Hola y bienvenido a bordo.” The voice was pure Antonio Banderas – a husky Spanish drawl where he rolled every word around on his tongue before spitting it out like a furball. His outfit was something straight out of a dressing-up box – knee-high leather boots and a floppy hat complete with feather.
Next to him stood his best friend – a giant green ogre. “Why are they dressed like that?” my five-year-old daughter demanded. “Is it a fancy dress party – why didn’t you let me come as a princess?”
I’d spent weeks preparing for this moment, packing jackets in case it became chilly, sundresses for when it was warm, pretty gowns for dining in style, and enough outfits to dress a family of 10 rather than just me and my little girl.
But, to be honest, I didn’t have a clue what to wear for a pre-sail party with Puss in Boots, Shrek and the other DreamWorks characters on the top deck of a cruise ship in Barcelona, Spain.
Luckily a blast from the Liberty of the Sea’s funnel stopped my daughter dwelling on her need for a costume, and along to Madagascar’s I like to move it, move it, we headed out of dock for the start of our five-day Western Mediterranean cruise on board Royal Caribbean International’s luxury liner.
We’d left my husband and son behind in Dubai to come away on a girls-only break, taking in Spain’s second-biggest city; France’s Cannes, and Italy’s La Spezia and Rome.
We’d never been on a vacation à deux before, but it was time for some mother-daughter bonding, and what better way to start than by dancing along with some of Anaïs’s favourite movie characters? “Look there’s Alex the Lion,” she gasped, rushing to hold his hand, as he moved it, moved it.
With Barcelona disappearing behind us, it was time to get acquainted with our new home. First stop, our stateroom, which had a porthole, double bed and all the mod cons. “It’s so cute,” Anaïs smiled.
Next, we headed to the kids’ club. There is an entire Adventure Ocean for children aged three and above and because she’s five, my little girl could have double the fun playing with the aquanauts (ages three to five) as well as the explorers (ages six to eight).
The ship is completely geared up for families – there are clubs for toddlers through to tweens and teens – and the kids’ clubs are open from 7am until 2pm, so you can explore the ship without worrying about the little ones.
After registering her, we went for a stroll, watching the sun set over the horizon, while the ship glided through the calm waters of the Mediterranean. All the fresh, salty air helped us work up an appetite, and so we headed to dinner.
Along with the usual buffet-style cafés, there are fine-dining restaurants on board along with speciality eateries (for a small extra charge) – Chops Grille, a steakhouse, the Italian Portofino and American diner Johnny Rockets. Of course, Anaïs wanted to go to the diner, so we downed delicious veggie burgers and chips in the 1950s-setting, complete with booths and a jukebox, and slurped cola floats. “I love this fizzy pudding,” my little girl laughed, sucking every last bit.
Then it was off to The Royal Promenade – a huge shopping avenue with boutiques, shops and cupcake stores – for photos with Madagascar’s Alex, King Julien and Gloria the Hippo. There was no sign of Shrek or Puss in Boots. “They’re probably tired from all their dancing at the party,” Anaïs said as, window-shopping over, I whisked her off to our stateroom.
We had to be up early the next day to see the uber-glamorous Cannes, in the south of France. I wanted to explore the Côte d’Azur, the home of the famous Festival International du Film, but first there was just time for a character breakfast in the Rembrandt Dining Room on Deck 3 with, yes you guessed it, Shrek and Puss. “Why don’t we ever see Princess Fiona?” Anaïs asked, and I shrugged, suggesting maybe she was in the spa asking for a makeover or in the sickbay because she was feeling so green. But my daughter wasn’t listening, she was eager to get off the ship to explore.
We decided to do our own thing, taking in the boutiques, and strolling in the sun of the French Riviera. At five I figured she was too young to go celebrity-spotting or travel too far from the ship, but we could have gone on one of the myriad shore excursions.
Nearby is the principality of Monaco, the second-smallest independent state in the world, where you travel along a portion of the Grand Prix circuit, or we could have ventured a little further afield to the 16th-century Fort Carré, where Napoleon was once imprisoned, or to a perfume factory at Grasse. Instead we bought delicious ice creams and ate them, watching all the glamorous people go by.
