Despite the stereotypes and a fear of cabin fever, Leigh-Ann Pow embarks on a European cruise with her 10-year-old daughter to find one of their greatest family holidays to date…
It wasn’t the stereotypes that had put me off the thought of going on a cruise, for, well, my whole life to date.
Of course I’d heard them. Everybody has heard them: cruise ships are like mobile retirement villages saturated with the smell of Tiger Balm and mothballs; cruise ships are floating dance parties where music and mischief are rife; cruise ships are incubators for tummy upsets and ill advice assignations.
For me, though, it was more the thought of being confined to the one place for weeks with no option of escape apart from swimming for the horizon.
I like to have choices, variety and a plausible exit strategy. And those things become even more important once ‘holidays’ become ‘family holidays’.
The thought of two weeks of “I’m bored” and “My iPad is out of charge and I can’t find the universal adaptor”, and the dreaded “Are we there yet?” is enough to fill any parent’s heart with an icy fear.
But then the Mediterranean was mentioned and the lure of Venice, Dubrovnik, Montenegro, Corfu, the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Tuscany, Monte Carlo and Marseille proved too strong to say no to.
The list of destinations would take 12 days to navigate, including two whole days at sea (I made a mental note to pack two universal adaptors).
Our ship would be Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam (hollandamerica.com) with a capacity of 2671 cruise lovers, one sceptical magazine editor/mother and one excited 10-year-old named Ruby.
We had spent two days in Venice before our official departure date, wandering the narrow cobbled streets, eating pasta and generally soaking it all up like sponges.
Unfortunately I did most of these things in the same trousers I had flown from Sydney in due to the airline losing our luggage somewhere between Dubai and Venice (Ruby was decked out in a selection of pink striped Venezia souvenir T-shirts and dresses).
With our luggage returned and our water taxi waiting, we head down the Grand Canal to join the ship at the Venice Cruise Terminal.
Check-in was speedy and effortless, Ruby was given a green wristband (kid’s club perhaps?) and we were directed onboard to find our cabin, which is light and bright, with a small but very functional bathroom, beds, a seating area and generous balcony.
There’s also heaps of wardrobe space, all the better to make full use of one of the drawcards of cruising – unpacking once! Later in the day we find out what the wristband is for: it’s Ruby’s life boat colour and number, to be worn at all times.
I think she might have preferred the kid’s club.
After sailing out of Venice in the late evening, we wake up the next morning to an endless vista of blue Adriatic Sea and sky.
It is pristine and peaceful and there is nothing to do but slow down; nowhere to be but here.
I have to admit that I thought Ruby would be over the whole sea thing by 10:45am tops (the well-stocked buffet with its pick-and-mix choices would keep her amused until then, at least), but I had underestimated a child’s capacity to find fascination in the new.
We played table tennis, we borrowed books from the library, we played Monopoly, we went swimming, we ate lunch by the pool and ordered the first of many fruit punch.
We talked and we laughed and we admired the view and we ate and, eventually, we slept.
The day seemed to be twice as long at sea as it is back home, but in a totally good way.
Throughout the entire cruise we never get tired of going to bed each night surrounded by endless nothing and then waking up the next morning to a new city and the promise of new experiences.
Dubrovnik is bustling with late summer tourists taking in the grandeur of the architecture inside the walled city.
We wander up narrow staircases and watch the locals go about their business amongst the souvenir-buying and endless picture-taking on mobile phones.
Every now and then we come across an old lady sitting and embroidering intricate patterns on linens, which are laid out on display for purchase.
Back on the ship, we slip out of port as we settle in for the night, choosing one of the myriad dining options on board and dropping off to sleep, spent after a full day of wonder.
The next morning we pull back the curtains to be greeted by a view of the rugged, tranquil coastline of Montenegro as the sun starts to bathe it with early morning light.
Today we will anchor off the coast and take a tender to the ancient walled city of Kotor (this is done in the ship’s lifeboats), where thousands of stairs wind up the steep hills as part of the old fortifications.
We decide against this in favour of strolling the higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets, which open into quaint little squares lined with cafés.
There are stray cats everywhere inside Kotor’s walls, languishing in the sunshine or searching out food on the car-free streets.
We stumble upon the Maritime Museum with its collection of seafaring memorabilia, including full rooms of furniture once owned by some of the captains who worked the waters of the Mediterranean hundreds of years ago.
Back outside the narrow city gates we have lunch at a resolutely modern white-box-of-a-café, which sits in contrast to the old stone walls just metres from our table.
The sound of car engines and horns are another reminder that we are back in the 21st century.
Breakfast on the ship is a bustling affair as our fellow passengers ready themselves for the latest destination to magically appear after a restful night of sailing – today the Greek island of Corfu awaits.
With everyone effectively in the same place at the same time, it is easy to get an insight into the demographic onboard.
While the majority would tick the 60 and over box, there are also young couples and lots of families including a genetically-blessed Chilean family of nine whose childrens’ ages range from the mid-twenties to just four, and who are inseparable throughout the cruise, apparently revelling in each others’ company.
We head into Kerkyra and discover a city of wide parks, colonnaded walkways and criss-crossing streets, with an impressive old fort looking out to sea.
The streets are lined with endless shops selling everything from sea sponges and shells to handmade Greek sandals and colourful traditional footwear crowned with pom-poms at the toes.
As we wander, we talk about what DVD we will watch in our cabin later that night (we have started a tradition of watching a new DVD each night after dinner from the hundreds that are available on board).
