Onboard Explorer Dream’s inaugural Australian east coast cruise

All week we are teased by a paragraph in the Dream Daily newsletter, urging women to register for an upcoming show – Dream Boys. Advertised as an over-18s performance where “fantasies will come to life” and moves “will melt you down”, we’re all intrigued about this late-night offering at $30 a pop.

I turn up with female pals to a near-empty theatre and take my seat with women of varying ages and a few equally eager young guys. Intriguingly, there’s a couple of middle-aged married men seated by their wives, perhaps on hand to monitor the situation should too many melting moments, ensue.

The show is The Full Monty with massage oil and thumping music – certainly funny in parts, devoid of subtlety and with a brief (pun intended) nod to our nautical whereabouts with a finale involving strategic placement of sailors’ caps.

Explorer Dream, mid-sized and with capacity for 1856 passengers, is the third ship in the Dream Cruises’ fleet. The line made its debut in Asia in 2016 with two brand new ships – Genting Dream and World Dream – and until now has only operated from Hong Kong, China and Singapore.

Unlike its fleet mates though, Explorer Dream is not new. It entered service in 1999 as the Superstar Virgo in the Star Cruises’ zodiac-named fleet. Some Australians may remember it from a 2003 stint in Australia during the Asian SARS crisis, and when it returned in 2015 on a 46-day round-trip from Asia.

As I’d travelled on its sister, Superstar Leo, in 1998, I was keen to get on board and see what changes had been made during its recent US$56 million refurbishment.

Dream Cruises bills itself as “premium luxury”, however, after seven days on the ship’s inaugural itinerary along Australia’s east coast, I feel Explorer Dream has a way to go before hitting the “premium” mark. It does do “luxury” in spades, but that’s delivered when passengers book one of the 42 suites in the newly-created swish enclave, The Palace, where most of the refurbishment money has been spent.

It’s a “ship within a ship” complex, which has become a bit of a thing these days. In Explorer Dream’s case, those who pay for a suite, penthouse or villa enjoy the benefit of a 24-hour concierge, private restaurant, bar, pool and poolside cabanas, alcoholic drinks package, in-room mini bar set-up, private casino, free Wi-Fi and priority lines for embarking, disembarking, elevators and even seating in the show lounge. (Mind you it’s not a great idea to have the front row at the Dream Boys’ gig.)

Those staying in other accommodation experience a bit of a mixed bag – some good aspects and some that Australians won’t keenly embrace.

The main problem is what Americans love to call “nickel-and-diming” – that practice of charging extra for so many things.

On face value Dream Cruises has some excellent fares.

While on board I meet a woman who paid around $650 for her week in an interior cabin, which apparently she scored all to herself without the need to pay a single supplement, and I’ve since heard of cheaper fares through travel agents.

The issue to my mind isn’t the fare variations but the add-ons. Once on board there are a lot of things to pay for, items that most other ships, based seasonally in Australia, provide for free: cakes and biscuits in the coffee shops (yes specialty espresso-style coffees will always cost extra on any ship), pizza slices and all-day use of the kids’ club.

Dream Cruises provides two free hours in the club, after which parents pay $30 to $35 an hour depending on the child’s age, which for those who’ve dreamed of several blissful hours to themselves, sans the ankle-biters, are now looking at quite a bit more for a seven-day sailing.

The big sting, however, is the 18 per cent tip (or gratuity) automatically added to the bill of speciality restaurants meals and to every drink purchased; that’s something that cruise line competitors Princess, P&O, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity don’t do. And just to make things a little confusing, GST of 10 per cent is added to all the above when the ship is docked in Aussie ports (or sailing close to shore) and 15 per cent when in New Zealand, but not added when cruising international waters. I ask staff how they keep track of what to charge and am told there are constant updates from the purser’s office on when to add the Antipodean impost.

On the upside there are three restaurants where all meals are included (Dream Dining, The Pavilion and Lido buffet), plenty of space on the ship and the wide wraparound promenade deck, attractive cabins with good inclusions, excellent shows and plenty of Asian dishes.

The Pavilion specialises in Chinese and I enjoy my first Asian breakfast on a ship, while chefs happily accommodate vegetarians by making separate meals at lunch and dinner. Dream Dining is the best bet for Western breakfasts (with its table service and buffet options), and for multi-course lunches and dinners. Located at the ship’s stern the restaurant has stunning cathedral windows and is furnished with maroon velvet chairs and tables dressed with cream silk tablecloths.

Speciality restaurants offer sushi, sashimi and fun Teppanyaki nights, hot-pot meals, all-day hawker-style snacks, while Australian chef Mark Best is Dream Cruises’ culinary drawcard.

A former Good Food Guide three-hatted chef, Best has restaurants on each of the three ships and travels between them around eight times a year. His al fresco diner on Explorer Dream’s 13th deck is a casual affair rustling up snacks such as salt cod croquettes and lobster and brioche rolls, salads, main of fish and chips, spaghetti with crab and Wagyu burgers and a hearty seafood platters for two. This is the perfect place for lunch or dinner on a balmy night and Aussies will love it.

Entertainment is Explorer Dream’s strong suit and it delivers some slick production shows in the Zodiac Theatre featuring fantastic dancers and talented trapeze artists and gymnasts. The cast also puts on a mini-show in the Grand Piazza, the ship’s central hub, which is a nice touch for those sitting around with a coffee or drink. This area also houses the lobby café, shore excursions desk and reception, while a visiting artist sets up his workshop in one corner to paint portraits. It’s a pity though that the daily bingo and movies are also beamed on the huge screen in this area – surely, these could be moved to the theatre to lessen the noise and set more of a “premium” tone.

Dream Cruises is in its early stages here and cruise line executives say things will be tweaked. Hopefully the line will rethink the food-and-drink gratuities and do away with the policy that allows smoking on cabin balconies.

I do love the different theme parties each night in the Palm Court lounge, the great dance bands and the group and private dance lessons. I have a sneaky suspicion that this is where the Dream Boys cast might be demonstrating their less seductive moves.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

www.dreamcruiseline.com   

CRUISE

Explorer Dream’s first season (which runs until February 2020) includes 7-night Australian coastal cruises from either Sydney or Brisbane; 7-night itineraries from Auckland to various New Zealand ports, and two round-trip cruise from Sydney to Tasmania. The ship departs Sydney for Hong Kong on March 1, 2020 on a 21-night voyage via Gladstone, Cairns, Darwin, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. It returns to Australia next year.

fares from $1217 a person twin share for s seven-night New Zealand cruise.See dreamcruiseline.com

Caroline Gladstone travelled courtesy of Dream Cruises.