When it comes to cruising, people tend to have strong opinions. For some, the idea conjures up images of nonstop activities, nightly entertainment, and lavish buffets, while others envision noisy crowds, claustrophobic staterooms, and choppy seas.
As an experienced travel writer, I was firmly in the latter camp until several years ago, when the opportunity to try a family cruise first arose. Despite some concerns that my children -- then ages 7, 5, and 4 -- were too young to be cooped up on a rocking ship in the middle of the ocean, we decided to take the plunge on a four-day, three-night Caribbean voyage.
The combination of a no-fail destination and a short time commitment allowed us to hedge our bets in case the cruise was a bust. Instead, it was a roaring success. The kids romped in a ball-filled play area, painted T-shirts, and fed dolphins during a catamaran excursion. Since then, our family has skippered a cabin cruiser through the waters of the French countryside and joined Mickey and Minnie for a week in the Caribbean. Cruising has become one of our favorite ways to vacation, and we're not alone: According to the Cruise Line International Association (www.cruising.org), some half a million kids take to the high seas on North American cruise ships each year.
Why is cruising, once the province of retirees snoozing on deck chairs, so popular with the younger set?
"Cruise lines have changed their ships dramatically in the last 10 years to include more and better facilities for families," says Fran Wenograd Golden, Boston-based author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies. "They realize that children encourage their parents to take vacations -- and that today's kids are future travelers themselves."
Most large cruise ships feature supervised children's programs with age-appropriate activities as well as inviting play spaces staffed with trained counselors. Some lines mix in a little education -- such as foreign language instruction, oceanography classes, or computer lessons -- while others present theme cruises with sports stars on board.
"Cruises offer fantastic programs that, in most cases, keep kids so active and involved that they don't mind not being with you," Golden says. Meanwhile, parents can follow their own pursuits -- which might include wine tastings, lectures, spa treatments, rock-wall climbing, or just a few quiet hours to read -- and regroup for family time later in the day.
Of course, having a wonderful children's program can backfire if parents find themselves unable to lure the kids away from camp! Not only did our three clamor to join shipboard activities in the daytime, they soon abandoned us in the evenings, as well, for pizza parties, magic shows, and a kids-only carnival. Shore excursions, which we did together, solved our problem, offering us a chance to reconnect as a family while snorkeling, picnicking, and building sandcastles.
This range of offerings makes cruising a natural choice for multigenerational groups. "Cruises provide lots of options for family reunions among people who might not be comfortable spending every moment of the trip together," says Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum, a subscription Web site devoted to travel with children. What's more, the newer ships offer all sorts of amenities designed to make families more comfortable during their downtime. Most offer children's menus at their main restaurants, as well as early dinner seatings, room service, and small eateries for snacks, drinks, and ice cream.
As for accommodations, we've tried a number of strategies to beat that closed-in feeling, from adjoining staterooms to a family suite with a veranda. The veranda not only offered the best views around -- particularly as the ship entered and left port -- but also served as a reminder that we were, indeed, on a rocking ship in the middle of the ocean. To our surprise, that turned out to be a very nice place to be!
Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the August 2001 issue of Child magazine.