Pizza, Pisa and performances
Exhausted – all this fresh sea air is tiring – we ate a filling buffet before taking an early night. We were soon being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship as she sailed along the coast to La Spezia, Italy.
I loved seeing a different view out of my porthole every morning, and couldn’t wait to get a taste of a new country. The Liberty has plenty of kids’ activities even on shore days, so parents can explore on land while the children are safe and happy on board. But I insisted Anaïs come with me – my husband is Italian, after all, and would never forgive us if we didn’t both explore his native country.
Billed as the Gateway to Tuscany and just an hour from Pisa with its famous leaning tower, La Spezia was the perfect venue to try a delicious authentic wood-oven pizza and practise our pigeon Italian. Other shipmates ventured the two hours’ drive to Florence, to see its iconic Duomo, one of Italy’s largest basilicas, and works created by Michelangelo before he headed to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel.
Half way between Pisa and Genoa, La Spezia has grown from a fishing village into an industrial centre overlooking the Gulf of Poets. The area is so beautiful, and there was so much to do. There are 16 shore excursions – from touring inside the legendary Leaning Tower to touring Tuscany – but we were happy making our own fun. That’s the best part of a cruise: you can create your own schedule, and move at your own pace.
We soaked up the sun, and the chic Italian ambiance until it was time to head back to the Liberty and get ourselves shipshape for dinner and Encore, an ice show. We’d heard this was a must-see and arrived early enough to bag good seats.
“What are they going to do?” Anaïs asked as she stared at the ice rink. I tried to explain, but nothing prepared her for the glitzy and triple-salco spectacular of the international cast performing complicated ice routines to music just metres away. We oohed and aahed as they twirled, jumped and triple toe-looped in sync, landing each and every move as we all clapped.
“That was brilliant,”Anaïs said, yawning as we made our way back to our stateroom.
Gladiators and disco fever
At first light I looked out of the porthole, excited. Today we were in Civitavecchia, Rome – the city where I married, and where both my children were baptised. The Eternal City is my favourite and I couldn’t wait to show my daughter where her father had grown up. But where should we start? There was the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Navana – even with my first-hand knowledge it was overwhelming and impossible to fit into just one day.
So out of the 14 excursions, I chose A Taste of Rome for Families, and that’s just what it was – a little glimpse, but it was enough to capture the magic of the world’s most romantic city where fashion, food and football collide. We explored the Leonardo da Vinci museum, saw where the gladiators fought lions at the Colosseum, taking in the major sights all day until finishing off with a gelato at the Piazza Navona.
It was a magical introduction, and sped past even though it was nine-and-a-half hours. I thought Anaïs would be exhausted, but she’d loved seeing her daddy’s home city, and was hungry. So we headed to the Liberty’s Portofino’s where she dined on spaghetti and I feasted on mouth-watering caprese and spinach and ricotta ravioli.
Then I wanted to head off to the Platinum theatre to watch Saturday Night Fever, the ship’s musical. But Anaïs had other ideas. She insisted on going to the kids’ club, so I dropped her off then went alone to see the production. I was glad I did. It was as good as anything I’ve seen on London’s West End and the cast received a standing ovation.
Humming the BeeGee hits of the show, I collected Anaïs late, knowing we were at sea the next day. “What do you want to do first?” I asked her after breakfast, reeling off the list: skating, visiting the full-size boxing ring, the H2O Zone water park, the 200-foot rock climbing wall, golf simulator, flowrider where we could learn to boogieboard or surf, the cinema and photo opportunities with the DreamWorks cast. But she didn’t want to do any of that.
“The kids’ club,” she insisted, and no matter how much I begged she wouldn’t change her mind. So I spent the last day on board alone – soaking up the sun by the pool. I didn’t mind – I had a good book, my factor 15 and the knowledge she was having fun as we sped towards Barcelona. We had just one more night before arriving back in Port so we dined at Johnny Rocket’s again as she loved it so much. Then Anaïs went back to kids’ club for a farewell party and I went to the VIP diamond lounge on Deck 14 to mingle with some adult shipmates.
In a rare moment of total calm, watching the moonlight dance off the black waves, I realised how special a cruise is. In five days we’d visited three countries, seen two shows, made friends with characters from some of the most popular kids’ movies and laughed and eaten our way around the ship. Was our girls-only cruise a hit? It was a total dream.