An oversized pair of eyes gaze seductively over a bar, lampshades sit atop golden duck's feet, and lifts transport travellers momentarily to Tuscany or Polynesia as they move between decks. The carpeted steps are numbered according to a cryptic code. There's no sign of a buffet.
The launch of two new ships late last year, Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden, revealed a dash of humour and a genie's bottle of design features drawn from boutique hotels, small bars and laneway cafés around the world. In reimagining a "modern Australian style" for the Australian-based cruise line, the president of P&O Cruises Australia, Sture Myrmell, has signalled the latest phase in the transformation of the 84-year-old company. He has also shown that a mid-market, 1500-passenger cruise ship doesn't need to look like a homogenous floating resort.
P&O's new look has been overseen by Myrmell, a Norwegian-born cruise veteran, and a Swedish studio, Tillberg Design. "It's possible we see things in a slightly different light," says Myrmell, born in Bergen and a resident of Sydney for eight years. "Besides, Australians have a phenomenal ability to take the best from around the world and make it their own. We're drawing on that capacity."
The brief for the two new additions to the now five-ship P&O fleet was to create "affordable luxury" in a style that was intimate and residential rather than institutional; contemporary and comfortable rather than generic or formal.
Extensive changes to the ships' public areas (cabins remain largely untouched) have delivered eye-catching features in 15 eateries and 10 bars. Open books sit on tables alongside curios and quirky artworks. Clever design in the main restaurant, the 350-seat Waterfront, creates an illusion of small spaces, and round tables - a long-time cruise staple - have been replaced by banquettes, rectangular tables and communal benches.
Myrmell says the evolution of P&O's design and identity has been "good fun", and describes travelling to Miami and New York, Amsterdam and London, staying in small hotels, people-watching in cafes, picking up ideas, taking notes and exchanging photos with the Tillberg principals.
Another cruise staple, the buffet, has been replaced by a "marketplace" of food stations in which staff make noodles and tacos on demand, flip burgers, toss salads and carve roasts.
The pool, more than any other on-board feature, defines perceptions of luxury, says Myrmell, and so the pool deck and a separate adults-only pool retreat have curtained cabanas, daybeds and lounges.
This raft of changes runs deeper than design. To meet demand for cruise holidays from Australian ports, the line has expanded its itineraries with regular visits to regional centres, among them Eden, Mooloolaba, Portland, Mornington Peninsula, Port Lincoln, Esperance, Cairns, Busselton and Burnie.
This expansion recognises that P&O's competitors are short-break destinations - the Gold Coast, Bali and Fiji among them. "We don't see this foremost as a cruise experience," says Myrmell. "We can deliver a resort experience that's better tailored, better value and easier to access."
When Myrmell, 48, joined P&O Cruises eight years ago, he was already an industry veteran. He worked weekends in hotel kitchens as a teenager and studied law for a few years "but realised that wasn't going to allow me to travel in the way I wanted to". Instead he went to hotel school in London and what was meant to be a short-term job on Cunard's QE2 turned into eight years at sea. He has 22 years' service with a range of lines in Carnival Corporation, the parent of P&O Cruises Australia.
Myrmell says the world's fastest-growing cruise market shows abundant potential, and P&O has big plans. A larger 2000-passenger ship, Pacific Explorer, joins the fleet next year, and an even bigger, 4200-passenger ship will be built specifically to appeal to Australians. To be launched in 2019, it will have double the capacity of the biggest ship currently based full-time in Australia.