David Atkinson, The Daily Telegraph, June 17, 2013
The sign on our cabin door had the girls shrieking with joy: “Barbie girls on board.” They raced inside to find luminous pink Barbie pillowcases and salmon-hued Barbie bedspreads. A pair of new Barbie dolls lay on top with two packs of interchangeable accessories close by – the Fashionistas range, no less. A pair of Barbie VIP passes dangled tantalisingly from the bedside table.
Dads. We get all the tough gigs.
By now the girls, Maya aged seven and Olivia, three, were trampolining on the bed, squealing like sugar-rushing chipmunks, and I was facing an existential crisis. Here I was, a 40-something man, alone with my two little girls and about to be cast adrift for a week on a sea of pink. Would I survive it? Would the Barbie girls ever calm down? And, crucially, do I really have the teeth (not to mention pecs) to cut it as Crystal Ken?
None of us had ever been on a cruise before. In fact, my only prior experience involved 1970s episodes of American series The Love Boat from my childhood and re-runs of Carry On Cruising. For our first holiday as a non-nuclear unit, however, I was tempted by the idea of all-inclusive facilities and an array of boredom-bashing activities for restless children. The girls – Maya, seven, and Olivia, three – were curious about a holiday afloat. “Are we actually going to sleep on the ship?” asked Maya before departure. “Is it like a canoe?”
Liberty of the Seas, our Royal Caribbean International ship, was no canoe. As we embarked in Barcelona, she towered over the portside W Hotel like an ocean-going Godzilla. Facilities, spread over 12 decks, ranged from an ice-skating rink to a rock-climbing wall. Some 4,000 passengers, many families from the UK, Scandinavia and Spain, joined us for a week's sailing around the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Naples via Nice during the Whitsun holiday.
We had signed up for the new Barbie Premium Experience, an additional, bolt-on package to the price-inclusive Ocean Adventure programme for kids that is being rolled out across the global fleet from this spring. As well as our Barbie en-suite cabins (staterooms in American cruise parlance), we received an invitation on arrival to a series of Barbie events, typically a one-hour, late-afternoon activity for most days of the cruise. These ranged from a fashion workshop to design new Barbie outfits to a mermaid dance class, culminating with a Barbie tea party and fashion show on the last day.
According to Sher-Lynn Goh, Adventure Ocean manager, Barbie transcends language. “We get children of all nationalities on the European cruises but the one thing that unites them is a love of Barbie,” she said.
Orientation took time. The first day flew by as we tried to find our way around the ship, working out how to enroll for activities, buy a Wi-Fi package and, in particular, decide on the best options for mealtimes. During the course of the week, however, we did settle into a natural rhythm with visits to the Ocean Adventure club for the girls in the mornings, then lunch and some post-prandial quiet time, followed by afternoons relaxing together around the pool.
This morning window offered me some valuable downtime for the steam room, or a massage at the on-board spa. It gave Maya the chance to play with newly found friends, poolside each afternoon. I would stay close by with Olivia, who loved bobbing in the whirlpool with her rose-pink armbands between trips to the help-yourself ice-cream kiosk to consume her own body weight in bite-sized yoghurt cones.
Cruise Compass, the daily newsletter of activities and events, listed numerous nightlife options but I tucked the girls up in the Barbie bed around 9pm each night with a few chapters of Fantastic Mr Fox. I was often flat-out on the sofa bed soon after. We did catch the show Encore! An Ice Spectacular and, one night, Maya went to a bedtime film screening, but generally this wasn’t a nightlife holiday. A big night out for me was a glass of wine on our cabin’s balcony as the girls slept deeply inside the cozy but comfortable room.
Dining was a bit tricky single-handed. We had pre-booked for My Time Dining, whereby we had a pre-allocated slot in the dining room each evening but, once on board, I learned to work the opening times of the various eateries, a café, a pizza joint and an English pub amongst them, to avoid tired-toddler tantrums.
We didn’t eat in the restaurant after the first night, opting instead for the more casual Windjammer Cafe, where the self-serve buffet, including plenty of healthy options, better suited the vagaries of child appetites. It opened nightly at 6.15pm and the staff clapped us in to a soundtrack of Gangnam Style. Olivia led the stampede for the buffet on the second night, a toddler tearaway in a Minnie Mouse Dress shrieking impishly at the top of her lungs, “Oooh, sexy lady.”