The next day is at sea as we cross the Adriatic on our way back to Italy.
It was these days I was apprehensive about before the cruise but these are actually the ones we enjoy the most, being in each other’s company and not having to do much of anything.
We have dinner in the main restaurant, The Manhattan Room, in the evening and head back to our room where the beds have been turned down and the next day’s itinerary has been left to peruse.
I open the curtains to our balcony to be greeted by the hulking form of the volcanic island of Stromboli filling the windows, a glowing river of lava visible on its side.
It is an amazing site, which we stand and wonder at as we slowly float past.
I tell my daughter the story of how I climbed this very volcano once, long before she was born.
The next morning we have an early start from Naples, boarding the bus for our trip to the Amalfi Coast town of Sorrento and then an afternoon at Pompeii.
The bus snakes its way along the vertiginous hillside roads with their uninterrupted views out to sea, finally descending into Sorrento by mid-morning.
After days spent wandering at our own pace, the time-conscious scheduling of today’s tour is a tad confronting.
We spend a short time strolling the bunting strewn streets of this pretty towns before an organised lunch and then back on the bus for the drive to Pompeii.
By the time we get there, thanks to the late summer traffic, we only have a few precious hours to see the ancient ruins, trapped in time by the eruption of the menacing Mount Vesuvius.
The port of Civitavecchia is the launch-pad for our trip to Rome, an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, traffic permitting; two-and-a-half hours later we arrive at the Villa Borghese and are let loose on the city.
We make a beeline for the Colosseum (what else), first strolling through the mammoth Piazza del Popolo and down the wide shopping thoroughfare of Via del Corso.
It’s hot and we stop for gelato along the way before the crumbling walls of the amphitheatre start appearing between buildings.
Standing at its base craning our necks to take in its size, we have a mother/daughter moment: she will always remember the first time she saw the Colosseum and she will always remember it was with me.
We take in The Forum and the statues of various caesars before lunching on pizza. Back on the bus, a mere few hours later, we resolve to avoid tours for the rest of the journey and go it alone from now on.
Livorno is the gateway to Tuscany, so most of our fellow passengers jump on buses to head off into the countryside as soon as they alight.
We decide to wander around this rather nice town, checking out the local food markets and the town square before jumping on a train to Pisa.
Less than half-an-hour later we are standing in the heart of the medieval town, which is absolutely stunning and something that I have never heard anyone mention.
The city has a compelling past of maritime prosperity and bitter conflict. The Medici family invested a lot of money here in their time and the result is a gorgeously preserved town, resplendant with imposing buildings on wide squares and close-packed stacked houses over covered cobbled footpaths.
Even when we get to the tower, I am possibly more impressed by the surrounding buildings, like the intricately constructed Duomo, than by the tower itself, which has earned its fame due to its comical gait.
Arriving at Monte Carlo harbour as the sun creeps into the sky is a very nice way to start the day in Monaco.
We have been told to head straight to the nearest bus stop and buy a ticket to Nice if we want to see anything of note today, but strolling from the harbour towards the epicentre of town at the Casino and Hôtel de Paris, we are struck by how pretty it is here, with the buildings painted in a rainbow of cheery hues and every second car passing us being a bright red Ferrari.
There are a number of attractions to seek out if you are keen – the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco and the Exotic Garden with its millions of succulents – but we are happy to just go this way and that for hours, finally ending up at the divinely opulent Prince’s Palace, the crowning glory of the city.
Of all the places on our cruise itinerary, the southern French city of Marseille was the one I had the least expectations about, having been informed by my Scottish husband, who often holidayed in the south of France as a boy, that it possessed no redeeming features at all.
And the grey skies, lightning and teeming rain that heralded our arrival into port didn’t help my sense of anticipation.
Drenched to the skin after just a few minutes walking around the old town, past the gorgeous but soggy L’hôtel de Ville and the myriad outdoor cafés, we are minutes away from writing the whole city off and heading back to the ship for a day of Monopoly in the library when we glimpse a sliver of blue sky.
An hour later we are climbing the stairs into the old port fortifications, which have been melded with modern steel and wood architecture to create the stunning Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM).
Marseille got a major makeover in 2013 when it held the title of European City of Culture, and the results are quite fabulous.
After the museum, we head over to the gorgeously intricate Cathédral Sainte Marie Majeure, which glows bright in the midday sun, and then onto the small but exquisitely stocked Museum of Provence – complete with an Yves Klein work in his eponymous piercing blue.
Back on the ship, our penultimate night is spent packing our clothes back into our bags.
We arrive into Barcelona at lunchtime the next day and head out to familiarise ourselves with the city we will be staying in for the next three nights – Las Ramblas, the Barri Gotic and the bustling Plaça de Catalunya.
That night the ship seems quiet – people have already started leaving to catch flights back to wherever it is they have come from.
We sit at dinner and decide that we might just have had the best holiday ever, one that we would never have been able to experience if we hadn’t been on a cruise; being ferried to each destination with absolutely no effort on our part; never having to struggle with our luggage; not sitting in airports waiting for flights; never having to figure out where to find a family-friendly restaurant for dinner; never having to wait hours for our room to be ready.
Disembarkation, like everything else Holland America Line does, is run smoothly and efficiently the following day with 2671 passengers, one converted magazine editor/mother and a cruise-adoring ten-year-old named Ruby shuffled off ship and set on their way.