It's our first time travelling with two kids under five, but as we pop the cork on a bottle of bubbly and retire to our balcony (armed with cheese and crackers freshly snaffled from the buffet) to wave bye-bye to the Pigeon House chimneys, my husband and I both agree that this is the most stress-free start to a holiday we've ever had.
We're on board Celebrity Reflection - one of just a handful of cruise lines that actually departs from Dublin Port - and, as a family replete with strollers, toys, pool floats and a tot who's not keen to sit still for two minutes (never mind two hours), starting a break without a flight, and just minutes from home, is absolute bliss.
Inside the cabin, our two children, Tom (4) and Finn (13 months) are happily acquainting themselves with their base for the next seven days. Tom is quick to discover that our TV comes equipped with a kids' channel. In a little while we'll check out the 'Fun Factory' - the on-board kids' club facilities - and then it's on to dinner, where everyone can have what they want and someone else is paid to deal with the high-chair carnage.
We're not sacrificing the sights by sailing from Dublin, either. Our voyage north to the jaw-dropping beauty of the Norwegian Fjords marks our fifth time cruising with a youngster in tow and, from fears about balconies, anxieties over suitable dining options and worries over what to pack, I feel I've learned a thing or two about the stresses that concern most would-be seafaring parents - and what it takes to make it a smooth sailing.
But enough with the sea puns - I know what you're thinking... here's our family cruising Q&A.
Cruise control: Celebrity Reflection puts out to sea from Dublin so you can start your holiday immediately
Isn't cruising just for older people?
No! It's a massive cliché that cruise ships are some sort of floating retirement homes. That said, when we cast our eyes around the decks, which admittedly is during term-time, a large proportion of the clientele are 60 plus. There are just a handful of children on board, but this actually turns out to be a huge positive. Travel with a line more associated with children (like Royal Caribbean or NCL with their huge waterslides) and your child could be one of 600 or more kids. On Celebrity our two are treated like, well, celebrities. Staff know their names, we have the run of the kids' facilities and quickly get to know the other children and parents on board.
What should I pack?
Actually it's more about what you shouldn't pack. Ditch the giant buggy (the doors are narrow and space is at a premium in the cabin) and bring a collapsible stroller or a carrier instead. Don't bring lots of toys - Celebrity (like most cruise lines) has a toy and book-lending service. Flotation aids are available, there's a laundry service, and nappies for sale in the shop (note that they don't carry all sizes, however, and it's only open while the ship is at sea).
One thing my husband and I develop serious envy of is a travel highchair packed by one clever family we keep seeing at the buffet. For some reason, highchairs are like hens' teeth in the buffet room.
Can I still go to the fancy restaurants?
I'm sitting watching a decadent chocolate bomb melt on the 'Ship Information' channel and there's only one thought on my mind: Do I need to ditch my child to get into these speciality restaurants (and might it be worth it)? Children are welcome in all of Celebrity's speciality restaurants, and can order off their own menu when there, so it turns out I can have both child and fancy adult puddings... in theory at least.
We book Qsine for the four of us, but it instantly becomes clear that the baby is going to act up. Surrounded by other guests who have paid the surcharge to dine, I rebuff the maitre d's entreaties to stay (seriously, the staff adore kids) and leave my husband and eldest to enjoy the food and surprise table-show (I'll not spoil what it is, but the four-year-old loved it).
Meanwhile, after toying with ordering (free) room service, I take myself and baby off to the buffet where we enjoy a joyous - and somewhat eclectic - medley of meals.
Ok, so there are plenty of places and options for adults to eat. But what about the kids?
Cruises present a brilliant opportunity to try children on new foods without committing. A mother/son trip to the sushi restaurant on the fifth floor results in my four-year-old developing a passion for salmon nigiri, for example. The baby tries (and rejects) pickles, olives and tuna, but laps up watermelon, ragu and chargrilled courgettes. Wherever we dine there are burgers, fries and ice-cream. We can eat anytime at the buffet, or there's a perfect early sitting at the main dining room, where our server quickly discovers what starters the boys favour and has them (and a high chair) ready for us when we arrive.
NORWAY: Preikestolen or Prekestolen, also known as Preacher's Pulpit or Pulpit Rock, in Norway.
The Norwegian fjords? Isn't the Med more of a kiddy-friendly cruise destination?
