March 17, 2001


 
Taking the Kids
Family Cruises Give Parents a Welcome Break
 
Normally, I would say give me a deserted beach any day. But this time I welcomed the scores of families--especially the 350 children and teenagers--who were sailing on Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas. I needed all the help I could get on that European cruise last summer because I was traveling solo with my 13-year-old nephew, Michael--the trip was his bar mitzvah present--and my 10-year-old daughter, Melanie.

When the two cousins had their fill of foreign sights or when they were sick of spending time together or with me, the ship had plenty of diversions: new friends, two pools, TV and movies, access to the Web, all the food they could eat and a well-organized kids' club staffed by energetic young counselors.

The cruise provided a relatively stress-free way for me to introduce the kids to some of Europe's sights--Michelangelo's "Pieta" in Rome, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the ruins of Pompeii, Gaudi's soaring unfinished cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona--without packing and unpacking, navigating from city to city, missing trains or searching for hotels and restaurants with tired, whining kids begging for a burger and fries. The same convenience would also enhance a first-time family trip to Alaska, Hawaii or the Caribbean, especially when the needs and desires of different generations must be considered. Let the littlest cruiser take part in organized kids' activities while you sightsee. Send Grandma and Grandpa on a bus tour while you kayak or snorkel with your teens. Everyone can trade stories about the day's adventures over dinner.

I've always been an adventurous traveler, seeking out undiscovered restaurants or hotels, or even finding a field full of sunflowers in Spain where I could spread out my sleeping bag. I've tried to show my kids the fun of not knowing what's around the next corner. But kids don't always appreciate spontaneity. They need familiarity and routine to feel secure. And grandparents may not have the stamina to keep up.

Even adventurous parents can use an occasional breather. I realized that I was usually glad to return to the comfort of the ship (and to the hospitality of the friendly, English-speaking crew) when I didn't have another adult along to help entertain the kids.

Sightseeing in the heat of summer, especially in a foreign country, can be hard work for parents and kids, and the ship offered us a much-needed respite. I was glad not to have to think about what we were spending for breakfast or where we would have dinner. When we went on one of the ship's excursions, I could just sit back and enjoy the tour.

Maybe we didn't soak up as much local color traveling by ship as we could have otherwise. We didn't linger at picturesque cafes, museums or churches. But honestly, even if we hadn't needed to return to the ship, the kids wouldn't have wanted a bigger dose of culture.

In Pompeii they complained they were hot. In Barcelona they said they were tired. Michael refused to eat anything in southern France until we found a cafe that served pizza.

In fact, the ship was as much an educational experience as anything we saw or did while in port. Melanie played with girls her age from Egypt and India. Our tablemates at dinner were a family from Belgium with three English-speaking teens who peppered us with questions about politics, music and fashion.

Many families remain skittish about traveling overseas or flying in the wake of Sept. 11. But for families willing to venture across the ocean, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean are offering some good deals starting at less than $800 per person--less for kids traveling as third or fourth passengers. Carnival will offer its first European cruises at the end of the summer, while Princess has expanded its teens' and children's programs.

Alaskan cruises, too, are plentiful and affordable. Norwegian has rates as low as $699 for inside cabins, with third and fourth passengers in the cabin priced at just $149. Princess is touting deals for $599, and Holland America is offering deals for $649, says Stewart Chiron of Leisure Link, a leading cruise discounter. World Wide Cruises can also help you get a terrific deal. Call Leisure Link at (800) 878-1262; call World Wide Cruises at (800) 882-9000 or visit www.wwcruises.com.

To find a cruise expert near your home and to find links to all the major North American cruise lines, visit the Cruise Lines International Assn. Web site, www.cruising.org. Cruisemates, www.cruisemates.com, offers a family cruise guide complete with a list of what's new for 2002. The International Council of Cruise Lines, www.iccl.org, provides the latest updates on security measures.

Perhaps the best thing about a family cruise: No one has to cook, do the dishes or argue over the dinner check.

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Taking the Kids appears twice a month.