Travel: Cruising the Mediterranean Sea

When they say this is the life, this must be what they mean. The dead calm Mediterranean Sea is spread out before me and there's a gentle breeze on my face as I enjoy an on-deck, hot stones massage with my wife beside me.

To say it's relaxing would be an understatement.

Rewind a few days and I'm wondering what to expect as we approach the port of Civitavecchia. We've just enjoyed a couple of hours in Rome - lunch at a favourite restaurant, ice cream and a macchiato in the truly wonderful Caffe Sant Eustachio - but the only ships I've got any experience of are ferries to Belfast and now I'm about to go on a cruise.

And there she is - towering above us is the 951ft long Grand Princess. We've joined her for the second half of a two-week Mediterranean cruise out of Southampton. Operated by US company Princess Cruises, the Grand Princess is nothing less than a floating four-star hotel which can carry up to 2600 passengers and 1150 crew members. Yes, that is a ratio of just over one crew member for every two passengers.

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The standard of service, then, is everything you would expect from a slick American operation. As we embark our luggage is whisked away and we're handed wet towels - a thoughtful touch in the 40C heat that sets the tone for what we're about to experience over the next seven days.

Our cabin - correction, 'stateroom' - is the first pleasant surprise. Not every room on the Princess has a balcony, but we did and it really is a must. The extra space, fresh air and stunning views made all the difference - particularly when you can have your breakfast delivered to you every morning by one of the army of crew members apparently devoted to making sure you enjoy yourself as much as possible.

Indeed, each cabin has a dedicated steward who cleans it every morning and again in the evening. He also makes sure you get a delivery of savoury canaps or strawberries dipped in chocolate every day.

After the first couple of days you'll be returning to your cabin speculating about what culinary delights await.

As we discovered over the next few days, every part of the Grand Princess is devoted to three pursuits - eating, drinking and entertainment.

The upper decks have a series of bars and restaurants where you can consume to your heart's - and stomach's - content. We were on an anytime dining deal, which means exactly that - you can eat whenever you like, whether it's a slice of pizza or US-style hotdog on deck, lunch in the 24-hour self-service diner or a sumptuous multi-course meal in one of two a la carte 500-seat restaurants.

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Pay a small supplement and you can eat in specialist Italian restaurant Sabatini's or the Sterling Steakhouse - the latter in particular is highly recommended.

The standard of cuisine is uniformly good, despite being produced on an almost industrial scale - 14-15 tons of food is consumed on the Grand Princess every day.

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If you want to enjoy something unique, however, be sure to eat at 'The Chef's Table' - we were kitted out in white lab coats and effectively paraded through the restaurant (to the bemusement of our fellow diners) so we could get a look behind the scenes in the galley.

After sampling some hors d'oeuvres and sipping Champagne in the company of executive chef Norbert Sommerhalter and maitre d' Bruno Bogazzi we returned to the dining room where we were served wine by the knowledgeable sommelier Steffano Vanon to accompany courses that got more outlandish as the evening progressed.

Norbert's bloody Mary sorbet was something of an acquired taste but the spiked trio of beef, veal and pork tenderloin, flambed at your table by the executive chef himself, was a triumph.

It was also amusing to catch the rest of the dining room nudging each other, pointing at your table and muttering: "I want what they're having."

When you're not eating or drinking (mojitos became our aperitif of choice) you can gamble in the onboard casino, lounge beside swimming pools and the open-air bars (drinking again) on the sun decks, take in a show at one of two theatres and dance the night away at Skywalkers nightclub. If these options don't, as it were, float your boat, there's a wide selection of activities on offer, from ceramics and photography classes to line dancing and trivia quizzes.

It sounds a bit Butlins-on-Sea, but you can do as little or as much as you like and the ship is so big that you'll always find somewhere for peace and quiet.

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And then there are the shore excursions. Food and wine is a big part of the Mediterranean cruise on shore as well as onboard, so Princess Cruises have built some of the trip's activities around it.

Thus it was that on arrival at our first port of call - Naples - we were taken to visit a farm on the outskirts of Sorrento where mozzarella cheese and the local liqueur - limoncello - is produced. Be warned: if you fancy this excursion you might be faced with a horrendous traffic jam as most of the city tends to decamp to beaches along the Amalfi coast at weekends so it could be a case of see Naples and die of boredom stuck in a minibus for two hours.

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The limoncello eased the pain, as did a wander round the picturesque town before returning to the Grand Princess by hydrofoil. The bus driver's probably still trying to get home.

Next up was French island of Corsica, specifically the port of Ajaccio. It's Napoleon's birthplace and you won't be allowed to forget it as you explore the town because they haven't forgiven us for Waterloo yet.

Of course, on this cruise it wouldn't be an excursion without some food and drink to try, so we were taken to the Clos Capitoro vineyard to sample the produce. You'll want to leave with a couple of bottles as we did.

The last stop before heading home to Southampton was Gibraltar - a little slice of the Geat British High Street at the western entrance to the Med. A truly bizarre place, with more union flags than you can shake a stick at and small branches of everything from Next to Marks & Spencer.

For the truly authentic English experience we even had a Scottish 10 note rejected at a 'traditional' pub.

Historically, it's a fascinating place where you can visit tunnels dug in the 18th century as the Spanish and French besieged Gibraltar or World War Two tunnels excavated in 1940 during some of the darkest days of the conflict. Unfortunately, we got up too late for anything more than a stroll around the town in the shadow of the Rock.

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The last two days on board passed by in a haze of sunbathing, reading, drinking and eating to excess (it seems almost expected).

The penultimate evening at sea was formal night, when everyone dons their finery - black tie or lounge suits for the men, cocktail dresses for the women. The waiting staff wander around serving cocktails before you go to dinner. It's great fun - and the strawberries that night were dipped in dark and white chocolate to look like dinner jackets. Very cute.

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When we eventually arrived in Southampton we felt as pampered and relaxed as it seemed possible to be. Massages, mojitos and service with a smile had done the trick.

Only one question bothered me: who was going to deliver the chocolate strawberries now?