This summer, we wanted to introduce our two children (10 and 6) to Europe. We decided a cruise would be the easiest way to explore the Continent with them. We chose the Brilliance of the Seas' 12-night Barcelona roundtrip cruise, primarily because of the itinerary, which featured several ports of call in Italy (including two days in Venice, which we thought would appeal to the kids as well as to us as parents). We also knew the kids would enjoy the excellent Royal Caribbean kids' program.
One of the biggest challenges we faced both in planning and while traveling was balancing our days. These ports of call -- Villefranche (the French Riviera), Livorno (Tuscany), Naples, Venice, Dubrovnik, Corfu and Civitavecchia (Rome) -- all offered major sightseeing attractions. But with kids, we'd especially need to pace ourselves. Indeed, a mixture of activities, some low-key, others more intensive, helped us balance the schedule, and three days at sea offered a great chance for all of us to kick back in between.
Another challenge? With a family of four, we figured that we could come out ahead -- or at least even -- by arranging for private drivers and guides at many of our ports. Cruise Critic's message boards were an enormous help to us in finding guides for ports such as Villefranche, Naples and Livorno. Note though, that I wrote to quite a variety and really made our picks based on the quality of their email responses, which ranged from quick answers to those that clearly communicated their policies based on our needs.
Pre-stay in Barcelona
Having never visited Barcelona -- and wanting a few days to acclimate before the cruise -- we flew into the Catalonian city three days prior to embarkation. I highly recommend this approach, for the following reasons. First of all, we were all exhausted the first day; we knew we wouldn't have really enjoyed the ship as much as we did upon embarkation three days later. Second, we just missed a strike at the Barcelona Airport that lasted two days, resulting in the cancellation of hundreds of flights, and the stranding or delaying of many cruise passengers. This news reminded us once again why we like to arrive at least a day early at our departure port in case of any unforeseen problems. And finally, Barcelona itself is worth at least a few days' visit. There are plenty of activities to keep both kids and adults entertained for several days, and we had a great time experiencing this fun, unique city.
Booking a Hotel in Barcelona
We initially had difficulty finding a hotel with a quad room or guaranteed adjoining rooms that would accommodate all of us. And given the kids' ages, I was uncomfortable letting them stay in their own room. I also didn't want to make my husband and I split up. Fortunately, we got a recommendation for the Hispanos Siete Suiza Hotel from a Cruise Critic member, which turned out to be ideal for us. It's a small boutique hotel that seems to cater particularly to European families, with 18 very nice two-bedroom and one three-bedroom apartments, each with two baths, a fully equipped kitchenette, a dining area and living room.
We were quite lucky to get an apartment on the fifth floor with a view of the top of the nearby Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's infamous and still unfinished cathedral. The hotel is tastefully decorated in a modern Art Deco style, with a theme based on the glamorous Hispanos Suiza cars of the 1920's (including a private collection of antique cars). Located in a residential neighborhood of the Eixample, it's a ways from the center of town and most of the attractions, but relatively quiet, and we enjoyed the sense of "coming home" at night. However, because it is close to Sagrada Familia, we had convenient access to the metro, the Barcelona Bus Turistic and taxis, along with ATM's, a small grocery store and Starbucks. The staff is friendly and helpful, and there's free Internet access from your own apartment.
There is an upscale restaurant in the hotel, but it was closed from the end of July through August, so we weren't able to try it.
Tip: There's a breakfast buffet each morning from 7 - 11 a.m. and check-in time is at noon. Our plane arrived at 9:15 a.m., and we were at the hotel by 10:30 a.m. As luck would have it, our room was ready and they let us check in early, plus we were able to eat breakfast before the buffet closed, which was very convenient.
The City: Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Oh My...
Home to the artists Gaudi, Miro and Picasso, Barcelona is a fun, vibrantly colorful city with a variety of tourist attractions for all ages. The Barcelona Bus Turistic is a double-decker, narrated tour bus with three routes around the city featuring stops at all of the major attractions. It's a great way to get oriented and see a bit of the city. With a day-pass, you can get on and off as often as you like from about 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Tip: For a few Euros more, you can get a two-day pass, which is well worth the extra cost. Also, if you're planning on seeing any of the attractions, buy your bus tickets first as they come with a coupon book that contains discounts to many of the attractions.
Highlights of the trip for us included the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's still unfinished, famous masterpiece cathedral; Park Guell, Gaudi's colorful public park; the Spanish Village, a re-creation Spanish Village with outstanding examples of Spanish architecture through the ages (also now home to excellent local artisans' crafts); and of course Las Ramblas, Barcelona's popular pedestrian thoroughfare, with its street festival atmosphere, wild human statues, portrait artists, mimes, flower and bird vendors, and outdoor cafes.
