My heart sinks. A first glance around the cruise terminal at Southampton suggests that I have mistakenly brought my family to a convention for cast members from Last of the Summer Wine.
We are with our three children Nine, Twelve and Fifteen - also known as Daniella, David and Gabrielle. The prospect of a fortnight's cruise aboard Legend of the Seas seems momentarily terrifying. But all of a sudden children do start to appear, and by sailing time there are 400 on board, accounting for one in five of the passengers. To look after us all, there are 700 crew.
We make our way to our cabins. These are given the grand title of staterooms. It turns out to be an appropriate title for the children's cabin because, despite lots of nagging and the hard work of our steward, it is in a state for much of the time.
The Legend has a tough act to follow: the previous year, we had been to Orlando. Thanks to the non-stop entertainment at the theme parks, the kids say that was their best holiday ever. On this voyage we will visit Rome, Barcelona, Cannes and five other ports. But will there be enough for the children to do? Will they get bored? Will they be able to make friends?
The ship is due to sail at 5pm, but 45 minutes before then there is a compulsory lifeboat drill. Everyone on board has to report to a mustering point, wearing a life jacket. Making our way up to deck four, Daniella points out that it's a bit like being in Titanic and suggests that this is probably where Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) would have been handcuffed to the banister.
On returning to our stateroom, we have been left Cruise Compass, the daily ship's newspaper that details all the activities for the next 24 hours. In this issue there are 65 activities including a "Goodbye cellulite" seminar, ballroom-dancing lessons and napkin folding for beginners. No surprise that Nine, Twelve and Fifteen announce that they will not be attending.
Further down the list, though, there's plenty for the children, with supervised activities for all ages from six months to 17 years old. The stern of the ship even has a 30m-high rock-climbing wall. Anyone from six years of age can climb, with guidance, safety harnesses and helmets provided. We made our first ascent before dinner.
Eating on board is a big event: you can do it 24 hours a day, and it seems some people try to. You've heard of people being built like Greek gods? Well, one or two here were built like Greek restaurants.
As with most cruise ships, there are two sittings for dinner. We signed up for the first; dinner starts at 6.15pm, although you can arrive up until seven. There is a ridiculous amount of choice: a dozen starters and 10 main courses, and an entirely separate menu for children.
My big criticism of the dining room was our table position. We weren't near a window so my back was to the sea and all I could see for 14 nights was the other guests, which soon began to pall. It would be a good idea to swap tables after a week so that we could have had the benefit of the sea views.
The food though, was excellent, as was the service. Our head waiter, Yogit, was from India. He had been on the ship for seven years. His assistant, Christian, was from Chile. Together, they were a brilliant double-act who could not do enough for us. What amazed me with all the staff was how keen they were to please; never unhelpful, never apparently unhappy to be at work. Most of the staff seemed to spend six months on board at a time before having a couple of months' leave. Personally, I can't imagine going to work every day with not a single day off and always having to smile and be pleasant. But the crew told me it was a good ship and they were well looked after. Apparently the most frequent daft question they get asked is: "Do the crew sleep on board?"
On our first full day at sea, Daniella went along to one of the children's clubs. After that, we really didn't see her again except at meal times. David teamed up with some boys of his age and wandered off for hours at a time. At 15, Gabrielle was happy to sit and read the new Harry Potter book, sunbathe and listen to her iPod. In a way, they had a degree of freedom they do not have at home - or at Walt Disney World.
So what about the grown-ups' entertainment? There were two nightly shows in the ship's theatre featuring acts geared to a family audience. A very funny juggler named Pete Matthews caught the eye, while comedian Jeff Stevenson talked about his cabin being so low that every time he came up on deck he got the bends. The Beatlemaniacs and the American Drifters got ovations.
Our first port of call was Praia Da Rocha on the Algarve coast of Portugal. After two days of relaxation, suddenly we were confronted with a timetable: the ship arrived at 7am and departed at 6pm. Several tours were offered (at a price), but we opted for the beach. It seemed a bonus to have a bit of a beach holiday as part of a cruise.
The other seven stops added a lot of variety: more days on the beach, then a day of sightseeing, with the cruise holding everything together. The oddest stop was at Gibraltar, where we opted out of the organised tour and simply walked from the quayside to the foot of the Rock. We took a cable car to the top, but the graffiti-daubed walls and unwelcoming apes made it rather unpleasant. If I go to Gibraltar again by ship, I won't bother to get off.
Rome, in contrast, was a great success. We docked in Civitavecchia, the closest port, and took the 90-minute bus ride into the capital. There, we jumped on another bus, the open-top sightseeing tour, which was great fun. The highlight for the children was the Colosseum, where we took the official tour - it saved a great deal of time that would have been consumed in queues, and on a cruise day-trip you are always conscious of the clock.
After two weeks, there was a consensus in the Richardson family. My wife and I really enjoyed the trip (although we could have done with more space on the sun decks - our sailing was very full). As for the children, Daniella described it as fantastic and would love to go again. The other two also gave it the thumbs-up.
We're ready now to try the three-and-a-half month world cruise. Watch this space...
Garry Richardson is sports broadcaster for Radio 4's 'Today' programme and 'Sportsweek' on Five Live
The writer travelled with Glenfield Travel (0116 287 1608; www.glenfield travel.co.uk). A 14-night "Classic Mediterranean Cruise" aboard Royal Caribbean Cruises's (0845 165 8414; www.royalcaribbean.co.uk) "Legend of the Seas" starts at £1,199 per person, full board.
Cruises depart on 27 May, 24 June, 22 July and 9 September next year from Southampton, calling at Praia Da Rocha (Portugal), Gibraltar, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Villefranche (for Nice), Ajaccio (Corsica), Barcelona, Lisbon and Vigo (Spain).
Portugal tourist office (0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com).
Gibraltar Tourism (020-7836 0777; www.gibraltar.gov.uk).
Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).
French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls 60p/min; www.franceguide.com).
Spanish Tourist Office (08459 400180; www.tourspain.co.uk).Reuse content