Departure day dawned and it was rather grey and gloomy.... as we navigated round the roadworks in Southampton to the cries of "are we there yet?" my 5 year old suddenly said "is that it?" and we could see the dark funnel with the white " X" jutting up from behind the port buildings..... before we knew it, the car was parked we had checked in and were up the gangway... kids were tagged with their Muster station bracelets and we were being handed a glass of champagne!
As this was our first cruise, it took a few days to get orientated but the layout of the ship was easy and well signposted. The cabins were great, light and airy with a fairly roomy bathroom complete with a corner style shower and plenty of cupboard space and a range of Lemongrass fragranced toiletries. As we have 3 kids, we had 2 connecting staterooms- I was really impressed by the way they connected from the corridor with an extra set of doors across the alcove where the 2 stateroom doors were- this meant that there was only one way in and out and we kept the normal cabin doors open. The balconies also joined so we had a large space for all of us (parents: note that you can 'double lock' the kids balcony door so they can only access it from the parents cabin which gave peace of mind).
Kids facilities 3-11 year olds The kids went up to the kids club on the first evening with my son (5) and daughter (3) in the same group (3-5's). After that point, we rarely saw our 12 year old after he disappeared through the doors of the X club until getting off 2 weeks later! The kids clubs are situated at the bow of the ship on deck 15 and is a great spacious facility with lots of windows very well equipped with games, toys and Wii/Playstations etc. The activities for the younger kids were more structured and themed e.g. Pirates, Under the sea, Dragons, Circus with treasure hunts and backstage visits to the theatre. The main sessions run 9.00-12.00, 14.00-17.00 and 19.00-22.00 hours. This is all 'free' and additionally when the ship is not in port there is no charge for lunch quiet time where they often watch a movie (12.00-14.00) and they run a dinner club where they take the kids to dinner at the Oceanview cafe. There is an additional Slumber party from 22.00-01.00 for $6 per hour, which is also the charge for lunch and dinner clubs when the ship is in port. The kids club didn't seem to busy on our sailing (21st August) despite there being about 400 kids on board. I couldn't get my daughter out of there... every time I would collect her she would beg me to let her stay longer!! I almost needed another bag for the pile of artwork she created in the 2 weeks. The staff were excellent and knew the kids names and always enforced a high level of hygiene (i.e. kids washing their hands on arrival, antibacterial gel etc). 12+ For the 12+ club, the kids don't really run with the structured activities but tend to hang out in the club and the also have a video arcade (however I would warn you not to allow kids to have any charging facility to their seapass card as I imagine they could give you a shock if they charge the acarde games to your account- instead you can load their card up with some credit at the video arcade id you wish). Our son said it was the best holiday he has ever had and was busy begging us for a facebook account to keep in touch with all his new friends!
Food The food was great- my only annoyance (and reason for giving a score of 4) was that the oceanview cafe was quite congested, especially at breakfast and it was hard to find a table for 5. The staff were very quick to clear tables but we did a fair bit of wandering around with hungry children looking for a table. The Moonlight Sonata main dining was great and we had excellent service from our waiter Emillian. He got the kids food out really quickly (the usual range of pasta/chicken/pizza or whatever they wanted) and usually before our main course arrived we left them to club so that we could savour our food. We tried all the specialty restaurants and were very impressed- Qsine is really fun and Muranos is fantaststic especially as we splashed out for the 5 senses food and wine pairing menu which is one of the best meals I have had.... very hard to believe you were in a cruise ship.
Bars/Entertainment Our real favourite was the martini bar. We regularly met up with our cruise critic crowd for 8pm martinis and this was a real highlight of the trip... the apple martini was totally delicious. My other favourite was the sunset bar on deck 15, especially for sail away. It was beautiful up there with the grass and very peaceful. There was different live music playing all over the ship: a great singer with guitar, classical, party band etc. The pool party on the night we were docked in Palma was a real highlight, kids in the pool and dancing and fantastic lighting with a band playing... all totally surreal. We went to a number of the shows and generally they were of a high standard. There was a range, comedian, singers, West End/Broadway, flute player, hypnotist, comedy magician and the big show 'Eclipse' which was amazing. The shows were very well attended with some people even standing.
All in all, the cruise exceeded our expectations as a family holiday delivering a perfect balance of relaxation and fun family time and whilst expensive, I felt delivered great value for money. If I was to narrow down a few highlights, it would be sitting in my favourite spot overlooking the grass on deck 15 with a cold beer, the meal in Murano, the Wine tastings we attended and our wonderful Cruise critic friends! I haven't mentioned the ports in this review as in some ways with 3 children we didn't take full advantage of these however I definitely wish to return to Lisbon and Mallorca for longer visits. Would we go back.... definitely!