As a child I went on a couple of cruises that I enjoyed, but as an adult cruising has not appealed to me at all. If it ever crossed my mind, I always just dismissed it as not the way I liked to travel.
But in April we found ourselves faced with a first world dilemma. Our time in the Netherlands as expats was quickly coming to a close and all we’d really seen was, well, a heckuva lot of the Netherlands. We wanted to see more of Europe with our kids while we had the opportunity to do so free of jet lag.
Cruising was so not an option in my mind that when it dawned on me it would be the easiest way to see several countries in one go without a ton of packing and repacking for six people, it was as if I had single handedly discovered cruising as a method of travel. It was an “ah-ha” moment of epic proportions. I texted all my friends, called all our parents, told everyone I saw- have you ever considered a CRUISE?!!
A month later we boarded our first ever cruise as a family, and we had the. best. time. We saw Barcelona, Pompeii, Naples, Rome, Pisa, Cannes, and Palma Mallorca sleeping every night in the same rooms aboard the Norwegian Epic
I knew how stressful traveling with four young kids could be, so I researched and meticulously planned every day to ensure we had the fewest possible hiccups on our vacation.
Despite my careful planning, our trip immediately began with a few “hiccups.” Firstly, our chauffeur didn’t show to take us to the airport. Our van here is small and doesn’t normally fit all of us an our luggage. But, in a stroke of luck, we’d randomly decided to pack in these large, soft duffle bags. When we realized the cab wasn’t coming, we were able to just barely squeeze all of us and our two huge bags into our van and drive ourselves to the airport in Amsterdam- a 40 minute drive.
At check in, Books asked if I’d remembered to grab the booster seats. I had not. As we were going through security and finding our gate, I quickly contacted all our tour guide and pre-booked cabs and asked them to bring the necessary car seats.
Once we were inside the terminal sipping on some much needed coffee, I realized I’d left my printed pack of tickets and itineraries at home! I had a moment of panic before Stephen pointed out that we live in the digital age and nothing actually needed to be printed.
At this point I felt all kind of flustered. I’d planned this trip to a T! How could everything have fallen apart so quickly?!
We did the only thing we could do. We kept our chins up and pressed on. We ended up having more fun than I ever dared hope we could have.
Once in Barcelona we checked google maps for a well rated restaurant called near our hotel called La Porca and ended up having some of the most incredible Spanish/Mexican/Mediterranean fusion tapas for dinner. I remember it as being the most to-die-for food I’d ever tasted. Books said it was good, but I probably enjoyed it more because it was my first real big meal after six weeks of dieting. He may have had a point!
Hike to a Castle and Embark the Norwegian Epic
When embarking on a cruise, you generally have two options. Be there early and wait a bit so that you’re the first ones on the cruise, or show up after the crowds have come through so you can walk right on the boat. Seeing as how we were traveling with eight very impatient little feet, we went with option 2.
This left us with approximately 8 hours to kill from the time our children woke up until our cab was scheduled to pick us up and drive us to the boat. So, what did we decide to do? We hiked up a mountain of course!
Admittedly, I had no idea our walk to this playground in Jardins de Joan Brossa would actually involve scaling the side of a mountain. If I had known this, I probably wouldn’t have brought the stroller.
While difficult, it was a nice way to burn off the tapas calories from the night before, the early morning weather was cool and sunny, and the views from the mountainside trail were quite spectacular.
We played for a while at this playground until it was time to get in line for the cable car, Teleferic de Montjuic, that ascended the remainder of the mountain to an old castle/fortress. We waited about 15 min in line for it to open up and got right into a cable car. The views up the mountain were so incredible!
At the top we walked around the Montjuic Castle, had a snack break at a little cafe inside, and learned a lot about this history of Catalonia from the little museum rooms inside. From the rooftop we saw our ship docked in the bay and got very excited about heading back down the mountain to get on our cruise!
We opted to walk back down instead of taking the cable car. We followed a beautiful little winding path through a park. The foliage was beautiful and there were little play areas along the way. At one point we stopped at a hillside slide and Oliver took a couple of rides down. It was too fast for the other kids.
By noon it was hot and we were very glad we’d climbed up the mountain early that morning when it was still cool. We had another meal of tapas before grabbing our bags at the hotel and hopping into the cab for the short drive to the cruise port.
When we turned into the cruise port and saw our ship, J yelled out in her precious adorable baby voice, “I so cited!!!”
After a quick security check and registration, we walked right on to the boat without ever waiting in a line. The rooms were already open so we carried our bags straight up and unpacked our things before the emergency drill and dinner.
We spent our first evening trying to convince baby J that we were already on the boat. She couldn’t believe we’d actually boarded a ship unless she was on our balcony!
Our first day on board was our only day spent entirely at sea. It was perfect because the kids really wanted to explore the ship! The Norwegian Epic has excellent amenities for kids. There was a rock wall, arcades, pools, the longest water slid at sea, a kids club, and more. We generally do not let our children have screens to play on. We don't have a television in our home. So when we told the boys we'd purchased them each an arcade pass, they thought they'd died and gone to heaven!
Pompeii & Naples
We homeschool our children and so the week before the cruise we spent a lot of time watching documentaries on youtube about the places we planned to visit on our cruise. It was raining heavily the morning our chauffeured van picked us up and drove us out to Pompeii.
