MS Pacific Dawn - A Review of the P&O Cruise Experience


P&O Australia caters for the budget family sector of the Australian cruise market. Their ships are generally older hand-me-downs which have been retired from more up-market lines in the Carnival Group; principally Princess and Holland America. When P&O have finished with them they go to scrap or smaller cruise lines.

As it turned out, our cruise was one of the last before the Coronavirus pandemic hit and older ships were sold for scrap, including this one. We would have much preferred to see some of the tacky new leviathans beached, but they all all that the industry seems prepared to keep for future cruise offerings.

The Ship

Pacific Dawn
Pacific Dawn

The "Pacific Dawn" was of 70,000 gross tonnes, which made it a very large ship when it was built in 1991, but only small to medium sized by modern standards. She was formerly the "Regal Princess" but has operated under the P&O flag since 2007, which is a long time even by P&O standards. I was expecting to board a clapped-out old ship but was agreeably surprised; the "Dawn" turned out to be a gracious old lady with a spring in her step. Although the hull showed signs of age the interiors were tastefully refurbished, with none of the tacky glitz, tired-looking spaces, worn carpets or disagreeable smells which we have found on newer ships. She also felt like a solid, well-built ship, with only a bit of vibration evident around the stern and hardly any interior engine noise. Although some concession has been made to Australian family cruising with the addition of a splash park and two waterslides, this was not a ship designed for tropical cruising. Most of the public spaces were enclosed by double glazed windows, generally internally fogged and not very transparent. There was only one tiny forward looking open deck, which was at the front of Deck 10; few passengers would have discovered it in the course of a short cruise.

Pacific Dawn Theatre
Pacific Dawn Atrium
Pacific Dawn Deck 12
Water Slides, Splash Park & Zip Line

There isn't much point in dwelling on specific details of this ship that has already gone. Its good features included said splash park and waterslides for the kids and (extra cost) zip line, rock wall and "walk the plank" for the more adventurous. There was also a good theatre which wrapped around a large protruding stage so everyone got a good view of the various shows put on. The worst feature of this ship was that it had only one small pool; this was ostensibly adults only up until 10am but was generally full of kids anyway, and the adults didn't get much of a look-in. There were four tiny Jacuzzis which were heated but didn't appear to have any bubbles to speak of; only three were operative for the duration of our cruise. There was no fitness centre, but there was a spa somewhere down in the bowels of the ship which is probably the best place for it. Mercifully, there was no art gallery and no art "auctions".

The Experience

Our cruise was in school holidays and the passenger compliment included a lot of family groups and nearly 600 kids; there was a lot going on to entertain all ages most of the time, and few problems with ferals of any age that we noticed. Security on this ship was fairly evident, which seemed to make it effective. The entertainment was however fairly noisy; movies on Deck 12 and parties up there every other night were audible on Deck 11 where all of the suites and mini-suites are. Our own grandkids were withdrawn from some of the children's activities which seemed noisy enough to cause hearing damage. Most of the public spaces seemed to have something going on most of the time; we got driven out of the Dome Lounge a couple of times by noisy activities and it was sometimes a challenge to find somewhere to have a quiet drink.

Top marks to P&O Australia for abolishing tipping policy on their ships; hopefully other lines operating in Australian waters will follow suit. The service that we experienced from cabin, dining room and bar staff doesn't seem to have suffered at all as a consequence, and was in fact better and friendlier than we have experienced on any other ship. The Captain's daily broadcast was informative and entertaining.

Although there were no health issues that we heard about on this cruise, the attention to this aspect seems to have slipped. There was alcohol gel on hand outside all of the dining areas but no encouragement to use it, and many ignored it. We didn't see handrails being wiped down as we have on other ships.

Costs were reasonable by cruise line standards, with drinks about equivalent to Australian restaurant or bar prices; Australian wines from around $32-$36 a bottle and cocktails $13.50. A drinks package is available which however can't be shared; this seems to encourage over indulgence. Cruise fares have not increased for many years, and although most of the food is still free, steaks only appear on the menu at extra cost and the specialty restaurant prices even at $59 per head don't include all the meals on offer. Coffee, ice creams, hamburgers, pizzas etc which used to be free are now charged; it can be assumed that this policy will progress over time until all food is at extra cost.

P&O still insist on you putting your cases out before dinner the night before disembarkation, and vacating your cabin by 6:30am. This conveys a strong impression that your utility to them has expired and your holiday is over. As our ship arrived in Brisbane in the wee small hours and didn't leave until 5pm, it would seem possible and preferable to move both disembarkation of leaving passengers and embarkation of new passengers back by a couple of hours to give the former an opportunity to have a more relaxing breakfast, and the latter more time to get to the ship. Lower reaches of the Brisbane River aren't particularly beautiful and an evening sailing time may afford a better "sailaway" experience.

See also the Pacific Star blog.