Warning: Cruises can be habit forming
I have a confession to make. I think I may have unwittingly gotten my children addicted to cruising. When my 7-year-old daughter passed at a chance to have breakfast with Arielle at the Cinderella castle and my son decided that the new Harry Potter theme park didn’t seem as exciting as a boat voyage, I realized they had caught “sea fever.”
We took our first family cruise three years ago and we’ll be taking our third in March (it will be my eighth).
I have found that a voyage aboard a ship is a fun way to discover a part of the world in a few days. Most ports offer a cornucopia of sights and sounds, and the opportunity to introduce children to new cultures. Combine that with the variety of fun onboard activities, and a cruise certainly makes those all-inclusive vacations seem lacklustre.
To attract more families and keep children happily engaged, cruise lines now offer meet-and-greets with much-loved cartoon characters, zip lines, 24-hour pizza parlours, among other things. However, with the dizzying array of options available, choosing the best cruise vacation can be daunting for some parents.
Visiting ports of call
Cruises that leave from various Florida ports are popular with Montrealers as they are a short plane ride away and visit popular and sun-kissed hotspots in the Caribbean, like Jamaica, Virgin Islands, Cozumel, Grand Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.
Research your ports of call before your vacation and choose one or two must-see island sites. I always involve the kids in planning activities and places to visit as it helps build that pre-vacation excitement.
Cruise ships sell shore excursions that you can purchase online before you sail or onboard. Popular kid-friendly ones include activities like feeding stingrays, swimming with dolphins and viewing sea life through glass-bottomed boats. It is less expensive to use local tour operators once you get off the boat but you have to be careful that you don’t get ripped off and that it is clear where you are going and for what price.
Days at sea
There are days in between ports where the ship sails the open ocean. Start your day with a hearty breakfast, then peruse the daily bulletin and choose the activities for the day. Keep your eyes peeled for pods of dolphins — apparently, mornings are the best time to spot these playful creatures.
If you’ve ever lounged poolside on a cruise, you know that it is invariably the most popular activity for children. Many ships have elaborate waterslides and toddler-friendly wading pools. Always check height restrictions to avoid disappointment (and a lot of tears). On our last cruise onboard the Carnival Paradise, my 7-year old-made the long trek up the impressive 72-foot Twister water-slide only to make the painful discovery that she did not meet the height requirements.
One really popular activity is the “behind the scenes” tours that ships offer. We took a tour of the ship’s kitchen, during which the animated head chef proudly explained how 6,000 meals are masterfully prepared every day. We marvelled at the streamlined operations, snuck a peek at the sizzling roast beef baking in giant ovens, and the kids squealed in delight when they were invited to help ice the cakes for that night’s midnight chocolate buffet! (Expect to gain a few pounds on a cruise.)
There is an abundance of nightly entertainment on ships, everything from theatre productions to open-mike karaoke performances in the various lounges; however, they tend to be geared towards an adult crowd. One absolute hit with kids is the open-air movie theatre that some ships have featuring the latest blockbusters. On the very last evening of our last cruise, we headed up to the top deck for movie night. Snuggled into a lounge chair with our popcorn and blankets, gazing up at the starry night, it was a great way to reminisce with the family about the magical days we’d just spent together.
Cruising pitfalls to avoid
Arrive in your port city the day before your cruise; this is particularly important during winter months so you have ample time to get to your boat in case of flight delays or cancellations.
Ships run a tight schedule and will not wait for tardy passengers. Ensure you note the entry time when doing excursions and aim to return one hour before it pulls off.
Sea-sickness can put a damper on a cruise. Although it may seem the sheer size of a cruise ship can counterbalance ocean waves, the fact is that you do feel the boat moving, particularly during the hurricane-prone months of June-December when ocean currents can be rough. If you do get sick, there are over-the-counter remedies available. Rooms in the middle of the ship have the least amount of motion.
A six-night cruise leaving out of Miami, Fl. on the Carnival Breeze in March visiting Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Cozumel in an interior room for four will cost you $519/adult and $259/child for a total of $2,315, all taxes and port charges included.
You will also have to factor in the price of a round-trip flight from Montreal to Florida. Air Canada and WestJet have non-stop flights leaving from Montreal to both Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
To avoid paying for return airfares, you may want to consider a seven-night cruise that leaves from the Old Port of Montreal on Holland America (from May to October). These cruises visit Quebec City, various ports in the Maritimes and New England, with a final destination in Boston (you have to make your way back to Montreal).
When choosing a cruise, a helpful site is vacationstogo.com. Customize your preferences (departure ports, lengths of cruise, places you’d like to visit etc.) and get a list of cruises tailored for you.