Family holidays don't have to be the stereotypical beach/ pool options. At Alesund in Norway, for example, we take a short coach trip to an aquarium, gazing at hypnotic shoals of fish and playing on the Octopus slides.
After sailing past cascading waterfalls, we dock in Geiranger, where a bus takes us so high into the clouds it makes our cruise liner look like a bath toy floating in the fjord below. As we ascend past the tree-line, Finn falls asleep, comfy in his car seat (all the coaches we board in Norway have an amazing feature where, if you flip the seat in front in certain places, it turns into a rear-facing child seat) only to wake at the summit where he experiences his first sensation of snow.
In Bergen, we take the funicular to the top of Fløyen Mountain (a real treat for engine-mad Tom), and find incredible views, an outstanding park, very clean baby changing facilities and some very friendly goats.
It's easy to think you're best paying the premium and booking official cruise excursions so all the work's done for you, but in many ports you can enjoy the location on your own steam for a fraction of the price.
Alternately, staying put on board on a port day offers a nice opportunity to explore the deserted ship - especially the epic lawn on the upper deck. You'll often find better availability on spa treatments and the like, too.
Should I book an interior room rather than risk a balcony?
Obviously don't let the kids outside on their own, but a balcony room is safe - doors are heavy and childlocked and the glass barrier is suitably high. Also, there aren't a lot of places to go in a cabin so, unless you want to sit whispering in the dark while your child sleeps, a balcony is a nice adult retreat space. It's not cheap (from €5,888 for a family of four... yikes) but a family balcony stateroom - with two separate sleeping areas and a vast living area - is a real luxury if travelling with two young kids.
Any chance of some adult alone time that doesn't involve the balcony?
Babysitting and kids' club offerings vary massively from cruise line to cruise line, so definitely do your research in advance. Celebrity offers in-stateroom babysitting for children over one, at $19 an hour (all prices on board are in dollars).
If your child is aged over three (and toilet trained), you can drop them to the free Fun Factory where Tom had a ball making dinosaurs, colouring in space ships and playing games. For a small fee, kids can stay late. Under threes have their own play area, but have to be supervised by a parent. Tots have to be over six months to cruise.
Celebrity Sihouette's Lawn Club cabanas. Photo: Celebrity Cruises
I know I'm catastrophising, but... what if there's an abandon ship signal and I'm not with my child?
All kids get wristbands stating their muster station where, in an emergency, they'll be reunited with you.
Where will everyone sleep?
On night one, our stateroom attendant comes offering a travel cot, but we know it'll just take up too much space and Finn will end up in our bed anyway, so we say no thanks. The bed is big and the gentle sway of the sea unfailingly delivers the soundest of sleeps. Staterooms have sofas that convert into beds and bunks tucked away - but always be sure to ask for a room suitable for the number travelling in your family group (no booking a double on the premise that your child will end up in your bed) - it's coastguard rules.
Can kids use the pool?
There's a very small sign by the pool that says only children who are potty-trained can use it. I know plenty of parents find it very easy to miss.
What about Wi-Fi? I've heard it's expensive...
Celebrity has high-speed internet and offers a range of packages costing up to $140 for unlimited internet access on five- to nine-day voyages. You can save 10pc off this by booking ahead of embarkation. However, if sailing with toddlers, do you really *need* the internet? Most apps and episodes can be accessed on devices without Wi-Fi if you've downloaded them before sailing off, and you can easily find cafes or attractions with free Wi-Fi on shore excursions, should you need it.
Any other tips?
Yes. If you're only drinking a glass or two of wine a night, the drinks package probably isn't worth it. Remember, you can bring two bottles of wine per room on board at embarkation and if you buy a bottle at dinner and don't finish it, the waiter can save it for you for the next night.
How to do it
Celebrity Reflection has an eight-night Norwegian Fjords cruise departing Dublin on May 28, 2020 from €2,239pp in an Oceanview Stateroom (based on two sharing), including a classic drinks package for two, meals and entertainment on-board. A summer offer, valid to August 28, 2019, sees a 50pc discount on cruise-only fares for third guests and above, meaning a cost of €445 per child.
Call 1800 932 611, visit celebritycruises.ie or talk to your travel agent. Chrissie and family were guests of Celebrity.