FIRST-TIME cruisers come in all ages, shapes and sizes. And I never grow tired of seeing their jaws drop as they look around the ship on that first day at sea.
All the world's troubles drain from their shoulders after lying on that first sunlounge.
Their eyes are dazzled by the array of dishes at the breakfast buffet on the first morning.
They laugh heartily at pre-dinner drinks in a chic bar and their smiles widen at the lavish costumes, smooth acting, energetic dance steps and velvet voices in the latest on-stage production in the plush theatre.
Although a full decade later, my now adult children still talk about our first P&O Pacific cruise, remembering fondly the lashings of ice cream they could tuck into, the massive ping pong tournaments against other teenagers, the freedom of roaming safely - from the pool to the jacuzzi to the games room to the restaurant to the cinema to the next hosted activity on the day's kids' club agenda.
Now, this was their grandma's turn to experience the thrill of life on a superliner, cruising along without having to think about anything more than which selection to make from the dinner menu.
For most of her 80 years and all her married and family life, she's endured the daily grind of scrubbing the pots and pans, washing and ironing the clothes of five sons and a husband, picking up the wet towels and dirty overalls, preparing three meals a day for the family and any number of friends or houseguests, and generally donating her leisure time to family, a host of charities and her church.
With her milestone birthday a week earlier, this was pay-back time for the Brisbane pensioner and widow - a chance for her to be treated like a queen, to eat, drink and be merry without having to consider the expense for once, and to cherish an entertaining night out in her sparkling new outfit.
What I didn't expect, as a veteran sailor, was rediscovering those first-time cruising thrills through fresh eyes.
I was re-awakened to how life seems so much more pronounced at sea.
The water is such a deep, deep blue. The sunsets are so golden; the sunrises a glowing red.
The clean air makes you want to breathe slowly and fully.
The playful breeze almost knocks you off your feet as you round a corner of the sundeck.
As I introduced my mother-in-law to each new experience, I remembered why I dearly love every aspect of life on the ocean waves.
And to be on P&O Cruises' Pacific Dawn was like being welcomed back into the embrace of a dear friend.
The first time I enjoyed the hospitality of this beautiful 70,285-tonne ship was three years earlier when my husband and I flew to Sydney for a three-night short-break cruise.
The extended weekend was filled with coffee and wine appreciation classes, a Grant Burge masterclass, comedy club acts and entertainment in The Dome's funky surrounds, plus a delectable a la carte dinner at Luke Mangan's Salt Grill signature restaurant.
My fond memories of Pacific Dawn were the superb food and wine selections, the relaxing child-free Oasis retreat, and the best coffee I've ever had on a cruise ship - all in the plush surrounds of our floating hotel.
None of that has changed but Pacific Dawn has added sparkle after recently emerging from dry dock with new additions and refurbishments including interconnecting rooms - a first for the P&O fleet and ideal for families.
A giant LED big screen now plays movies and music video clips above the open decks for joggers, walkers, diners and pool junkies.
Mix Cocktail Bar and pub-style venue The Orient have been added on Deck 7, the main restaurant has been transformed into The Waterfront, new furnishings have spruced up The Marquee Theatre and all of the 50 suites and mini suites have been refurbished.
The stairways and halls are dressed in the vibrant artwork of Sydney photographer Tony Rae.
There's also the tasty addition of a New Zealand Natural ice cream bar on the top deck.
I soon realised three years had been way too long to reacquaint myself with Pacific Dawn, especially with the 245m ship, capable of carrying 1950 passengers, now sailing year-round, based an hour down the highway in Brisbane.
The first 12 hours onboard became a symphony of happy refrains and a blur of Kodak moments.
As the feelgood energy of the Brisbane Sailaway party, complete with The Alter Ego dance band, began to wind down, our beloved Glasshouse Mountains turned on the charm in silhouette at sundown.
