Want to keep a teenager happy and entertained for a week? Take them on a Mediterranean cruise, says Rosie Shelley, who sailed on board Britannia
From our vantage point 400 metres above sea level, as the morning mist started to lift, the Moroccan coastline began to reveal itself. In front of us the northernmost tip of the Rock of Gibraltar, to our left the Spanish resort of Costa del Sol, and just below our cruise ship Britannia is docked at our first port of call. After two days at sea we had been rewarded with the most spectacular panoramic view.
Except it was Gibraltar International Airport that caught my daughter Hannah’s attention. Her eyes lit up as our guide mentioned it had been voted the fifth most extreme airport in the world, largely due to strong crosswinds that blow around the Rock. There’s also the not insignificant matter of a road going through the middle of the runway. A relief then, that we had arrived by sea and not air.
Gibraltar was the first port of call on a 14-night cruise sailing from Southampton and calling at ports in Barcelona and Rome, where we’d leave the ship, and it would sail on to Naples, Sardinia and Cádiz.
Hannah is an internet-obsessed nearly 14 year old who is glued to her smartphone most of the time, so I was interested to see how she’d cope with life on board Britannia where she’d be digital-free for a whole seven days.
With capacity for 3,600 passengers and the flagship of P&O Cruises, Britannia is stylish and elegant with a soothing cream, green and pale blue colour scheme. A stunning chandelier greets you as you step into the Atrium, and for Hannah it was like entering a different world. She adored it, particularly the Crystal Room with its plush cream chairs, glass chandeliers and wooden dance floor.
We quickly settled in to a daily routine of watching ballroom dancing classes, attending talks on everything from travel to moviemaking, playing pool and enjoying the restaurants.
Our evenings were spent in the 936-seater Headliners Theatre where we enjoyed a fabulous Adele tribute act, the stunning voice of tenor Roy Locke, jugglers, musicians and dance acts that would not have been out of place on a West End stage. But there’s more to Britannia than the entertainment, bars, designer boutiques and speciality restaurants – the staff. They are warm, friendly and welcoming. Nothing illustrates this better than the experience of solo traveller, Paul.
On arriving unaccompanied for dinner on his first night, Paul mentioned to the staff that he was travelling alone, to which one of the waiters told him he wasn’t alone, he had them – the staff – and the whole of the Britannia family. Throughout our cruise we felt as though we’d become a part of the family ourselves.
At the ports, we stuck to organised excursions rather than exploring alone, and chose the Secrets of the Rock during our visit to Gibraltar. There’s a degree of compromise that goes into travelling with a teenager. In this case, it was taking a cable car to the Top of the Rock rather than hiking. Hannah wasn’t keen on a steep uphill climb and I chose to keep the peace.
Gibraltar surprised us with far more to see than we had realised. Particularly captivating is St Michael’s Cave with its the stunning stalactites, huge in stature, lit up in an array of colours that change throughout the day. The pinks, purples and greens all gave the cave a magical feel.
Also recommended is a visit to the Great Siege Tunnels – an impressive labyrinth of passage carved through solid limestone during the Great Siege of 1779 to 1783, with chisel marks on the walls where men had carved away the rock.
Our guide, with his exceptional depth of knowledge of the area, brought the history of the place to life in fascinating detail.
No visit to Gibraltar would be complete without a mention of the apes, or Barbary macaques, famous for roaming freely around the slopes. Talk of their wild nature and warnings to keep your processions close, and to avoid taking food or carrier bags up the Rock, left Hannah a little nervous. But they were calmer than we had expected and spent just as much time watching us as we did them as they jumped in and out of the trees and crept along the railings, which lined the footpath down from the Rock. It was while we were descending that the commotion broke out. A taxi driver had driven up the hill with a plastic bag in the front of his vehicle containing a passenger’s medicine bottle. The moment he opened the door a group of apes jumped in, snatched the bag and started rummaging through it.
