Our three-year-old grandson Aidan scowled at the ship's photographer when he snapped a picture as we boarded Celebrity's Horizon for a seven-night family reunion cruise to Bermuda from Philadelphia.
"No say cheese --go to ship!" Aidan exclaimed. He had just seen the big vessel waiting for us at the pier, and had read a homemade book with brochure pictures of the ship and of Bermuda that I had sent him. He was definitely ready to sail, not pose for pictures.
Once we boarded, we asked Aidan what he would like to do that afternoon, and he immediately chose a visit to the children's playroom. The room was chock-full of toys and games; seconds after he entered, Aidan had a big blue ball in his hands and was proclaiming, "play ball!"
Three generations of our family were sailing on this reunion cruise: Aidan and his eight-month-old brother, Julian; our daughter Veronica and her husband Kyle, who are in their 30s; and my husband Humberto and me, in our late 50s. We are among 16 million other families who, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, choose to travel together for multi-generational family reunions yearly.
We have found on previous land resort vacations that a reunion trip is the only way to go -- the only thing on the agenda for all of us is fun (nobody gets stuck doing the cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning, etc.). There's more time to get to know our grandchildren, whom we don't see for months at a time since they live in Virginia and we live in Florida; and more opportunities to catch up with Veronica and Kyle. We thought that with activities and entertainment available for all age groups on a cruise, a three-generation reunion at sea would be the ideal ticket for everyone.
And it was!
While the fellows were at the pool, Veronica and I enjoyed a massage and other treatments at the Elemis AquaSpa. Some youth programs were for the whole family, like bingo for prizes, and we all attended with Aidan.
Dining was particularly easy, and varied enough to please different tastes. For a typical lunch, the younger generations could opt for burgers and hot dogs poolside, while the older generation had the main restaurant or the informal, buffet-style Coral Sea Café. The ship's Casual Dining Boulevard, including sushi bar, pizza/pasta stations and table-service dinner was a great option. Complimentary room service was another option we enjoyed often.
"Many itineraries are good for a three-generational cruise," said Miltos Papoukas, hotel manager aboard the Horizon, "but Bermuda is ideal, because we spend three nights in Hamilton and everyone can enjoy the beach, shopping, and attractions without having to hurry back to the ship."
To maximize our beach time, we reserved a room at the Ariel Sands resort, with a sheltered cove perfect for children (on South Road near Hamilton, $330 a night, 1-800-468-6610) so we could use the resort's facilities and go swimming both the afternoon of the day of check-in and the following morning. Another family we had lunch with onboard one day did the same, but at another hotel, the Elbow Beach, with one of the best beaches in Bermuda (also on South Road, $455, 1-800-416-8189).
"With an infant and toddler in tow, we would not have attempted this unless it was a family reunion, with more helping hands," our daughter Veronica said. "Three generations at sea are better than two."
Like us, more and more families seem to be finding out about the rewards of three-generational get-togethers. A survey of 400 agents by the American Society of Travel Agents found that 64.5 percent had seen their multi-generational groups increase in the last five years.
"It's a trend fast becoming popular," said Tara Rogers of World Wide Cruises (1-800-882-9000), an agency that books some 50 reunion cruises a year. "People are living longer and love to travel with family members as sometimes this is the only way they can spend quality time together," Rogers said. "We have groups of grandparents, their children and grandchildren, and even their great-grandchildren!"
Here are some tips for a successful three- or four-generational family reunion from Rogers and Papoukas, and lessons from our own experience:
- Book early. The number of connecting cabins on ships is limited. For best selection, book at least six months in advance, and if possible, a year in advance, Rogers recommends. As a bonus, you will be able to take advantage of early-booking discounts, and a good cruise agency will guarantee you the best rate if fares drop before sail date.
- Involve everyone in all aspects of planning: ship and itinerary selection, cabin choices, sightseeing, etc. We did, and discovered early on that it would be much better for our children and grandchildren not to have to fly to meet the ship, so we selected the Horizon's cruise out of Philadelphia -- an easy drive from their home in Fairfax, Va. We made Aidan a book with pictures from cruise brochures about the ship and the places we were going to visit, so he had an idea what to expect. If you are traveling with older children, let them pick some activities onboard ship and ashore.
- Consider an extra cabin for the kids. We booked one stateroom for my husband and me and two connecting cabins for our children and grandchildren, so the parents could have some privacy and yet keep an eye out for the children.
- If your ship has two traditional dinner seatings and your three-generational group includes young children, opt for the first seating, as they may be too hungry for dinner at 8 or 8:30 p.m. In our case, the Horizon has two dinner seatings, so the grandparents dined with the grandchildren in the casual café at 6 p.m. or in the main dining room at 6:15 p.m., and the parents opted for the late seating dinner. We all ate together at open-seating breakfasts and lunches. A children's menu was available.
- Some ships do not have a self-service launderette. Ours did not, so we packed accordingly to save laundry service fees.
- As part of your planning, discuss who is going to pay for what expenses (cruise fares, tipping, shore excursions, meals ashore, etc.). That way there are no surprises later, and one generation does not have to pay the lion's share of the costs.
- Though you are cruising together, it is OK to plan some time apart from each other, so all members of the group can relax and pursue personal interests.
- When sightseeing together or participating in activities on the ship, Papoukas recommends variety so all members of the group are entertained: Combine an outing to the beach with shopping, for instance. Also, keep in mind the varying degrees of stamina of members of your group and plan rest periods for the children and older grandparents. When sightseeing, alternate a boat, bus or other ride with walking stints, or break up your touring with an ice cream or cool drink at a sidewalk café.
- Consider spending a night in the port city prior to your cruise. We did in Philadelphia and not only did we enjoy touring Independence Hall and seeing the Liberty Bell, Fairmount Park and a couple of the city's world-class museums, but we were rested and relaxed the next day as we boarded the ship.
- Keep your expectations low. Tell yourself that "this is going to be a good vacation" instead of "this is going to be the best trip of our lives." That way if things do not go well, there is no big let-down, and if they do and it is the best trip ever –- and it may very well be -- then it's a bonus.
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