Are you a backpacker or flashpacker who is considering going on a cruise? Ever wondered if cruising would suit your travel style? I have. When asked to go off on a cruise, I resolutely said: “no way mate, cruising is not my style”. Only to have the phrase, “don’t knock it until you have tried it” thrown in my face. Thrown when I scorned and looked down my nose at the idea of going on a cruise.
Cruising was not for me I swore and declared without ever going on a cruise. I just couldn’t imagine that I would like it, being cooped up in a giant floating hotel with hundreds of other people. With all my food and activities included in the price, free-flowing alcohol and water slides. And let’s not forget about the massages and theatre evenings. I mean c’mon, who wants to be pampered all day long.
The shore excursions would be the worst, or so I imagined. I had stayed in towns that were visited by cruises in the past. When the ship unloaded a thousand people into the town to be ripped off by the locals who inflated their prices just for the hours that the ship was in town. After only one short day in the place, its back on the boat to be carried off to the next amazing location. No dragging your luggage around. No dealing with haphazard public transport systems. Just eating a nice dinner at the end of a day and travelling while you slept.
As you could see, in my mind, there was nothing to like about cruising. So naturally, I had to prove my point. I booked a cruise to New Caledonia. 8 days and 9 nights aboard the Carnival Spirit, which left from Sydney to tour the islands of Mare, Isle of Pines and Noumea.
Planning to go on a cruise as a backpacker
As a backpacker, I am always looking at the monetary value of things. This doesn’t mean I necessarily go for the cheapest option (though from time to time I do that as well), but I look for the best opportunity to get bang for my buck. Flights are a perfect example of this, there could be a dirt cheap flight that takes 42 hours to reach my destination or one for $200 more that only takes 20 hours. I think 20 hours of my time is worth $200 so clearly I am going to go with that flight. On the flip side when looking at places to eat, is $60 to eat at restaurant a better food experience than the $5 spent on street food. 9/10 times the street food wins. It’s all about value.
When I was booking the cruise I weighed up how much it would cost me if I were to fly to New Caledonia for a week. (If you want some tips on how I create a perfect trip itinerary check out this blog post) I discovered that a cruise was relatively comparable in price even if I was backpacking. New Caledonia may be beautiful, but it isn’t a backpackers haven (yet). The cheapest accommodation options are camping sites. There were forums that indicated that there are also hostels on the islands, but I couldn’t find any websites to view the prices.
When you tallied up your food, accommodation and transport costs the cruise actually worked out to be great value. What’s more the process of booking and choosing your cabin was smooth and easy. Having used many different sites to book flights over the years, it made a refreshing change to not have any hidden costs when I reached the checkout page. Then that was it, in the space of one evening, everything was booked and paid for. Very different from the weeks I normally spend research and price checking for an upcoming trip.
If I am honest, I was at a loss. A huge part of the thrill of a trip is the planning (call me weird, I don’t care). What was I going to do in the lead up to the trip other than day dream about sandy beaches and cocktails…
What was it like going on a cruise as a backpacker
Check-in was a breeze
A month or so before I was due to depart, I was advised that I could check-in online and set up my account etc. I promptly jumped on to do so (as it was the closest I could get to doing some trip organising). Cruise companies have this process down to a fine art, within a few short minutes I had submitted my passport information and set up my onboard credit account (so I wouldn’t have to carry money with me while on the ship). Then I had the pleasant task of browsing the many services that I could partake while on the boat. I decided to book in for the fancy restaurant for my first night as I was a little nervous about attempting the “group” dining experience.
As part of the check-in process, I was given a time for when we could board the boat. Nice and simple.
When I arrived at the ship and saw the crowds milling around, I prepared to dig deep into my very small well of patience for the inevitable lines I would have to wait in. Just as I have to do every time I walk through an airport. There is literally nothing I hate more than someone who doesn’t have their passport out and ready, who holds everyone up by rummaging around at the very bottom of their bag for their documents. C’mon people, you know they are going to ask you for your passport!
What surprised me most was how smooth and quick the system was. There was nearly no waiting in line as there were so many service desks. What’s more, the customs and immigration officials were lovely. They smiled at me and wished me a great holiday. I have literally never, in my whole life of air travel, had one single immigration officer smile at me. Clearly, those working the cruise desk have a better cliental to liaise with than the airport crew.
Once on the ship, I was directed to relax until my cabin was ready. That meant heading to the bar for a beer while looking out at the harbour bridge. However, the excitement was too much for me, as soon as the allocated room ready time came around, I sprinted for my cabin. Outside of my cabin was my “Sign and Sail” card. This is effectively your identification, money and door key in one small piece of plastic. This is literally the only thing you need for the whole time you are aboard the ship.
So there I was, in my cabin. From arrival at the port to gaining access to my cabin had taken no more than 45 minutes. Check-in complete!
