NEW Year's Eve has come early.
With mojito and frozen margarita cocktails in hand, we leave behind evening melodies with the multi-instrumentalist duo Apassionado in the Wheelhouse Bar and find ourselves in a scene reminiscent of a swank New York party on a Hollywood movie set.
But instead of counting down the ball drop in Times Square, we are counting down the balloon drop in the Atrium aboard Sun Princess near the end of a 14-night return cruise from Brisbane around New Zealand's north and south islands.
For the best part of an hour, the four levels of the mid-ship central hub and grand staircase have glowed even brighter than usual as passengers in their formal night attire fill every spare spot on the marble dancefloor, line the gold-trimmed balustrades and hug every vantage point to feel part of the noisy excitement.
Amid the Christmas decorations of fairy lights and holly wreaths, dinner suits with bow ties and sparkling black and silver gowns bounce up and down to the feel-good hits from the Calypso singers of duo Extreme under artificial palm trees.
Now, the moment has arrived.
From wide-eyed teens to 80-year-old groovers, we shout as one and our combined voices fill the spectacular void.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
At the top of the Atrium on Deck 8, crew members untie the ropes of the net strung across the vast expanse to release the cachet of colour.
Hundreds of balloons fall like confetti - gracefully, as if in slow motion, on to the heads of three decks of party goers.
Like children at a five-year-old's birthday party, the smiling faces begin punching, squeezing and patting the balloons, resulting in a cacophony of popping with the demise of each one to a rubbery splatter.
Someone points out the trio of 50-somethings having the time of their lives in their own private soiree inside a glass panorama elevator. With their elevator floor covered in balloons, the three sing and bop in full view of the gathering as they travel up and down from deck 5 to 8 and back. For one night, they are 20 again.
The Atrium party rages on past the midnight bewitching hour as the 77,441-tonne ship powers home to its Brisbane base.
For many, this is the last hurrah of their trip. Tomorrow night may necessitate packing and getting a good night's sleep for disembarkation and their flights or drive back to reality - a home that doesn't come with the cabin steward to do your cleaning up, minus the table and sun-lounge service for drinks, and without a platoon of chefs creating gastronomic pleasures at your request at every meal or snack time.
Our night had begun nearly five hours earlier at the same location midship at Captain Graham Goodway's farewell cocktail party.
The traditional champagne waterfall had been postponed from earlier in the cruise due to rough weather but the calmer seas as we crossed the Tasman Sea on the final leg proved more conducive to stacking hundreds of glasses in the shape of a translucent pyramid. With the help of maitre d'hotel Beppe Castino, "Monica from Brisbane" took the honours of being the first passenger to stand atop a platform to pour champagne into glasses at the apex.
A procession of passengers posed for the camera as they helped the liquid gold overflow into the lower levels of the glass tower.
As we awoke to this day at sea, we may have lacked the inner excitement that comes from anticipating what lay ahead on a day ashore.
After all, we had experienced some amazing aspects of New Zealand on shore excursions - from witnessing a cultural welcome from the Maori people and the natural phenomena of Te Puia geysers to the relaxing and invigorating qualities of Polynesian Spa hot springs in Rotorua, to an array of world-class wines in Hawke's Bay, and to the wow factor of tiny glow worms in the Waitomo Caves and the magnificent cottage garden and country hospitality of Crosshills Dairy Farm.
But just looking back on a day spent entirely around the ship was exhausting, after participating in only a small fragment of the full activity program.
We had ordered smoked salmon bagel and poached eggs in the Regency dining room for breakfast, and looked for bargains at the diamond and gemstones sale in the Reflections boutique, before taking notes at the culinary demonstration from executive chef Norbert Sommerhalter in the Vista Lounge.
We had been manipulated in the nicest possible way during our hot stones and Swedish massages in the Lotus Spa, failed dismally at the afternoon quiz and snowball jackpot bingo, and dined on a vegie burger from the Terrace Grill with Bon Jovi who was Live in Chicago on the Movies Under the Stars big screen.
We had plodded through 18 holes on the golf simulator, stumbled upon the whacky double carpet bowls where the ship's motion helps or hinders the roll-up, and melted at the sight of a delicate swan during a demonstration by an expert ice carver.
We had dined on delicious dishes including roasted pheasant in pan juices and lobster tail with king prawns - with our Marquis Dining Room steward Johnathan Laxa even peeling off the shells - and caught the final performance of the Sun Princess singers and dancers' British Invasion production in the Princess Theatre.
So by midnight, we were more than ready to retire to our balcony state room to catch the last bit of Jane Eyre on an in-house movie channel.
We turned out the light to fall asleep to an almost full moon glistening on the water.
The colourful day was over and, just like the balloons, our energy was spent.
Join the excitement of the captain's cocktail party on your own cruise on Sun Princess from Brisbane.
For more information, visit Princess.
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