Last week I was thrilled to try my first ever trip on a cruise ship, courtesy of Mumsnet and Norwegian Cruise Line. Not just any ship – the Norwegian Escape. That happens to be the fifth largest cruise ship in the world. Ever.
Capable of carrying over 4,000 passengers, over 1,000 crew.
And me. On its inaugural one-night sailing from Southampton. Woohooooooo. (I'm no good at being a cool, calm and collected blogger!)
I could take a guest. And I'll say right now that it's always good to get away with the main man in your life..to take time away from your everyday lives to walk hand in hand along the deck. To stare dreamy-eyed at each other over a glass of something sparkly at a bar. To cuddle up next to each other watching silly TV in the mega comfy double bed…
And my seven-year-old date did not disappoint. That's right, Chiswick Boy and I strode off together to try out life on the ocean wave. Though it's fair to say that the cruise wasn't what we were expecting.
Spoiler alert: we had a great time.
In describing what it's like to be on the Norwegian Escape I'm reminded of that old tale about the emperor who wants to know what an elephant looks like, and gets six sage blind men to tell him what the elephant is like.
The six sage blind men each touch the mighty elephant, and come back with their answers.
'He is long and windy like a snake,' says the first man (who touched the trunk).
'He is hefty and mighty like a tree', says the second man (who touched one of the legs).
Well you get the idea.
The point is that after 24 hours on a cruise ship with 20 decks, 21 restaurants and more things than you can possibly fit into an overnight stay, you're only going to see a small part of the experience.
So this is just one experience, my experience. As a mum, with a seven-year-old in tow, just doing our thing. I met some lovely fellow bloggers on the cruise, so hopefully you can read some of their reviews and between us build up a picture of what the elephant, I mean ship, is really like.
I've always wanted to go on a cruise but have always found it too confusing to do anything about it.
First of all there's the dining options.Terms like complimementary dining, speciality dining, on board credit may mean something to the seasoned cruise traveller, but meant nothing to me… I always found these terms completely bamboozling. Even with the pre-cruise leaflet I couldn't get my head around it. And it wasn't until I was on board with an actual paper list of where I could go to eat without spending extra money, that I began to feel less confused.
Actually, it may make a lot more sense if you're used to all inclusive holidays, but I've never done one of those either – probably because I also find it confusing!
The other thing I'd always found confusing when leafing through cruise brochures was the pricing structure. All this inward facing, forward facing, with balcony… cruises aren't a cheap holiday. So how could I possibly know what to choose and how much to spend, and know that my family would really enjoy it?
So one thing I really wanted to get from my time on the Norwegian Escape was at least some understanding of how cruises work – where you eat, what you do, how much you have to spend on top of your main ticket.
A floating town
First of all I realised that I'd been thinking of the ship as a large floating hotel.
But this was wrong.
Because I soon realised that the ship was much more analogous to a floating resort or village than a hotel. And then that's when the dining plans clicked and make sense.
When we go to Europe we self-cater, for the sheer freedom, ease and low-fuss nature of it all. But we'll get lots of nice snacks, will splash out for cocktails (an essential for me on holiday). And at least once we'll go out for dinner somewhere nice and prolonged, staying out way past Chiswick Boy's proper bedtime, and even putting on something clean for the occassion.
So if I was on a longer trip on the Norwegian Escape, most of the time we'd eat at the included restaurants – probably self-service lunches and bigger sit down breakfasts. But occasionally we'd splash out for a meal, and that's where the speciality dining comes in.
Along with my fellow bloggers we were treated to a meal at La Cucina, the Italian restaurant. I had an absolutely gorgeous filet migneon – rare of course, which is how I always like my steaks. It was a late night for Chiswick Boy, and luckily he was able to hang out at the table with his new friend, Tiger, who was there with his mum who blogs at Little Likely Lads.
For breakfast I was really impressed by the American-style breakfast at the O'Sheehan's. This is my French toast below, served with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. Chiswick Boy tried corn beef hash – an unknown for both of us! I would certainly be happy sitting down for breakfast here every day on a cruise. And this is part of the complimentary dining! With friendly table service.
A word to the caffeine addicted like me – capuccinos, espressos and the like all count as speciality drinks on board, so be prepared to pay for your caffeine habit. But then again it's just like when go on holiday really. And I always say that a good cappuccino is a luxury worth paying for.
Let's cut to the chase. If you're going with a young child, and if they're anything like mine, the first thing they're going to want to do is hit the water park.
Chiswick Boy had seen a video of the water flumes and slides on the top deck and he was talking about it for days in advance and over and over again on the day.
I prepared him for it being closed. Knowing that after all, this ship was designed to be sailed around the Caribbean on balmy days on a warm ocean. Not just off the coast of Southampton on an October day.
But not only was the aqua park open, but the pools were heated. Luckily, Chiswick Boy was thrilled with the kids' version of the water park, and didn't press me to go with him on the big slides.
Chiswick Boy had such a great time here, and I can just imagine how sultrily gorgeous this would be if we really were in the Caribbean, or crossing the Atlantic, under a warm sun, days of glorious nothingness ahead of us.
The only weird thing about the aqua park and swimming pools on the top deck is that there are no ostensible changing rooms. I changed Chiswick Boy in the loos, but kept my swimming costume in my bag and watched him shoot water cannons and climb up watery rope ladder tunnels instead.
