Grand Cruising with Grandkids

| December 4, 2006

So you're considering vacationing with your grandchildren, yet you don't want the hassle of restaurant reservations and finding nightly entertainment. You think cruising together would make life much easier. Yet you dread joining thousands of others aboard the behemoths equipped with rock-climbing walls and boxing rings. Or seeing mouse-eared characters popping up around every corner. And dumping the grandkids in day-long camps so you never see them isn't your idea of vacationing together.

Is there an answer to this dilemma? Read on.

"I cannot stress how multi-generational cruising, of which grandparent-grandchildren travel is a strong component, is red hot right now," said Terry L.Dale, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a marketing and regulatory consortium of 21 cruise lines.

While few specific statistics are available, cruise officials notice a rising visual presence of the two generations traveling together. "We've seen an increasing trend of grandparents traveling with grandchildren, without their parents, for some time, and it will continue to increase," said Gary Sain, chief marketing officer and partner of Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown, & Russell, a marketing firm which tracks the travel industry.

The Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown, & Russell/Yankelovich National Leisure Travel Monitor 2006 found that 30 percent of grandparents traveled with their grandchildren in the last 12 months and, since in many cases both parents work, grandparents often went alone with their grandkids, Sain said.

In one study, the latest conducted by the Travel Industry Association of America in 2003, the number of vacationers traveling with their grandchildren increased to 17 percent from 7 percent in 1999, an increase of 10 percent, said TIA spokesperson Cathy Keefe.

Why does cruising with grandchildren fill such a need? It provides a chance for grands to bond with their grandchildren, enjoying intensive time together, without the dynamics and stresses of parent/child relationships. They can develop the kind of relationships missing when the two generations don't live near each other - or even in the same house - as they did in former times. Often in divorced families, children live in different parts of the country, so grandmothers and grandfathers rarely get to see them.

Cruising allows an opportunity to interact with grandparents, perhaps on a one-to-one basis. Also, it provides a background for learning and fun if parents can't afford to expose the children to this type of vacation but the grandparents can. And, in some cases, it's a chance for cousins to get to know each other better.

A bonus: Winnie Kay, of Toronto, traveling with her grandson Liam McNamara of Greenville, SC, aboard Holland America Line's Westerdam, said, "Traveling with grandchildren keeps you young!" As for behavior, somehow, the tantrums that occasionally erupt when they're with their parents never materialize when they're with grands.

And grandmoms and granddads are generally retiring at younger ages, are usually in better health than their parents were, have the time and more disposable income. The Baby Boomer generation is hopping on this floating wagon in large numbers.

"As these Baby Boomers mature, they are looking for new and meaningful ways to bond with family," said CLIA's Dale. "The Baby Boomer market is becoming increasingly more affluent. They are willing to pay for vacations with strong experiential components. On that front, cruise vacations ideally fit the bill. Cruises feature everything boomers demand: healthy living options, enrichment programs and, of course, family bonding."

So, you've decided on a cruise. When's the best time to go? As children get older and can't miss school, school holidays are the best times. Unfortunately, they are also the most expensive times; other times bring sale dates, so check with travel agents.

For example, over the last spring break vacation I took my four Florida grandkids on Holland America's Westerdam. Although it might not seem like Holland America ships feature major equipment to appeal to youngsters, these classy ships provide all the necessary fun amid a background of art and excitement, the type of ship I'm comfortable with. And, as an all-inclusive, meals, entertainment and camp programs are included in the price.

We sailed on a seven-day western Caribbean itinerary. My grandchildren are not travel novices. Sisters Cydnie, 14, and Anna Staub, 10, and siblings Andrew, 11, and Marti Freudenberg, 9, have sailed with me individually on mega-ships outfitted with all the eye-popping, high energy kids' attractions. I've even taken some of them to Europe.

Now, I thought, they were old enough for a more sophisticated and elegant cruise, ready for us to share more quality time together aboard a ship with rich wood paneling, museum-quality art--and sans flashing neon lights. What pleasure it gives me to expose them to aspects of life they might not normally see.