Next, we were sipping cocktails and mocktails in the Promenade Bar as crooner Jim Long played piano, before taking my first plunge into the Waterfront menu: cured and seared Tasmanian salmon entrée with butter chicken main and a dessert of warm Belgian chocolate delight with vanilla ice cream.
Our balcony cabin on Deck 10 was conveniently located only two decks down from the action on the Lido Deck plus Plantation Buffet/ La Luna Pan-Asian Fusion and Luke Mangan's Salt Grill restaurant.
For a spritely 80-year-old, stairs were not a problem but elevators were always handy for longer trips to the Deck 5 reception or Deck 2 Aqua Spa.
For seven nights and eight days, we were led on a merry chase of shore tours around Noumea and Lifou in the Loyalty Islands of New Caledonia and Efate Island in Vanuatu, game shows from the Wooden Horse Racing and Liar's Club to The Marriage Match, activities including the Walk A Mile Club and Pacific Market bargain-hunting, demonstrations from fruit and vegetable carving to a galley tour and culinary demonstrations by executive chef Alexander Keck and Maitre d'Hotel Martin Bell.
And who could forget the first-class productions and entertainment including Pirates of the Pacific and the Motor City tribute to Motown starring Jenny Layton and Nicholas McBride, the Atrium laser show and comic juggler James Buster.
I still managed my fair share of firsts:
- a warm and soothing deep-tissue massage in Aqua Spa, courtesy of Polish therapist Katarzyna Opozda, using various widths and lengths of bamboo shoots soaked in alkaline aromatherapy oils to roll, slide and penetrate into tension problem areas, break down toxins and bring back the right pH balance in muscles.
- my first taste of the new P&O Cruises' Chocolate Hokey Pokey ice cream, exclusive to the onboard New Zealand Natural ice cream parlour
- an introduction to the amazingly talented Pacific Cirque performers who did "roving" street entertainment during the Sailaway party on the first afternoon at sea, offered juggling classes, and had three decks of the open Atrium gasping on the final night in a spectacular acrobatics show, Dawn Chorus, without a net.
- the premiere of Life As We Know It featuring the Pacific Entertainers and Pacific Cirque performers in a Tim Burton-esque production. The stylish show incorporated some of the latest-and-greatest pop songs and used LED technology for settings and backdrops to reflect on the frailty of life and its emotional journeys.
- The singing talent among the passengers at the Pacific Pop Star Grand Finale that attracted a full house in The Marquee on the final night of the cruise.
The last thing you want to do on holidays is to be rushed, so we simply didn't have time for a myriad other interesting things to do in the Pacific Daily newsletter.
But the joy on my mother-in-law's face each new morning and her "thank you for another lovely day" before we went to bed each night was priceless.
On the final morning of the cruise, a bright light pierced the darkness of our cabin.
The ship had entered the Brisbane River before dawn on the way to her Portside dock at Hamilton.
And as the orange streetlights and industrial riverfront came into view, a first-time cruiser couldn't resist capturing the moment - unfortunately, using the camera flash right beside my bed.
Although woken from my slumber, I could only laugh about her exuberant photo-taking.
After all, I'd been a first-time cruiser once, too.
P&O Cruises has helped open up the world of cruising to the average traveller with affordable, value-for-money holidays where the accommodation, dining, entertainment, onboard activities and independent port discoveries are all included.
The only additional charges are for your drinks, shore tours and shopping plus a small surcharge for dining in the specialty restaurants.
Papua New Guinea has been added as a highlight to P&O Cruises' 2013-14 program with Pacific Dawn sailing from Brisbane to the remote islands and towns of Milne Bay.
The PNG program will visit the capital Alotau, the white-sand beaches of Doini Island and the "Islands of Love" - the Trobriand Islands along the northern straits of the Bay.
Prices start from $1049 per person quad-share for a nine-night cruise, with the maiden voyage to Milne Bay in October next year coinciding with the sacred Canoe and Kundu Festivals.
For more information on taking the plunge into cruising, see your local travel agent, visit pocruises.com.au or call 13 24 94.
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