Cruise in Coco Cay, The Bahamas. Photo by Adam Gonzales, Unsplash

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Traveling has always been a big part of my family, but organizing it was no small task. My parents had three children of their own and then adopted five more, so vacations took some planning.  

Fast-forward many years, and my big family still loves to travel together. Family reunions are no small task. When we get together, along with our parents, spouses, and kids, it’s a huge event.

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

We quickly learned that cruising offered a stress-free, fun way to be together. No one had to cook, plan meals, host visitors, book accommodation or organize activities, leaving us all free to enjoy our time together.

When our kids were little, we took a family cruise to the Caribbean on Disney Cruise Line. For my dad’s 70th birthday, he chose a Holland America cruise to Alaska for our big family trip.

But many years had passed since then. With busy jobs, growing families and that dreadful time of COVID, it had been way too long since we had been together. I missed the camaraderie of my siblings, who had always been my built-in friends.

After a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls, three of my siblings and I decided it was high time to take another cruise. Only our spouses came along, so we were kid-free to experience the ship and each port.

We chose Royal Caribbean’s 9-night Greek Isles cruise on the Odyssey of the Seas. It would take us to Italy, Greece and Turkey, destinations high on our bucket list. I couldn’t wait to explore the Mediterranean together.

Trulli houses. Photo by Mathilde, Unsplash
Trulli houses. Photo by Mathilde, Unsplash

Planning a Cruise with Extended Family 

Once we had chosen the cruise, booking it for our group of eight was simple. We worked with a AAA travel advisor to plan the trip. She was the central point of contact, helping each couple book the cabin of their choice and make flight arrangements. She also made sure we had our own private group table for dining on the cruise and advised us on shore excursions.  

Traveling in a Group

Traveling in a group has its challenges. Each person has their own idea of what they want from the trip. My siblings and I are close, but we’re all very different. How would we plan out our time together?

The good thing about a cruise is that you can spend as much time together or apart as you want. For group activities, we decided to take turns planning our port visits. Each couple was assigned a different port. Sometimes, we booked ship excursions; other times, we explored the destination together on our own. I found this a stress-free way to travel and looked forward to experiencing what each couple had planned. 

Colosseum, Rome. Photo by David Kohler, Unsplash
Colosseum, Rome. Photo by David Kohler, Unsplash

Ancient Footsteps in Rome

Our cruise left from Rome, so we flew in a few days early to see this iconic city.  We stayed at the beautiful Anantara Palazzo Naiadi Rome Hotel, a luxury hotel housed in a 19th-century palazzo which was in walking distance of the Fori Imperiali, Via Veneto, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

Rome can trace its history through more than 28 centuries, so there was much to see. I was in charge of the Rome activities and found that our group of eight was the perfect size to book a private tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Our guide from Withlocals was a trained archeologist. Seeing the remnants of ancient Rome through his eyes was a fascinating experience.

Pompei: A Look into the Past

After boarding the Odyssey of the Seas in Rome, our cruise was underway. The next stop was Naples. Having been to the city before, I can say that I’m not a fan of Naples. Instead, we took an excursion to Pompeii, about 45 minutes away. Pompeii is an ancient Roman city that was frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Its tragic and moving story can still be seen in well-preserved ruins.

Walking Pompeii’s ancient streets past ruins of homes and marketplaces, I could imagine life there so long ago. Peering into well-preserved ruins, I saw intricate frescoes preserved on the walls and colorful mosaic floors. At the small museum, we saw the haunting plaster casts of citizens frozen in their final moments. Pompeii brings that tragic past to light in a very real way.

Athens Greece. Photo by Andres Dallimonti, Unsplash
Athens Greece. Photo by Andres Dallimonti, Unsplash

Days at Sea

Our 9-night cruise included two days at sea. I’ve always liked days at sea, as they can be relaxing and fun, especially when there is so much to do on the ship. A few of us went on the North Star, an observation capsule that goes 300 feet high above the ship offering 360-degree views. Then we tried sky diving at RipCord by iFLY, a sky diving simulator that offers the freedom of freefall without leaving the ship. It took a little practice but was a fun thrill.

One of our favorite family activities is playing card games. We spent several hours playing cards in the ship’s library. Other times, we simply sat by the pool or sipped pina coladas at the Lime and Coconut island-style bar.

Entertainment onboard the Odyssey of the Seas included musicians, comedians, game shows, karaoke, and outdoor movie nights. We went to several Broadway-style shows. The best by far was The Effectors, a fast-paced multi-media original production about a band of heroes and their arch-nemesis. The highlight of the show came when dozens of mini, lighted drones flew out over the audience.  

