There it is, white, gleaming and magnificent, an icon on Sydney's Circular Quay. And behind our cruise liner Radiance of the Seas, that other icon, the Sydney Opera House, vied for attention. To Radiance's left, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
It is a spectacular start to our cruise, round the top end of Australia, even in Sydney's 13C cold and rain.
The Radiance has 13 decks, served by breathtaking glass lifts in the central atrium which look to sea on one side and on to the busy deck levels and atrium on the other. Our stateroom (no cabins on this ship) is on deck 10 and we are soon at home in the spacious room with ensuite and balcony, ready for our 16-night cruise.
See Radiance of the Seas refit and revitalisation video:
The stateroom is welcoming and we watch as the Opera House fades into the distance. Here we are, on our first cruise (one night in the bowels of a ferry from Piraeus to Ancona didn't count).
It takes us a while to learn our aft from our elbows. Radiance is huge, with restaurants, cafes, bars, pools, gym, beauty spa, cinema, theatre, shops, library and countless nooks to sit privately.
Dining is easy. Windjammer cafe on deck 11 is the place for informal breakfast, lunch and dinner. A giant buffet, with room for 797 people, there are arrays of salads, fruit, build a burger, pizza, main courses, desserts, Indian and Malaysian - too much to mention. And you can eat healthily.
Cascades dining room, with room for 1110 formal diners, is the posher alternative. The food and service are excellent.
You can go to the ship's specialist restaurants for a fee. We buy a $55 package which means we can eat at three venues, Chops Grille (superb steaks, American style), Giovanni's Italian and Samba, a Brazilian-style charruscaria with delicious barbecued meats.
All this eating means daily gym visits. On deck 12, the gym is state of the art, roomy and with ocean views which makes the treadmill much more bearable.
Radiance is part of the Royal Caribbean American cruise line, so gym equipment figures are in imperial but could be changed to metric on the colour displays.
Attached is a health spa. Believe it or not, you can get Botox and Restylane here from an accredited practitioner. I have a massage there and my masseuse confides she'd been Restylane-d that morning. She does look about 10 years younger than her 37 years.
I had been worried that I'd be bored on the days at sea, but we soon fall into the lotus-eating life. A daily bulletin, Cruise Compass, delivered to your stateroom each evening, details next day's activities, and a TV channel which shows from 6am features cruise director Bobby Brown and his wife, activities director Becky, with all the info for the day. The British couple have a relaxed rapport stemming from their years with Royal Caribbean and are very friendly in person.
With 2100 passengers and 900-odd crew aboard, the passing parade of people is fascinating. You might meet someone on the first day and never see them again, (hello, couple from Iluka) or bump into the same ones over and over. Self-proclaimed US snowbirds John and Elaine live in Florida eight months of the year, New Hampshire four months, and are on their 30th cruise with Royal Caribbean. Helmut, a friendly German we meet in the hot tub, says he had been in Wiltshire for 20 years. Only when he gets out do we realise he meant wheelchair.
Basil and Diedre, from Gosnells, will be making only their second trip overseas together when we land in Bali. Their first was to England to meet Basil's mother, who he had last seen when he left England as a child migrant all those years ago. The couple say when they were young they had never imagined being able to go on a cruise, but are loving it.
Sisters Christine, a mines controller from Victoria Park, and Judi, an art teacher from Mandurah, are escaping for a bonding holiday and are making the most of the ship's activities.
Douglas and Veronica, from the original Perth in Scotland, are cruise veterans and looking to emigrate to Australia, sick of the freezing weather at home. Another American couple have been cruising for years and say Aussies are the friendliest fellow- passengers they have sailed with. Evenings are spent dining and watching the nightly shows. Not really variety fans, we still find that the choice of entertainment is good. A violin and piano duo's classical notes drift up through the atrium most days.
One of the best classes is tai chi, with Thai master Supol. Scores gather each sea day to be led through this meditation with movement by the ageless master with the serene smile.