When it came time to leave (with many protestations from Chiswick Boy!) I really wasn't sure how to change him. I ended up rubbing down his top half and putting his shirt and pullover back on, and leaving him in the wet trunks with a towel wrapped round him. It didn't seem right to walk back down through the glitzy decks to our room, with a dripping bedraggled and bare footed scampish boy. But I couldn't see another option.
In retrospect, I should probably have just treated it like the beach – brought a beach dress or sarong for myself to put over my costume, left my handbag in my room and just wrapped Chiswick Boy in a beach towel to go back to the room.
All that glitters
Now one thing that I do love is glitter and glitz and glamorous surroundings. A cocktail in a piano bar, a sparkly chandelier, people dressing for the evening, and the swish of warm water over relaxed toes. So even though I don't normally choose to go out for dinner every night when I'm abroad, what I do love is the glitz and glamour of a lovely spa or bar, or even hotel dining room for afternoon tea.
I actually gasped out loud when I saw the chandelier hanging above the Atrium bar, gently sparkling and changing colour.
Indeed, one of my favourite spots on the Norwegian Escape was the Haven – a spot set aside for, sob, the mega paying customers, who don't mind paying extra for a slice of something even more special. Gorgeous rooms and a private pool area. Look at these sunbeds, actually in the pool!
This my friends is how I would love to travel… just look at it. Tranquility personified.
Any holiday, no matter how long, is about building those magical moments that become memories and live way beyond the last suitcase has been unpacked and the toothbrushes put back on your bathroom window sill.
And on the Norwegian Escape Chiswick Boy and I really did have some beautiful spontaneous moments. My favourite thing to be on holiday is free – free to roam and to wander and to see what unfolds.
Visiting the cake shop and letting Chiswick Boy choose whatever he wanted. Setting out for pre-dinner drinks, and roaming the decks in the dusk. Having a gin and tonic, and a fizzy lemonade at the pool bar. Then watching the shore lights disappear and playing table tennis out on deck.
I've never taken Chiswick Boy away before, as in just the two of us. Well, to my mum's of course, or my brother's. But not on a trip together. And doing it on a cruise ship was a perfect way to bond, with so much room to explore and so many things to keep a seven-year-old's quick moving brain (and attention span) occupied!
A little moonlight
One of the most magical moments for me was waking up in the middle of the night and opening the balcony doors to a full-ish moon, that cast a magical light over the sea, letting me watch the swell. It was eerie and captivating and beautiful all at the same time.
This leads me to to talk about the balcony. When you flick through cruise brochures some of the prices for an insider room seem staggeringly cheap – around £500 for a cross Atlantic trip. But I like a breeze at night so the thought of a room that doesn't have access to an open outside window makes me, ironically, shiver.
So for me now, having had this night at sea, a balcony on a cruise is an absolute must. On a longer trip I know I could spend hours sat there in the sun, watching the waves, looking for dolphins and drinking coffee, reading my kindle…
The balcony is also a source of entertainment. In the morning we watched as we docked. And the previous evening we watched for the moment we set sailm Chiswick Boy so excited in anticipation of the moment we were really on the move
Imagine how amazing it would be to be on a trip where you docked at multiple places – seeing different lands come into view, and the sights and smells of a strange country every day.
I'd want to pick a trip that wasn't too frenetic, defintiely one with a few days at sea driting along, with no need to disembark and sight see. Just days spent drifting around the ship and reading.
More than the eye can see
There are so many bits of the ship that we didn't use or see. How could we on a ship this size on just one night? There's a casino, a video arcade that we never found, a spa that I would relish. And 12 – 12! – hot tubs. Do you know I love a hot tub? On a longer trip I would have taken Chiswick Boy to the most secluded one and slipped in together to watch the stars, uninterrupted.
Childcare facilities on board were impressive. We were shown around the different places, and all ages are catered for – from teenagers to babies, each with their own space.
Now my idea of going on holiday with my son is to spend time with my son, but I can definitely see how my son would have fun there, and how it would be a lovely way to sneak off for a bit of adult time at the spa, say. Or one of the comedy clubs and theatres. While my son got to play games and try out different themed activities at the evening club for a couple of hours, tops.
We also checked out the nursery. The staff there were delightful, you coudl see they were absolutely keen to get some babies in there. And again, it's a service which could give a real respite to a new mum so she can have a couple of hours at the spa, or even a nap!
Moment of truth
So here's the litmus test. Would I spend my own money on going on a cruise? Heck yes. I am now desperate to go on a longer cruise, with my partner this time, and my mum too, as well as Chiswick Boy of course.
I think it's a magical way to holiday. Watching the sea, having fun, spending quality time together. Big thanks to Mumsnet and Norwegian Cruise Line for giving me the chance to get bitten by the cruise bug!
For me one of the hidden benefits was that it was a no fly holiday. We just had to wheel our suitcase on the train from Clapham Junction to Southampton, be met by a shuttle bus to the docks.
Word to the wise – it's airport style security. So if you're heading on a cruise make sure you have all your docs, even if you're not going far off the English coast. And remember that if your child has a differen surname to you that you need signed permission from their other parent, and a copy of their passport/signature.
Disclosure: I am a member of the Mumsnet Bloggers Network Research Panel, a group of parent bloggers who have volunteered to review products, services, events and brands for Mumsnet. I have not paid for the product or to attend an event. I have editorial control and retain full editorial integrity. I have received a voucher as a token of thanks for this post.