It was late January, 2016. My husband and I sat down at our dining room table with a pair of notepads, pens and a bottle of wine, and we cranked up the radiators beneath the windows so the frigid night air wouldn’t freeze us out. The boys had gone to bed, and we had serious business to take care of: writing our official family travel bucket list.
Even though we still had another two years left in Germany, we were aware of our limited time and financial resources, and the pressure to see it all was mounting. We wanted to make the most of our opportunity to travel Europe on a budget. So, we each made a list of all the places we’d regret not seeing when it was time for us to go, and we ranked them in order of priority. When we were ready, we shared them with one another, knowing we were going to have to make plenty of cuts and compromises along the way.
A few weeks before, I’d browsed European cruise lines just for fun. Upon reading our lists to one another, I noticed a handful of the top places for each of us were stops on a new Mediterranean itinerary with Carnival, who we’d traveled with twice before our boys were born. That gave us a price advantage, since past guests are automatically eligible for special deals through their loyalty program.
On this cruise, the Carnival Vista, we would be able to visit cities in three of the countries on our bucket list for a fraction of how much we would’ve spent to travel to each of the places individually. Of course, we would have to make sacrifices in terms of the amount of time we would be able to stay in each spot, but the cost would include transportation, accommodations, food, entertainment and childcare for 8 days. Since we would paid for it all in advance — in small increments over a period of months — we could relax and enjoy ourselves without having to worry about our budget while we were on vacation. Sold!
I would not recommend a cruise to every European traveler, but it turned out to be a perfect solution to our limited time and financial resources dilemma this year. So, we did it. In February, we put down a small deposit on the cruise, and for the most part, it was out of sight and out of mind for the next nine months … except for the monthly payments we made towards our balance and shore excursions.
When the date of our departure finally arrived, it was almost as though we’d received a gift from ourselves, and I’m so glad we took the risk to make plans nine months earlier. It ended up being the most fun, relaxing, care-free trip we’ve taken! Here’s why.
Our cabin was cozy.
Remembering the close quarters of our previous cruises, I wondered how well our family of four would be sleeping during our vacation. Even though it was pretty small, we had a comfortable stay in our balcony stateroom. My husband and I were happy to snuggle up on a King-sized mattress, and the boys were excited to share a bunk bed; they took turns sleeping on the top level each night. My favorite part was being able to watch the sun rise and set and the ship pull into port in the early mornings from the privacy of our balcony.
The boys couldn’t wait to see which towel animal the steward had left for them when they’d come to tidy up our room during the day.
The food was plentiful … and I didn’t have to make it!
I could probably write an entire post about our dining experience on the Carnival Vista. Let’s just say we definitely didn’t go hungry while we were on vacation.
Every morning, we woke up to a buffet-style European breakfast spread. We could choose what we wanted from an assortment of cereals, breads, jams and jellies, pastries, deli meats and cheeses, eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes and even British beans in tomato sauce. We were happy, the kids were happy, and the best part was … I didn’t have to make it!
My favorite places to get lunch would have to be Guy’s Burger Joint (owned by Food Network host, Guy Fieri) and BlueIguana Cantina. Both restaurants satisfied the cravings I often have for good burgers and Mexican food while living in Germany. There was also a salad bar, a pizza station and a buffet selection in the dining room where we had breakfast every morning.
As for dinner, depending on our evening’s itinerary, we split our time between the main dining room, Horizons Restaurant, and the buffet. At Horizons, you can choose as many of the appetizers, entrees and desserts as you’d like to try from a menu that changes every night, and the best part is … there’s not a hefty bill waiting for you at the end, since the meals (breakfast and lunch, included) are part of the all-inclusive deal. Over the course of the week, we had steaks, prime rib and lobster, and I even got to try escargots for the first time.
With that said, I do want to point out there are restaurants on board that are not a part of the on board meal plan. If you are in the mood to try something new in one of the Vista’s specialty restaurants, you can dine at Seafood Shack, Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse, Bonsai Sushi, The Chef’s Table, JiJi Asian Kitchen and Cucina del Capitano for an additional cost. Note: Many of these restaurants suggest making reservations in advance.
There was a microbrewery on board.
One afternoon, my husband and I wandered into the RedFrog Pub & Brewery as we were familiarizing ourselves with the ship. Our interest piqued as we walked past two copper-topped glass kettles, then spotted a room full of large fermentor tanks through floor-to-cieling windows. While we were snooping around, the bartender asked if we wanted to sign up for the tasting event that would be held later that day. Well, of course we did! We paid $12 a piece to try four beers brewed on board (Thirsty Frog Caribbean Wheat, Frisky Frog Java Stout, Thirsty Frog Port Hoppin’ IPA and a specialty red ale that hadn’t made it to the menu yet).
