Over the past few years I've been lucky enough to travel all over Europe, to discover cities and countries which I could never imagine that I'd ever get the chance to see.
One other thing I never imagined myself doing was going on a cruise. Yet times change and situations evolve. In recent years, cruising has gone from being the exclusive preserve of the old and the rich, to become the fastest growing sector of the travel industry, opening up to a wide range of ages, classes and income groups. One of the cruise lines leading this change is Royal Caribbean International, encouraging a younger and more active style of cruiser.
Over the past year I've become interested in going on a cruise holiday. Many months of research later, we settled on Royal Caribbean as it seemed to offer just what we were looking for. The next big decision was the itinerary. Western Med or Eastern Med? More research followed...and the decision was made that our very first cruise would be on the Eastern Med itinerary, on the Navigator of the Seas.
Fast forward a few months to May 2013. Just four hours after the final credits rolled on this year's Eurovision Song Contest, we were on our way to the airport to catch our flight to Rome (Fiumicino) Airport. The less said about this airport the better: it's big and sprawling and shambolic, but it's a necessary evil if we want to get to our departure port of Civitavecchia, just under an hour's drive from the airport.
Having booked a fly-cruise, flights and transfers were included therefore it's a very smooth and trouble-free process as you're met by reps at the airport, put on the transfer coach and you say goodbye to your luggage...you won't see it again for several hours so you need to ensure that you have enough essential items in your hand luggage to tide you over.
There's nothing much happening in Sunday afternoon in Civitavecchia, which is a typical old industrial port, but the main attraction is the Navigator of the Seas. And it is BIG. I was prepared for a big ship, but this is huge. After boarding, there's a long, long walk to our inside stateroom near the back of the ship. We later find out that there's approximately 3200 passengers on the ship, from around 68 different nationalities. A United Nations at sea. As for the staff, they're a multi-national group of hard-working people, who amazingly manage to remain cheerful at all times despite working long hours.
An inside stateroom is the perfect option if you want to save some cash on your cruise. There may be no balcony or window, but they are a decent enough size, they're well-lit and have lots of mirrors to give the illusion that the room's bigger than it actually is! Of course there is a down-side, as it's like being in a fitting room....which wasn't much fun for me this year as I've gained a lot of weight over recent months :( Oh well, that doesn't matter with all the food around for the next 7 days. The diet can start when I get home!!
There's two things to do on day 1: get into the afternoon scrum in the Windjammer Cafe (buffet restaurant) and this is closely followed by the mandatory muster drill (safety briefing) where you're shown how to put a lifejacket on. Unfortunately this wasn't such a great experience as it was very difficult to hear the announcements being made over the tannoy at the same time.
The luggage finally arrived at our stateroom just after 6.00 pm and after unpacking it was straight on to the "Welcome Aboard" show in the impressive Metropolis Theatre which spans three decks.
As expected, the show is a mix of variety acts, cheesy singing and an introduction to the Cruise Director, Simona, and her staff. Simona is from Naples and is the only female cruise director from Europe in Royal Caribbean International's fleet. Of course, because the ship sails from Italy, Italian is the second language on the ship.
Show's over...and now it's time for dining, My Time Dining to be precise. This arrangement was one of the main reasons for choosing Royal Caribbean. A brief explanation: if you're on My Time Dining, you can choose which time to have dinner, rather than have a fixed dining time. You also don't have to eat dinner with strangers if you don't want to, but you can book a table for two. Advance booking is recommended but you don't have too long to wait if you just show up on spec. We didn't have a reservation tonight but only had to wait about 15-20 minutes.
The main dining room is in three tiers, with Swan Lake on deck 5 being set aside purely for My Time Dining. We both enjoyed our three course meal, including my linguine pictured above. The Main Dining Room is an opulently designed visual feast but it's also a lovely, relaxed environment for an evening meal.
If you're into your fizzy drinks, which I am in a big way, then I'd recommend that you book the unlimited soda package before the cruise. You get a nice souvenir travel mug (which you can see on the desk in our inside stateroom picture above) and you can have this filled up at any of the cafes/restaurants as many times a day as you want. So I was never without my Diet Coke!
The Navigator of the Seas has a 'main street' called the Royal Promenade, running through the centre of the ship, lined with shops, bars and cafes. A lot of the action takes place there at night. There's lots of art and sculptures all over the ship, the biggest and most striking is near the entrance to the Royal Promenade:
But there is no partying for us tonight. It's been an extremely long day and there's the small matter of our first port of call tomorrow - Sicily!