After more than 20 sailings, my 12-year old daughter hasn't met a cruise she didn't love. From rock wall climbing on a mega-ship to watching the mighty Mississippi River drift on by aboard a steamboat, she has experienced quite the gamut of cruising adventures. Some of our most memorable cruises, however, have been aboard small ships and steamboats that offer seasonal youth activities such as those listed below.
The number of small and mid-sized ships offering seasonal family cruises continues to increase annually. This year, I am including a record 10 cruise lines with youth programs or special family cruises this summer. Since most of the ships listed here are small, booking early is advisable - that way you can make sure you get a triple or quad cabin, since they are fewer in number than on mega-ships. Most of these lines recommend children be at least five years old to sail with them since their ships are not as childproof (less plexiglass, etc.) as mega-ships, nor do they always have a pool, which is always a big hit with little ones.
ABERCROMBIE & KENT Abercrombie & Kent offers dedicated family cruises in the summer to the Galapagos Islands and in the winter to Antarctica. This summer season, family departures will operate June 15 and 22, July 6 and 27, August 3, 17 and 24. Galapagos cruises will be aboard the 48-passenger yacht Eclipse. Children must be at least five years old to cruise and participate in children's programming.
On family departures, dedicated children's activity coordinators will entertain and teach the youngsters about the natural world. All the youth coordinators are certified Galapagos naturalist guides. Children enjoy the rides on inflatable pangas - stable rubber boats that can land on small islands - as well as walks and hikes, snorkeling and kayaking. Group games are also organized ashore.
Back on the ship, there are board games, a DVD player with G and PG movies, and other organized activities for children. Kids also enjoy receiving their equatorial certificate on the bridge from the captain, designating that they crossed the Equator. Children who share a cabin with one adult receive a $780 discount. Triples are available in suites with a queen bed and sofa bed. Family departures also include a children's menu. www.abercrombiekent.com
CRUISE NORTH Cruise North Expeditions is Inuit-owned and specializes in summer cruises to the Canadian Arctic. The line's 122-passenger ship, Orlova, cruises from late June through early September and its embarkation port is just a two-hour flight from Montreal. During the 2005 season, polar bears were sighted on every cruise.
While children are welcome all season, there is a special family sailing with extra children's programming on July 12. Additional staff will be on board to coordinate kids' activities on and off the ship. On land, activities include visiting an Inuit school, playing Inuit games, and nature walks. Aboard ship there will be children-oriented lectures about polar bears and Arctic geology. Kid-friendly food will also be served.
All season, children 12 years and under traveling with two paying adults receive 50% off the full retail price, while teens 13 to 18 years get a 25% discount. The ship's lower and main deck double cabins have two lower beds and two Pullman beds. www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com
CRYSTAL CRUISES Crystal's youth program is offered fleet-wide during the summer, on holiday cruises, and when there are at least 10 children aboard. Youngsters must be three to 17 years old to participate in the Junior Cruisers program. Some program highlights include galley, backstage and bridge tours just for kids - complete with baking cookies with the chefs -- as well as a Junior Cruisers menu with kid-favorites. Crystal receives the most families aboard its summer European cruises.
Both Crystal ships have a dedicated youth room equipped with Sony Playstation games and computers with kid-friendly software. Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity also feature a teenagers' video arcade called Waves. Other kid-friendly amenities on the ships include a library with a selection of children's books and family-friendly videos to rent (there are VCRs in every stateroom); a pool; putting green; and paddle tennis court.
Private babysitting is also available at $7.50 per hour for one child, $10 per hour for two children, and $12.50 for three. Baby food, highchairs and booster seats are available upon request. Crystal does track the number of babies and toddlers on board and reserves the right to restrict the number of children under three if there are too many little ones on a specific sailing.
Crystal Symphony offers ten connecting staterooms and 89 staterooms with a third berth. There are 40 connecting staterooms and 75 staterooms with a third berth on the Crystal Serenity. Children 11 years and younger pay 50% of the minimum fare when accompanied by two full-fare adults. www.crystalcruises.com
DELTA QUEEN STEAMBOAT CO. For the third year in a row, Delta Queen Steamboat is featuring a family program, to be offered June 3-August 21. "Family Riverventure" promises to take families back to a simpler time to reconnect with each other aboard the 416-passenger Mississippi Queen paddle wheeler. In the past, the newer American Queen was also featured but the ship is not sailing this season due to the lack of infrastructure in its home port of New Orleans.
