If you’re planning a cruise with your kids, we offer some basic tips.
STORY By ANH DO
Before our trip, we had no concept of taking a cruise with kids.
I only did what I constantly try to do when traveling: pack light. And as the ship would head to Canada and New England, we’d need to bring enough to keep everyone warm, our minds occupied.
How do you do that for almost nine days?
First things, first. Focus on luggage and move on from there.
Tip No. 1: Being disciplined with what you carry reduces your burden as there’s a lot of on and off, checking in, and showing ID, among other logistical challenges, that await you when cruising.
We assigned each adult a rolling suitcase that could fit in a plane’s overhead cabin, and our child a much smaller rolling suitcase. In hers, I rolled eight outfits, pajamas, raincoat, light wool coat, fleece and colorful socks sprinkled with dogs and butterflies. In an outer pocket, I squeezed in seven new paperbacks, one for each day of the cruise as reward for good behavior. In mine, I stuffed outfits for five days, a waterproof jacket, scarves, two dresses and a pair of heels for dinners requiring formal apparel. My purse would be my mini-backpack.
We boarded a red-eye flight in Los Angeles, landing in Boston at 7 a.m. where the ship docked. We spent the day sightseeing with relatives before returning to their home to sleep. (Side tip: If you don’t want to cart hostess gifts, mail it ahead as I did and check another item off your list).
By the afternoon of the next day, with a crispness in the air, all three of us donned coats, leaving our luggage even lighter. When we entered the boat, a crew member identified us as traveling with a child and introduced himself. I hadn’t expected it, but I asked a lot of questions and he gave our dudette a special bracelet marking what to do in case of emergency, along with a schedule of children’s activities run by Adventure Ocean Kids Club, a specialty of the Royal Caribbean cruise line.
Our ship, Jewels of the Sea, awaits us in port at Boston. Photo courtesy of Anh Do.
Tip No. 2: Read the schedule thoroughly. Each day has its own sheet of activities, with the schedules placed on your bed in your stateroom. Circle what interests you and note if you need reservations. Then assess whether you can attend, based on any shore excursions or other adult classes/commitments. The staff organizing kids’ clubs usually host an orientation on the first day of a cruise; perhaps you’d like to go.
Tip No. 3: Customize your own orientation for your children. It helps familiarize them with the layout of the ship and its vast size. Point out any “no running” signs, where the closest restrooms are, who to talk to in case they’re lost. You also can teach your child your stateroom number.
Tip No. 4: Take a casual attitude toward excursions. Don’t feel pressured into having each day booked and paid for in advance for ports of call.
In a previous cruise to Alaska, we planned daily engagements, right down to golf courses we’d want to visit. But there were just two of us then. How do you micromanage with one or more youngsters in tow? Go with the flow. And keep in mind any time changes that will knock your little ones off schedule.
We walked off the ship during our first stop, in Portland, Maine’s largest city – a short hop to the popular L.L. Bean flagship store or to Kennebunkport, site of the Bush family compound where former President George H.W. Bush often can be found – game to see what it offered. Tour buses lined up along the road, along with tourist taxis. We approached the latter, negotiated a rate, and set off to explore.
An excursion into quaint Bar Harbor, Maine, was one of the highlights of the cruise. Photo courtesy of www.acadiamagic.com
At the next stop, Maine’s charming Bar Harbor, we did the same, after filling up via the convenience of room service. Here the highlight was Acadia National Park, a scenic wonder boasting the splendor of the mountains, coastline and forest, making it the second-most visited national park in the U.S. with more than 4 million tourists a year.
Lining up for taxis, we met two lovely retired women and they split a minivan tour with us. The driver, a local, ferried our group for two hours along Park Loop Road, a 27-mile, two-lane thoroughfare winding through the eastern half of Mount Desert Island. It culminated with a drive to the summit of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. Dudette proved on form, at times napping, at times chatting.
Tip No. 5: Talk to youngsters before leaving home, noting in simple terms your expectations and their expectations. We often can use trips as a lesson: new plants to identify, new food to taste, new situations calling for manners.
Tip No. 6: Back on the ship, another incentive for good behavior would be time spent at the kids’ club. Avoid using it as a babysitting service. If we cruise with youngsters and rely on club activities to entertain them from day to night, it’s better to leave them at home in the care of someone they know well and where they are more comfortable (saving money overall). Isn’t vacation for quality family time? We took the dudette on every shore excursion and when allowed club time, she stayed in increments of two hours – long enough, for example, for parents to catch a show.
Inside the club, the young staff sported friendly names such as Hello Kitty Kristina or Rock Star Rodrigo. While talking to Cheesecake Cheryl, who grew up in Scotland, she shared highlights from her teaching background and we swapped book suggestions. Each time you drop off your child at the facility, you sign in, let them know when you’ll pick up, then later sign out.
Adventure Ocean Club, for example, offers age-appropriate activities for children at different stages: Aquanauts for those ages 3 to 5; Explorers for 6 to 8, Voyagers 9 to 11. Teenagers flock to a game room, soda parlor or arcade.
Tip No. 7: If possible, cruise in the off-season. I don’t like the idea of being captive on a boat with hundreds of kids (not to mention adults) during peak time such as summer. Benefits: shorter lines, less chaos, more personal attention/instruction at kids’ club activities — on top of lower fares. Of course, with older kids in class, this may not be an option.
I long had wanted to see Nova Scotia, a dream realized on this trip. It was our final stop, following a third shore excursion to Saint John, New Brunswick, on a misty morning with rain, as it turned out. That limited our outdoors exploring, but the warmth under the dome of the Old City Market compensated for it. A full city block in length, it housed a variety of local and imported delicacies, seafood, meat, produce, crafts and one vendor selling a favorite discovery, Olivier soaps, an all-natural skincare.
We also stopped at the jaw-dropping Reversing Falls, a must-see. At low tide, the St. John River empties into the bay through a narrow, rocky gorge in a series of rapids and whirlpools, according to the cruise guide. The rising tide pushes on the river and slows the river current to a complete stop. As the tides keep rising to levels higher than the river, the current reverses direction, leading the river to flow backwards.
The lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove is one of the most-visited spots in Nova Scotia and is overseen by the Canadian Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of Anh Do.
Finally, in Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, we opted to create our own tour – a peek into a combination of the city’s once thriving sea trade, its enchanting historic center, Citadel Hill and the Lighthouse Route, complete with picturesque fishing village, Peggy’s Cove, the latter being one of Atlantic Canada’s most-visited sites. The winds whipped through our hair (all recorded in vacation photos). No matter. We scooped the dudette into our arms and ambled into a souvenir shop for handmade cards.
Tip No. 8: Remember Tip No. 1. Stick with your plan not to carry too much. That includes gifts to pass among family and friends, knick-knacks, specialty foods. If you really must have something and it’s heavy or large, look into mailing it home. (And thanks to the Internet, we can order anything, anywhere).
Bon voyage. And enroll in the cruise line family membership if you think you’ll be back.