First day aboard the cruise ship
This was the hardest day for me. I was simultaneously excited and also completely out of my depth. Cruising has its own rhythm and cadence that I didn’t yet understand. I guess backpacking does too, but as I know that one I don’t feel it. What made it worse was that nearly everyone around me knew what they were doing, this wasn’t their first rodeo (or cruise). I also had anxiety about getting sea sick, I was so concerned that I think I made myself feel a little queasy that first night out of nerves alone.
Once I had checked out my cabin and unpacked my belongings, there was a safety briefing. By pure chance, I had stationed myself near the exit. This was a good thing because as soon as the briefing ended I was able to escape the masses of people and secure a great spot at the back of the boat. Why the back of the boat you ask? Because that way you can watch your home city disappear into the sunset.
Lying in my cabana drinking a margarita as the sunset over Sydney was one of the most magical moments of the whole trip. It was a moment full of promise and relaxation. It was also my last precious moments of wifi… as soon as we were out in open water, I lost reception. I was cut off. My only entertainment and contact would now have to be found on the floating hotel.
In the evening, a program for the following day was dropped off at my cabin. This was a mine of information on things to do. Clutching it closely, I took off to explore the ship and see what was what. My first stop was to see what food options there would be, everything was covered, from burgers to tacos. I sussed out the spa and booked in a manicure for the next morning. I checked out each of the pools to work out which ones would get the best sun but also not be swarmed by children (there was a fantastic adult only deck). Then I headed down into the lower decks, which is where the casino and shops were held. The casino wasn’t of interest to me, except as a people watching exercise. Over the following week I was surprised at the non-stop gambling that was taking place.
My favourite place was at the art store. This is a unique experience to the ship I was on, but I was instantly in love. There were a number of projects hanging up around the room with sign-in sheets. I instantly signed up for two classes over the coming sea days.
That night I had dinner with my partner in the fancy restaurant. The food was amazing and the service was fantastic, and it was so much cheaper than if I had eaten out at a pub in Sydney. Seriously.
Sea days aboard a cruise ship as a backpacker
The sea days were a challenge for me. I am not very good at “switching off” both from technology and from being active. The first day, I managed to squeeze in everything including, a manicure, a gym session, some cocktails, pool sunbathing time and an art class. Though, that was the last art class I did – I loved the idea and the teacher was great. But I was the only adult who participated… although the sign had said for all ages, it was clearly a children’s activity.
Other days, I managed to catch up on some much-needed rest. I generally got up to watch the sunrise over the ocean… even if that just meant opening our curtain at 6 am. I would take afternoon naps or morning naps by the pool in a sun chair. I would eat when I was hungry and drink when I felt like partying. There were a lot of activities, but if I am honest by the end of every day I was so exhausted that I was asleep by 9 pm and missed most of the shows and performances.
My final sea day, on the way back to Sydney, was the only time I went a little crazy. After all, there is only so much lounging around, eating and drinking a person can do before even relaxed debauchery becomes too much. This was also the only day that I felt a little seasick which may have added to my frustration at being on the ship.
What was the food like on the cruise
Overall the food was great. In particular, the fancy restaurant was some of the best food I have ever had. The buffet was also really good, and I often ate there instead of in the dining room. Two reasons for this, our dining time was 7:45, which meant that I was usually so hungry that I had hit the hangries… and no one wants that. The other reason was that the dining room menu was very safe – steak, schnitzel, pies etc. Whereas the buffet menu had so much variety. In particular, the curries were amazing!
I wished we had gone to the dining room more as I really liked our servers. However, as I mentioned, I was starving by 7:45 pm. Also, our table was shared with two other couples. This is designed so that you make friends and be sociable. On a cruise, I am not a sociable person. The thought of having a sit-down dinner with strangers I had never met, horrified me. We were lucky and the two nights we went the other couples didn’t show, but it created a lot of anxiety about going again on the other nights.
I wasn’t a big fan of the breakfast selections, I felt that there could have been a juice and smoothie bar. Or at the very least some healthy options for breakfast that wasn’t just muesli. I know that part of my problem is that being an Australian we have high standards for breakfast. Anyone who has spent time here knows that breakfast is a meal that we do really well. The cruise ship was American, and their breakfasts just can’t compare sadly.
What were the shore days like for a backpacker
On each of the shore days, I was one of the first off the boat, and one of the last back on. I wanted to maximise my time in these beautiful places. There were others we spoke to who didn’t even bother going ashore, for them, the cruise was the destination. Not me though, this was a chance for my backpacker skills to shine. It was ridiculously easy to check out of the ship and get onto the shore, and even easier to get back on board. I can honestly say that this ease of doing things was one of the highlights of the cruise.
Our day on this island was our only day with sunny weather. Arriving first at the beautiful secluded beach I was blown away by the natural beauty and stunning water. The shore was also lined with local stalls that sold everything from beer to lobster tail. We spent a blissful morning snorkelling around, enjoying the natural wonder. However, by lunch time the serenity was non-existent. With over 1,000 cruise ship passengers now spread over the pristine sands. It was at this point that my partner suggested that we go for a walk, to see what was around the next headland. Off we went.
