Living life to the full takes on a whole new meaning when you see someone order two ginormous burgers from the poolside grill, then put one on top of the other and eat them simultaneously. Or witness the two ladies asking for “Absolut and grapefruit, heavy on the Absolut” at 9.45am. But we are on the holiday of excess: the ship is enormous, the horizon is vast, and the food? Well, there’s an awful lot of it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to when the conversation went something like “Club Med? Please, no”, and “Oh god, not that house in France with no internet”, and “Why can’t I take a friend?” Parents of teenagers might recognise some of these exchanges, to which the answers are “I thought you liked circus skills classes”, “But it’s good to not stare at a screen all day”, and “Only if they pay for themselves” respectively.
And with that, we’re back at square one. It is nobody’s idea of the best family solution to take ourselves off on a cruise. Our beloved Auntie Virginia likes cruises, and she also likes line dancing and whist drives. She comes back with formal photographs of herself in full-length gowns in front of a suspiciously perfect sunset. We love her, but she’s square.
Of course, there’s more than one kind of cruise, and my concept of them is totally outdated. One quick look at the Carnival website proves that. Waterslides, sushi bars, movies, cosmetic procedures … and a hell of a lot more.
While it wouldn’t be my first choice for the way to see the Caribbean with my family, it ticks all the boxes for keeping teenagers entertained, relaxing on a sunlounger, not having to cook and travelling around while never having to pack and repack. We fly to Miami to join the Carnival Breeze – one of the newest and biggest of the Carnival fleet at two years old and with space for 3,690 passengers.
The company has 24 ships and has been around since the 1970s, a pioneer of a more relaxed type of cruise. They’re tagged as the “fun ships”, which goes with the carnival name, I guess; a carnival by definition being a travelling funfair.
Getting that number of people from the dock in Miami on to the ship and out to sea keeps the staff busy (there’s one of them to every two of us), but for us rookies, it’s all part of the jollity – people watching and gazing, slightly dazed, at the scale of the entire operation. The suitcases, my god, the suitcases.
The guests are almost all American – this is a bargain holiday from within the States (and still pretty competitive if you bolt on a transatlantic flight), and the prospect of eight days gliding from sun-kissed island to island while your only task is choosing whether to have pancakes or waffles from the mountainous breakfast buffet is clearly appealing.
Our cheery steward guides us to our door in the endless corridor on deck six of 15. I cling to my deck plan like a shipwrecked sailor to a lifejacket. We occupy two cabins that each have a little pod bathroom, a balcony big enough for two chairs and a main room with a double bed, sofa, coffee table and cupboards for all our gear.
The teens soon turn their cabin into a kid cave: the TV’s on, the curtains are drawn and the trays of room service remnants start stacking up outside the door. Much to my surprise, even though food is included in the cruise price, there’s no premium for ordering it to your room, and one of the legions of uniformed staff whisk it to you lickety-split.
Now I see where the 100 tons of pineapples and 240,000 chocolate melting cakes served each year go … but I’m getting ahead of myself again. On the first night, the welcome party quietens down and the returners – we meet one lady on her 12th Carnival holiday and a young girl who’s doing three back-to-back – have shown everyone how to work a welcome-aboard party. The vast amount of people and space makes it easy to forget that we’re moving – or is that the welcome-aboard cocktails?
At dinner, in the Blush restaurant, it suddenly becomes apparent we’re actually – hello – on a ship. The vast orange chandeliers are gently moving, shifting with the ship as it heads from Florida to first stop, the Turks and Caicos islands.
Apparently, the Caribbean is so deep, there are strong currents – certainly it’s no floating hotel at the moment. My son mutters darkly about Poseidon and Titanic. Then the shrimp cocktail arrives and it’s forgotten. Mercifully we’re assigned the later dining time of 8.15pm (early birds go at 6pm; this system is essential when feeding such hordes) because we’ve barely had time to work up an appetite.