Did they appreciate it? Anna said the best times were not the organized tours, but the times our family spent together, like on the beach on Half Moon Cay or in the towns, or at dinner where we laughed a lot.

The word for the week was "amazing." As we waited for our luggage to be delivered to our cabin, we briefly toured the comfortable-sized Westerdam. The kids were disappointed that it was drizzling, so I took them to the Lido Pool, where the sliding glass Magrodome roof covered the pool and passengers were swimming. My gang's mouths collectively dropped open. "Amazing," they said in unison. Each of them later mentioned the opening and closing roof as among the ship's highlights.

Because the Westerdam isn't as huge as some of the goliaths, the youngsters easily learned their way around. Anna said the cabin was comfy, with its luxurious linens, and "having the patio was cool." She also noticed the gorgeous flower arrangements throughout the ship, wishing she could have those at home.

Lila and Jay Kaplove, of Tenafly, NJ have traveled continually aboard Holland America ships for 50 years because, "We love the pretty decor and art, the good food and entertainment, and especially how the crew caters to people," Lila said. "We like the size of the ships and the activities as well." Since they also take each of their seven grandchildren on an individual trip, this year they combined both aspects and sailed with 10-year-old Jillian Kaplove from Ridgewood, NJ.

Because Cyd has traveled to Holland with me, I thought she would appreciate the Dutch antiquities aboard Holland America's ships. What surprised me even more was her growing delight in more modern styles.

"I looked at some of the art," she said, "and it was absolutely gorgeous. Some of the modern art was breathtaking. And the Faberge eggs and the dining room chandelier with blown glass like flowers were beautiful. I never knew such things existed." Yes!! What a thrill that gave Mimi, as they call me. I guess our museum trips together haven't been wasted.

CAMP PROGRAMS: Three hundred youngsters were aboard the ship, and the counselors were well-prepared. My grandkids loved the warm and inventive counselors, and made friends in their respective groups.

And, truth to tell, times in camp during sea days give grandparents a chance to nap a bit. But the youngsters chose not to stay there non-stop, enjoying the pool and evening shows with the family.

CLUB HAL-Tweens (8-12) The children enjoyed such activities as a ship-wide scavenger hunt, talent show, twister competition and other games. Although camp activities continued on Half Moon cay with water games and sand castle building, our gang was happy to stick together.

THE LOFT This was the place for teens 13 to 17 to hang, an artist's loft with a centerpiece "neat" jukebox that played videos and karaoke . Sometimes activities such as volleyball and basketball games were scheduled. At other times, a hot tub party or dance party on the dance floor beckoned. A ship-wide scavenger hunt sent the teens scurrying. Another day, the supervisors rigged the video arcade games so the teens could play all day at no charge.

DINING ROOM If you relish the idea of being served on fine china instead of standing in line at a cafeteria, the Main Dining Room is a great place for the youngsters to learn about dressing up, experiencing new foods and table manners. (Maybe I'm old fashioned, but they enjoyed every minute of it.)

On our first evening in the dining room, the shades gently slid down as the sun set. Andrew, who seems to have a Nintendo DS permanently implanted in his hand, said, "This ship has everything." Marti proudly ordered caesar's salad every night, and said the dining room was her favorite part of the whole ship. "The food was really good in the dining room," she said. "And fancy." She seemed to order shrimp in some form every evening. Which prompted a discussion of the proper way to eat a shrimp cocktail: hands or fork?

Lobster was a no-brainer. And because grandparents can be a bit indulgent, they had soda (pop) every night. Andrew satisfied his underdeveloped palate with mac 'n cheese, hot dogs or pizza. (Note to Mom: I made sure he had some protein, at least.) The unadventurous Andrew screwed up his courage one night and tried the chilled strawberry soup - strawberries being his favorite fruit - and declared it a winner.

Cyd loved the service. "We couldn't pronounce our waiters' names," she said, "so we called them D and K. But they knew all our names the first day. And which drinks each of us liked. It was so cool." This sophisticated miss declared the lobster bisque and mushroom ravioli really good.

All declared their favorite dessert was the white chocolate chef's hat filled with milk chocolate mousse and berries - Mimi's too.