The crowds were very thick inside and at times we were just drenched with rain. But our private kid-friendly tour guide was AMAZING. We told her at the beginning to speak mostly to our 8-year-old as he was the one who would interact and remember the most. He dazzled her with his knowledge of what happened at Pompeii and learned even more listening to her engaging discussions. It was completely worth being soaked to the skin and surrounded by dozens of tour groups to see and learn more about this fascinating historical site.
After the tour, our driver picked us up and took us to a pizza restaurant he recommended on the mountain of Vesuvius (the mountain that erupted and buried Pompeii). Naples is where pizza is said to have been invented, and we devoured every bite of ours!
The tour was then supposed to go on to a short hike to the top of Mt. Vesuvius, but the weather was so bad on the mountain that there was zero visibility and it was not worth the walk. So, our drive improvised and took us on a short driving tour of Naples which was by this point enjoying beautiful sunny weather. He then dropped us off at a little castle on the sea and we took a little look around before heading back to the cruise ship.
The highlight of our trip was, of course, Rome! This trip aligned perfectly with our place in the book Story of the World Volume 1 as we had just finished studying Rome! Incidentally, everywhere we went on this vacation was once part of the Roman Empire! The van picked us up at the port and drove us 1.5 hours to the city where we had a quick snack before our golf cart tour picked us up!
This tour was SO so fun. It was a fantastic way to see the inner city of Rome and I only wish I had booked it for longer than 3 hours. Our tour guide parked the cart a block away from the Pantheon and walked us to see it. On our way we walked passed a building that sounded like it held a gym where kids were playing basketball. He pointed at the building and said, "That's my high school." My jaw hit the cobblestone street. Talk about a local tour guide! He was way cool and we just love love loved this tour!
Actual real life archeologists in action!
All of our kid-friendly guides had these awesome books for each location that show a photo of the historical sites as they look today, and then had a transparent page that you could lay over the photo that showed how the site looked in earlier times.
This little church near the Pantheon is the Santa Maria Maddalena church which has these super innovative ceiling paintings. They create optical illusions that make the ceiling look more domed than it actually is. Such a cool quick stop and worth popping into if you're near the Pantheon. And these paintings were done, like, a really long time ago. How's that for accurate info?
The next part of our golf cart tour was the absolute best. Gelato recommended by a true local guide. It was so creamy. So amazing. So EVERYTHING. We would totally go back to Rome again just to have this gelato. I am ruined for life to all other "gelatos." Giolitti
Here are a few photos from the rest of our tour.
The Trevi Fountain was so crowded!!
The golf cart dropped us off at a restaurant near the Colosseum called La Taverna dei Quaranta
which I found through a foodie blog. Our guide confirmed it was a good local place and complimented our kids for a good tip before driving away.
We liked it a little bit (ok maybe a lot). Roman pizza is actually said to be a bit different from Naples pizza. I think it was thinner?
After lunch we met our kid friendly tour guide for the Colosseum and Roman forum
Claudia was excellent! We really enjoyed our time visiting these sites. Baby J and Sister A began to get a bit tired during this part of our day, but they hung in there well with a little help from Books.
I forgot to mention that our golf cart tour guide gave us some time in a little toy shop where we bought the kids each a little toy to encourage them to keep going on our busy day. Later that night Big Brother used his Pinocchio puppet for some parental abuse!
After two very full days of site seeing, we planned just a half day excursion to Pisa. We slept in (sort of) and spent the morning relaxing. I even got in on some of the arcade action. It was nice.
Our driver was born and raised IN Pisa and was super sweet. We got the obligatory pictures and visited a bit of the river area and downtown before hitting up a playground near some ancient ruins of some sort. Tuscany is so beautiful.
I planned nothing for Cannes because the ship anchors out at sea and you take little boat thingies to shore right in the middle of the main boardwalk area. We did some swimming, ate at a fancy restaurant and walked back to the boat to get ready for a special evening on the boat.
We spent a little bit of time relaxing from our beach day in the sun.
At 6:30 we went to the dinner theatre room on board for dinner and a circus show. It was INCREDIBLE! Honestly, it was completely worth setting aside a night to stay up a little late for this. We were all amazed!
Afternoon in Palma Mallorca
Our final day of the cruise was a half day spent in Palma Mallorca. I originally planned to let the kids stay on board the ship as I knew nothing about this Spanish island and didn't know that it would be worth it to get off. But we were having such a great time on all of our excursions, that I booked a private boat charter last minute. Our boat guide turned out to be Australian, which was fun for us as we lived in Australia once upon a time. I think this was the day most enjoyed by everyone in our family as it was beautiful and relaxing. I highly recommend booking directly through Lee for a tour of the island if you ever find yourself in Palma
. This was the perfect way to spend our final day on our cruise. Our kids returned to the ship that evening so happy and full of energy. It is such a beautiful memory.
Day 8 & 9
Disembark Norwegian Epic, Casa Batllo, Mosaiccos, and Fly Home
I'm almost out of space for this blog post! So I'm going to combine days 8 and 9. We spent 2 nights in Barcelona following our cruise. The highlight of our time in Barcelona was our early access pass into the Gaudi designed and built Casa Batllo followed by a 1 hour mosaics class for the kids at Mosaiccos
We had a spectacular trip! Thanks for reading!