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Cruising the Mediterranean with Teenage Daughter in Tow

‘I’m sorry Mom but for some reason, talking to you these days is physically painful for me,” explains my thirteen-year-old daughter. How could the poor girl survive this mother-daughter phase? More importantly, how could mom, especially as she had just booked two tickets for them both on a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea. “Well, I guess we’d better ask for dinner companions,” I reply, “or it’s going to be a very quiet week.”

For our mother-daughter escapade, a sort of Grade Eight graduation present for us both for having made it all the way through elementary school in one piece, I had chosen the S.S. Rembrandt, one of the oldest ships still afloat. This historic vessel was not the sort of ship one associates with teenagers—no glitz, no neon, no loud music or teen-only club. But this ship had other charms. With her teak promenade decks, rare wooden steamer chairs and her beautiful grand rooms, this much-loved vessel had sailed as the Rotterdam for Holland America Line for some 40 years. She had weathered ocean storms in the North Atlantic and called in at exotic ports on some 28 round-the-world trips. I figured she could take anything that we had to give her. Besides, because we were sailing on a smaller ship with few distractions, we could truly solidify our relationship—whatever its state.

Best of all, the ship, recently purchased by Premier Cruises and launched last spring, was sailing a sunny itinerary. The six destinations—Nice, Rome, Naples, Sicily, Mallorca and Barcelona were an education in themselves—history, geography, science (volcanos), art and religion all in seven days. Perhaps my daughter would like to learn about these famous far-flung ports. I dragged out the atlas and persevered, “Where’s Barcelona? Where is Napoli?” I asked. “Mom, this isn’t ‘Where’s Waldo,’ you know,” said my daughter. “Besides, you know I don’t really like boring historic sights. Can’t I stay on the boat?”

“But this is the Cradle of Civilization,” I shouted. “Don’t you have any questions about these places?” Yes, there was one question. I waited, with interest. “Does the hotel in Barcelona have room service?”

After disputes about packing enough clothes in a carry-on bag in case our luggage got lost (which never happened according to my daughter) and not wearing a camouflage skimpy tank top to the airport (which could perhaps double as a sling if we needed it), we left for Barcelona.

For two days, we waited for our luggage to arrive. I felt almost foolish boarding with one carry-on bag for a week-long cruise. But we were assured that our cases would follow. And once on board, we forgot our wardrobe dilemma.

Indeed, climbing up the intriguing six-deck-tall double staircase and threading our way past numerous art works in the lounges and halls, it was like entering a little piece of history. The decor was 50’s teak and leather; the colors were the soft blues of the ocean and the sky punctuated with sunset oranges and reds; even the signs for the ladies washrooms pictured an elegant woman in an Art Deco gown. I had to laugh upon seeing my daughter’s face when we reached our cabin. Two small single beds, each with a small privacy curtain, two portholes, two old-fashioned night lights, a leather stool with a real dressing table and up on the wall, what appeared to be a sort of antique fan, the kind that would fetch big money in a vintage shop on Queen St. “What’s that?” she asked pointing at the strange contraption. “Our air-conditioning,” I joked. One bonus—we had more than enough room in the closets to hang our two changes of clothes.

But there was another more noticeable difference. Here, there was no mariachi music, no balloons, no welcome buffet. Instead, we were invited to take tea in the lounge and to walk around the ship. A Californian woman echoed my surprise, “I thought I must be on the wrong ship,” she exclaimed. “There was no Bahama Mama cocktail, no band, no food. I was waiting for all the chaos and confusion that usually happens when you board a ship but it never came. Instead, everyone was so calm, sipping tea in the Lido lounge.” Then she added happily, “I feel relaxed already.”

Although some passengers had come specifically because of the ship’s history, “Can’t you just see Fred and Ginger coming down that grand staircase?” asked one American man, who spun oldies for a New York radio station, many were there to have a good time. We met our tablemates, a friendly, well-traveled couple from California, who welcomed my daughter as if she was their own. And we started to have fun. We passed on napkin folding, Bad Hair Day demos and the “Happy Foot” massages but we did go to the casino to learn how to play blackjack. We played shuffleboard and ping pong, teamed up for trivia competitions and won some prizes, attended the shows, toured the Bridge, took photos of the midnight buffet, and stretched out with our books on the mahogany steamer chairs to watch the ocean drift by. “Hey, want to take my picture?” asked my daughter, tucking a cocktail umbrella behind her ear and holding up her virgin Pina Colada.

The views deckside were spectacular. My teen pointed out jelly fish and small sting rays swimming alongside. We saw other ships and fishing boats. One night in the dark, we sailed past the volcano of Stromboli, erupting flashes of orange lava into the black sky.

The highlight for me, however, was the choice of ports. On two occasions, we joined organized trips. In Rome, we visited the Vatican, where my daughter tried to sneak past the Swiss Guard in yet another skimpy top, unsuccessfully. At the Trevi Fountain, she threatened to throw in two coins, signifying a wish to be married by the end of the year. “Don’t you dare,” I warned. We also visited the ancient site of Pompeii and romantic Sorrento. On other days, we set out on our own—to tour the Palace balcony where Princess Grace prepared for her wedding in Monaco or to shop for shoes in Sicily. Finally, on the fifth day, our suitcases arrived with all of our clothes intact. We celebrated with shampoo and champagne.

On board, there were some complaints about plumbing problems and individual requests—a Spanish woman wanted salt in a shaker instead of a packet, a British woman complained about the quantity of food (“After all, we only need a sandwich and a biscuit”), and everyone bemoaned the lack of elevators— but overall, people loved the ship and its friendly crew.

One of the nicest surprises was the mix of passengers. Young honeymooners from Spain mixed with deck walkers from Britain; Scandinavian couples introduced themselves to American families. It was bilingualism in action as everything was translated from English to Spanish and back again. Add in the crew’s 44 languages and you have true international flavor. When on the last night, the waiters paraded the flaming Baked Alaska through the dining room singing, “We are the World,” it was an emotional moment.

On the flight home, my daughter ate her Spanish food with relish, pored over the British fashion magazines and talked about going back to France someday to practice her languages. For her, the cruise had been interesting and fun. She seemed to have forgotten our only blow-up, over—you guessed it—wearing shorts to a cocktail party. Then, despite our generational differences, or perhaps because of them, she put her head on my shoulder and went to sleep. Not so painful after all.

GETTING THERE: We flew British Airways to Barcelona, Spain, changing planes in London. Although passengers change terminals at Heathrow airport, there are good connections to Spain with daily flights to Barcelona. Iberia offers direct non-stop service Toronto to Madrid with connecting flights to Barcelona.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Fares on board the Rembrandt range from $ 1439 (including port taxes) per person for an inside lower cabin to about $2679 for an ocean view suite. Kids ages two to nine pay only $1059. Third and fourth passengers in larger cabins pay $1199. Infants under two travel free except for port charges.This price includes all meals, entertainment, toiletries and most on-board activities. Drinks, medical services and shore excursions starting at $25 U.S. are extra.

MORE INFO: The ship sails its Mediterranean route from April through October 11th. Note: Instead of docking in Villefranche near Nice, the ship now stops in Cannes. Families are always welcome on board. Children’s programs for ages three to 12 are offered in an elegant playroom between 10 and noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily. During summer vacation, there’s a teen program. During the winter months, the Rembrandt sails down the coast of Brazil stopping at Rio de Janeiro.





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