Pulling back the curtains, our inquisitive daughter Isla asked the same question that she asked every morning that week: “Daddy, where are we today?”
“We are near Rome, in Italy,” I replied.
“Oh,” she said, clearly unimpressed. “Can we go on the orange water slide again?”
We spent the day in the Italian capital, and Isla also got her wish later in the afternoon.
And to me this perfectly summed up the beauty of modern family cruising holidays – waking up in a different city each morning with your family and friends, and with the freedom to do exactly what you want with your day ahead.
To many holidaymakers, cruising has long been considered both snooty and expensive. However, thanks to Freestyle Cruising all that has changed.
Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) introduced the concept at the turn of the millennium. And for those not au fait with the idea here goes:
You get on board the ship, you sail to some of the world’s most desirable places, and you do exactly what you want with whom you want.
This means there are no set meal times and no formal attire, while you can take in your choice of entertainment, food, refreshment and excursions as and when you desire.
In short, as you are calling the shots, it should be your perfect cruise.
The first port on our week-long holiday was also the city we flew into – Barcelona.
And as soon as we approached the docks on our coach we could see our home for the next seven days – NCL’s gargantuan vessel the Norwegian Epic.
At 155,000 tonnes and more than 305 metres long, the Epic is the third largest cruise ship in the world, and has enough room to cater for 4100 guests and 1700 crew.
It features (among other things) 19 dining areas and restaurants throughout its 17 floors, six ten-pin bowling lanes, a running track, a casino floor to rival any in Vegas, a rappelling wall, an Ice Bar, a full-sized NCAA-approved basketball court, three water slides and five hot tubs in the Aqua Park and the biggest spa at sea – the Mandara.
Throughout the week, no matter how many times we approached the ship, and regardless of our vantage point, we could not help but gasp in amazement at her sheer size and scale.
On board the Epic there is a vast choice of eateries, from the New York City-style supper club the Manhattan Room and the dramatically designed atrium eatery Taste, to the fresh buffet at the Garden Cafe and comforting pub meals at O’Sheehan’s Irish Bar.
There are also several a la carte options, which come at a very reasonable fee, and offer food as good as anywhere around the world.
These include Tuscan-esque La Cucina, Le Bistro French Restaurant, Shanghai’s Noodle Bar and Cagney’s classic American Steakhouse.
The entertainment on board is also first-class. For adults and older children, Blue Man Group and Legends in Concert perform nightly at the Epic Theatre, while Cirque Dinner and Dreams takes place in the Spiegel Tent and there are hilarious turns at the Headliners Comedy Club.
As all parents will vouch, keeping children entertained while on holiday can be a job in itself.
Thankfully, NCL provide a boatload of entertainment to suit youngsters of all ages, and adults can relax in the knowledge their little ones are safe and sound.
There was the playroom and pool play area for our 18-month-old Evelyn, while five-year-old Isla was a regular at the Recess kids club and stage shows featuring her Nickelodeon idols Dora the Explorer, Diego and Spongebob Squarepants.
With all this on board, not to mention the luxurious Balcony Staterooms to relax in, you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend the entire holiday on board the ship.
But this is a Mediterranean cruise and the Epic stopped off at some of Europe’s most beautiful and historical places.
After departing Catalonia and spending a relaxing day at sea, we docked in Naples.
Italy’s third biggest city is a wonderful place to walk around. However, via NCL’s Shore Excursions program, guests can all be taken by bus to the island of Capri, the stunning resort of Sorrento, the Amalfi coast or the legendary buried city of Pompeii.
Next on the Epic’s itinerary was Civitavecchia, a sea port on the Tyrrhenian Sea that acts as an important sea gateway to our favourite destination of the week – Rome.
Following an hour-long train journey through the Italian countryside, the four of us arrived in the Italian capital with time to take in the sights of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Vatican and Trevi Fountain.
During the day, we tried our best to educate Isla about the ancient Romans and their way of life, and the significance of the crumbling buildings in front of her.
I like to think we succeeded to a point, but in the end she was far more interested in tucking into an authentic Italian pizza and gelato at lunchtime.
The next day we docked in the small fishing town of Livorno, where either the NCL or independent shore excursions can take you onto Florence, Pisa and the Cinque Terre National Park.
Then it was on to the south coast of France, where tenders took us into the city of Cannes, home to the world-famous film festival which is held there each May.
This place was dripping with money – and the massive yachts in the harbour, glittering casinos and dozens of designer shops on the seafront were well worth a peek.
The four of us were quite happy walking around Cannes, but other French Riviera resorts such as Monaco, Saint Tropez and Nice are all less than 30 minutes away.
Finally, the Epic docked in France’s second largest city, Marseille, with guests able to go on day trips to the Provence region, before the ship set sail overnight back to northern Spain.
On returning home, Isla ran straight up to her bedroom and used her globe to try and pinpoint which places we had visited during our action-packed week.
Later that day, she settled down with a friend to watch the Alvin and Chipmunks movie ‘Chipwrecked’ (set aboard a cruise liner), and boasted to her pal that she had just spent a week on the same ship as the squeaky rodents.
“Oh well,” I thought. “Her education can wait.”
And as they say – Rome wasn’t built in a day.
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