Terrified by the prospect of her first post-split trip alone with her 7-year-old son, Louise Smith took the plunge — and set sail on a cruise for Norway.
"It will wait. It's a bad time. I don't need this," said no one about a holiday, ever. Except me, when a well-meaning relative suggested that during my marriage break-up (and subsequently the most stressful time of my life so far) what I really needed was to get away. What, more stress? No thanks. They suggested a cruise, an experience I was unfamiliar with and a little daunted by. Yes, sounds stupid — what could be daunting about a holiday?
Hmm, let's see — organising myself and Archie*,
7, on my own for a start. Finances. Being on my own, surrounded by families having the time of their lives. Experiencing something new in my son's life without the other half of his genetic make-up. Is that enough?
There were, of course, plus sides to this scenario. There was only me and one child to organise (as opposed to another overgrown child, too) and I was looking forward to a lack of conflict over activities and how much they cost. On reflection I thought, well, what could actually be better for Archie and me? Some quality time to be together. So we chose an eight-night cruise of the Norwegian fjords on the Independence of the Seas in the first week of the summer holidays.
It's somewhere I've always dreamt of going, and unlike anywhere we'd been as a family. After a $142 million makeover, the ship promised mouthwatering menus, world-class entertainment and a range of activities such as a bungy trampoline experience, Skypad and glow-in-the-dark laser tag, all included. There was even a dedicated sweet shop.
My worries quickly evaporated. As a cruise virgin I had no idea what to expect, so Archie and I excitedly explored the ship. I admit it took two days before I really knew what was going on, because it's just so massive (the size of 12,205 double-decker buses, since you ask). A systematic approach seemed to be best — trying everything at least once — and repeating the successes. With food, this turned out to be straightforward. It was uniformly excellent with formal dining options, Italian and Japanese, through to a very well-stocked self-service restaurant. On the first night we'd been allocated a table in the main dining room with two couples. Nerves jangling at the prospect of ruining their fine-dining experience with a fidgety 7-year-old, I sat down tentatively. But they were welcoming and great company.
Our next foray into food and beverage was holiday-defining. Having a small person who is incredibly fussy, the self-service restaurant worked best for us and offered good opening times. We loved the singing waiters on arrival, panoramic views, flexibility to come and go during the opening times and a great selection of food. Archie was happy with pasta or pizza every night and there was always a selection of veg to assuage the mum guilt of non-stop holiday indulgence, while I enjoyed curries, "grown-up" pasta and the amazing build-a-burger experience.
We attacked the activities in a similarly systematic way. We both loved the ice skating but such was the confusion trying to get in, I accepted that queuing for ages was the only way to ensure a slot. It was well worth it.
The outdoor cinema was a big hit — our first night was spent basking in the evening sunshine watching Peter Rabbit. The theatre was West-End impressive and showed big musical numbers every night. I would have gone more had I been with another adult — as it was, the evening performance of Grease had a smattering of swear words pitched at an older audience.
A warm but cloudy first day gave us the perfect conditions for swimming, hot tubs and ice cream on tap poolside (with more than 3000 on board I was worried it would be crowded with people fighting for the sunbeds — I was wrong).
The Kids Club was by far the most popular — in fact, Archie remained there for much of the holiday! The jam-packed schedule combined a lot of active games (perfect for 7-year-old energy levels) with creative play and he normally came back with something he had made — a painting of a ship, or a cupcake. The one time I went to check on him, I observed as he watched a film, transfixed and happy with his clubmates. The club seemed to be open more or less permanently, until 2am if you were willing to pay after 10pm. (Despite only going for a short while every day, Archie even apologised at one stage for leaving me on my own).
After two or three days, we had established a routine and while Archie was at Kids Club I whiled away the hours reading, wandering, shopping and sleeping. It was extraordinarily relaxing — we became almost institutionalised, with the thought of tearing ourselves away from the ship a wrench. In fact, in the first port of Bergen we stayed on board — I hadn't booked an excursion (nerves and cost) and have to admit my insecurities took hold at the thought of exploring without another adult.
But our first excursion arrived, and wide-eyed we arrive in Geiranger, a tiny port with the most incredible scenery and an afternoon at a summer farm where they produce traditional sweet brown goat's cheese (think slabs of fudge, with a robust texture but without quite the same sugar high). We learnt about the farming methods, how they cope with the dramatic seasonal climatic changes, sampled the cheese and got a taste of the Norwegian way of life in more rural areas of the fjords. Back on board, I took in the awe-inspiring scenery along the Seven Sisters waterfall as we moved slowly back out to sea.
An early start for the next excursion took us to the port town of Alesund on a coach, up to a viewing point and then a tour of an open-air ancient settlement museum. Again, it wasn't high-octane activity for children, but Archie coped with most parts (even the Norwegian settlement museum) without too much complaining — and this was one for Mummy. The guide and her knowledge of the town — rebuilt in 1904 after it was ravaged by fire —wasfascinating.
In beautiful Stavanger, an afternoon boat trip meant we left the ship to find ourselves, after a mooch around the town, on a much smaller version. Cue more fjords, more inspiring tour-guiding and a small, traditional cafe right on the edge of the fjord where we were served traditional pancakes and thick strawberry jam with a tangy natural yogurt.
But there were other port days when I hadn't booked excursions, and I came to like the quiet of the ship devoid of many other passengers. On one such day, with rain pouring down on deck, Archie insisted on Kids Club and I got stuck into reading. It was a quiet day, full of the luxury of quiet and nothing particular to do; cosy and snug in the well-equipped cabin, my gaze occasionally drifting out over the rain-lashed windscape. Mellow, not melancholy, my eyewitness view of nature was a privileged rarity.
This same serenity and calm didn't always follow in the middle of the night. The cabin walls were thin and I was sandwiched between children from the same family, who rampaged across the corridor, slamming doors and making a racket until the early hours. Admittedly, I did leave it late to complain to the service desk — my advice would be to mention suchthingsearlyandfirmly.
The cruise I chose was scenically spectacular and very atmospheric — for bragging rights with minimal stress, it doesn't get much better. The vistas in approaching and departing ports were magical. There are more child-friendly itineraries (it wasn't always swimming weather, for example, and the excursions were mostly touring and sightseeing) but what child minds an ancient settlement or two when there are Viking ships, plus unlimited ice cream on board?
There were times when I felt lonely — but if I'd been in a better head space, there were plenty of opportunities to talk to and meet people. Instead, the time to reflect without the pressure of daily life was balm to the soul. And the beauty of a cruise holiday was that it allowed me to do things at my own pace. My greatest indulgence was Archie: having him all to myself without the sometimes conflicting opinion of another parent. I think we even grew a little closer for it, and carved out another part of our road ahead.
This, more than anything, is what holidays are for. And this means any time should be a good time.
* Names have been changed