The lava glows bright orange in the black sky and we're so close we can hear it as it spews down.
It's late in the evening aboard the sailing yacht Wind Surf (www.windstarcruises.com). We're on deck off the coast of Italy; wine glasses in hand, our eyes on the island of Stromboli. Because this ship is so small (maximum 312 passengers), we're privileged to sail so near the lava cone.
That amazing sight is just one of the many pluses to sailing on a small ship on a cruise line that is ideal for parents seeking that elusive guilt-free, grown-up getaway.
"By the end of the week, you'll feel like this is your personal yacht," promised Capt. Maurits Groothuis. In the evening, we can make believe we're on "our" yacht when dining on deck, the waiters attentive to every desire and the sails billowing in the wind.
According to American Express, a lot of empty nesters are indulging in second honeymoons with many -- like us -- heading off on Mediterranean cruises. American Express consumer travel data shows a 57 percent increase since last year.
I met other couples seeking an adult respite on the Wind Surf, including several who were new empty nesters, having just sent their last child to college. "We dropped our son at college and then immediately left for Europe," laughed Janet Wagner, who lives in Savannah.
It's easy to see the appeal of such cruises. Sure, you likely will pay more than on a megaship, but you won't wait in line for anything or fight for a deck chair. You'll visit smaller ports (we especially loved the Croatian island of Korcula with its tiny walled town) and can jump in the water straight from the ship's water platform, where you could also water ski, kayak, windsurf or snorkel -- all complimentary, of course. You'll slowly remember why you became a couple in the first place.
In Rovinj, Croatia, our first port, we joined Executive Chef Ronald Waasdorp to tromp to the local outdoor market, tagging along as he bought squash blossoms, truffles and honey. We strolled past tables with brightly colored strings of red, yellow and green peppers, pumpkin oil, berries and plump juicy figs. Honey flavored with truffles, Waasdorp told us, mixed wonderfully well with goat cheese, which he suggested we'd enjoy later onboard.
Nothing like this could happen on a megaship. Nor could we visit the bridge without special permission. By contrast, this ship has an open bridge policy where we learn from the officers exactly how they raise and lower all of the sails -- 26,881 square feet on five masts 164 feet high!
There are drawbacks, of course. No balconies in the cabins, tiny pools, limited late-night entertainment. Many onboard were disappointed in the pedestrian and pricey shore excursions offered on a line that bills itself as "180 degrees from ordinary."
But that didn't put a damper on anyone's trip -- not for the kids onboard either. They didn't miss the kids' clubs and waterslides they'd have had on a big ship, they said. One 13-year-old said she liked being treated "like a grown-up."
The ship takes us from port to port while we relax as we go, deciding what we will do once we arrive rather than hassling with rental cars or trains. There's no packing and unpacking, no wondering whether we need a dinner reservation or deciphering a menu in a foreign language, much less worrying whether we're going over budget because the cruise cost, of course, covers meals, transportation and lodging.
Our last day, we docked in Sorrento along the Amalfi Coast. Our only complaint: We had just six hours! We took an hour boat cruise to Positano with its candy-colored houses, marching up the hills as others went to Pompeii and Herculaneum to see the famous ruins.
"A trip like this is just a sampler," sighed Dr. Anh Vu, a pediatrician from Houston. "You see where you'll want to come back."
And stay longer.