But the Dessert Extravaganza at the Lido Pool one night at 11:30 was pronounced "amazing." Anna said, "The cake made like a book and the chocolate fountain were cool." Andrew said, "It was unbelievable how they made chocolate look like so many other things."

Cyd and I also enjoyed the cooking demonstration in the Culinary Arts Center, something we've done before ashore. She couldn't believe they had this entire kitchen setup aboard the ship, part of the Signature of Excellence upgrades.

One day we visited Half Moon Cay, the private island owned by Princess and the best of all the cruise lines' private islands. Grandparents will be impressed with the mini clinic staffed by professionals in case of accidents. They even have balloon-tired wheelchairs for those with handicaps or injuries.

The kids didn't want to join Camp HAL there, but stay with our family instead. The island's activities continue multiplying, from deep-sea fishing and kayaking, to scuba diving and banana boating. We went on a nature walk around the island. The youngsters loved swimming in the clear aquamarine water at the crescent-shaped beach and building castles of the clean sand. They even climbed up and slid down the corkscrew beach slide at the aqua park. The beach barbecue, served buffet style, appealed to all.

And we tried a newer addition to the island's attractions, swimming with the gentle southern stingrays at the Stingray Adventure. Participants had to wear snorkeling equipment and snorkel within the penned-off area to feed the rays. We weren't permitted to set our feet on the bottom, which we were told was soft, and that we might harm the rays. Anna was really brave and swam all around the penned in area. She thought the stingray experience was the best. But some of the children weren't comfortable with snorkeling, so hovered around the steps. This was a bit disappointing.

ENTERTAINMENT Together, we caught two shows in the elegant burgundy and cream Vista Lounge. At the production number "Grand Tour," Andrew was fascinated by the use of colored lights and lasers, and the stage rising with dancers on the lifts. "Just amazing" declared the normally blase Andrew. The girls, however, were blown over by the musical numbers. They said the dancing and energy were so cool, the costume colors so vibrant and bright.

Another night, a really fantastic illusionist mesmerized them. Andrew especially tried figuring out the tricks for days, such as how the woman disappeared in the box. But the most exciting was how the magician on a motorcycle on-stage ended up on that motorcycle in the audience.

Finally, from the sometimes taciturn Andrew, this stamp of approval: "It was the most stupendous trip I've ever been on (even though I was a bit scared of ships)! I loved all of the amazing animals I was able to meet and swimming around with them was fantastic!"

What's in it for you? You get to expose these youngsters to things they might not have experienced otherwise. You share a closeness such as previous generations had when they lived together. You give your grandkids memories of you to retain forever. For years you'll hear, "Remember when...?"

TIPS FOR GRANDPARENTS: Grandparents have the luxury of spoiling their grandchildren a bit more than their parents can, since they don't have to live with them on a day-to-day basis. For example, while I luxuriated with a massage treatment at the spa one day while the young ones were at camp, I treated 14-year-old Cyd to a grownup manicure. Yet certain ground rules should be followed.

  • Grandparents should carry a letter from the parents authorizing them to take the children (particularly if the parents are divorced), along with a letter permitting any medical treatment for emergencies that might arise.If the grandkids are young, carry a favorite stuffed animal or blanket for familiarity and bring a nightlight if that's what they use at home.
  • It's a good idea for the youngsters to bring their own cameras and journals to record their impressions for the future.
  • Establish certain rules in advance, such as a curfew. The Loft activities end at 1 a.m., so that was when Cyd was expected to return to the cabin (one 14-year-old stayed out until 4 a.m. one night).
  • Cyd carried a walkie-talkie when she wasn't with me.
  • For teens, no alcoholic drinks from the mini bar and girls shouldn't enter a boy's cabin alone.
  • Club HAL doesn't require the age 8 to12 participants get signed in and out by an adult (three- to seven-year-olds are signed in/out); I required that they didn't roam the ship individually, but always traveled at least in pairs. You feel a special responsibility when they're not your own children.
  • Determine a guideline for souvenir buying from grandparents, such as a monetary limit, perhaps one item in each port.
  • Finally, get pleasure from your grandkids; they'll have fond memories of time shared with you.

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