Cruise Ship Ahoy! Aana Marinovich praises the affordability, endless entertainment (and food), and perfect amount of independence for kids and adults – sounds like it’s time to get on board the Pacific Explorer.
Planning holidays with kids can be stressful and time-consuming, so the idea of a floating vacation where everything is done for you, from the entertainment to the food to the bed-making, is immensely appealing to parents. And after an eight-day cruise from Auckland to Fiji and back, as well as countless surveys of cruise-a-holic friends and families, I can assure you that cruising ticks all the boxes for a family holiday – and its also the perfect three-generation holiday with the grands, too.
If you’re budget-conscious and generally feeling a bit “over” family holiday planning, the Pacific Explorer offers excellent value for money. Based in New Zealand over the winter months, it’s the perfect time to cruise the Pacific without flight costs. However, between November and July, it’s based in Australia, so flights are required then.
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
While some kids eat like sparrows, others (ahem, growing teens) can eat big, and so food on demand at no extra charge is like gold in your pocket. The food was really good, too, and you have multiple restaurants as an option in your package, including The Pantry for a quick grab-and-eat buffet option (from wraps to burgers to Indian fare), The Waterfront for a more formal sit-down with international options, Dragon Lady for Asian food with a moody vibe, and Angelo’s for your Italian classics. There are also five eatery options that cost extra, but are worthwhile if you’re wanting a special night – we experienced a perfect parents’ night out without kids at A Taste of Salt, with an indulgent degustation menu by chef Luke Mangan, featuring a private dining room and wine to match each course.
KIDS CLUB AND BABYSITTING
Let’s be honest: One of the highlights of cruising with kids is getting to have some grown-up time to yourselves! After seeing dozens of kids in pairs and little groups having fun around the ship, I was keen to know if they’d made these friends aboard, and what its like for kids if they’re here without siblings or are a bit shy. Turns out all but a few arrive at Kids Club solo, so they’re all (literally, haha) in the same boat.
The youth hosts in HQ P&O Kids Club know exactly the right formula to bring everyone together, and with the older teens, they keep it pretty cool, with less scheduled activities so they have more freedom to explore, but plenty on offer and an amazing hangout room at HQ+ for kids 14 to 17. For kids aged 10 to 13, there’s an endless lineup of craft, karaoke shows, talent shows, music, outdoor movies, and the video arcade. Kids are free to come and go from HQ, and can move around the ship on their own before 10pm as long as they are well-behaved and respectful of the other holiday-makers.
Kids aged six to nine have their own space in Shark Shack, with activities like jewellery making, crafts, dancing, scavenger hunts, theme nights, computer games, and board games. Smaller kids aged two to five hang out in Turtle Cove, grouped with others the same age and looked after by trained carers. Parents check them in each day, or whenever suits, and the kids are kept busy with toys and games, theme days, and talent shows. Kids do need to be toilet-trained, and if not, you need to be close at hand to pop in and change their nappy for them.
You may be intimidated by all the entertainment options on offer and want to take your time figuring out what to do, but let me tell you, as a first-time cruiser, that crazy-for-cruising mode kicks in pretty quick. By your second day on board, you’ll be devouring the daily P&O Good Times newsletter and planning that day’s activities.
Each room has an incredibly lovely steward whom you will quickly become dependent on and want to take home with you. On our cruise, Jude looked after us with sweet daily messages on the mirror, towel origami, and attentive greetings and care for our wellbeing each day. He knew what we needed and when we needed it before we did.
Rooms are smart, and mainly hold two beds, or three bunks at a squeeze. So you will need interconnecting rooms for a family, and one passenger over 18 needs to be in each room (for safety reasons, no children may sleep in the room on their own). It’s best to book without an upgrade option in case they upgrade one room and then you are separated. Don’t be too concerned about internal rooms (unless you plan to spend time on your personal deck), as you spend very little time in the room, and there are a multitude of little nooks around the ship to escape and relax with a book.
