Learn from the author's first family cruise to the Caribbean how to make your cruise vacation a success.
When my husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old daughter, Sadie, on her first cruise (as well as his), we thought the Caribbean would be the ideal destination: warm water, sandy beaches and lots of interesting shore excursions. Happily, after embarking on a nine-day Crown Princess cruise that left from New York City and sailed to Hamilton, Bermuda, San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Grand Turk and back to New York, we quickly realized we had made a great choice. The four days at sea and four days in ports proved to be a good mix.
When deciding which cruise is best for your family, travel writer Fran Golden, cruise expert and co-author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies says, “The important thing is to pick the cruise that's right for you. Look at what the ship has to offer and see how that meets your family’s needs. Are you looking for activities like ice skating and rock climbing? Do your kids like water slides? Are you looking for luxury? Do you want a beach vacation or an educational experience?”
For our daughter, pools are always the key to a good vacation. The Crown Princess has several, including one just for kids. There are also youth “Fun Zones” (divided by ages), plus the usual games and activities on board any ship: pool volleyball, limbo contests and more. As for shore excursions, shopping and museum tours were out and anything to do with animals and the water was in, preferably both. There were interesting options at each port.
“I think a cruise is great for families because it’s so easy,” says Golden. “Ships really do provide something for everyone. Kids will be entertained in well-organized kids' programs while parents get time to relax. And everyone can get together at meals and to explore the ports.”
On Princess ships, depending on the route and vessel, kids have to be either 6 months or 1 year of age to sail. Organized activities and supervised camps are available for kids as young as 3, however children must be potty trained. Even teens have their own space to hang out, with lots of activities on offer. The Fun Zones are divided by age (3 to 7 and 8 to 12). Sadie wasn’t sure how she’d feel about staying at “Shockwaves,” as the 8 to 12-year-old kid center was called, but once she was there, she didn’t want to leave! The first day she was in camp, all the kids went on a scavenger hunt. From then on, she could lead my husband Rob and me throughout the 3,000-plus passenger ship.
In addition to the kids’ clubs, there’s plenty for a family to do together. One day we painted dishes in a Ceramics@Sea class. (Sadie made a butter dish we use at home.) Of course we spent lots of time in the pools. One afternoon we played trivia against other passengers. Another day we played bingo. Movies shown on a giant movie screen over one of the pools was very popular with everyone. We loved having popcorn and blankets delivered to us in our lounge chairs while we watched mostly PG films (such as Grease and Hoodwinked). The kids put on a talent show, which was a big draw for parents. Sadie did gymnastics tricks, making the entire audience cringe when she did her pretzel move, with her feet behind her head.
The days of two dinnertime sittings are mostly gone, which is excellent for families. With “anytime dining,” as Princess calls it, you can eat when your kids get hungry. Though lots of families opted to put their children in the kids’ club for both of the formal nights, we wanted Sadie to have the chance to dress up. She enjoyed the attention and the “specialness” of the evening. In every venue, a kid’s menu is offered and any requests (sauce on the side, etc.) were handled with aplomb. Room service, including pizzas, is also available.
After we booked our trip, Princess sent us packets of information, including shore excursion offerings. They recommended reserving as soon as possible. Even though we signed up online quickly, we still were too late for some of our first choices. Definitely register as soon as you can. Also note age and weight restrictions. Babysitting is available for kids who just don’t want to leave the ship while in port. I’m sure if we had wanted to shop, Sadie would have preferred that option.
We chose a catamaran trip in Bermuda; a night bioluminescence kayaking trip in Puerto Rico; a visit to Turtle Cove in St. Thomas, where sea turtles swam beside us as we snorkeled; and riding horses on the beach in Grand Turk. Our favorite was probably swimming with the sea turtles, but riding bareback in the surf was a close second.
All of the excursions we took were organized by the ship and went off flawlessly. You can book on your own, but when you have limited time, it’s a relief to have it covered in advance.
Within a week of getting home from our trip, Sadie had assembled a scrapbook. On her first week back at school, she brought it in for show-and-tell.
I’d say our trip was a success!