‘IT’S a biggie,” a weather-worn old Darwinite in a battered bush hat observes dryly as the enormous Voyager of the Seas eases into Darwin Harbour.
The “floating city” is pausing for a day on a repositioning cruise from South-East Asia to Sydney where it’ll be based for the 2015-16 summer-autumn season.
Voyager truly is a “biggie”; it is one of the world’s largest cruise ships, 311m long, weighing almost 138,000 tonnes and accommodating 3989 guests in total in 1724 staterooms and suites with 1176 crew to pamper them.
Cushy lodgings include ocean-view staterooms, balcony staterooms, sumptuous suites and inside staterooms equipped with novel “virtual balconies” to inhibit claustrophobia. These 2m-high HD television screens mimic windows on to balconies and are linked to cameras placed around the ship to screen real-time sights and sounds of the passing ocean and port manoeuvres.
After checking in to a balcony stateroom, it’s time to check out the rest of the glamorous goliath on a journey that turns out to be a tasteful blitzkrieg of unadulterated razzle-dazzle.
At Voyager’s heart is an enormous atrium rising through four decks and, intersecting it on Deck 5, the Royal Promenade extends about three-quarters of the ship’s length, a bustling boulevard with a marble “pavement”, pumping cafes and bars, name-brand duty-free shops full of jewellery, clothing and perfumes, upbeat music and evening dance parties.
Swarovski is holding a sale with 40 per cent off jewellery and figurines not far from a trio of masseuses delivering a trio of neck massages. Nearby, the Pig & Whistle is a well-patronised pub with tables spilling out onto the marble. In the background, Bobby Day (remember him?) reprises the profound 1958 lyrics of Rockin’ Robin, mercifully Bobby’s only hit.
Pastries, pizzas, sandwiches and brewed illy coffee are on offer at Cafe Promenade with its red British phone booth and a glistening red 1954 Morgan sports car parked outside.
At the ’60s-style R Bar, just off the Promenade – the tasteful venue for fancy cocktails – a mixologist is demonstrating how to make a perfect martini and form guides are front and centre at the Tavern, outside the Casino Royale, a sports-themed bar with the obligatory wide-screen TV. “They’re racing at Randwick …”
Casino Royale is a red and gold contradiction of flashing slot machines with names such as Hoot Loot, Kitty Glitter and Rembrandt’s Riches blasting out electronic noises and set against the sober, studied concentration of the blackjack and three-card poker tables. A few players tackling Texas Hold’em frown and seem confused. It turns out they’re Australians. Malaysian croupier Chris confides that many Australians have no idea how to play the card game: “I have to teach them first,” he whispers, “but they do learn quickly.”
At the nautical-themed Schooner Bar, Claudette from the Philippines, pours a Boddington’s Ale, the first of several on this eight-night cruise and in the background it’s 1958 again with the Everly Brothers belting out Bye Bye Love.
Meanwhile, it’s all go outside on the sports deck with walkers and joggers wearing gym gear and serious expressions forming a continuous procession around the fitness track.
There’s a full-size basketball court, a nine-hole mini-golf course with infinite ocean views, an inline skating track and a golf simulator recreating some of the world’s best courses. For those seeking more challenging thrills, Voyager has a rock-climbing wall rising 9m. That’s 61m above sea level.
But the stellar attraction is Flowrider, a 12m wave-maker that generates a 72km/h rush of water surfed on a flowboard and, as Australian flowboarding champion Adam Wildman testifies: “One of the best experiences you can have in the middle of an ocean.”
Kids and teens gravitate to Deck 12 for the Outdoor Youth Area, a video arcade and a teen disco. One deck below is the Vitality at Sea Spa and Fitness Centre with more than 100 treatments, the pool deck with two pools, six whirlpools, an adults-only solarium pool, tiers of sun decks and a huge 67sq m cinema screen.
Like the buoyant background music, the entertainment just goes on. There’s a new 3D cinema and at Voyager’s Ice Skating Rink, guests can rent skates and take lessons between the dazzling regular ice shows starring top international skaters.
On this voyage diverse performances in the La Scala Theatre encompass Broadway-style shows, electric rock violinist, Jane Cho, singer Michael Falzon, comedy hypnotist Mark Anthony, ballroom dance classes and, of all things, an enrichment lecture on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Dining demands daunting decisions. Designed like an opera house, the tasteful Sapphire Dining Room, with chandelier and included meals, revives the golden age of cruising. Also included are the buffets in the extraordinary Windjammer Cafe. Imagine a sort of swish Scandinavian-designed street-food market with wraparound windows and “stalls” serving a healthy choice of international food which, incidentally, is some of the ship’s best tucker.
Specialty dining restaurants include Izumi, an Asian but essentially Japanese restaurant with a la carte pricing and the prixe fixe, Italian cuisine Giovanni’s Table for $US25 ($A35), Chops Grille, a ritzy reef’n’beef with premium steaks, seafood and lobster ($US35) and the ’50s-style burger bar Johnny Rockets Diner ($US6.95).
Chops Grille also offers special cruise hot pot lunches self-cooked at the table for $US20 and a tasting menu with wine pairings from their exclusive cellar ($US45). At Giovanni’s Table, try the almond-crusted scallops with red bell pepper pesto and pan-seared sole fillets over parmesan roasted potatoes.
My pick is Izumi; for example, miso soup, seasoned wakame salad with sesame oil, tasty miso ramen noodles with chasu pork slice, menma fermented bamboo shoots and nori seaweed and the wonderful mixed seafood on a hot rock.
Meanwhile, poolside on Deck 11, tastefulness takes a brief back seat as cruise director Mitch celebrates “the glamour, the prestige, the recognition of the belly flop” with the popular Men’s International Belly Flop Contest.
“Enough,” I cry, withdrawing to the Schooner Bar for a creamy, cold Boddington’s Ale and a nostalgic toe-tap to Rock Around the Clock courtesy of Bill Haley & His Comets.
The writer was a guest of Holidays of Australia.
The 13-night Ghan and Voyager of the Seas Top End Escape departs Sydney on April 16, 2016, and includes seven nights aboard Voyager of the Seas cruising from Sydney to Darwin with a port call in Brisbane, on-board meals, entertainment, pre paid taxes and gratuities.
Also included are a four-night stay in Darwin at DoubleTree by Hilton Esplanade Darwin with breakfast, a “Charles Darwin” Sunset Buffet Dinner Cruise, a half-day Darwin City Sights tour, full day Kakadu National Park tour of Nourlangie rock art site, Yellow Water Billabong and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre plus two nights aboard The Ghan travelling from Darwin to Adelaide in Gold or Platinum Service including all meals, drinks and off-train experiences.