A Mediterranean voyage provides some quality bonding time for James Litston and his first-time-cruiser mum Adriana
Itʼs said that nobody pushes your buttons in quite the same way as your mother because she put them there herself. Thatʼs certainly true of my much-loved but occasionally infuriating mum, Adriana. Everybody else thinks that she is utterly delightful, but there is no person in the whole world who can make me grind my teeth so vigorously and so often.
You might therefore think that confining myself to a cruise ship with my darling mother – sharing a cabin, no less – might well be asking for fireworks and disaster. But while we can admittedly drive each other up the wall, we’re not getting any younger: and I’m keen to share fun times while we can still enjoy them together.
I had suggested an ocean cruise because she had never done one before and I felt the relaxing environment might suit us both. I also liked the idea of blending a variety of sights and experiences with the convenience of only unpacking once. To make things less stressful still, we thought we’d avoid the hassle of flying, so I booked us onto a sailing from Southampton on P&O Cruisesʼ Britannia. This also just happens to be the largest cruise ship purpose-built for the UK market, so I imagined there would be space to take a break from each other if we needed to. Even so, not everything looks at first to be plain sailing.
With capacity for nearly 3,650 guests, Britannia is big. We are quite overwhelmed by the volume of people embarking. Whatʼs more, Mammaʼs sense of direction is hilariously bad, so with 13 guest decks and three banks of lifts, finding her way could be very challenging. But our cabin is lovely, with ample space and faultlessly clean. Soon we’ve settled into our adventure.
As well as being careful to choose the right ship, we’ve picked a Mediterranean itinerary that meets our preferences. Mammaʼs family came to the UK from Italy in the early 1900s so, although she is third generation, our Italian roots run deep. We therefore specifically chose a cruise with several stops in Italy. The route took in places where we had holidayed together as a family when I was a young child, so it was also a cruise down memory lane for us both.
Our first stop was Livorno, gateway to Florence and Pisa. But instead of following the crowds to explore either cityʼs Renaissance marvels, we opted to stick around and discover Livorno on our own. We spent the morning admiring its ruined fortress and baroque churches, then trawled the colonnaded streets for things we love but can’t buy in England.
Things got more cultural in Rome, our next stop, where we joined a tour, discovering its staggering antiquity. We saw fragments of the walls built to defend against Barbarians, and visited the city’s main attraction, the mighty Colosseum. It was fascinating to hear tales of chariot races and executions in front of an 85,000-strong crowd. During our visit, which was in peak tourist season, the throng of crowds seemed just as big.
But although we enjoyed being immersed in history, for Mamma it was as much about reliving trips she had taken here as a girl.
We both got misty-eyed remembering aunts and grandparents who are no longer with us, but although I have heard her childhood tales a hundred times, they seemed more special when we were there.
At 10-hours long (and in the intense summer heat), our Roman excursion was tiring, so we were glad it was followed by a sea day. Mamma doesn’t like the sun (“itʼs terribly ageing, darling,” she tells me, looking at my crowʼs feet), so while I headed out to soak up the sunshine, she enjoys a lecture before losing herself in the impressive onboard library with a pile of books. I bumped into her later as she tried to find her way back to the cabin, so we went for a coffee before parting again – a quiz for Mamma, and the gym for me.
It turned out that being on such a large ship was a huge advantage as there was never a shortage of things to keep us busy. It all added up to us being able to indulgently please ourselves throughout the day.
We reconnected that evening for dinner in Peninsular, Britanniaʼs main restaurant, where we upgraded to Freedom Dining to avoid fixed seating. The service and food were excellent, with a mix of international dishes and daily Best of British specials such as Lancashire hotpot or beer-battered fish and chips, plus Great British puddings like apple crumble. We also appreciated the option to upgrade further to the speciality restaurants, where tables were less crowded making the experience more special.
But most of all, it was the little things that we enjoyed the most: the afternoon naps; the coffee breaks; and simply being together. We shared quiet moments on our balcony, watching the ocean go by. We laughed over crosswords and puzzles. And once, rather magically, we spotted a whole family of dolphins.
We see more dolphins in Gibraltar, our final port of call, on a dedicated dolphin-watching excursion. We did this same trip when I was a child and laugh at the memory of my brother getting seasick after drinking too much fizzy pop. But as much as this trip focused on rediscovering old memories, it was also about creating new ones. And after spending so much time in each otherʼs company, I am thankful for how enjoyable it was. I have also been reminded that the reason we tend to get on each otherʼs nerves so much is that, we are exactly the same in so many ways.
As we set sail from Gibraltar for the journey back to Southampton, we watched the Rock recede in the distance before heading down to dinner. Over delicate curries in Sindhu, we reminisce over our wonderful holiday highlights and raised glasses to toast the success of this, Mammaʼs first ocean cruise.
“Thank you, darling,” she says as she waves to the sommelier to ask for more wine. “I’ve had a really lovely time. When shall we do this again?”
“I had never been on a cruise before but was pleasantly surprised to find the experience wasn’t remotely daunting. Though Britannia is large, I was never too far from some peace and quiet. I don’t like being tied to a schedule, so I appreciated the Freedom Dining and being able to come and go as we pleased.
I was also relieved to opt out of participating in formal nights, as I’d rather travel light without the need to pack proper dresses.
As much as I love Italy, the highlight for me was Gibraltar. I have many happy memories of visiting there when my children were little. I also liked that they served Costa coffee in Britanniaʼs café. I get it back in Sussex, so I never felt far from home.”
A 14-night Spain, Monaco and Italy cruise on Britannia (departing 17 August, 2019, round trip from Southampton) from £1,746pp, based on two adults sharing an inside cabin. Ports of call include Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Pisa, Cadiz, Cartagena and Gibraltar. For more info call 03453 566 699 or visit pocruises.com