Cruising with Kids: A Mediterranean holiday on the mega-ship MSC Splendida
Warren Chrismas steps aboard the MSC Splendida for a Mediterranean cruise with his wife and 'crew'...
"Where are we going, dad?" enquires our eldest son, Oscar. "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 as he begins to take it all in. It's hard to imagine the prospect of a trip to Disneyland getting him more excited.
Our youngest - Alex and Dylan, aged 3 and 4 respectively - are looking pretty excited too but, of course, have no concept of what a seven-night cruise around the Mediterranean might entail.
"This will be an educational holiday, guys," I add, to a muted response. "Oh, and did I mention the free ice cream?" (Cue: more squealing and shouting.)
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, €520m cruise ship named MSC Splendida.
It's an overcast day in April but, frankly, who cares? This is the life!
Soon we'll be leaving Marseille 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 - mandatory for newly embarked passengers - and then a rather formal dinner.
The first night is one of two 'Gala' nights during the week where black tie is recommended.
I'd packed a couple of regular shirts, a tie and smartish shoes, along with my typical casual holiday attire - somewhat resentfully, to be honest - and so didn't feel entirely out of place.
But some passengers clearly love the dressing up part of the cruise. Should you be so inclined, you're given ample opportunity to pose for - and later purchase - cheesy photos at mini-studios which pop-up across the ship during the evenings.
The main reception area, with its glorious sweeping staircases made of 'gold' and 'diamonds' proves to be a popular backdrop.
Thankfully, other nights have more relaxed-sounding dinner themes, such as "white", "informal" and "60s-70s-80s".
The ship has a large buffet restaurant open most of the day, 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.
Honestly, these waiters are considerably more cheery that I would be during a nine-month shift.
When four-year old Dylan is upset one day, waiter Martin from El Salvador creates a bird from a napkin to entertain him. Another time, Wijaya from Indonesia inadvertently teaches Alex how to do a thumbs up, which amuses the three-year-old no end.
We grow highly familiar with the restaurant and its surroundings, and also 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 (below) - apparently the second largest in Europe. 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 (80km) 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.
By this point, we're furiously clock-watching, so drop plans to visit the Trevi Fountain, and head to the very busy and confusing Roma Termini station. After missing a train by two minutes and a seven-minute delay on the next, we make it back on the ship with just 20 minutes to spare. That's close enough.
Malta is a joy. The walled city of Valletta is picturesque, laid-back and very easy to get to. Taxi drivers offer rides by the hills, but we'd been tipped off about a lift to the right of the port which takes passengers up for one euro each (free for kids).
We pass time lapping up the sun, looking in shops and eating ice cream, and very much enjoy a close-up view of the ceremonial 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 (one of many events outlined in a 'Daily Program' delivered to rooms each day), 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 - indoor and out - but, disappointingly, nothing in-between for children.
We made some use of the creche facilities, but can't report on what happened. Apparently, what goes on in kids' club stays in kids' club. Still, all three were happy to go back a second time.
Oscar's favourite trip was the organised 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 2,000-year-old amphitheatre. Who knew?
I guess it's unrealistic to expect young kids to appreciate history and culture, especially with such fleeting visits to ports, 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.ie) who offers an eight-day trip on the MSC Splendida, embarking from Marseille, Genoa or Civitavecchia also calling at Palermo, Cagliari, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia, from £829pp (two sharing).