The grownups also enjoyed the Joan Miro museum. And while the finer points of modern art were lost on the kids, we had to laugh at our six-year-old's candid comments about much of Miro's work: "I do paintings like that" and "That's just a line. I can draw a better line than that!" The kids did enjoy the whimsical sculpture garden outside on the upstairs terrace.
As a treat for the kids, we spent our last evening at Tibidabo, an amusement park built into a mountain above Barcelona with spectacular views of the city. Needless to say, both kids really enjoyed this stop. Half the fun for everyone was getting there, traveling up the mountain by cable car and funicular.
Tip: If you visit Park Guell, it's worth taking a taxi rather than the metro as the taxi will leave you at the front gate -- it's quite a hike up from the metro stop. Also, if you're traveling with kids, you can purchase a family guide to the park in the first building on the right when you enter. The guide was terrific for engaging the kids as we walked around the park.
Our 10-year-old son's favorite attraction in Barcelona was the maritime museum, which featured a full-size Spanish Galleon and a temporary Pirate exhibit. Our six-year-old thoroughly enjoyed all of the human statues on Las Ramblas and wanted to give each of them money so they would move for her.
Boarding Brilliance of the Seas
Official check-in for our cruise was 2 p.m., but we arrived at 11:30 a.m. Embarkation was a breeze, and following a relaxing lunch in the Windjammer Cafe, we were able to get into our cabin at 1 p.m. I first sailed on Brilliance of the Seas the year she launched, and she's quite a beautiful ship and one of my favorites. I was pleased to see that she's been well maintained and is still a spectacular ship.
First Call -- Villefranche
Our first port of call was Villefranche, a stunning locale situated in southern France. After reading recommendations on the Cruise Critic boards, We hired a driver, and he took us on a tour of the area -- including visits to Nice, St. Paul de Vence, Eze, Roquebrune and Monaco. Our guide was very professional, had an impeccable command of the English language and was quite knowledgeable about the history of the area.
Highlights for us were St. Paul de Vence and Tourrettes sur Loup, two medieval walled villages that are now artist colonies. We particularly enjoyed Tourrettes as there were few tourists, and it's more of a real village where people actually live and work, rather than just a tourist attraction. If you do go there, try the violet ice cream specialty.
We had a great day, but did a bit too much with the kids. The first two medieval villages were great, but by the time we got to Eze, they really weren't that interested in seeing another one. If I were doing this all over, I'd still go to St. Paul de Vence and Tourrettes, drive the Grand Corniche over to Monaco, then spend time in Monaco at the Cousteau aquarium and perhaps watch the changing of the guard at the palace. That would probably be plenty for the first port day with kids.
Our First Family Impression: Cabins
Families traveling with two kids have the option of booking a standard "quad" cabin that can accommodate everyone (a bit cramped, but doable if money is tight), booking connecting cabins, or booking one of the family staterooms or suites. Some parents will also book a balcony or outside cabin for themselves and an inside cabin across the hall for their kids. Since our youngest was still six at the time, we wanted our kids in the same cabin with us and opted for one of the grand suites, which worked out very well.
It's about the size of two standard staterooms put together, but the way it's configured creates a more spacious feel. The kids slept on a pull out sofa, which wasn't the most comfortable, but was adequate. The bathroom was much more roomy than a standard cabin, with a full bathtub. There was plenty of storage space for all of us, plus we had a double balcony, which was great.
Tip: Book as far in advance as possible -- a year ahead of time if you can -- to have the best choice of family-friendly staterooms, particularly if you are traveling in August. We booked seven months ahead of time and still had difficulty getting all of us in one cabin because the ship was so full.
Livorno Leads to Florence, Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano
Most passengers opted to go to Florence on the ship's shuttle bus, but as my husband and I had both been before, and because we didn't think the kids would enjoy the museums as much as we did, we opted instead to go to Pisa and Lucca. We hired a driver so that we could have flexibility with our itinerary as the day wore on.
The kids loved Pisa and had fun taking pictures of each other trying to hold up the leaning tower. They would have enjoyed climbing the tower, but as our youngest was only six, this was not an option for all of us. After Pisa, we headed to nearby Lucca, a charming Italian walled city, much of which is closed to automobile traffic. Here we rented bicycles and had a great time biking around the city's wall and throughout the city itself. We had a wonderful lunch in one of the picturesque squares and of course enjoyed the obligatory gelato afterwards. Following lunch, at the urging of our driver, we decided to continue on through the beautiful Tuscany countryside to the medieval city of San Gimignano. If we were doing this again with kids, we would linger a bit more in Pisa and Lucca, and then head back to the ship. Gimignano is quite picturesque and worthy of a visit; but it was perhaps too much for the kids to have two long back-to-back driving days.
