The Western Mediterranean According to SpongeBob

Christopher Elliott writes about a recent family trip where plans to add authenticity to the itinerary went awry.

Sometimes the search for authenticity takes you to a strange place. Like on a massive cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, surrounded by ancient civilizations… and cartoon characters.

We certainly didn’t plan it that way. My three kids (ages 4, 5 and 9) are huge Nickelodeon fans (Dora, SpongeBob and Big Time Rush, respectively) so when I mentioned the possibility of taking an “all-access” cruise on the NCL Epic, they were rather insistent that I say “yes.”

Never mind that Dad isn’t a cruise fan, and that Nick isn’t his first choice in entertainment. The kids won.

In order to increase the educational quotient, we decided to take several shore excursions; captivate the kids with tales of ancient peoples. But turns out I wasn’t paying attention to the itineraries, because the theme of both tours was anything but upbeat. The first took us to an Etruscan necropolis, a burial site for an ancient civilization that predates the Roman Empire. The second brought us to Pompeii, the city that was tragically buried under volcanic ash almost 2,000 years ago. The kids weren’t enthused.

Fortunately, there was SpongeBob.

Actually, there were two SpongeBobs: the large costume character that runs around the ship posing with kids, and the guy who does the voice of SpongeBob, Tom Kenny. I had an opportunity to talk with Kenny after one of his concerts on board, and he readily acknowledged that the contrast between ancient civilizations like Pompeii and American pop culture can be jarring. He imagined the odd, macabre bedtime stories parents would tell their children, “And then the lava burned them all to death instantly!” he said in his SpongeBob voice, “Good night! Sleep well!”

So although I tried to remind the kids of the lessons learned off the boat that day, on an enormous ship like the Epic it was all too easy to get distracted by SpongeBob’s world– jelly fishing and other shenanigans. For the average nine-year-old, there’s everything you could ever desire, including three channels of Nick in the cabin; burgers and hot dogs served poolside most of the day and all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream.

If you want an authentic pop culture experience, I can recommend the all-access cruise (there were two this year, and there will probably be another two in 2012). But if you want a real western Mediterranean experience, the best you can hope for is an appetizer.

Having grown up in Europe, I have little doubt that ancient Etruscan sites and the infamous Pompeii are written off by most of the locals as tourist traps, even though they were the fascinating and educational highlights of our itinerary (at least in my mind). I’m sure there are a lot of Italians who have never been to either of those places; who know you have to venture deeper inland and spend more time in the country if you want to see the real Italy.

I understand that now. We had to give up one kind of authenticity for another, and that’s fine. It made the kids happy.

We’ll just have to come back.

Christopher Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the United States starting this fall with his family and blogging about it on Away is Home.


  1. Dot Rheinhardt
    Lady Lake, FL
    September 3, 2011, 2:26 pm

    I was on the same cruise with family members including 2 grandkids (8 and 12). They thoroughly enjoyed the cruise. Sponge Bob very graciously made a tape for them for their cousin who was not on the cruise, but is a huge Sponge Bob fan. This included mentioning the cousins name, his pets, and his grandmother. This is much more than most celebrities would do.

    A question: did others fell they paid too much for taxis in Barcelona? We stayed about 3 blocks from the Columbus Monument and took a taxi from there to Terminal A for the cruise. We took 3 taxis (2 each in 2 cabs and 3 in the other). I thgink the cab ride wasn’t over 2 miles. Each cab charged 27 euros, which I think was very high for the length of the trip. When we were on the Epic, a very nice lady at the service desk told us about the Big Blue Bus. This was 2 euros each to downtown. It was 2 blo0cks from our hotel, and we took this to the airport for 4 euros apiece.

  2. John in France
    August 11, 2011, 10:37 pm

    I don’t think you need to worry too much about what your kids get out of such places. You get to experience the historical features, whereas your kids will have seen things completely different to you. When we take the kids to markets or even galleries we all see different things and enjoy each. I once took my 9 year old to a Ferdinand Leger gallery and she spent the next year copying his art!! Even though they will have loved SpongeBob they will also have simply loved just being a family! Sounds corney but it’s true!