Within a hundred metres of leaving the beach, we were on a road surrounded by dense rainforest. We decided to walk for 20 minutes, and if we found nothing to turn back. Right on the 20-minute mark, the road opened out to another beautiful beach. Only this one was completely deserted. I also thought it was more beautiful.
The two of us ran down onto the sand and just stood there basking in the beauty. Suddenly, my partner grips my arm and points to the water. “Is that a turtle?” Sure enough, there was a medium sized turtle frolicking around in the shallows. We just stood there in awe. Later when I went for a snorkel, I saw not one, but two turtles skipping between the corals. I have definitely added Mare to the list of places I need to come back and explore in much greater detail.
Isle de Pins (Island of Pines)
Named after the stunning pine trees that jut out over the cliffs and across the aqua water, this island is considered one of the great beauties to New Caledonia. Unfortunately, when we got off the ship it was pouring down with rain. Spending the day lying on the beach didn’t look to be an option. Instead, I had read in my Lonely Planet (because there is never an excuse not to do your research) that some of the hotels would rent bikes. Within 10 minutes we had found some bikes and were off on the road to explore the island.
The rain wasn’t constant, but rather a burst of drizzle every now then which was quite pleasant as there were a lot of hills to cycle up. The views we got as we toured the island were amazing, and like nothing, I could have seen if I had just stayed near the cruise ship drop off point. However, the map we had was not accurate at all, it detailed roads that just weren’t there. We ended up cycling double the distance we had intended, ending up at a stunning secluded cove.
You could only reach the cove by wading through the river inlet, but once there it was phenomenal. Even on a cloudy overcast day, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. What we hadn’t been prepared for was not being able to find food or water on the island as everything was closed due to it being Sunday. There were some stalls open near the cruise drop off spot, but that was a two-hour cycle behind us. Rookie mistake. The backpacker in me would never leave the hostel without water and maybe a sneaky snack in case the food was too expensive.
After our massive day of cycling on the Isle of Pines, we decided to take it easy when we reached Noumea. Once again, I was first off the ship, which was great as there was a local weekend market taking place. Being there early meant that we got to look at everything before the crowds hit. I grabbed a beautiful watercolour painting of Maree that I plan on framing one day. We also grabbed a baguette and a venison rillet for a beach picnic later. At the passenger terminal where the cruise ship had dropped us off, we were able to buy some “hop on hop off” bus tickets which would take us to the beach.
At the beach, we were a little put out by the continued raining drizzle. However, the warm temperature meant that it was still nice enough to go snorkelling. We decided to catch a boat taxi out to Cannard Island, which was just off the beach we were on. If we had organised to do this from the cruise ship it would have cost us $160pp but by doing it ourselves we paid $20pp. A great saving in my mind! Once on the island, we also splurged to get a chair with an umbrella because of the rain. The island was complete with bathrooms and a bar, so you could sit back and enjoy yourself without any worries.
I went off snorkelling and was blown away by how many fish there were. It was one of the most densely populated marine habitats that I have seen outside of the Great Barrier Reef. We decided to leave the island a little early to grab a bite to eat at one of Noumea’s famous French bistros. We found a beautiful one that was situated right on the water that specialised in hot rock cooking… Little did we know that means we were handed a hot rock and were supposed to cook our own meat. We should have guessed, it’s in the name.
Pros of going on a cruise as a backpacker
- The ease and efficiency of every aspect of your holiday
- No waiting in lines or for buses, no cranky immigration personal or rude hostel owners.
- Getting back on the boat after a long day of sightseeing and having your meal ready and a hot shower
- Paying for pretty much all of your food up front
- Delicious food, including wagyu beef and lobster tail
- The affordability and value for money – it is actually very reasonably priced
- The customer service – everyone was super nice and friendly
- The lounge chairs next to the open water
- Balconies with private sunrise/sunset views
- Free poured cocktails
- Disconnecting from the internet (you could pay a huge amount to be connected, I was a cheapskate and just went without)
Cons of going on a cruise as a backpacker
- Not having long enough at the locations – I could have spent a week on each of the islands we stopped off at
- The food was delicious but short on fresh vegetables, I got very tired of overcooked greens
- Not being able to go off an do something, ANYTHING else when on a sea day – because you are in the middle of the ocean
- Forced group dinners
- Overpriced shore excursions
- Overpriced spa treatments
- Lots of people, around you, all the time. ALL THE TIME
Should you go on a cruise
I am a firm believer that you shouldn’t make judgements based on assumptions. So if you think a cruise isn’t for you, then you should go on one to discover the truth. I discovered that there were some amazing aspects to cruising that made everything so much easier. Am I going to become a cruiser? No. But that isn’t to say that I wouldn’t consider going on another someday (though one with fewer sea days).