Tip: Buy tickets online for the Leaning Tower of Pisa more than 15 days prior to your visit. And note that no children under eight are allowed up the tower.
Italy's Amalfi Coast
Here again, we hired an excellent driver/tour guide for the day, which made all of the difference. He was knowledgeable, friendly and conscientious, and he possessed an infectious joie de vivre.
We had a wonderful day visiting Pompeii, driving along the breathtaking Amalfi Coast and stopping in Ravello and Amalfi. One of the highlights for us was a delightful restaurant our driver took us to for lunch, called Ristorante-Pizzeria A. Giovanni, located just down the hill from Ravello in a small village called Ponte di Scala. Off the tourist path, with a dramatic view from the terrace overlooking the Amalfi coast, our guide ordered us a special sampler menu of local delicacies that were delicious. It was a very memorable lunch. If you only hire one local driver, this is one of the ports where it's most advantageous.
Tip: Pompeii was and is a large city, and the ruins are extensive. If you are not doing a guided tour or audio tour, get a free map and have a plan for what you want to see, as it will be too much for the kids to see it all. Our kids had both read the Magic Tree House book Vacation Under the Volcano, and had the most fun seeing the sites mentioned in that book.
Ship is For Kids
Royal Caribbean has an excellent kids' program at no additional charge, and our kids couldn't have been happier participating. The only time they were unhappy was when we wouldn't let them go, or picked them up early! Kids are divided by age group: 3 - 5, 6 - 8, 9 - 11, 12 - 14 and 15 - 17. The 3 - 11 year-olds are kept in one room and the teens stay across the hall in their own Teen disco. All of the youth counselors were excellent and clearly enjoyed working with children. Royal Caribbean has really worked hard to make it a fun and interesting program for the kids. During sea days the kids program is available from 9 a.m. - noon, 2 - 5 p.m. and 7 - 10 p.m. When in port, the program is available all day long, and you have the option of going ashore and leaving your children in the program for part or all of the day if you are comfortable doing so.
During five nights on the cruise, there were also kids' dinners at 6 p.m. -- great for parents who want to enjoy a romantic dinner in Chops or Portofino. (On our cruise, main dining was staggered at 6:30 or 7 p.m. and included a full children's menu to choose from.) On our voyage, these were in Villefranche, Naples, our overnight in Venice, the second sea day and Civitavecchia (Rome). There's also a late night "party" (a.k.a. group babysitting) from 10 p.m. - 1 a.m. that costs $5 per hour, per child, charged in half-hour increments. Each evening there's a different theme, often tied to the particular port of call -- such as Gladiators or Olympic night for Rome -- and the kids particularly enjoyed getting their own daily compass delivered to our cabin each evening so they knew what to look forward to the next day.
Other onboard activities that the kids enjoyed included a water slide, the arcade, miniature golf, the rock-climbing wall and Ping Pong.
For younger kids, you also have the option of hiring babysitters onboard if you need a night out. We also saw several babies sleeping through the shows at night in their carriages.
Tip: Pickup times in the late afternoon vary slightly each day -- make sure you know what the time is as you will be billed $1 per minute for every minute you are late.
The Magic of Venice Fits All Ages
Venice was truly one of the highlights of the trip for all of us. Don't miss your arrival into Venice about 1.5 hours before the ship docks. From the starboard side of the ship, it's truly a spectacular sight (the ship dwarfs all the buildings). The first afternoon, we meandered around, exploring various nooks and crannies of the city. After watching the Gondolas for a while, we went on our own Gondola ride, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. They are very expensive, but it was worth it for all of us, and the kids have fond memories of our ride.
The next morning, we took the Doges Palace Secret Itineraries Tour. Not only do you get a guided tour in a small group of about 15 -- where you'll learn about Venice's most infamous prisoner, Casanova -- you will also see several rooms that are not open to the public. Best of all, on the morning of our visit, we got to cut to the head of quite a long line. After meandering to the Rialto Bridge and Market, we had fun shopping for souvenirs, an activity that even the kids enjoyed in Venice.
On this itinerary, we had a delightful experience overnighting in Venice. And this is where the kids program really comes in handy. We dropped the kids off and headed back into the city for a romantic evening by ourselves -- to top it all off, there was a beautiful full-moon that evening!
In Venice, Royal Caribbean provides a water shuttle service from the ship to St. Mark's square for $13 per person roundtrip.
Tip: Book tickets for the Doges Palace Secret Tour online through www.ticketitaly.com within 30 days of your visit.
Dubrovnik: "A Wall With a View"
I last visited Dubrovnik shortly before the war and had mixed feelings about visiting again, wondering how much damage would still be evident. I was astounded at how well everything had been rebuilt and repaired. If you didn't know there was a war recently, it would be very hard to tell. Most of the houses in the old city are sporting new red tile roofs, and parts of the old wall have clearly been rebuilt recently, but overall, the city has been restored and tourism has never been better.