The focus of this program is to "unplug" kids from technology and instead offer activities and entertainment that parents and children can experience together. There will be Family Activities Coordinators aboard these summer sailings to supervise activities such as kite flying, scavenger hunts, and theme days like Steamboat Olympics, with sack races and even fence whitewashing contests a la Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
During the Family Riverventure cruises, a "Riverlorian" will present programs geared towards families that give insights into the culture and lore of the rivers of the south and heartland. Throughout the cruise, there are references to the Mississippi River's most famous trio of kids - Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.
There are also kids-only activities such as a pajama parties and knot-tying sessions overseen by trained counselors. Children must be age five to 17 to participate in the youth programming. Some of the unique activities for kids include exploring the pilot house, visiting the steam-powered engine room, and reading mile markers along the river. All these activities help children earn their Cub Pilot's license. The ship also has a kids' menu for dinner, and nightly snacks await families in their staterooms. This year, there will be a few excursions that offer children's rates.
Once again, children under 18 years travel free in triple and quad staterooms on the Mississippi Queen when sharing a room with two full-fare adults. There are also additional early booking savings of 25 to 35 percent as well as free airfare on some cruises in June and July. www.deltaqueen.com
FRED OLSEN LINES Fred Olsen Cruise Lines has many children aboard its week-long cruises in the summer to the Norwegian fjords, Baltic, and Finnish Lapland. While the line does not have a dedicated children's program during the summer, it does have a kids' escort on sailings where a number of youngsters are aboard. The escort helps entertain with games, play stations, and crafts. Most of the ships also have pools and Internet cafes.
Even though the Fred Olsen ships are small, they all have numerous cabins with third and fourth berths for families as well as many interconnecting staterooms. The line offers a number of excellent savings for families. The seven-night Norwegian fjord cruises this summer feature discounts of at least 40 percent if booked by March 31. On top of those discounts are major savings for kids sharing a cabin with two adults: Children age 2-11 receive an additional 80% discount; children between the ages of 12 and 16 years receive an additional 65% discount. www.fredolsencruises.co.uk or www.bortonoverseas.com
LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS While Lindblad Expeditions has special sailings with youth counselors in the summer and at other peak travel times, it encourages families to travel with the line year-round since naturalists and expedition leaders on board are accustomed to providing hikes and activities for children at any time. Both the family sailings as well as regular cruises offer early meal times, visits to the bridge and other special provisions such as shorter hikes for kids. This year, rather than having just one family coordinator on board, all staff on Alaska and Galapagos departures have been trained by Lindblad's family travel experts in conjunction with National Geographic's education department and National Geographic for Kids magazine. This is because the line's summer family business has grown to account for 11 percent of its passengers.
This summer, family voyages include: Alaska itineraries departing on June 25, July 2, 22 and 29; August 5 and 12; Costa Rica and Nicaragua on July 29, August 5,12, 19 and 26; and Galapagos on two different ships departing on June 30, July 1 and 21, and August 4, 11, and 12. On these cruises, some of the children's activities include snorkeling, swimming with sea lions, kayaking, zip lining, rain forest hikes, horseback riding and even a baseball game with local children. There are also kids' dinners and movie time in the lounge while the parents eat dinner.
The line is in the midst of publishing a new series of educational activity books for kids. Archie Comics illustrator Stan Goldberg traveled with the line to the Galapagos and Alaska and created a cartoon child explorer "Little Lin." Her adventures teach her about the wonders of the natural world and the activities give kids subtle messages about taking care of the environment. The activity books will be given to all families on Galapagos and Alaska voyages. Children under 18 years of age receive $500 off the double occupancy cost. The ships all have a number of triple cabins. www.expeditions.com
PACIFIC DELIGHT How would your kids like to say that they made a kite in Beijing and then flew it in Tian An Men Square? They can this summer during Pacific Delight World Tours' 15-day "Family Yangtze River Escapade." From holding a baby panda on their lap to planting trees with Chinese students along the Great Wall of China, the package includes a four-day cruise aboard a Victoria Cruises ship on the Yangtze River along with hotel stays and airfare.
Aboard ship, family oriented activities include lessons in Mandarin, traditional brush painting, dumpling wrapping, fashion shows depicting Chinese dress styles dating to 206 BC and shows put on by the crew. On land, activities for kids include eating a home style dinner with local families, seeing the art of paper-cutting at the Arts & Crafts Research Institute, attending a Shanghai acrobat show, and watching noodle-making demonstrations at the Terra Cotta Museum.
