Cruisin’ with the Kids

IT'S FUN, REALLY

My heart sank when I found out the playroom would only be open at 8pm on the first day of the cruise. I did some quick calculations: We’d get to the terminal about 1pm, go through security, wait in the check line and hopefully be on board by about 2. After that, there would still be six more hours to kill. Geesh.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore my 3-year old twin boys Kavi and Tejas, but I repeat they’re twin boys, and furthermore, when you travel for a living like I do, you need all the breaks you can get to actually do some work (I know I know …it’s a tough job). I spend my quality time with my kids at home, not on vacation.

One of my most recent cruises has been my best with the kids thus far, in no small part because the older they get, the better they “take” to playing in a room with a bunch of strangers while mommy sneaks away.

I booked a transatlantic crossing on the QM2 last July and was excited about it for many reasons. One, I had never done a crossing before and was eager to try it. Two, the QM2 has an excellent set up for kids as young as one, with supervised programming almost non-stop until midnight (TIP #1: make sure you know the minimum age for kids programming before you book a cruise, it can be as high as three).

Don’t get the wrong impression, I didn’t leave my boys in there all day, just for two hours or so in the morning, and another two or three in the afternoon. After a few clingy “mommy don’t go” moments, I would pry them off my limbs and run out. I’d call 15 minutes later to find that they weren’t missing me a bit, and having a blast flinging themselves around the ball pit. When I’d pick them up at the bright, windowed playroom, they’d hand me some cute little painting or mask they had made.

Guilt schmilt, they were happy, I was happy.

The QM2 was the boys’ ninth cruise, and the first in years when I had so much free time. Evenings, after feeding, bathing and getting Kavi and Tejas off to sleep in the cabin (TIP #2: ideally, book a cabin with a mini-fridge and tub, and use the 24-hour room service to order milk, breakfast, snacks and sometimes even pizza), as cruel as it sounds, we’d drag them out of their beds, plunk them into their strollers and wheel them all the way down the long long corridor to the playroom. The QM2 gets big points for having a separate quiet and dark nursery (few ships do), where I could then transfer my still-sleeping angels into a cozy little crib for a few hours. For the first four nights, it worked like a charm. Then jet lag came into the picture and ruined everything. (TIP #3: make sure you take potential time changes into consideration before booking a cruise with young children).

All in all, though, we had a good system going on the QM2. But it hasn’t always been so easy, or rather, it hasn’t always not been hard (if you’ve ever traveled with toddlers, you’ll know exactly what I mean).

In the spirit of keeping up appearances as an ambitious career mom, I lugged my boys aboard their first cruise at the ripe old age of 9 months, along with a 400-pound suitcase filled with 70 little clinking jars of spinach and sweet potatoes. (TIP #4, if your kids are still in diapers, eating jar food and/or drinking formula, you gotta bring your own.)

The toughest part was lining up a friend to go with me. My husband Arun had conveniently used up all of his vacation time for the year, so he says. Pre-kids, I had friends and relatives (and even strangers) lining up to travel with me. Suddenly everyone stopped answering their phones …well, almost everyone.

My friend Beth stepped up to the plate and signed up for the first one. In those early days, before the boys were old enough to participate in any supervised activities, it was the boys and us all day long. To cope, it was essential we had a break come evening to re-group, re-cap and drink a lot. To this end, I always made sure I booked a cruise with private in-cabin babysitting (TIP #5, private babysitting works great for young children who are predictable sleepers).

On that first cruise on Celebrity’s Zenith to Bermuda, out of New York (TIP #6, avoid the cost and hassles of flying with kids and cruise from a homeport nearby), my routine was getting the boys to sleep in their cribs by 8pm. (TIP #7, most ships have cribs, but you’ve got to request one when you book.) The sitter I had arranged at the front desk, a sweet off-duty room stewardess from Romania, came at 8:15 sharp, so we could make the 8:30 late-seating dinner. It was the best $8 an hour I had ever spent.

A few cruises later on the Serenade of the Seas out of San Juan, it was a similar set up, though at 14 months my boys were now walking …and running. My friend Chrissy and I schlepped the boys to beaches nearly every day; they were exhausted and asleep by the time the sitter came by at 8:15 each night (TIP #8, the more ports, the better, and make sure they’re warm and sunny ones …trust me.) Still, it was long week with a squirmy set of toddlers, and unfortunately it all ended with a nasty little fight. She accused me of being a slave driver …who me? We’ve since reconciled.

