Thursday usually means late-night shopping but today it's early afternoon shipping as I drag my case across the carpark at the Fremantle Passenger Terminal. This is an experiment. I've cruised from many ports but never from here. On this short trip up to Port Hedland aboard Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, arriving there last Sunday, I'm interested to see how easy or otherwise it is.
The biggest ship to be based in Australia has already made a huge and immediate impression on me. As I was driving along Ord Street, Voyager - which can carry 3840 passengers and 1176 crew - loomed behind the terminal buildings, the windows of its disc-shaped bridge glinting. From the footbridge on the railway, I tried but failed to capture the 311m ship with my camera. It certainly dwarfed the Asuka II moored next to it.
At 12.45pm, I enter the big downstairs hall to be met by Neil, a very pleasant baggage handler from Franmarine. I don't have printed-out bag tags displaying my cabin number but it's no problem for Neil, who checks the passenger manifest and then writes out a tag, attaches it to my case, directs me to the X-ray machine and wishes me well.
I'm free of my case almost immediately, my ID (passport) is checked, then it's on upstairs where more than 40 check-in attendants are helping passengers board. My passport is checked again before I'm given a public health questionnaire on which I must declare any recent ailments, before we're into queues for general boarding for Pinnacle Class, part of Royal Caribbean's loyalty club. I'm advised to have my ticket, ID and medical form in hand. Despite scores of people in front of me, I quickly reach the head of a queue. I'm directed to a check-in desk where Tina tells me there are more than 3200 passengers boarding. Voyager of the Seas is almost full for this 14-night cruise to Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. I fill in a couple more forms, including a credit-card authorisation to use Royal Caribbean's cashless system. My photograph is taken and I receive my Seapass, which triples as a room key, credit card and on-board ID. It also lists that I'll be dining in the Magic Flute on deck five at 8.15pm.
I show this pass to enter the customs hall where there's a big area of plastic chairs set out for passengers to fill in outgoing passenger cards and get their documents together. There are hundreds of us in the building at various stages; couples old and young, and families - I later find out there'll be 347 children aboard. But it's been quick, orderly, relaxed and good-natured.
There's excitement in the air, with many people about to go on holiday, and it's shared by all the smiling staff who seem to be enjoying the sense of occasion. There's certainly none of the stress and commotion one sometimes sees at airports. Passport control is similar to an airport. There are three hand-luggage X-ray machines and body scanners and, again, the flow of passengers is smooth. I move straight through, then show my Seapass and walk out into the blustery afternoon under Voyager's great shadow. Up the gangway, I surrender my passport and enter the ship. It's 1.16pm - just 31 minutes from the time I entered the terminal, and that was during "rush hour". It's quick, extremely pleasant, and at every stage staff were personable. What a great start to the cruise.
"I can't quite believe we're here," one passenger says, craning her neck to stare up at Voyager's grand marble and glass atrium. The biggest cruise ship in the world when it was launched 15 years ago, Voyager may have since been surpassed in size but it still cuts a fine form. I sit at the Aquarium Bar (one of 14 aboard) and watch lifts scoot up and down the 14-deck ship.
Over the PA, I hear that our cabins will be ready at 2pm, so it's off to the Windjammer Cafe/Island Grill, which between them seat 764.
It can be difficult to find a spot in a ship's buffet around boarding time but I slot in with an Australian man, whose name I don't catch, and an English couple, Peter and Dorothy Boardman, who've driven up from their home in Denmark.
I do the rounds of the buffet. The choice includes pasta, paella, curry and rice, seafood, a carvery, sandwiches in French bread, a burger bar, a huge fresh salad bar and a staffed Caesar salad station where the chef prepares to order, a pizza and soup station, and a sweets section with biscuits, ice- creams, mousse and macaroons. There are also coffee, tea, water, soft drink and soft-serve ice-cream stations and plenty of clean plates and cutlery.
Between mouthfuls, I chat to Peter and Dorothy, cruise veterans who've been on Rhapsody of the Seas four times and are big fans of Royal Caribbean. The couple enjoy cruising from Fremantle; their first departure from the port was in 2003 on SuperStar Virgo and Mr Boardman says the boarding process has become easier and more efficient over the years. "They've really finetuned it; the first time we cruised from here we were queued up for about an hour and a half," he says.
I remark that Voyager of the Seas will be going into dry-dock in October, with millions to be spent on installing new restaurants and other facilities.
"Despite all that, the really important things you look for will stay the same," Mr Boardman says. "You want a high standard of service and cleanliness."
That's what keeps bringing the couple back and they've been joined by hundreds of thousands of others this summer.
Royal Caribbean and sibling line Celebrity Cruises have had five ships visit Australia - Radiance, Rhapsody and Voyager of the Seas, and Celebrity Solstice were based here, while Celebrity Millennium visited. Between them, they carried more than 210,000 passengers calling at 50 ports, including Fremantle, Port Hedland, Esperance and Geraldton.
There will be even more in 2014-15 when Voyager of the Seas, Radiance and Celebrity Solstice will offer cruises from Fremantle as well as Sydney and Auckland, while Rhapsody of the Seas and Celebrity Century will visit the port city.