An intimate insight into dining on board
It is possible to spend nothing over your cruise cost on the holiday. Food in the Windjammer, various cafes and Cascades is free. But if you want to drink alcohol, drink Starbucks coffee (at the cutely named Cafe Latte-tudes) or dine at the specialty restaurants, you pay extra.
Drink prices compare favourably with Perth and, if you want a pleasant tipple with casual lunch or dinner, Wolf Blass red or white is available for $10 per 500ml carafe or Heineken by the pint for $6.50 in some bars.
There is enough time to do nothing and everything. The ship is huge but filled with little niches away from it all to read, play cards and even help solve a 1000-piece jigsaw should the mood take you.
The best things about the cruise are intangible. Stress slips away as everything is taken care of and we feel better than for a long while.
The crew are from all over the world and polite, helpful and often funny. And captain Bill Wright is impossibly handsome, a silver fox straight from central casting, whose daily noon bulletins from the bridge are a must.
I am surprised and pleased at how casually everyone dresses most of the time.
We give the three very formal dining evenings a miss, though many people revel in the chance to posh up. Radiance takes us around Oz, from Sydney to Freo via Brisbane, Airlie Beach, Darwin, Bali, Port Hedland and Geraldton. And as we sail into Fremantle, the first liner of the cruise season, I wish we could stay aboard.
- Perfect pool *
Radiance of the Seas has two Gyro pool tables which adjust to the ship's motion for a stable playing surface. They cost $80,000 each and are made in Norway. Using state-of- the-art technology, the table's surface, independently balances on a universal ball bearing the size of a grape. Sensors relay information to a computer which reads the pitch and roll of the ship. Hey presto, a stable table, with no blaming the sea for that missed shot.
- Transcend with tai chi *
Tai chi is one of the more popular classes available. Master Supol Lohachitkul, from Thailand, teaches us to appreciate the flow of life and breathe "with a little bit smile". As cruise director Bobby Brown says, he makes the passengers mellow. Master Supol can be seen on YouTube - Google "Supol Lohachitkul" and enjoy the relaxation and his infectious smile.
- Tips for newbies *
·Bring American adaptors, earthed and unearthed, for your electrical appliances. _ Basil and Diedre, Gosnells. _
·If you like wine with dinner, prepay a package with your travel agent to save money. _ Elaine and John, US. _
·Prepay gratuities for your cabin attendant and other staff. _ Judi and Christine, Mandurah and Victoria Park. _
·Get to the gym early - it opens at 6am and there's plenty of room then.
·Six laps of the jogging track on deck 12 equals one mile (1.6km).
·Be prepared to share tables at meals - it's fun and you meet people.
·All prices quoted are in US dollars.
- Room for all *
Radiance of the Seas is well equipped for the needs of physically challenged passengers.
There are lifts to each deck, ramps throughout and plenty of willing crew to help getting on and off the ship for excursions.
Czech Lukas Chvostek, the ship's assistant executive housekeeper, explains that Radiance has 15 staterooms adapted for wheelchairs, with wider doors and special facilities. There are hoists to help people in and out of the pools and hot tubs, with staff available at any time. We meet a couple who have a slot booked for the husband to be lifted into the spa each morning at 6am.
Lukas also says that wheelchairs, scooters, walkers and even CPAP oxygen machines are available to be hired. The ship's website has a section, Special Needs at Sea, which has all the deck plans and information.
- One fine day *
· *6am * gym
· *6.45 * Swim in pool in the solarium area
· *7.10 *Hot tub
· *8.00 *Breakfast
· *8.45 *Game of pool on the gyro tables
· *9.15 *Tai chi with master Supol
· *10.00 *Coffee at Latte-tudes and relax
· *Noon * Lunch at Cascades
· *1pm * Watch The Artist in Aurora Theatre.
· *3.30 *Relax
· *4.30 *Quiz in Colony Club
· *6.00 *Dinner
· *6.45 *Show
· *8.00 *Cocktail of the day in Lobby Bar ($6.75, and you keep the glass)
· *9.30 *Sleep of the righteous