Family departures this summer are June 19 and 26; July 10 and 24; and August 7 and 14. While there are no special kids' meals, cuisine is both Western and Chinese, giving children plenty of choices. www.pacificdelighttours.com
RADISSON SEVEN SEAS CRUISES Radisson Seven Seas Cruises offers a summer youth program called Club Mariner in Alaska, Europe, Caribbean and Bermuda. The program is for children six to 17 years old and is overseen by youth counselors. Activities focus on integrating the region's heritage and natural environment through crafts and games. Club Mariner also offers kids-only tours of the ship and kid-friendly menus are available.
This summer, the Club Mariner youth program will be offered on the following cruises: Seven Seas Voyager in Northern Europe, between June 9 and August 19; Seven Seas Mariner in Alaska, between May 24 and August 23; and Seven Seas Navigator in Northern Europe and Mediterranean, between July 1 and August 26.
In addition, RSSC will once again offer a unique children's educational program in Tahiti. This year, it will be offered on June 10 and 21, July 1, 12, 22, and 29, and August 5, 12 and 23. This fun learning program, called "Ambassadors of the Environment," will be held on the 320-passenger Paul Gauguin in Tahiti in conjunction with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society. The program aims to give young cruisers (aged nine to 15) direct interactive experience with marine and island ecosystems. According to Cousteau, "kids make better decisions as adults if they've been exposed to the natural world" when they are young. His ultimate goal is for these young participants to become "ambassadors" and teach others about the need to preserve our oceans.
Points emphasized in Ambassadors of the Environment include the importance of coral reefs, sustainable lifestyles, and Polynesian culture. Children will learn by hands-on experiences such as hiking through a rainforest, exploring coral reefs, seeing whales breeching, learning from Polynesian youth how to paddle an outrigger canoe or dance Polynesian style. The youth counselors on these Tahitian sailings have degrees in natural or environmental sciences and have been trained by Cousteau. There is a $199 fee for the program, which covers six to seven shore excursions. Children must be competent swimmers to participate.
RSSC offers a 50 percent discount for one child who shares a stateroom with two paying adults. The line's ships can accommodate a number of triples but not quads, unless there are two small children under seven who can share a sleeper sofa. In that case, both children will receive the 50 percent discount. The line recommends booking a connecting cabin or two-bedroom suite for families of four. www.rssc.com
TAUCK BRIDGES Tauck Bridges is a division of Tauck World Discovery tours that offers family-oriented land and sea adventures. This summer, Tauck Bridges features a Galapagos cruise aboard the M/V Santa Cruz. Tauck Directors who accompany the cruises are specially chosen for their affinity for kids and ability to offer group activities aboard ship. On land, there are naturalists who gear their talks and walks to children. Additionally, the hotel where families stay the night before or after the cruise has a swimming pool.
The Santa Cruz has a number of triple and quad staterooms as well as common space for kids to congregate and do child-oriented group activities. The Bridges departures for this summer are June 10 and 17; July 1, 8, 22, and 29; and August 12 and 19. Children 11 years and under, sharing a cabin with two adults, receive a $500 discount on these cruises. The line requests that children be at least three years old and notes that those who are about eight years and older will have the best experience in the Galapagos. www.tauck.com
WINDJAMMER BAREFOOT CRUISES Families can kick off their shoes and experience unique activities like hoisting the sails aboard Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' summer sailings on the Polynesia and Legacy. The line's "Junior Jammers" youth program is available for kids between the ages of six and 12 years while the teen program is for those age 13-17. The Legacy cruises from Miami to the Bahamas and the Polynesia sails from Antigua in the Caribbean.
The Junior Jammers program is available June 2 through July 28 on the Legacy and June 2 through August 13 on the Polynesia. On these cruises, youth counselors plan activities for the youngsters on the ships and on land. Unlike most large cruise lines, Windjammer's youth program takes kids on land excursions like visiting a pirate museum, snorkeling in gentle waters, or going into town for ice cream. While there isn't a kids' menu on board, there are a few special pizza nights or 'make your own sundae' parties for kids only. Activities for teens include steel drum sessions, water sports, and sleeping under the stars on the top deck while the ship is under sail.
What's most unique, though, is that on these cruises kids as young as six years can learn to dive. For children ages six to eight years, SASY (Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth) is available to introduce kids to diving through using breathing equipment, snorkel and flotation devices. Kids ages 8 to 12 years can graduate to Bubblemaker, a first scuba experience with real dive equipment. The next step offered is a PADI Seal Team where children can go on Aqua Missions. Lastly, Junior Discover Scuba is offered enabling youngsters to dive in water up to 30 feet deep. Both SASY and Bubblemaker programs are supervised by certified PADI instructors.
Once again, kids can sail free during these summer cruises. One child age six to 12 sails free when accompanied by two full fare adults in the same cabin. www.windjammer.com.
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