Christmas cruising between the islands keeps the whole family happy, as JO KESSEL discovers
THE party's in full swing on the top deck as we sail away from Southampton on board Azura. There's champagne. There's dancing. There are mini flags.
"If you've got a flag, give it a wave," encourages DJ Simon. Three thousand passengers flap Union Jacks to Walking On Sunshine: it's like the Last Night Of The Proms.
Such a display of patriotic camaraderie is an uplifting start to our 12-day Canary Cruise with P&O but for my children it gets even better. The kids' club timetable is packed with exciting activities: sports, magic shows and dance competitions.
Hannah, six, will meet Noddy and Mr Bump and my eight-year-old twins are eligible for courses unimaginable at sea. There's a daily soccer school for football-mad Gabriel and for his sister Nathalie (a budding Suzi Quatro) there's a rock school. Run by a band called the US Halfpipes, participants rehearse to perform their own end-of-cruise gig.
Excitement is high at bedtime in our spacious family suite. The children's bunk-bed cabin connects to our double room via a lounge. Decor is calming yellows and beige with walnut-wood trimmings and a large balcony.
Tea-making facilities, binoculars and free on-board launderettes are handy touches, as is the ship's newsletter Horizon, detailing the entertainment schedule. My husband Marc reads it. "Ooh," he says, "there's a seminar on the secrets of a flatter stomach tomorrow. I'm going." As if.
By contrast the twins commit fully to their rock and soccer schools. Gabriel's hour-long lessons involve skill-based drills followed by match play and despite most rock school participants being teenagers Nathalie holds her own, playing keyboard on AC/DC's Highway To Hell and bass guitar on Use Somebody by Kings Of Leon.
Meanwhile Marc and I lounge under vast blue skies, occasionally playing deck quoits or visiting the ship's gym, taking brisk walks on deck or swimming early-morning laps.
Food is plentiful and tasty, both at buffet restaurant Venezia where we breakfast and lunch and at the Meridian, where waiter-served five-course dinners consist of oak-smoked salmon, wild mushroom and wine soup, maple-glazed breast of duck, with pear tarte tatin for dessert and cheese to finish.
Our first port of call is Madeira. Taking a cable car we float above Funchal's terracotta roofs nestled among palms and velvety-red frangipani. The summit boasts lush botanical gardens and sweeping views over the bay. Our descent is quirky, sat in wicker toboggans (a tradition apparently) steered by boater-wearing men scooting off the back. Zigzagging wildly down narrow, vertiginous lanes, the children squeal "faster, faster", ignoring my pleas to slow down.
More tranquil is Madeira's mountainous interior, with a network of ancient irrigation channels called levadas which can be followed on foot.
We walk along Levada Do Castelejo, picking wild grapes and blueberries. Views of the valley and ocean are amazing.
We dock at a trio of Canary Islands in succession. In Gran Canaria a day is spent on a deep curve of white sand at Playa Del Ingles, watching the children jump foaming Atlantic waves. In La Palma it is intriguing to find the palmfringed beach is volcanic charcoal instead of golden. In Tenerife we visit Loro Parque, home to 700 parrots (one flies so close its wing brushes my cheek), as well as tigers, gorillas, chimps and marine life. We also visit orca and dolphin shows.
That evening, while the children visit the kids' club, Marc and I dine alfresco at the ship's speciality restaurant Seventeen, watching the sun dip as we feast on sublime foie gras, Dover sole la meuniere and crepes Suzette.
There's a best-of-British feel on board: black tie for a couple of nights, drinking home-grown wine and ballroom dancing in the ship's atrium.
All too soon it is the last day. Flags are handed back out and DJ Simon is playing Land Of Hope And Glory. Nathalie plays her first gig, even though the bass guitar's bigger than she is.
Perhaps in 10 years she'll be back on stage, twanging out Rule Britannia. With a rock beat, of course.
P&O Cruises (0845 355 4444/ www.pocruises.co.uk) offers a 12-night Canary Islands cruise on Oceana (Azura has no rock or soccer schools at present) from £1,522 per adult, £687 per child (four sharing an oceanview cabin) and includes a rock school, soccer school, Santa's grotto and panto. Departs Southampton, December 15, 2011. For 2012, P&O Cruises (as above) offers a 12-night Canary Islands Christmas cruise on Azura from £1,399 per adult, £560 per child (under-16) (four sharing an inside cabin). Departs Southampton, December 15.