Have the time of your life on a family cruise for first-timers
Singer and model Sophie Ellis-Bextor wasn't convinced about cruising until she hopped on board with her husband and children, who all soon fell in love with life at sea
Every summer, my husband Richard and I like to have a family holiday. Just us and the kids, somewhere we can properly relax and not make too many decisions day by day, other than what we are going to eat.
Somewhere we can have fun and be ourselves without feeling judged. Where we don't have to worry too much about how our small folk are behaving in public. If it's somewhere I can read a book and have a few complete conversations with Richard while the kids play, then so much the better.
I'm not sure "properly" relaxing is completely achievable with so many kids in tow (we had four - aged two, six, nine and 14, and another one on the way) but I come from a long line of optimists.
For years, Europe has been our go-to destination. We love France, Italy and Spain. We've also been to the Caribbean, but this is not the norm. I like to avoid a fuss and if possible minimise my travel footprint - especially as I'm usually travelling with a toddler - so something within a three-hour flight radius suits me fine.
I have to confess that when the idea of a cruise first came up, I had a few reservations. Having never been on one before I couldn't quite envisage it. Speaking with friends who were also cruise virgins, it transpired that we all shared the same worries - namely the fear of being "trapped" with lots of other people on board.
What if we were christened "the family with the noisy kids"? What if we didn't get on with the other passengers? Would we be forced to "share" our holiday with everyone and leave feeling frazzled and that we hadn't had time to ourselves?
Despite these misgivings, and buoyed by the words of my good friend Richard, we packed our bags, invited a second teen to accompany our eldest and boarded P&O's Britannia for a week-long voyage taking in Spain, Italy, France and Gibraltar.
A regular cruise passenger, Richard assured me that we were going to "love" our time at sea. "You'll be really impressed with all the entertainment, not to mention the kids' clubs."
Richard wasn't wrong: on the 3,500-passenger Britannia, each of my children had a club pitched solely at their age group.
I started to think that bringing two books along wasn't crazy after all. If you've never seen a cruise ship like Britannia before, let me tell you it's enormous.
Our cabin was on the 15th floor and afforded what would become one of my holiday highlights: waking up and opening the curtains to take in the view of the new city we had docked in.
Once checked in, we hit the ground running. We all wanted to see the pools (three of them: two for families and one for adults only), the kids' clubs, the restaurants, the cinema, the theatre ... it was a tad overwhelming, but in the best possible way.
I always love it when you're on holiday and get into a little routine and that happened almost straight away on Britannia. Every morning we went to the same place for breakfast and visited the pool in the late afternoon. But, for the main part of the day, we got to experience what I think is the most magical part of a cruise: you disembark and get a taste of a new city every day.
That aspect of cruising is impossibly glamorous. Richard and I joked that it was like being on tour, but without the pressure of the gig - and with the luxury of doing it all with the kids.
We visited the food market in Barcelona and ate razor clams and strolled along the Ramblas. The next day we dipped our toes in the sea in Cannes. In Rome we saw the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain and drank aperol spritz; we saw the Leaning Tower in Pisa; we took photos of Barbary macaques sitting on Daddy's head in Gibraltar. Unless you have a private jet (alas, I don't) how else are you going to be able to achieve all this in one week?
Back on board, my worries about feeling "trapped" proved unfounded. It sounds a bit strange given the ship's size but I honestly didn't feel like I saw that many people, which I can attribute to a couple of things.
Firstly, tourists tend to be a bit predictable so if you want to make sure you always have a quiet space in one of the (many) restaurants on board then just head there half an hour before or after the rush.
The same rule applies poolside. Secondly, most larger ships offer so many options in terms of entertainment that there are never too many people wanting to do the same thing at the same time. Case in point? On Britannia, there are three theatre shows each night.
Some nights we put the kids in their clubs - we were amazed to learn the clubs are all open in the evenings and until midnight in the summer months - and once they were happily settled, Richard and I managed a couple of suppers for just the two of us, a pretty rare thing in itself, let alone on holiday. And, after we'd all eaten, we'd watch the resident band play anything from Pink Floyd to disco, go to the on-board cinema or catch a magic show.
Having taken the plunge and hopped on board, I realise my concerns about cruising were unfounded. Everyone we met was warm and welcoming and no one made us feel there was any code of conduct we had to adhere to.
It was all very relaxed and friendly, which meant I didn't need to worry about how my family compared with others. And, if anyone recognised me, it wasn't a big deal. Everyone was happily having their own holiday, thank you very much.
I was right about one thing, though: I didn't even open my two books. Some things about family holidays never change, eh?
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