In fact, there were far too many tourists on the day we visited. The day our ship arrived, there were three others in port, and everyone seemed to be creating a bottle neck getting in and out of the main gate. We were told later that this was highly unusual -- two ships at the same time was more the norm -- but I suspect it may become more common. We decided to make a short day of it -- there were just too many people to enjoy it. We wandered through the city and walked around half of the city wall, which proved an enjoyable stroll and definitely worth the hike.
Tip: If the line by the main gate to get climb to the city wall is too long, there's another set of stairs up on the other side of the main street, to the left behind the clock tower. There is an entrance fee, which we were able to pay in Euros. Most of the tourist shops will now take Euros, so I wouldn't advise changing money to the local currency if you don't have to.
Chillin' in Corfu
We had no plans for Corfu, other than to walk around the old town. Afterwards we took a lovely stroll back along the water. Everyone was tired following the intense sightseeing of the previous days, and this would have been a good opportunity for a beach day -- though in August most of the beaches we saw were quite crowded with European tourists on holiday. After our walk, we headed back to the port -- as this was the only place where we had seen a bunch of taxis -- and we hired one to take us to the other side of the island to Paleokastritrsa, a beautiful area on the coastline. Nearby, there's the historic Byzantine Monastery of Theotokos. We did drive by Aqua Land to check it out, but quite frankly it was very crowded, and our kids had just as much fun with no lines back at the ship's waterslide.
Tip: There's a free shuttle to the port entrance, and then you can take another shuttle to cover the short distance to the old town for $8 roundtrip per person. If you plan on taking a taxi, pick one up at the port entrance. Don't buy the shuttle tickets.
The Emerald City
For our last full day of sightseeing in the city of Rome, we hired a driver to show us all of the highlights, including the Coliseum, Forum, Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Circus Maximus and many of the smaller plazas. Although hiring private drivers seemed expensive to us when we first booked them, I have to say that for a family of four, this was well worth it in both Rome and Naples, considering we were able to see quite a bit more than the ship tours. And for four of us, the price was actually less than it would have been for the full-day ship tours. Plus, we had the added flexibility of going at our own pace, which was important to us with the kids. Our 10-year-old loved the Coliseum. Most of the history was lost on our six-year-old; however, she really enjoyed the Vatican Guard (more human statues!) and was enthralled by all of the fountains, particularly after she learned how to drink from them like the Romans!
One of the funniest moments of the trip occurred during our visit to the "Mouth of Truth" (La Bocca della Verite). It was immortalized in "Roman Holiday," the classic film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and consists of a huge stone face, mouth agape. You reach your arm into the mouth and a friend or family member can ask you a question -- any question. If you lie ... it will bite off your hand! Urban legend? Sure. But as we waited in line for our chance to tell the truth, our six-year-old became more and more anxious and began confessing various lies she had told about this or that -- nothing significant, and in fact nothing surprising, but she figured she'd better come clean, just in case. It was all very amusing. And indeed we departed with all hands intact.
Tip: One disappointment for us in Rome was that the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums were closed on Sundays in August, and our port day in Rome happened to fall on a Sunday. If you have the flexibility, I'd suggest taking this cruise anytime other than August or the end of July, and check ahead of time which ports you'll be in on Sundays.
Sea days were wonderfully relaxing and a much needed break from the sightseeing-packed days we spent in port. My husband and I found ourselves magnetically drawn to the African-themed Solarium, my favorite spot on the ship and one of the nicest pool areas at sea. It's beautiful, quiet and relaxing, and the pool is relatively deep. And of course, we took advantage of the spa onboard. The kids had a wonderful time in the kid's program and enjoyed the waterslide, miniature golf and arcade. After our 12-day cruise, we were wonderfully relaxed and rejuvenated, but a bit sad to leave the ship as we had all had such a wonderful family vacation. Thinking back on the experience, I'd highly recommend this cruise if you're thinking of traveling to Europe with your kids. We would definitely do it again!
A Final Tip: Disembarkation went fairly smoothly. However, I'd advise you to get off early if you can, particularly if you plan on taking a cab, as by 8:30 a.m. there was a long line of folks waiting for cabs. Everyone tries to disembark from the Centrum exit, so if you go to the other exit that's open, you'll get off more quickly. Do take a cab if you have kids. We had bus transfers to the airport, and we all had a nerve-wracking time at the airport. Our luggage went in a separate truck from us, and at one point the truck stopped a quarter mile on the other side of the road behind the bus, and no one seemed to know where it was.
--written by Kathleen Tucker, publisher of Cruise Critic