As we look to an even busier future, there's a sense of a curtain falling on both the summer and the cruise season even as I draw mine back in my surprisingly spacious outside cabin on deck three. When Voyager returns in December, it will be a much-changed ship but I set off to explore knowing there's still much to enjoy.
Neon light spills across the floor of the Royal Promenade on deck five. The four deck-high street- style arcade of shops, bars and eateries is the heart of activity on the ship. The Scoreboard sports bar is busy with Australian passengers watching the Aussie Rules but I prefer the Pig & Whistle English pub across the way for its booths and beers, especially my favourite - Newcastle Brown Ale. At $6.50 a bottle it's not unreasonable and is expertly poured.
I head to the 1347-seat La Scala for the opening-night show and order a drink from my seat. Cruise director Alan "Bobby" Brown immediately wins over an audience of mostly Perth residents with some snappy ad libs and by awarding a couple marking their 63rd wedding anniversary a bottle of champagne, while comedian Simon Palomares of Acropolis Now and Wogs out of Work fame successfully hones his comedy to take the mickey out of emo teenagers and Mandurah.
I reluctantly dodge a pub quiz in Casino Royale for dinner in the Magic Flute and, as the ship slides out of Fremantle, I enjoy a cold entree of raspberry and melon soup and a main of New York steak with horseradish, baby spinach, tomato and ranch dressing. I eschew a $633 bottle of Penfolds Grange, instead paying $8 for a glass of Reserve St Martin Languedoc. Dessert is a surprisingly sweet strawberry Charlotte. There's good company in the form of a Canadian man, an Australian pair and their daughter and a lovely Perth-based Italian couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow. This is their first cruise and they booked it after reading about it in the pages of Travel. "We thought it was about time," Domenic says.
I'm woken early by banging from the cabin above. Noise from above can be a nuisance on a cruise but I'm enjoying my cabin, which is down a quiet corridor. There's plenty of hanging and storage space and a good bathroom with great hot water in the shower. The only let down is the unavailability of drinkable cold water - my attendant tells me to boil water from the bathroom sink - and the fact there are no coffee sachets supplied. I survive by going two floors up and bringing free coffee, thankfully very good, back from Cafe Promenade.
On the way to Windjammer Cafe for breakfast, I pass through the deck 11 pool area, already busy with holidaymakers enjoying the WA sun. The whirlpools and adults' and kids' pools are full and many of the sun beds are occupied by people dozing or reading. On the public address, cruise director Bobby is running through the day's activities: everything from blackjack to quizzes, Sudoku, and ice-skating (yes, Voyager has its own rink) to an acupuncture seminar, a table-tennis tournament, photo opportunities with DreamWorks characters, and music performances - there are 13 today, as well as tonight's production Music in Pictures. Plenty to do, and it's all free, but the sunbathers don't move a muscle.
"Breakfast Central", the sign says in the Windjammer. I side-step the extensive fruit selection for a hot breakfast. It's all clearly aimed at Australian tastes, the music is bright and cheerful with a number of table attendants joining in on the choruses to Maroon 5 and Billy Joel.
I set out to explore the rest of the ship. Royal Caribbean is keeping many of the details of the ship's revamp under wraps and while attractions such as the rock- climbing wall and ice-skating rink should remain, others will be improved or removed to make way for the new restaurants such as Chops Grille and Chef's Table. But up on the top decks, there are passengers enjoying mini putt-putt, the golf simulator and the basketball court. Teens are packing out the games arcade, there are kids on the slippery slide and sunbathers by the adults-only Solarium pool, with more lying on deckchairs lapping up an afternoon concert.
I dine at Portofino's, knowing it will be replaced by the successful Giovanni's Table family option. It's a set-price restaurant, as will be its successor, with a cover charge of $25, drinks not included.
The service and food at Portofino's exceed expectations. My entree of carpaccio di manzo - beef tenderloin with rocket and parmesan - and main of taglierini al pesto are both delicious and my waiter Mario Comia is a credit to Royal Caribbean. He's welcoming, knows the food and wine back to front and with ease he engages in conversation about the fleet and the company, both of which he's very proud. And although it's fine dining, I'm left full and with a real impression of being valued. At dinner I bought a bottle of Italian red (Michele Chiarlo Le Orme) but am unable to finish it. It's later delivered to my cabin with a note that says VVVIP.
The same is true of the all-singing, all-dancing waiters at Johnny Rockets 50s-style diner up on deck 11. A couple leave after their meal and a waiter sings "everybody say 'bye'", to which five others sing "bye". They also perform The Twist every time the Chubby Checker song comes on. A low cover charge of $5.95 gets me The Original beef burger, a bowl of onion rings and a bowl of fries. I add a Cherry Coke and a chocolate sundae and can barely move after attempting to finish it to the sounds of Elvis, Del Shannon and the Shirelles.
My cabin has begun to feel like home by this point, but I am disembarking in Port Hedland - and that process is smooth, with a welcome awaiting me.
- fact file *
·A revitalised Voyager of the Seas will return to Australian waters in December. A 16-night cruise departing Sydney for Fremantle on March 16, 2015, visiting New Zealand, Melbourne and Adelaide costs from $1765.62 per person for an inside cabin. royalcaribbean.com.au and travel agents.
Niall McIlroy travelled on Voyager of the Seas as a guest of Royal Caribbean.