The Western Mediterranean with SpongeBob

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.