GRANDIES ON HOLIDAY
So many families on board had grandparents along for the cruise, and for some it’s an affordable way to treat the family with an all-expenses paid trip away. But you can see the win-win here, as they get to spend time with the kids and grandkids, no babysitting or cooking required, everyone is happy and entertained, they can get away for some quiet time, do an activity or two with the family, and then head to bingo on their own. Quiet little bars like The Blue Room for a James Bond jazzy vibe, The Bonded Store for an intimate artisan gin cocktail, and the lobby areas for afternoon tea and cake will all appeal immensely.
Port days give you the chance to get off the ship and explore, but it’s not essential. You can book through P&O, book separately, or just freestyle it when you get ashore.
In Suva, we headed to Kila World for some fun in the adventure park, including the high ropes course, zipline, and giant swing (not for the faint-hearted!), and then onto the rainforest for a bit if foraging on the eco-walk.
In Port Denerau we hopped on a South Sea Cruises snorkelling trip on their brand new 78m catamaran for a day on the water with music, drinks, and snacks. The snorkelling was good fun, but relaxing in the bean bags on the mesh trampoline was the perfect way to travel out to the reef.
On our final night in Fiji, we anchored by Dravuni in the Kadavu Group of islands. With a small local population, you will get to see village life, relax on the white sand beach lined with coconut trees, snorkel the reef, or walk up to the peak.
- If you book now for September 2024, it will cost around $1200 per person per twin share for eight days leaving from and returning to Auckland around the Pacific, and if you keep an eye on special deals, you might get some bonus spending money thrown in. This covers everything you need for a jam-packed holiday with food and activities aplenty, but if you plan to get a drinks package, go on organised excursions, or upgrade your room, you’ll be up for a few extras.
- The list of daily activities is so extensive, it’s impossible to be bored. But if low-key is what you’re after, then that poolside lounger is calling to you: View of the sea, pool at the ready, ice-cream in hand. Bliss. There’s a family pool area and an adults only pool area (18yrs+).
- Babysitting is available for $10 per hour per child. But as Kids Club is part of your package, you might only need this for very young children and babies.
- Definitely pack seasickness tablets (although you can get them onboard if you forget). I took seasickness tablets on day one, and wore my EmeTerm nausea band. By the second day, I had my sea legs and that lasted the rest of the trip, which seems to be the norm for people who experience seasickness.
Worried about smaller children on board a ship?
Watch your kids, of course, but the ship is a like a massive city on the water and most of the action is in the middle, which is where the kids tend to stay. If you have a balcony, then common sense prevails. If you have a climbing toddler, just keep the French doors closed or opt for a central room (and maybe a safety tether on their wrist). Prams are allowed, but I’d recommend something very light and small.
5 of the best cruisin’ moments from Love from your dads
Mark and Christian us their top five memories of cruising with their two little ones.
- Fun poolside, which basically became our second home on the ship. Swimming by day, and pool parties in early evening where the crew boogie with the kids. The hydro slide was also super fun – highly recommend!
- Adventure on board: Frankie braved rock climbing, archery, and walking the plank… Very impressive for the grand ol’ age of five. He absolutely loved the bucking shark, too!
- Magic shows and magic masterclass activities – who doesn’t want a little trick or two up their sleeve?
- Arriving at different ports in Vanuatu and New Caledonia, where we became immersed in local culture. We loved the markets, beautiful beaches, and meeting the locals. But swimming with the turtles in Lifou was definitely the highlight. Also, Noumea is so beautiful, and we definitely want to go back.
- The food was delicious, especially at the à la carte restaurants, which we enjoyed and found to be so much better and more varied than we expected. Kids either joined us for dinner, or went to The Pantry during the kids-only meal time. For an adults-only meal, we definitely recommend going to A Taste of Salt, which you have to pay extra for but is totally worth it.