Costa Rica is full of special activities for kids and families
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This is the second and final segment of a story about Cruise West's summer family cruises in Costa Rica. I recently sailed on one aboard the line's Pacific Explorer with my 11-year-old daughter Alex and her godmother, Kathy.
The Small Ship Experience
Our last cruise prior to the 100-passenger Pacific Explorer was on a huge ship that carried 3,000 passengers, so we needed an adjustment period to get used to the smaller vessel. However, we ended up really liking the intimacy of getting to know other passengers and the friendly staff aboard the Pacific Explorer.
Public rooms consist of one dining room, a forward lounge, another lounge on the lower deck near the dining room, a small gift shop area, and an outdoor deck area that includes the ship's only bar. The deck area has tables, chairs and a few reclining lounge chairs for sunning. The rather plain décor is accentuated by interesting, enlarged photographs from various Cruise West destinations ranging from Alaska to Baja California. Overall, the ship was comfortable enough except for a musty smell in the lower lounge, which may result from the rugs being walked on by dozens of wet feet daily. This is the room wet passengers walk through after disembarking from zodiacs.
on Costa Rican beach
Cabins are clean and adequate, but by no means overly large. All cabins are outside with picture windows, private bathroom, and small television/VCR. The VCR came in handy during much-needed "down time" after a physical day. The lower lounge is stocked with many family-oriented videos, which Alex watched on a few occasions.
The largest staterooms fit only three people, so a family of four needs to book two cabins. However, on the family cruises, a child (12 or younger) sharing a cabin with an adult pays 50% of the adult fare. Teens (13 to 21 years) receive 25% off the adult fare. This is an excellent offer for single parents especially, since there are a few triples in which a single parent could cruise with two children, who would pay 50% off the parent's fare. On the large ships, single parents have to pay 100% for the first child cruising with them.
None of the cabins have keys -- which took some getting used to for those of us who live near or in cities! However, after a day on board, I felt very safe and didn't worry that anything would be taken from our cabin.
Kids and naturalist
There are two clothes dryers available for free use, which came in handy since we often ended up with damp clothes after zodiac rides. Another convenience is that if we left wet shoes or sandals on the back deck, the crew would hose the sand or mud off them, dry them overnight, and line them neatly on the second deck by morning. One time during the cruise, we were given a laundry bag to fill with about six items per person. We received them back the next day washed and dried, for free. I don't suggest putting any nice clothes in the wash bag, since everything came back unfolded and wrinkled.
The food on board greatly exceeded my expectations. While there isn't as much choice as one gets aboard big ships, the food was very good. Every morning, the dinner menu was posted with three entrée options. We had to sign up for our choice during the first half of the day so the galley knew how many various entrees to cook. Breakfast is partly a buffet for cold items as well as a limited menu for hot items. I enjoyed the two lunch buffets – one was on the beach, and it was the best beach buffet I've ever had on a cruise. Our only complaint about the food was that other than the two buffets, lunch was sit-down, which made for a long meal when we're rather be swimming or snoozing!
Canopy Tour suspension bridge
Alex participated in the kids' dinner one night, but since there was no choice in what was served each night, she quickly opted to join us at dinner time where she could choose from steak or Costa Rican specialties. Additionally, Alex connected with a 12-year old named Michelle, who was cruising with her grandparents. They preferred to dine as a family and therefore, many nights we six dined together.
When traveling with kids, it's best to be prepared so you'll hear less whining along the way. Following is a list of things you should consider taking with you.
- Hiking boots or sturdy, old sneakers: Summer is rainy season and footwear can get very muddy in the rainforest.
- Water shoes: These are very handy for all the wet landings on the beach.
- Water bottle insulators: Passengers are each given a water bottle at the beginning of the cruise and are asked, for environmental reasons, to refill it from large purified water coolers. We found that the bottle insulators we brought from home kept the water cooler longer in the tropical climate.
- Bathing suits: Bring at least two per person, since you will often be at one beach in the morning, change into shorts for lunch, and then land at another beach in the afternoon. Two cover-ups for ladies are helpful too.
- Snorkel equipment: While snorkel equipment is provided on board, there was a bit of a shortage in kid-sized equipment. You may want to consider bringing your own if you have room.
- Videos for little ones: While there are plenty of family-oriented videos to choose from on board, you may want to bring animated classics for younger children.
- Chewable Dramamine: My daughter usually has her sea legs, but she got rather seasick the last two days of our cruise. Small ships don't have the stability that large ships do and thus little tummies may get queasy easily. Additionally, even when we weren't cruising, we were still rocking since we were anchored but not tied to a dock. I'm glad I brought chewable Dramamine, sea bands, and also some ginger which were used by Alex more than Kathy or me. Also, the two hour bus ride between San Jose and the small port of Los Suenos at the beginning and end of the cruise includes an hour of twisting mountain roads that made Alex feel queasy too. So keep that Dramamine handy!
- Pre or post-cruise hotel: We and a few other families from our cruise spent a night on either end at the Costa Rica Marriott, only 10 minutes from the airport. Cruise West's transfer company, CRT, picks up passengers from the hotel and/or airport and transports them to the port. We absolutely loved the Marriott, which is beautifully situated on a coffee plantation and a golf course. From great views to fabulous Costa Rican cuisine and atmospheric Spanish-styled architecture, the Marriott is a winner -- and reasonably priced at $139 a night. (Note: There is also a Courtyard by Marriott in San Jose which is lower-priced but not as amenity filled as the Costa Rica Marriott.)
A Summing Up
When comparing Cruise West fares with the larger lines, take a close look at all that's included in the Cruise West ticket price. All the activities ashore – guided nature hikes, banana boat rides, kayaking, etc -- are included except zip lining and the canopy walk, which are operated by independent tour companies. On traditional cruises, you'll pay for anything you do ashore. This even includes paying for a taxi to take you to the beach for the day since there is rarely a nice beach near the cruise ports. Traditional shore excursions really add up for a family of four and should be factored into Cruise West's value. Additionally, on all family cruises, as noted above, children sharing a cabin with an adult are 50% off and teens are 25% off.
Then there's the intrinsic value that money can't buy -- giving your children or grandchildren the opportunity to learn about the natural world through hands-on experience. As Exploration leader Rudy Zamora said on our last night aboard ship, "What a wonderful, memorable gift to give your kids and our future world. Travel is about building bridges. What would it be like if all kids got to travel like this so that they learn to understand each other and our planet?" I don't know about you, but that's one of the main reasons I travel around the world with my children in tow – to teach them more about different cultures and the natural world, perhaps making it a better place in the future.