“Planning a Mediterranean cruise with older kids in tow had its challenges, but this family – ranging in age from 15 to 50 – ended up having a ball.”
As many parents will attest, organising family holidays as your children get older is a bit like herding cats. You suddenly find you’ve moved on from the easy option of taking your annual holiday during the prescribed school breaks to having to juggle an entire family’s work, university and school schedules.
So when I decided to celebrate a significant birthday (which might have involved a five and a zero) on a Mediterranean cruise with my husband, Steve, and our three children, Lucy, 24, Jack, 18, and Charlie, 15, getting the stars to align for all five of us was not without its challenges – but thankfully not impossible. After much strategising, our stars finally fell into place on board Carnival Sunshine, on a 12-night cruise leaving from Barcelona. Besides the cruise dates suiting us all, Carnival Sunshine held the added attraction of a recent and substantial refurbishment – costing $155 million, it was the biggest the cruise line had ever undertaken.
After five fun days playing tourist in Barcelona we set sail for Monaco. With a day at sea to settle in, we familiarised ourselves with the facilities – found our allocated dining restaurant, sussed out the various bars as well as the casino, grabbed a cocktail poolside, marvelled at the luxury of the newly updated adults-only Serenity retreat – where 96 of the 182 newly added staterooms are located – and checked out the SportSquare Deck which included a mini golf course, a basketball court, a running track, water slides, table tennis and foosball.
Living up to its “Fun Ship” mantra, the newly refitted Sunshine (formerly Carnival Destiny) has catered brilliantly for young people, with its Camp Carnival program aimed at three different age groups – 2-5-year-olds, 6-8-year-olds and 9-11-year-olds.
The refurbishment has also provided the very hip Circle C and 02 spaces for 12-14-year-olds and 15-17-year-olds respectively, offering music, movies, video games, dance nights, karaoke sessions and pool parties. (The one problem with the timing of our cruise was that it was not in sync with the US and European school holidays, which meant there weren’t many people the same age as our youngest, Charlie. He gravitated towards the water slides – superfast and exhilarating, basketball court, foosball and the games room.)
For the older crowd, the nightlife is vibrant and varied with four main music shows (Studio VIP dance party, Epic Rock, Latin Nights and Motor City) lighting up the new Liquid Lounge. And in the Limelight Lounge the Punchliner Comedy Club presents a fluid line-up of comic acts, ranging from the family friendly to the 18+ adults only. (The adults only concept is confusing on board the US-based ship: you have to be 21 to drink alcohol – which meant Jack couldn’t share a drink with us – but you only have to be 18 to hit the casino or the “adults only” comedy shows.)
We immediately made the Red Frog Pub our local. It was less of a crush than the outdoor Red Frog Rum Bar and, with a foosball table down one end, the pub became a haunt for all of us, with Steve, Lucy and I enjoying beer and Caribbean cocktails while Jack and Charlie continued their cruise-long battle for foosball supremacy. It was also (unsurprisingly) where we met a few other Australian families. One Aussie mum of two teenagers told me it was their third Carnival cruise and wouldn’t be their last. She loved the hassle-free, value-for-money aspect of taking their kids on overseas holidays.
With food and drink playing such a large part of the cruise experience, it didn’t take long for us to appreciate the running track on the SportSquare Deck and a run in the open air became a welcome start to the day. And while we adopted the attitude of “we’re on holidays, we’ll eat what we want”, we made sure we avoided the lifts, taking the stairs no matter how many decks we needed to cover.
For our evening dining, we opted for the open dining times in the Sunrise Restaurant, a move I highly recommend. Being locked into a less flexible dining schedule does not work for a family of five. The Sunrise staff were friendly and the dinner menu was excellent, offering a selection of daily specials including regular exotic “challenges” such as snails, frog legs and shark. But the biggest attraction was the restaurant’s signature dessert: warm chocolate melting cake. Cue running track!
There are other dining options: for an added – and by no means exorbitant – cost you can dine at the three specialty restaurants: Fahrenheit 555, where the steaks are superb; Cucina del Capitano, a nod to Carnival’s Italian captains and their childhood culinary favourites; and Ji Ji Asian kitchen, which offers some of the best Asian food we have eaten. Overall the food was good, although we learned from day one to avoid the greasy burgers.
But food, drinks and entertainment aside, the highlight for the entire family was visiting the ports.
“It was the first time Jack and Charlie had been to Europe and they were completely blown away by the beauty.”
Itinerary – Mediterranean
In the port-heavy cruise we docked in Monaco, Livorno (the gateway to Florence and Pisa), Civitavecchia (from where it’s an easy train ride to Rome), Naples, Dubrovnik, Venice (for two days), and Messina in Sicily.
It was the first time Jack and Charlie had been to Europe and they were completely blown away by the beauty, history and culture of the cities and coastlines we visited. As a way of introducing them to other parts of the world, the cruise provided a delicious, trouble-free taste test, whetting their appetites for future travels.
We learned quickly that doing your homework before going ashore is a must and I strongly urge families on any Carnival cruise – Sunshine will be cruising the Caribbean this year – to thoroughly study the various tours and day trips offered either online or through the Sunshine booking desk on board.
With five of us the cost was somewhat prohibitive, so making the right choices was imperative. Our most costly day trip (just under $1000 for the whole family) was a bus ride from Naples to Sorrento where we took a boat ride along the Amalfi Coast to the beautiful town of Amalfi before heading back to Pompeii for lunch and a guided tour of the ruins. What potentially could have been the biggest yawn for the children (teenagers+ancient ruins=utter boredom) was instead one of the high points of the holiday.
With so much to see on land, the prospect of spending the scheduled days at sea felt underwhelming. But after four hectic days of visiting four different ports, the sea day was a godsend and we made the most of relaxing poolside. Lucy and I treated ourselves to 90 blissful minutes of hot rock massage at the Cloud 9 Spa and if I have one regret it’s that I didn’t book a spa treatment for each of the three days at sea.
The luxe retreat is one of the focal points of the ship’s refit and is a real winner. Like many of the refurbished public areas, it’s classy and luxurious and you get the distinct impression Carnival is searching for the five-star traveller with its understated luxury (which didn’t extend to the established cabins – our Grand Suite could have done with a facelift).
The five of us shared a suite that is really best suited to four people, so I strongly recommend families of five or more to opt for two cabins (we had a fold-out bed which the children took turns on each night!).
Arriving back in Barcelona, we all agreed that 12 nights at sea felt like the perfect length of time on a cruise. Anything less would have been unfulfilling and anything more would have been a severe challenge to the short-grab attention span of the Gen Ys in the family. For me, it made turning 50 – and the task of herding the cats – an absolute pleasure.