P&O set out to reinvent Australian cruising with Pacific Aria and twin sister Pacific Eden, and first impressions of the fresh look and feel are outstanding. Pacific Aria has certainly shaken off its old Ryndam robes (from its former days with Holland America Line) and emerged as a hot new thing. The pool deck is straight off a swish hotel's rooftop, while other venues will remind you of Melbourne's laneway bars or Sydney's glam restaurants. It's so "now", which goes against the cruise ship trend to be neutral and long lasting. In fact, the stylish decor of the revamped public spaces is so far removed from Pacific Pearl, Pacific Jewel and Pacific Dawn that it's virtually unrecognisable as P&O.
Many of the biggest changes are seen in the dining venues, of which there are 15 options: some are free; some incur an extra fee. A pleasant surprise is that the surcharges were ditched for the upscale Angelo's (Italian) and moody Dragon Lady (Asian) so if you get in quick and book before 8 am, you can be treated to some of the ship's best service and food in a luxurious setting. It's wonderful to open up these restaurants to everyone, not just those who can afford it; although it does seem a little crazy to get a five-course gourmet meal for nothing, yet you have to pay extra for a poolside ice-cream.
Replacing the buffet, The Pantry is reminiscent of a food court but offers better hygiene and less waste, with a good range of cuisines and not-so-bad queues. Waterfront, the main dining room, also has a more interesting menu, with a wide range of choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (See the Dining section of this review for more details.)
Aria's bars are another highlight (subject to how long it takes to get a drink). From relaxed to pumping, every ambience is covered. During the day, Ocean Bar is a hive of activity; by sunset, a cabana in the child-free Oasis is the place to unwind. Wine enthusiasts can enjoy Hunter Valley's Glandore Estate cellar door at sea, while cocktails are a specialty at Salt Grill Bar.
Live music permeates the ship in several venues. An added novelty is that the singers and musicians switch around to form different bands every day, performing jazz, funk, rock and R'n'B. If you're not a fan of the musicals in the theatre, hang out in the Blues Room, the hottest spot for a nightcap and toe-tap.
P&O has also had some fun with the daily programs, hosting chair aerobics and up-to-the-minute activities such as mindful colouring. Keep an eye out for the quirky artwork, too, especially the playful stuff around the main pool (which has a retractable roof, by the way) and the lifts.
The line has been targeting families for the past decade and this cool new vibe will appeal to parents in their 20s to 40s, as well as groups of friends and first-timers who may be put off by the trappings of traditional cruising. But good looks aren't everything, so don't expect a five-star experience in every other category, for this is not a five-star ship. Despite the refurbishment in 2015, Aria can't escape the reality that its hardware was built in 1994. Blocked toilets, leaks and minor flooding have affected some early sailings, and the untouched cabins and suites don't match the modern makeover -- although they are larger than the rooms on many other Australia-based ships.
When a ship is under new management with a new crew, teething troubles are to be expected, and our cruise sometimes seemed understaffed and overwhelmed. We waited an hour for breakfast in Waterfront and 20 minutes was the average for a drink. But that's as far as our complaints go. We sat back, relaxed and didn't let the hiccups taint our overall enjoyment. The waiters were always apologetic, hardworking and lovely, and -- like the majority of passengers we spoke to -- we had no major issues with our cabin, food or entertainment. P&O is striving to address its problems so a positive experience is consistent for everyone, and we are hopeful of smoother sailing once Aria has settled into its groove.
P&O Australia Pacific Aria Dress Code
In true Aussie fashion, passengers keep it casual during the day and, for some, at night, too. After 5.30 pm, in the bars, lounges and restaurants, the official dress code is smart casual, which means no bare feet, caps, singlets and beach or pool attire. There is no formal night, but on cocktail nights, women are encouraged to glam up, while men should consider wearing a suit (tie optional). Note: there is no need to go over the top.
P&O cruises always include at least one themed party (depending on your itinerary), such as Bianco, where everyone wears white, or the Gatsby night, when it's time to go back to the 1920s' fashions. Dressing up for these parties isn't compulsory, but it's part of the fun to get involved, and you'll be the odd one out if you don't join in. Passengers can easily skip the parties by avoiding the areas where they are held.