I can see a look of confusion cross my little girl’s face as the glass elevator doors open and two burly men with impressive beards take their place in front of us. She starts reading the words on one man’s tight fitting T-shirt in a loud voice. “Bears on tour. Hot. Hairy. And horny,” she says, her enunciation as impressive as the beards. The packed lift falls silent.
“Daddy, what’s hor . . .”
"Oh look! I think I see Shrek," I shriek, whipping my little reader round to look out at the big crowd gathering near the pool ahead of the first DreamWorks parade of the week-long Royal Caribbean cruise from Barcelona to Naples.
Her attention diverted, I count the seconds until the lift stops. Eventually we reach our level. The doors open and we push through the milling crowd to get a good view of the green ogre, Kung Fu Panda and Puss in Boots, who are all leading the poolside throng on a merry dance.
Ask anyone who’s not been on a cruise to sum up the clientele in a word and the chances are that word will be “old”. While there are older people among the 3,000 or so souls who climb the gangways in Barcelona, the mix is way more eclectic than that.
There are loved-up couples of all ages; families; 300 hairy gay men from across Europe on a bear-themed adventure; and Americans, lots of Americans. It's easy to see the appeal of a European cruise for this well-heeled set. It allows them tick off half a dozen jewels in the Mediterranean crown in a week without dealing with check-in desks, passport control, security or flights. They just climb a gangway and wait for the world to come to them.
And on the Liberty of the Seas they wait in style. It is the second-largest cruise ship in the world, rising to 15 decks, and comfortably accommodates more than 3,600 passengers, served by 1,360 crew. It's 400m long and cruises at 40km an hour.
But such numbers don’t come close to capturing the ship’s scale. It also has a wave generator for surfing, a giant kids’ pool, an adults-only pool area and an all-access pool complex. There’s a full-sized basketball court, an ice rink (seriously!), a gym, a vertiginous climbing wall, top-deck crazy golf and two Jacuzzis projecting out from the sides of the ship. There’ s a giant TV screen floating in the heavens above the main pool, a concert hall, a cinema, and a full-size casino.
When it comes to food, the offerings are equally varied. There's an Asian-themed buffet and an international one, a pizzeria and a Johnny Rockets diner and several very good a-la-carte options across three decks. There's a cupcake shop, a Ben & Jerry's and all manner of bars and cafes serving hot food and snacks. High-end diners are fed in Chops Steakhouse – all dark wood-panelled walls and crisp linen tablecloths – and the very fine Portofino restaurant, which specialises in Italian dishes. With a handful of exceptions, the on-board dining options are included in the cruise price so you can eat all around you without worrying about your wallet. Your waistline is a different story.
As we take a cab from Barcelona to the port where the Liberty of the Seas is waiting, I feel my stress levels rising. For starters I'm afraid we won't be able to find our ship – its portside address seems vague and I'm concerned about getting our luggage on board. We've packed with the care of a wealthy dowager heading across the Atlantic as the 20th century dawned. But wealthy dowagers had staff carrying their belongings up gangways and no excited children clamouring to climb on their shoulders. I've no staff and two clamouring children.
What is stressing me out most is the fear the cruise business won’t be to my liking, that it will be too sedate. Too old.
When we arrive at the quayside, the notion we could miss the Liberty of the Seas seems ridiculous. It's massive. My concern about managing our bags is equally misplaced. As soon as our cab pulls up, porters materialise, take our bags and lead us to a Royal Caribbean desk. In less than five minutes we've gone from cab to cabin in what is the most effortless – even joyful – check-in experience I've ever encountered.
Slowly I start warming to the cruising life. Our cabin is small but brilliant. There’s a double bed, a couch that folds into another double bed, a bathroom and a balcony where grown-ups can sit, sipping wine and be caressed by warm night-time breezes while the not-yet-grown-ups are gently rocked to sleep by the waves.
We've three hours to explore before the boat departs and the first DreamWorks parade starts – Royal Caribbean have a deal with the makers of Shrek and Kung-Fu Panda to cater for the younger set. It sounds cheesy but is very sweet. The animations come to life and appear daily at breakfast and in the evenings. For adults it is a mild diversion. For children it's magical.
We barely make a dent in our exploring before the boat steams out of Barcelona, bound for Marseilles. After that we are to visit Cannes, Florence, Rome and Naples, before heading back to Barcelona.
After dinner on the first night, we return to our room and I steel myself to make up the couch bed for the little people. I’m delighted to find it’s been done by an unseen cabin attendant. The little people are delighted to see their towels have been folded into the shape of a bunny. Each night the unseen attendant crafts a different animal out of towels. And each night it delights the children more.
I’m starting to like the cruise more. There’s something special about getting from A to B and then on to C in opulent luxury, and something almost magical about closing the curtains in the evening without a clue as to what view will be behind them when they are opened in the morning. Sometimes, the view is stunning – as when the ship docks in the Bay of Naples or off the Cote d’Azur and sometimes it’s as drab as was the case when it moored at huge industrial ports miles away from Rome and Florence.
But dreary or dreamy, the views are always different. And that is rather special.
