South Australia cruise with Vasco da Gama's latest reincarnation

The Vasco da Gama is its third incarnation and cruising the waters of South Australia.
The Vasco da Gama is its third incarnation and cruising the waters of South Australia.

A quick hop around the South Australian coast showcases Vasco da Gama's new lease on life.

The last time I saw this ship was at its christening in Sydney Harbour in 2015, when it joined the P&O fleet as Pacific Eden in a showy naming ceremony. Vasco da Gama is its third incarnation: before it became familiar to thousands of local cruisers as Pacific Eden it was built for Holland America Line and sailed the world as Statendam for 22 years.

But enough of the history - we're on board Vasco da Gama for a four-day round-trip sailing out of Adelaide on the ship's inaugural season Down Under. Despite disturbing 24/7 news coverage about bushfires ravaging much of the country, our excursion-packed itinerary looks promising: Wallaroo, Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln.

I have to admit I'd never heard of Wallaroo before and there are a few variations on what its name originally meant.

A common story says it comes from the Aboriginal wadla-waru, meaning "wallaby urine". That morphed into Walla-waroo, which in turn was shortened to Wallaroo because it was too long to be stamped on wool bales, back when the port was an important trading hub in the mid-19th century.

Our bus driver begs to differ, saying wadla-waru translates as "big sticky kangaroo". And, he informs us when we arrive at the former copper-mining town of Moonta, that its name means "land of impenetrable scrub".

Moonta is one of three small Copper Triangle towns on the Yorke Peninsula, along with Wallaroo and Kadina.

We spend an hour or so wandering around the museum, a handsome 19th-century sandstone building that was the local school until 1968. Its exhibits tell the often tragic stories of tin-miners who emigrated from Cornwall in the 1800s. Cornish traditions are still celebrated today; every other year Moonta holds a Cornish Festival and local bakeries are renowned for their Cornish pasties.

Take in the Moonta mines. Picture: Callum Jackson

Take in the Moonta mines. Picture: Callum Jackson

Next on our whistle-stop bus tour is the boutique Sunny Hill Distillery, set on the Colliver family farm in Arthurton. We sample three of the family's fine "crop to drop" spirits including vodka, but the signature pink gin is voted the favourite; connoisseurs can take home a bottle for $100 a pop.

We move from gin and vodka tasting to wine tasting at Barley Stacks Wines, the first vineyard to be established on the Yorke Peninsula's traditional barley belt. The spacious winery hosts concerts and weddings and our leisurely tasting session includes generous platters of delicious South Australian cheese and homemade chutneys.

Back on the ship we meet Captain Michail Smyrnaios on the bridge. Wallaroo isn't his favourite port because of tricky tidal conditions; if the water is too low, mud can clog the ship's propellers and filters, and ships any bigger than the 1220-passenger, 55,877-ton Vasco da Gama can't get in there.

Kangaroo Island Spirits is a pleasant stop. Picture: Josie Withers

Kangaroo Island Spirits is a pleasant stop. Picture: Josie Withers

There is some discussion about tomorrow's call to Kangaroo Island as news reports about bushfires flood in, but the decision is made to sail that evening for Penneshaw as planned.

At 4.30am, I'm woken by the smell of smoke that's so strong and acrid I'm convinced the ship is on fire.

Of course it's not and as dawn breaks the sky is shrouded in grey smoke coming, we now know, from the catastrophic fires raging on Kangaroo Island.

Captain Smyrnaios announces that we will not be making our scheduled visit, but we will anchor off Penneshaw in case the ship is needed to evacuate islanders and tourists to the mainland. After standing by for several hours we continue on our way to Port Lincoln. The mood on board is sombre and the ship re-opens its bushfire fundraiser.

This unexpected sea day gives us time to explore the ship. Many of the restaurants, bars and lounges will look familiar to P&O cruisers, but CMV has made some interesting changes.

For a start, it created 40 single's cabins, 10 of which have balconies; the line is marketed to adults, couples and solo travellers, rather than families and there are no kids' clubs.

The casino has been reduced in size and opened up to provide comfortable seating and an area for board games; it's on the same deck as the Ocean and Captain's Club bars and shopping gallery.

The Study is a quiet spot for reading, but the whole ship has a restful ambience, even though it's sailing at full capacity.

No-charge restaurants are the Waterfront Classic (for breakfast, lunch and dinner), the dinner-only Waterfront Eurasia and Mediterranean, plus the largely unchanged buffet on Deck 11.

Take a seat at The Grill at least once on your cruise.

Take a seat at The Grill at least once on your cruise.

Specialty restaurant The Grill serves up excellent steak and seafood for a reasonable $49 a head - and there are non-meat dishes on the menu.

Our visit to Port Lincoln is a foodie extravaganza. We are whisked off to Line and Label, a super-stylish restaurant set in the rolling vineyards of Peter Teakle Wines, for an early lunch. Among the stand-out dishes is the beautifully presented Spencer Gulf prawns with wasabi, squid ink and katsuobushi - almost too pretty to eat. And the wines are top-notch, too.

The oyster farm tour in Coffin Bay is another memorable gourmet experience, although quite different to that offered by Line & Label. We don hefty waders and follow our leader, oyster farmer Ben Catterall, to Salt Water Pavilion, an in-water dining area in the middle of the oyster beds.

Learning about the prized molluscs and how to shuck them makes for an entertaining afternoon - and naturally you get to slurp a fair few. These are just a few of the many outings Vasco da Gama offers on its South Australia cruises.

The verdict

Highs

Tea, coffee and kettles are provided in the cabins (why can't all ships do this rather than just British ones?); The Study reading room; 40 dedicated single cabins; no compulsory gratuities.

Lows

Servings at the nine-course Chef's Table are too big for a "degustation" experience; if you're planning to treat yourself to specialty dining, I'd go to the excellent Grill twice at $49 rather than outlay $109 at the Chef's Table.

Best for...

...budget-conscious 40-plus couples and singles. Children are allowed but they are not specifically catered for.

Cruise: In December 2020, Vasco da Gama will depart Adelaide on five cruise itineraries including the four-night Coastal Experience (from $1069 per person) visiting Kangaroo Island and Wallaroo. She will also sail from Sydney to Adelaide over four nights in November (from $1069). In January 2021 there will be 10 sailings from Fremantle.

Explore more: cmvaustralia.com

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