At 17 months, we spent a week on the Caribbean Princess, in the Caribbean of course. But what was I thinking? The minimum age for group activities or any kind of babysitting was three, though we were allowed to use this great fenced-in outdoor play area. What really saved this trip was some smart pre-planning. I brought along a babysitter! Between her, me and my friend Shiela, caring for the boys was almost a breeze. Too bad it cost too much to ever consider again — a second cabin, plus her airfare and salary. Cha-ching cha-ching.(TIP #9: if your mother or aunt Shirley are hankering to spend some quality time with your kids….think: free built-in babysitters!)

The next cruise was a 3-night Bahamas trip on the Disney Wonder out of Port Canaveral. Arun was suspiciously available for this one ….probably had something to do with that nursery for little kids. At 21 months, they had a blast the first time we left them there, enjoying all the new toys and a little sliding board. The novelty wore off by the next visit and they balled like we were giving them up for adoption. Still, we preserved and pried them off and handed them over to the sweet martyrs …errr, youth counselors. Later I’d come and peek at the boys through a one-way porthole. One pathetic evening they sat together on a big Lilly-Tomlin chair staring at a television like shell-shocked little puppies. Undeterred, we tried again the next morning for two hours — all in the name of research. Arun ran to the gym and I headed to the adult beach on Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. One frosty pina colada and a deep tissue massage later, I was back aboard to fetch my little cuties and enjoy some togetherness. (TIP #10: don’t assume your little ones will be happy about being dropped off at the nursery or playroom, if there’s too much crying, you’ll be asked to take them out.)

Finally, after a few more cruises, the boys had turned two and doors really began to open. We booked passage on the Norwegian Dawn, whose kids program included ages 2 to 17. Yippee! Arun was available—big surprise—and the four of us set off on a 7-night Bahamas and Florida cruise roundtrip from New York. During the day, we could usually get the boys to spend a few hours in the playroom, directly due to its huge climbing maze and ball bin. We tried several times to drop them off at 7pm for the evening program, but they wouldn’t have it. Oh well, we’d have to resort once again to putting them to sleep in the cabin first and then into the strollers and off to dinner with us, as they snoozed away like little drunken sailors.

With each subsequent cruise, my boys have been more comfortable in the playrooms and now seem to really understand my explanation for putting them there. “Honeys, you play here for a bit, mama has to go and talk with Uncle Captain for a few minutes.”

Hey, whatever works.

Soon enough they’ll be smart-alecky teens and I’ll be begging them to spend a little time with me. I can see it now. “Maahhhhuummm, we just want to go and hang out with our friends in the teen club on deck 12, can’t you and pops just go have dinner without us?

Again?

Some Surprise Family Contenders.

by Heidi Sarna

It’s not just about balls bins and game boys. Here are some atypical offerings from a handful of small-ship and upscale lines.

For curious kids, the Ambassadors of the Environment program on Paul Gauguin Cruises (www.pgcruises.com) 320-passenger Paul Gauguin is a fun and educational program being offered on 7-night cruises out of Papeete, Tahiti. For an extra fee of $299, kids 9 to 15 can enjoy activities created by ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau. They can learn about different kinds of coral and fish species through hikes, snorkeling, whale watching and diving excursions. The ships’ youth counselors, who lead the way, all have college degrees in natural or environmental sciences and training from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s team.

Teens will be all over the cool toys carried aboard the sporty SeaDream Yacht Club’s (www.seadreamyachtclub.com) pair of 110-passenger yachts, including ski jets, mountain bikes, sea kayaks, and even Segway Human Transporters. Any passenger over 16 can take the toys for a spin in the Caribbean and Mediterranean ports called on by the toney, but casual ships. When sharing a cabin with two parents, rates for children up to age 12 are $100 per day and for 13+, they’re $200 per day.

There are few places in the world as fascinating as the Galapagos Islands. Darwin sure thought so, and if you want to introduce your children to the same unspoiled plant and wildlife that he explored, Abercrombie & Kent’s (www.abercrombiekent.com) 48-passenger Eclipse is a smart idea. A handful of 10-night expedition cruise tours are geared to families in March, June, July, August and December 2006. Experienced naturalists are on hand to teach kids about evolution and how it effects everything from cacti to the islands’ iguanas, tortoises and birds. Kids 7 and older are taken on beach walks as well as snorkeling and kayaking excursions.

For a cruise that’s just plain cushy and caters to kids too, Crystal Cruise’s elegant 940-passenger Crystal Symphony and the 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity are the answer. During busy family seasons like summers in Alaska and holiday weeks, supervised activities are offered for ages 3 to 17. Both ships have a cheerful playroom stocked with video games, computers and toys, and youth counselors organize stuff for three age groups like scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, and karaoke. There’s also a teen club and video arcade. Private babysitting can usually be arranged with a crewmember at an hourly rate. If toting a baby aboard, notify Crystal ahead of time, and they’ll special order jars of baby food or the chef will puree some (at no charge). - November/December, 2005