The brewmaster, himself — Colin Presby — was there to show us around, talk us through our tastings and explain the process of brewing beer on board an ocean liner.
He explained how it solves a logistical problem for cruise ships. A small box of liquor over a keg of beer is a better investment for the company, since it doesn’t require so much space in cargo; however, micro-brewing allows the ship to create endless amounts of beer without having to paying for transport or having to sacrifice precious space on board. Genius!
We ended up meeting a nice group of people and drinking more than our fair share of tasty beer. My favorites were the IPA and Java Stout. It was definitely a memorable experience, and worth the extra expense!
Camp Ocean was a huge hit.
Honestly, I was a little worried about the childcare situation on board. I expected it to be crowded and chaotic, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I would feel comfortable leaving the boys there for any amount of time, let alone while went on excursions in the ports of call. The first night we were on the ship, they had an orientation and open house event where we were able to tour the facilities and meet the staff. At the end of our time there, the boys didn’t want to leave, so we knew it was going to be a good fit right away. Such a relief! They both ended up being in the same group (Penguins), which definitely worked out well. They also gave us cell phones that we could use to call back and forth on the ship when needed, which took a lot of stress out of the situation. In the morning, they couldn’t wait to head to camp, and each day, they looked forward to all of the special activities and events the counselors had planned for them (A Knight & Princess Party and Pirate Night, just to name a few).
Having childcare took the stress out of traveling with little ones who really wouldn’t have been interested in any of the places we’d visited, anyway. Plus, it allowed our boys to play and have a ton of fun just being kids while my husband and I were able to spend some rare and much-needed quality one-on-one time with one another (in Spain, Italy and France, no less!) after we’d spent a good portion of the summer apart. Win-win.
We relaxed like it was our job.
The third stop on the cruise was a port not far from Rome. Since we spent a week there last fall, we put the money we would’ve spent on an excursion to visit the city a second time towards a spa package, which gave us access to a private area of the ship with hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms for the entire cruise. It was our anniversary present to each other. While the kids were having a blast with their friends at Camp Ocean, you could find us lounging around in the spa or sunbathing and sipping frosty beverages in a cabana at Serenity Adults-Only Retreat. Truth be told, we only visited the retreat a handful of times, but it was magical.
Carnival’s ocean liners are called “Fun Ships” for a reason.
Every evening, our cabin stewards would leave an itinerary for the following day laying on our turned-down sheets. There was always something exciting going on: concerts, comedy shows, Bingo, art auctions, live music, contests, etc. If we’d wanted to, we could’ve even gone to the IMAX to catch a new release (for an additional cost), but we spent most of our free time together hanging out by the pool. Jake and Logan could not get enough of the water slides and splash pad at Carnival WaterWorks.
We also enjoyed playing mini-golf, foot pool (just like regular pool, only you kick soccer-sized balls around on a giant table), “classic” pool, foosball and ping pong on the game deck (SportSquare).
We’d wanted to try out the new SkyRide, but it was often closed due to high winds, and the lines wrapped around the deck when it was open.
One night, we stayed up late listening to a cover band play favorites from the 70’s and 80’s. I even managed to get a few dances in with the boys, which was lots of fun. Before bed, we all enjoyed snuggling up with our complimentary fleece blankets and bags of freshly popped corn to watch a family flick at the outdoor theater beneath the starry Mediterranean sky.
I already cherish the sweet memories we made.
We were able to visit seven unforgettable places.
I plan to write a little bit about each of these places another day, but for now, I’ll leave you with a handful of photos.
Taormina, Sicily, Italy
The Amalfi Coast, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Since our serious planning session last January, we’ve come to realize we’ll never have enough time or money to see it all. We will simply have to make the most of every opportunity we have to experience someplace new. Setting sail on the Carnival Vista helped us do just that. We had such an incredible time that I actually looked into which ship we could try out next — and our five-year-old asked for a cruise for his sixth birthday! — before we’d even made it off the boat.
My review …
Public Places: 4/5
Spa & Fitness: 4.5/5
Family & Children: 5/5
Shore Excursions: 4/5
For more tips on how to plan a family vacation on the ocean, check out my article, The Military Family’s Guide to Going on a Cruise, on MilitaryOneClick.com.