There was a slightly chaotic scene as the taxi driver threw monkey nuts in the air and the apes scuffled to catch them. In doing so they dropped the bag and the medicine was retrieved. It was all over in minutes. Secretly I think we would both have been a little disappointed if we hadn’t seen the more wilder side of the monkeys, having heard so much about it.
Back on Britannia I relaxed in the Oasis Spa and Health Club, which is a hidden gem. Venture beyond the main reception area and there are a wealth of treatment rooms offering everything from massages, body scrubs and facials to acupuncture, beauty treatments and hair styling.
I can highly recommend the Elemis Aroma Spa Seaweed massage. You’ll find yourself covered in a heated seaweed and essential oil mask, wrapped in foil and cocooned in a sensory dry float bed where you can choose to simply relax or enjoy a fabulous head massage. The seaweed treatment is followed by a blissful 50-minute massage – it’s the ultimate spa indulgence.
Also worth experiencing on board is Eric Lanlard’s Afternoon Tea. It’s a stunning gastronomic treat served in the incredibly stylish the Epicurean Restaurant. With its pale blue, pink and white décor, it has an elegant French feel. The savoury delights included Cheese Éclair with Brie, Red Onion Marmalade and Rocket Salad, and Traditional and Lemon-scented scones, all beautifully presented and prepared with the finest, freshest ingredients.
But our favourites were the desserts, particularly the Exotic Pop Cake with Cotton Candy, which was served on a stick and shaped like a lollypop, and Summer Berries and Meringue with Raspberry Mousse and Lychees Pearls, which popped in your mouth, and Fruit Coulis served in a syringe so you could squeeze it onto the treats yourself. There wasn’t one person in the restaurant who didn’t photograph their food before eating. And if there was one meal that was Instagram-ready, it was this one.
From Gibraltar we travelled up the eastern coast of Spain to Barcelona, where our introduction to the more luxurious side of life continued as we travelled along the city’s most expensive street, Passeig de Gràcia, home to the designer shops of Chanel, Gucci, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton.
We had opted for the City Drive and Aquarium excursion, which involved a leisurely journey through the city starting at the Columbus Monument, then past the entrance to the bustling La Rambla with its colourful flower stalls, array of food stands and lively street performers, and up through the city.
The highlight was the renowned Gaudí masterpiece, Casa Batlló. With its sculptured stonework, almost skeletal appearance and colourful tile mosaics, it was breathtaking.
Not surprisingly the Gaudí Tour was another popular excursion. It included visits to see the interior of the Sagrada Família and Park Güell, designed by Gaudí at the start of the 20th century. But a day spent exploring Gaudí’s architectural legacy would have been wasted on Hannah, so we found ourselves instead heading on to the L’Aquarium Barcelona, the largest Mediterranean-themed aquarium in the world.
It is home to an impressive 11,000 marine life representing 450 different species, and is spread across 35 aquariums. The highlight was the 80-metre long underwater tunnel complete with sharks. After an hour spent exploring, we enjoyed a blissful walk along the marina admiring the super-yachts.
Cruising with a teenager could not have been easier and we both loved our time on board Britannia. Hannah was introduced to the world of fine dining, developed a newfound love of ballroom dancing (as a spectator not a participant), made friends, explored new parts of the world – and we both fell in love with the ship.
On our last day Hannah spent time talking to Harry in the entertainment team about cruise careers because she now wants to return as a crew member. That’s the impact the whole experience had on her. For me the highlight of the trip was the precious memories we made and valuable mother-daughter time. We were both offline and together, which meant we talked more than we normally do when life, work and wifi get in the way. That was incredibly special.
When we arrived in Rome and it was time to leave the ship, we knew that we’d spend the next few weeks wondering where in the world Britannia was and wishing we were back on board with our Britannia family. We would happily sail on this ship anywhere it goes.
GETTING THERE: A 12-night cruise on Britannia departing 29 April 2018 from Southampton round trip, starts from £799pp for an inside cabin. Ports of call include Lisbon, Cádiz, Barcelona, Ibiza, Cartagena and Gibraltar. The cruise fare includes kids’ clubs, full board meals and entertainment on board. For details call 0843 373 0111 or visit pocruises.com.