A Mediterranean cruise promises a hassle-free family holiday with a taste of adventure. Warren Chrismas steps aboard the MSC Splendida.
Our eldest son, Oscar, has a few questions. “Where are we going, Dad? France? Italy? Spain? And how are we getting there? Plane? Boat?” I explain that, actually, it’s all of the above. Only it’s not a ferry like previous family holidays.
“Tomorrow we’ll be on a huge cruise ship with 4,000 other passengers,” adds my wife. “It has swimming pools, restaurants, a theatre, games...”
The eight-year-old squeals and shouts, then does several laps of the lounge. Our youngest – Alex, three, and Dylan, four, – are looking pretty excited too but, of course, have no concept of what a seven-night cruise around the Mediterranean might entail.
Less than 24 hours later and the five of us are sitting in one of the hot tubs near the top of an 18-deck, £440m cruise ship named MSC Splendida. Soon we’ll be leaving Marseilles to sail overnight to Genoa, followed by days at Civitavecchia, near Rome, Palermo in Sicily, Valletta in Malta, a day at sea and then Barcelona, before completing the circle.
It’s basically an extravagant lap around the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. But first there’s the formality of the safety briefing and then a rather formal dinner where black tie is recommended.
Thankfully, other nights have more relaxed-sounding dinner themes, such as “informal” and “60s-70s-80s”, but we mostly opt to have all meals at fairly regular times in the La Reggia restaurant. The food is excellent, and the service is too.
We also grow highly familiar with the strains of Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s Time to Say Goodbye, which is broadcast across open decks each time the ship departs – typically around 6pm. It sticks in my head throughout the holiday.
But, of course, the scenery is ever-changing. Each stop-off offers a new blank page for adventure with one all-important caveat: get back on the ship before the late afternoon deadline.
At Genoa, we take a half-day organised tour to an excellent aquarium. We reach it on a small pleasure boat, which is a little odd, as it’s easily within walking distance.
Still it’s a fun little trip and for us day-one cruise virgins, there’s something reassuring about getting off – and back on – our ship by following a lady holding a numbered paddle.
Of all the stop-offs, Rome has the most obvious potential, but it’s 50 miles away from the port at Civitavecchia. We’re not fans of long coach rides, so we travel by double-decker train, hopping off at San Pietro station to cut the journey time to less than an hour.
We spend some time at St Peter’s Square and enjoy an authentic Italian lunch (literally: pizza, pasta and ice cream) at an undistinguished cafe before taking in the Colosseum. I attempt to give a rudimentary history lesson to the boys (“It was the Wembley Stadium of its day”) but my audience is largely unmoved.
Malta is a joy. The walled city of Valletta is picturesque, laid-back and very easy to get to. We pass time lapping up the sun, looking in shops and eating ice cream, and very much enjoy a close-up view of the midday gun salute and the view across the gorgeous bay.
After a lazy start, we don’t get around to disembarking at Sicily, which I guess you can take as an endorsement of the ship’s facilities and entertainment. The day at sea flashes by too.
The kids join in a cookery class, try the junior ten-pin bowling lane and watch older kids on the Ferrari F1 simulator. My wife tries salsa dance lessons, while I make use of the half-decent wi-fi to catch up on emails and football scores.
And we spend more time in the hot tub and soaking up some sun, with Oscar running to the bars to order fruit smoothies and “dirty banana” shakes. There are splash areas and adult-depth pools, but, disappointingly, nothing in-between for children.
We made some use of the creche, but can’t report on what happened. Apparently, what goes on in kids’ club stays in kids’ club.
Oscar’s favourite trip was the coach tour of Barcelona and, in particular, the behind-the-scenes look at Camp Nou. Apparently to an eight-year-old boy, a modern football stadium is significantly more interesting than a crumbly old amphitheatre. Who knew?
I guess it’s unrealistic to expect young kids to appreciate history and culture, but it will no doubt add a bit of context to future school lessons. And, besides, they had a whole lot of fun at sea.
All too soon, it really was “time to say goodbye”, with our heads full of new memories – and that Sarah Brightman song.
Warren Chrismas was a guest of MSC Cruises (msccruises.co.uk) which offers an eight-day trip on the MSC Splendida, embarking from Marseilles, Genoa or Civitavecchia also calling at Palermo, Cagliari, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia, from £829pp (two sharing).