeps topped up.

Hmmm! I make a mental note. It's either curb the carbs or factor in some laps of the decks, which I see people in runners (possibly those experienced non cruise-virgins) already doing.

Day Three we meet Mavis from Queensland who is on her 43rd trip with P&O. Some people even end their days on a cruise ship, I'm told, choosing to travel nonstop in their floating retirement villas. I could see how it might have some advantages. After all, most cruise ships are like mini villages with all the services and entertainment anyone needs - doctor, laundromat, library, casino, evening entertainment, beauty parlour - as well as 24-hour dining and plenty of staff. I file away that thought as an option.

Water-loving, travel-loving Australians adore cruising. It's official. Statistics show a record 221,033 Australians took a cruise in 2006, an 18 per cent increase from 2005, with the most popular length of cruise between eight and 14 days. This is more than double the 8.4 per cent growth reported by the US cruise industry. What's more, 63 per cent of these passengers choose to sail in the South Pacific region which includes New Zealand and Australia.

So if cruising is such a popular holiday choice, are there any downsides? Of course vacations are not one size fits all, so loudspeaker announcements, allocation of meal sittings, and almost regimented mass movement of passengers when disembarking, can jar the sensibilities of solitary folk. Sitting with strangers at mealtimes may be a test for shy or reserved passengers, and occasionally seasickness is an issue.

Many people love a good knees-up and plenty of action, especially on holidays, while others may want a quiet, calm trip. It's like buying anything - do your checks first. Before booking, research your cruise line and the ship itself to see if it looks likely to suit your own preferences.

While larger cruise ships have shops and kiosks, it's still wise to bring your own toiletries, sunscreen and medications. I was surprised to learn that I also needed a passport (valid at least six months after my return) even though officially we were not leaving Australia. Travel insurance is recommended too.

As far as clothing went, when packing I veered between sarongs and glam evening gear. The fact is I spent more time eating (well, I did mention it) and walking the deck (ditto) than basking by the pool or at the Captain's table. A range of light clothing, good walking shoes, a couple of nice evening outfits, swimwear and something for the breezy early mornings or evenings sees most people pretty well covered. Literally.

Port visits are highlights of any cruise and I was glad I had brought a light rain jacket, and some heavier walking shoes. This was when I also needed my credit cards, and a fellow passenger was glad she had brought her Medicare card when she fell ill and had to be whisked away to hospital onshore. I needed my 'fantastic plastic' too, for finalising my accounts on board on the final evening.

As the cruise went on I discovered that there is an etiquette for cruise ships. Some websites spell it out, but of course it boils down to good manners and courtesy. Dressing appropriately, being on time, keeping children under control, observing non-smoking requirements, that sort of thing.

On the final morning we are up early for our grand entrance into Sydney Harbour in the pearly light of a summer dawn. By now the slight movement of the vessel feels as natural now as my own breathing.

Our bags are packed, ready for offloading as soon as we dock. The domestic staff are in fast-forward mode. They have to clean all the cabins (oops, staterooms), and strip and remake all the beds in time for the first excited passengers who will board at 1pm.

I have a pang of regret that it is all over and consider stowing away. Or at least signing on, as we have been urged to do for the last few days, for the next cruise heading off this evening for New Caledonia.

"Have you been on many cruises?" people ask when we get home.

"Enough to know I want to go on more," is my newly revised answer.


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