Our second morning finds us in Marseille. We race down for the DreamWorks-themed breakfast or what my better, funnier half calls Shrekfast. The staff dote on my little princesses who stare wide-eyed at Shrek and Princess Fiona as they waddle between the tables.
Never having been in Marseille, I'm mildly interested in seeing that grimy port town, but first we explore the boat. A seasoned cruiser told me this was best done when the ship has divested itself of most of its passengers. And he was absolutely right. A lovely morning is spent swimming in quiet pools and helping ourselves to free ice-cream from a poolside dispensing-machine, after which we go to the Windjammer restaurant. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet paradise, and I do a mean Homer Simpson impression before being rolled out of the restaurant and off the ship.
Rather than taking one of the – expensive – guided tours Royal Caribbean offer, we travel under our own steam. We take a cab into the city centre and wander around the port before stopping for cheese and wine – and ice cream – at a restaurant overlooking the shimmering water.
On the way back to the boat, I’ve a notion. The on-board wine isn’t cheap and one bottle each evening will set two of us back €175 for the week. But a five-litre box of a grand cru (grand in the Irish sense) costs €20 in a Marseille Spar. I’m nothing if not financially savvy so I buy the box and stick it in my rucksack. As an afterthought I add another bottle. I think nothing of my purchases as we walk the plank back up to the boat.
We swipe our Royal Caribbean cards and are asked to pass our bags through an X-ray machine. I’m mildly impressed by the security measures in place until I’m asked by a young woman – in broken English – if I have “liquor” in my bag. I’m genuinely confused. I think she wants to know if I have any spirits so I shake my head. So she hands my bag to a colleague and I get what she’s asking.
The X-ray machine isn’t to stop us bringing bombs on board, but booze. My afterthought bottle of wine is removed from my rucksack. A terribly polite man explains it will be stored for me until the night before disembarkation. He closes my bag and hands it back to me with a smile.
I smile even more broadly as I realise he’s missed my five-litre box. I walk away feeling like I’ve beaten the system. This feeling grows with each sip of my contraband wine on the balcony over the course of the week.
My mini-Midnight Express moment is illustrative of a downside to life on board. The cost of the holiday isn't cheap for starters but some of the add-ons – including the tours and the onboard alcohol – can see the final bill climb alarmingly.
From France we sail to Italy. The destination is listed as Florence, but the port is a long way from the city, certainly too far to organise an independent trip. Instead we rely on an official tour. Rather than spending 14 hours on a Firenze day-trip, which would be tough going for two little girls – and for two adults to be honest – we opt for a three-hour jaunt to a Tuscan vineyard where we're promised wine and cheese and Italian cold-cuts. I can think of little to recommend the tour but the Americans on the bus seemed to love it.
From Florence we go to Rome. We opt for the tailored kids’ tour, a half-day trip taking in the Colosseum, the Piazza Navona and a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at a local museum. It is fine but the three hours we have to ourselves once it ends is better. We find a restaurant far enough away from the tourist spots not to have picture menus but close enough for a man with a small child on his shoulders to reach and to have sublime spaghetti and clams. Then we take a cab to the Vatican where the Pope’s children wrestle and play tag under the shadow of the Pope’s palace and eat ice-cream and jump across the imaginary line between two countries. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it was nearly seen in one.
The journey down to Naples is short. Many of our fellow travellers are wary of its fierce reputation and huddle together in groups waiting for buses to whisk them away towards Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius or the winding roads around Sorrento.
We’ve a better plan. As they disembark we play table tennis and crazy golf, swim, wander the near empty decks and eat ice-cream. Then, just before lunch, we take a cab to the best pizza restaurant in the world. The queue outside Pizzeria Da Michele is daunting but we were expecting that and there’s a queuing system that even a non-Italian speaker can manage.
At the door you're given a cloakroom ticket and when your number's up you take a seat. There are three pizza options on the menu – Margarita, Margarita with double buffalo mozzarella or seafood. Everyone orders the double buffalo mozzarella. It's what the restaurant's famous for. We eat under the benign gaze of Julia Roberts whose picture hangs from the wall, the only nod to the Da Michele cameo in the book – and subsequent film – Eat, Pray, Love.
The pizza is amazing. It’s made with a ridiculously tangy tomato sauce, gooey balls of mozzarella and fresh basil sitting on the most perfect pizza dough. They are devoured in almost complete silence. Then a three-piece band wanders in and plays some Italian music. It is cheesy for sure but gloriously cheesy all the same. Like the pizza.
As if that wasn’t brilliant enough, the bill comes and the price for three large pizzas, two bottles of Peroni and a large bottle of water was – wait for it now – €17. We head back to the boat, super smug and sure we’ve had the best meal of any of our 3,000 fellow travellers. For €17.
That evening, as a birthday surprise for my funnier half, we eat in the Chops Steakhouse. The food there is excellent and the waiter doubles as a magician wowing the children – and the adults to be honest – with his tricks.
As we sleep, the ship steams across the Med back to Barcelona and back to reality. I am genuinely sad getting off the boat. But happy to have had the experience. It is one I will remember forever. I think we all will. And I can’t say that about every holiday I’ve had.
Conor Pope and family travelled as a guest of Royal Caribbean