Over the week, too, we relaxed. Of course there were some tense moments, but time back at the cabin and an episode of Scooby-Doo on Cartoon Network generally restored the equilibrium. Most of all, I had to learn to stand back and let the staff, who were universally professional and adept at herding small children, take the lead at times.
Maya, in particular, grew in maturity over the week, taking on a maternal role with Olivia and a reassuringly supportive one with me. When a female Robocop-esque pool attendant told me off for mistakenly taking Olivia into an adults-only whirlpool, Maya rushed over to give me a big hug. “Don’t worry, daddy,” she said.
Olivia agreed. “That lady,” she announced loudly to assembled throng of the water park, “Is a real bossy boots.”
We only left the boat once during the week, deliberately taking a short and rather lacklustre shore excursion to a gelateria in the small Italian town of Tarquinia. Other families, who took longer excursions to a pizza-making class in Rome, and a sightseeing tour of Naples the next day, reported more successful outings. I was tempted to introduce the girls to the likes of the Trevi Fountain or the Leaning Tower of Pisa but, in the end, decided these all-day trips would be too tiring for little legs.
Besides, the Barbie girls were happy to stay onboard. They enjoyed mixing with children from around the world and practising their Spanish and Portuguese with the staff at Ocean Adventure, many drawn from Colombia, Peru and Brazil. For me, too, I found the daily interaction with staff to be a fascinating counterpoint to occasional excess of Las Vegas-style glitz or Dubai shopping-mall blandness. These vignettes, ranging from the Romanian massage therapist in search of a new life in the Gulf, to the Peruvian front-of-house restaurant manager, torn between the freedom of travel and her ageing parents back home, lent a fragile human face to overall slickness of the operation.
In particular, I struck up a paternal alliance with our cabin attendant, Francky, who had left two young children behind in Goa to spend seven months at sea, followed by two months off. One night we sat outside the room as Maya and Olivia slept, looking at pictures of his kids and swapping dad-bonding dreams for future prosperity of our respective offspring.
It’s easy to be cynical about cruising – it can feel like a bubble world of suspended disbelief at times. But I did come to appreciate how this kind of trip can really work for families, and I also saw for myself that life at sea is not a floating nursing home. “In the 20 years I’ve been going to sea cruising has changed immeasurably,” Arlene Finlay, the Canadian-born group coordinator told me as we took our seats for the Barbie fashion show on the last day.
“Facilities for children on our ships have grown exponentially.”
Just before we had sipped pink lemonade and nibbled strawberry tarts at the Barbie tea party, Ocean Adventure staff gave the girls a crash course in high-tea etiquette, while their Barbie dolls formed a sugar-pink-clad table decoration. We then moved to one of the lounges where a stage had been set with shocking-pink Barbie bunting, for the dramatic denouement of the week, the fashion show.
We posed for paparazzi-style pictures before I took my seat and the girls disappeared backstage to dress up in pink feather boas and shades. They emerged to a high-energy soundtrack to cruise the catwalk, proffer Miss World interview-style pearls of wisdom and show off their mermaid dance as the mums and dads applauded, positively bursting with parental pride.
I may have been the only single dad sat there that afternoon but, after a week afloat on a sea of pink, all the costume changes, the choreography, the glitter and the sparkles, I’d like to think I’d made the grade.
Finally, I was an honorary “Barbie girl”.
When to go
Royal Caribbean International offers cruises in the Mediterranean from April to October. Sailings from June until mid July benefit from slightly cooler weather and less-crowded shore excursions.
Royal Caribbean International can arrange flights to Barcelona from UK air hubs Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Dublin, Glasgow, London Gatwick, London Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle. Airlines include Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk ) from Manchester; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ) from London Gatwick; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) from Glasgow.
Tips for life on board
All prices on board are calculated in US dollars and crew prefer gratuities in dollars, rather than euros, so bring some dollars with you to reward staff who offered exceptional service – euros are only useful for shore excursions.
Pre-paid tips may be arranged online or added by the booking agent before sailing. If you opt not to pre-pay the service charge, then a US$12/£7.70 per guest per day service charge will be automatically added to each guest's account.
On board Wi-Fi is pricey but better than roaming charges, especially if you’re calling home via Skype. Set up an account and buy a package of minutes when you arrive to avoid the pricey per-minute charge.
The Ocean Adventure programme for children operates a strict no-nappies policy and is suitable for children aged three and over. Make sure children are potty trained if you want them to take part.
Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 4005; royalcaribbean.co.uk ).