Monday, December 14, 2009

A Sanctuary For Human Wild Life

Sydney Morning Herald

Lounging back, eyes closed, sweet peace and quiet. There's just the gentle rocking of the waves to remind you that about 1900 other passengers also inhabit this cruising superliner, Dawn Princess.

I'm in a special zone where the usual din of the sun-drenched upper decks and the bustle and buzz of holidaymakers at play are absent. There are no kids screaming and splashing in the pool.

No live band belting out classic rock tunes. No cacophony generated by dozens of different conversations carried on simultaneously. No thirsty throng milling three-deep around the bar.

Instead, a cool drink is just a request away. Nearby passengers are as interested in preserving the peace as I am. An extra touch of ostentatious luxury is provided by a "serenity steward" who will come around to spray you with a mist of chilled Evian water if the sun gets too hot.

Aptly named the Sanctuary, this lounging area is Princess Cruises' bid to deliver one of the few luxuries of busy shipboard life found in preciously short supply - solitude.

Unveiled aboard the Crown Princess in the Caribbean in 2006, the Sanctuary concept is being unrolled throughout the cruise line's worldwide fleet, which is part of the Carnival group.

Dawn Princess, which went into dry-dock for a multimillion-dollar refurbishment in June, is the first of its two Australian ships to get the Sanctuary-branded upgrade.

The Sanctuary is on the forward-most section of the top deck, where a combination of distance and headwinds isolates it from much of the noise and activity of the pool deck.

The oasis-inspired space, child-free and partially sheltered by a sunshade, is kitted out with about two dozen plush lounge chairs around a private splash pool. A small army of staff is always on hand to serve complimentary snacks or fill bar orders. At sunset, there are yoga classes.

Access to the Sanctuary isn't part of the standard inclusive cruising package - patrons are charged $20 a half-day - but there's been no shortage of passengers eager for splendid isolation.

"It's been about creating a niche area, a big ship with a small ship feel," says the director of corporate affairs for Carnival Australia, Sandy Olsen. It's only a short stroll back to the party - and Dawn Princess' other new attraction, a massive LED TV above the pool deck, measuring eight metres by 4.5 metres and with a picture powerful enough to be seen in blazing sunlight.

During the day there's a changing schedule of family-friendly films and concert videos. At night, passengers rug up for movies under the stars, with fresh popcorn and bar service.

Last week, Dawn Princess embarked on a two night repositioning cruise from Sydney to Melbourne, where it will be based from November to March. The ship has since departed on a 28-day circumnavigation of Australia, one of the eight itineraries it will sail in Australia and New Zealand in the 2009-10 summer season.

It's expected to be a bumper year. Cruising has had a surge in popularity in recent years, making it one of the few consistently strong and growing sectors of the domestic tourism industry, particularly during the global financial crisis.

The number of passengers for Australia cruises grew by 26 per cent last year, according to the International Cruise Council Australasia. By comparison, the US cruising market - the largest in the world - grew by just 5 per cent and the British market by 12 per cent.

A recent survey by marketing group Cruise Down Under found there are more ships visiting more Australian ports and spending more money than ever before.

A professor of tourism at Edith Cowan University, Ross Dowling, says the Asia-Pacific region has become the fastest growing for cruising. "[Cruising gives] Australians a holiday that's close to home and it's now a lot more affordable in terms of value for money compared to a lot of domestic and international holidays," he says. "There's a real attraction to a holiday that's pretty much all-inclusive.

"They've [ships] become like massive floating resorts, with everything you can think of onboard to cater to all age groups and interests." Carnival Cruises Australia, which represents P&O Cruises and Princess Cruises locally, had just two ships plying Australian waters a few years ago. It will have six by the end of next year.

The Dawn Princess, launched in 1997 and built for $400 million, has a passenger-to-crew ratio of about three to one, with an emphasis on service. Its sister ship, Sun Princess, is due to be fitted with a Sanctuary and LED screen during its scheduled dry dock in April next year.