Roman Theatre in Athens. Photo by Enric Domas, Unsplash
Roman Theatre in Athens. Photo by Enric Domas, Unsplash

Learning About Ancient Life in Athens

I was really excited for our next stop in Athens, Greece. We took a guided tour of the famous Acropolis, an ancient citadel perched atop a rocky outcrop. Once the center of Athen’s religious life, its towering structures have been well preserved. The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, is considered a masterpiece of classical Greek architecture.

Next, we visited the Acropolis Museum, located nearby. The vast collection of artifacts from the Acropolis is extensive and provided context to the archaeological marvel outside. We saw sculptures, pottery, and many other treasures. Several glass floors at the museum reveal ongoing excavations beneath the museum.

Mykonos, a Stunning Greek Gem in the Aegean Sea

Mykonos is one of the most photographed Greek islands, and I was eager to visit. The island isfamous for its white-washed buildings with blue accents, typical of Cycladic architecture. We spent the morning exploring the narrow, winding streets of Mykonos Town (Chora), stopping to eat at a local restaurant overlooking the sea and then shopping in its many tiny shops.

One unique part of the island is called Little Venice. It’s known for its iconic windmills and colorful houses built right at the water’s edge. We couldn’t help but take a group photo in front of them.

Although we didn’t have time to explore them, Mykonos has several beautiful beaches. It also has a reputation for vibrant nightlife, but our cruise had left port by 7 pm.

Split. Photo by Spencer Davis, Unsplash
Split. Photo by Spencer Davis, Unsplash

UNESCO World Heritage Ruins of Ephesus

While Mykonos charmed me, Ephesus left me in awe. At our next stop in Turkey, our excursion took us to the UNESCO World Heritage ruins of Ephesus. Our informative guide shared some of the former city’s Biblical significance. The apostle Paul spent a considerable amount of time here and the city is referenced in the Book of Ephesians. 

A highlight was strolling through the ruins of the towering Library of Celsus, built in 117 AD. Once a repository of more than 12,000 scrolls, it is one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire. Even today, standing along its towering columns, I felt tiny next to this emblem of Roman might.

The town of Fira in Santorini, Greece. Photo by Canva
The town of Fira in Santorini, Greece. Photo by Canva

Wine and Tradition in Santorini

At our next stop in Santorini, Greece, my sister, Debbie, decided we should learn about wine. Her planned day on this iconic island included a visit to two different wineries. Santorini’s dry climate and volcanic soil is ideal for wine cultivation, and the island has a rich tradition of winemaking. Local reds are made from Mavrotragano and Mandilaria grapes.

After that, we spent many hours wandering through the villages of Oia and Fira, known for their whitewashed buildings with blue-domed roofs.

Just getting to the villages on Santorini is an adventure. The town is located high above the sea on dramatic cliffs. Our ship anchored in the bay and then we took tender boats to the island. Once there, visitors can take a modern cable car from Old Port up to the town of Fira.

Traditional donkey rides on a winding trail up are also available if you’re up for a more traditional route up the island. Returning to the ship, we chose to walk down the trail along with the donkeys. It’s not for the faint of heart, as it can be slippery and steep, but we enjoyed the views and the exercise.  

Taking Our Time in Crete

At our last port stop in Crete, we headed into Chania, Crete’s second-largest city at the Old Port. It has a lovely location along Venetian Harbor, and we walked along the sea, admiring the view and taking in the sunshine. At a portside restaurant, we dined on fresh fish and local wine, watching lazily as wooden fishing vessels bobbed in the nearby harbor.  

We had seen and done so much during our cruise, and my mind was filled with many precious memories. Italy, Greece and Turkey had all left an impression, but when I really thought about it, I realized that the best part of our vacation was simply spending time together with family. For me, that’s one of the best benefits of travel.

Oia Greece. Photo by Ryan, Unsplash
Oia Greece. Photo by Ryan, Unsplash

Aboard the Odyssey of the Seas

The 16-deck Odyssey of the Seas is a good fit for all ages. Measuring 1,138 feet long, it carries up to 4,198 guests and 1,612 crew. Its modern design includes large, roomy common areas, so we never felt crowded. We chose a balcony suite, which was fairly roomy, so we could enjoy the views as we sailed in and out of each port.

Dining onboard was a highlight. The ship has seven complimentary dining options and eight specialty restaurants which require a reservation and an additional fee. Our favorite place to eat quickly became the main dining room, where our wait staff got to know us well. They quickly learned our dining preferences and we enjoyed their excellent service and fun sense of humor.

For families, Odyssey of the Seas offers a full children’s program with age-appropriate kids’ clubs and play areas, including Splashaway Bay, a water area for little ones. The SeaPlex claims to be the largest indoor active space at sea, with bumper cars and a full-size basketball court.

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