August 07, 2015

P&O Cruises in the South Pacific - An 80 year tradition

Roderick Eime

Everyone knows that cruising is just about the hottest thing in travel at the moment. It seems everyone is cruising and everyone else just can’t wait to go.

Just these last couple of years, all the big cruise lines have brought bigger and fancier ships down to Australia to cash in on our enthusiasm for the shipboard vacation experience.

Celebrity Cruises have brought the superb Celebrity Solstice, while Carnival has homeported both Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend in Sydney. The respected US brand, Holland America spoiled us with both Noordam and Volendam while you’d like Royal Caribbean Cruise Line have moved a small fleet here with Legend of the Seas going to Brisbane and both beauties, Explorer of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas squeezing into a very busy Sydney.

Old favourites, the luxurious Princess Cruises, have had both Sun Princess and Dawn Princess here for some time. Then there are the many visits by ships on their round the world itineraries like Cunard and Azamara passing through.

But one cruise line stands above all others with their attachment to Australia and that is the 178-year-old Peninsular & Orient Line, known these days as just P&O.

A pioneer of steam ships back in the early 19th century and then known as The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, P&O offered ‘excursions’ to intrepid travellers aboard the mail ships as they completed their rounds to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) and the Mediterranean. The first of these cruises set sail in 1844

Here in Australia P&O pioneered cruises to the Pacific in the 1930s with the classic mail steamers SS Strathaird, Stratheden and Strathallen. Their flourishing pre-war Pacific activities included cruises to Norfolk Island, Noumea, New Zealand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the then New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).

The SS Strathaird, which sailed for P&O from 1932-61, was of similar appearance to the postwar cruise ships such as the venerable SS Himalaya, Arcadia and Chusan and was one of five ‘Strath’ class steamers that served as both jolly tourist ships and sombre troop transports as well as refugee and immigrant ships. That dark chapter spelling a pause to pleasure cruises until 1953 when routes to the South Pacific were resumed. More adventurous travellers could employ the mail routes to travel as far as India, Ceylon and all the way to England via the Suez Canal or Cape Town.

With mail contracts gradually falling more and more to the new jet aircraft, the former mail ships were again returned to pleasure cruising, the milestone being 1968 when SS Himalaya was homeported in Sydney for dedicated cruise itineraries to the Pacific.

When the much-loved former migrant ship Himalaya was retired in 1974, another milestone for the company was achieved with the acquisition of US cruise line Princess Cruises and the abolition of ‘classes’ on cruise ships, something that didn’t sit well with egalitarian Australians.

From that time on, it was onward and upward for P&O including the takeover of rival brand Sitmar, well known as operator of the ‘fun ship’, Fairstar. There were several corporate mergers and demergers, but the most significant one came in 2003 when P&O Australia became part of the massive Carnival Corporation along with ten other cruise lines. Carnival then became the largest cruise company in the world.

P&O still continued to cruise under its own brand, filling a niche in the cruise market that complemented other Carnival brands like Princess, Carnival and even Cunard. ‘Pacific’ named ships Pacific Dawn, Pacific Sky, Pacific Pearl, Pacific Jewel, Pacific Sun and Pacific Star all sailed under the popular leisure brand throughout the ‘noughties’ gaining fans and followers who have since ‘graduated’ to other brands in the massive Carnival fleet as their lives’ circumstances changed, but their love of cruising did not.

Now, as we reach 2015, the level of luxury and technical sophistication of the P&O fleet and the world’s cruise ships in general is at a dizzying height. Gourmet restaurants, spa and beauty salons, water slides, surf simulators and even ice rinks can now be found on cruise ships out of Sydney.

This year P&O will expand its current fleet of Pacific Jewel, Pacific Dawn and Pacific Pearl by two to make five vessels in total operating from Sydney. Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden will move over from Holland America and join the other ‘Pacific fleet’. The former HAL ships, Statendam and Ryndam, each carry a modest 1260 passengers, compared to 2020 aboard the largest P&O ship currently operating out of Australia, Pacific Dawn, which entered service for P&O in 2007.

P&O Cruises Australia have come a long way from their beginnings as part of the oldest cruise line in the world. Today their five ships service a fun, young and family-friendly market on routes to the South Pacific pioneered more than 80 years ago. Australians certainly love cruising and P&O have been there all the way.

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