Costyantin, the Ukrainian entertainment director, drops by each table to say a twinkly-eyed hello, then grabs a microphone and serenades diners, accompanied by syncopated waiting staff, which is rather endearing. The atmosphere is so up and expectant, not at all what I might have expected after reading David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruise ships, entitled 'A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again'. (I’m aware that mentioning DFW in this context is very likely to be a cliché, but it was my one bit of research.
He says Carnival is known as “Carnivore”; I think of burger man.) We stroll the decks, from the serried ranks of loungers to the basketball court to the quiet, empty areas at the prow. After dinner, the pool area – which during the day has a full-blast compere and thronging crowds – has become the Dive-In cinema; sunloungers now ready for relaxing on with a blanket and a bucket of popcorn. Who wouldn’t want to watch The Goonies under the stars? It’s a rare bit of family bonding time for us.
In fact – surprise – the entire eight days turns out to be just that. On “sea days”, when the vast ship is motoring through the vast seascape, we throw on swimsuits, throw off inhibitions and throw ourselves down the water slides – repeatedly. An often truculent teenager happily queues for burgers from the stand and brings them to us. We even hold a Markwell crazy-golf championship – although my table-tennis-mad husband has to search out a teenager from another family to keep up with his game.
For my daughter – let’s call her mercurial – holidays can be tricky as she wants independence and I want control. The kids clubs on board – Circle C and Club O2 for teens – offer just enough wild abandon (supervised activities go on till 1am) while offering parental reassurance that whatever happens, they can’t wander too far.
And on-shore excursions – which we book in advance with forethought advised by Carnival – everyone gets a chance to shine at something.
Let’s be clear, this is not the way to really experience the Caribbean islands (we’re funnelled off the ship and through a duty-free barn at each destination, where many buy diamante-encrusted souvenir t-shirts and put them on immediately), but the water-based activities are ace.
On Grand Turk we try snuba – a bit like scuba but with your oxygen tank being towed behind you at surface level, making it stressless for beginners; on Aruba we scoot around the coast, stopping twice to snorkel, once over a breathtaking wreck of a German warship scuppered in shallow water. Back on board, there’s a spa and a theatre; a casino and a library. We eat pretty good sushi and properly aged steaks (these smarter, smaller restaurants incur an additional, but reasonable, extra cost).
Every day, a copy of Fun Times is delivered to the cabin, outlining that day’s action, excursions and offers (boy, are there a lot of offers. Cruisers like to shop, even hundreds of miles from a mall.)
My worry that I’ll be overwhelmed by the size and then very quickly hemmed in by the limitations proves unfounded. After eight days I still haven’t caught a comedy act or gambled. I do dress up for one of the two “elegant evenings” and – yes – get a family shot in front of one of those sunsets which we now look at and guffaw goodnaturedly, even the teens.
I resist the urge to pay $49.95 a day for unlimited booze, instead enjoying the occasional mimosa or mojito. That staggering as we leave Aruba? That’s the rolling waves, honest.
Although I’m mildly fascinated by burger man and all-you-can-drink lady, no one looks at anyone askance, there’s no judgment like you might find in, say, the Hamptons, where there’s a dress code for main street, or Italy’s Aeolian islands, where bikinis are changed thrice-daily and the lack of muffin tops and cellulite suggests no one’s eating the pasta. There’s less culture here on the high seas, but you can bring a book.
At the end of our south Caribbean loop, we’re tanned and in great spirits. It’s been a terrific family holiday mostly because (and harried parents might recognise this), the usual endless soundtrack of “can I have some money for …” and “will someone take me to …” is missing. Everything is right there.
Would we return? Put it this way, to misquote Wallace, it’s a surprisingly fun thing I might do again…
Lisa Markwell travelled as a guest of Carnival (carnival.co.uk), which offers the eight-night “Southern Caribbean” cruise, starting in Miami and visiting Grand Turk, Dominican Republic, Curaçao and Aruba in October from £313pp.
A fly/cruise package with a pre-cruise hotel, transfers and flights from London Heathrow costs from £1,339pp. A fly/cruise package for a family of two adults and two children costs from £5,029 in October.