Taking the grandkids on a cruise, without the soothing buffer of having their parents on board? If so, heed the advice of a savvy senior sailor a.k.a. Grandma who cruised from Los Angeles to Mexico.
Planning a cruise is smart thinking for people who wish to avoid air travel but still want a special family trip. When I tell my friends that I – just me – recently took my granddaughters, Madeleine (8) and Hillary (5) on a three-day cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico, their response is instant disbelief: “Without their parents? Are you crazy?”
Our cruise, my first solo with grandchildren, could have been a Harry Potter nightmare had we not enlisted some of the ground rules that I firmly recommend for intrepid grandparents (see Do’s and Don’t’s below). While planning in advance may appear like overkill, believe me, in the heat of battle one does not always think clearly – so established rules are your life saver.
Our adventure begins one day in July as we attempt to board the most enormous ship I’ve ever seen. We spend two hours winding along a serpentine line of fellow passengers filling out forms and switching sweaty hands between hand luggage and guitar cases. Finally, we are allowed to walk on board. As we negotiate the route to our cabin, we face 10 floors, four sets of elevators in varying locations, stairways too numerous to count, and 2,650 passengers scurrying around a seventy-thousand-ton vessel whose 700 crew members know everybody is lost. Once located, our cabin proves more than adequate. It features a toilet which flushes like a bomb blast and, on the bed, a bath towel folded like a rabbit.
Originally I believed this would be a cruise for families. Later, I learned it is for making families: this Carnival Cruise Line ship is named Ecstasy. Pleasure seekers have a wide range of opportunities – board games, a camp for kids, slot and video machines, dance classes, sweet treats, Teen Scene Final Blowout in the Stripes Disco, and Hey Mambo shows with Ziegfeld feathers and fluted fans. What I hadn’t expected was the emphasis on the singles scene with a bevy of bare-legged, hip-swishing “Baywatch” babes busily gyrating to loud, hot, cool, and swing music. For “my kind” there are seminars on anti-aging, eat more to weigh less, cellulite solutions, and aching back remedies. As for the kids, they seem oblivious to the more “mature” aspects of the cruise.
Day # 1 goes like a dream. I am certain my friends were just plain chicken. The kids eat right, talk right, sleep right. They even act like troopers when Hillary pulls an ankle muscle charging down the corridor and Madeleine slams a heavy glass door against her head.
Day # 2 gets a bit dicey. Arriving in Ensenada, Mexico, we sign up for the “Blowhole” tour. The girls especially want to see foam shoot up through an underground tunnel. A cheerful local guide herds us onto a bus which takes us to a refugee camp look-alike. Tents as far as the eye can see hold all manner of lures for sale to eager tourists: beaded and silver jewelry, striped Indian blankets, handsomely decorated pottery, embroidered blouses, and Mexican team baseball caps.
My two girls are satisfied with gorgeous dolls, gecko T-shirts and “fashionable-for-the-funky” toe rings. As we re-board the bus, I ask the guide when we’re going to see the blowhole. She says, “Theees is the blowhole!” which we never see since it is hidden behind the tents. Then she interrogates all the other passengers, “Deeed anyone else not understand me except for theeees lady? I am sure not!” At least, my two girls don’t cross their arms and glare. They don’t even tell me I’m not cool.
But on day #3, the darlings strike. They take their positions and fire. It was the talent show that started it. Since the love of Hillary’s life is show biz in the form of “ballet”, she jumps at the opportunity to display her talent. At cruise camp she spends the morning practicing her steps, painting her face, playing pirate and going on a scavenger hunt. The treat of a lifetime, think I, querying her as she returns with: “Tell us everything!” Stonefaced, she bunches up her mouth, raises her head like a queen and marches off. Efforts to find out what went wrong are rebuffed, and the silent treatment prevails. At lunch, even the waiters notice the mood problem. To their credit, they, who are invariably kind, are now beseechingly attentive to Hillary who practically has to be dragged to the cabin for a badly needed rest.
For an hour while Madeleine naps, Hillary lies on her stomach, elbows bent, resting her chin on her hands, repeating her mantra: “I will not sleep, I will not sleep, I will not sleep.” Well on my way to hypnosis, I dress the diva for her upcoming performance in a long taffeta blue-green dress with bows and streamers, redden her pouting lips and create a Rita Hayworth coiffeur. The performance goes adorably as she tap dances her way across the stage between bows and assorted kicking movements. As she tips her hat and points her cane toward the audience, we respond lovingly with “Hurrahs!” in a flurry of applause.
Today, A Nightmare
And then the sun comes out, the first time in three days. I rush the little ladies out to the stern deck where it is surprisingly peaceful, and hear, “This stinks? It’s boring! We’re going inside.” But knowing the hazards of leaving them unattended among 2,650 strangers, any one of whom might be a serial killer, I stick with them. My mouth waters for fresh air and sunlight. I am burned out on newlywed-games, karaoke and ice carving. And “Teen Scene Slammin’ Jammin’ Welcome Parties” have lost their appeal.
I take the upper hand, pulling the girls to the bow deck. We sight a pool with a 30-foot spiral slide, hot tub, and enough people to populate Chicago hanging over chaise lounges. Deftly dodging rum cocktails and piña coladas, I make a beeline for the one unoccupied lounge chair into which I release my aching back. I then look up blissfully at the sun. Its heat soothes the incurable – my body.
I hear five frightening words: “I want my bathing suit.” All three of us wind through the labyrinth back to the cabin, then return to the deck. Again I lie down. Thirty seconds later, the same five words emerge from the other child. Once back to my deck chair, I can hardly believe my ears: Hillary is demanding her suntan lotion, which of course is in the cabin. By then, I’m ready for a lobotomy but dutifully schlep back and forth, only to hear, “Grandma, where are my glasses?” The fourth trip within one hour takes its toll big time.
So when I return, I’m into stress reduction. I actually join the mambo dancers and sway my spastic body to the soothing tunes of six maniacal steel band players. I am mesmerized by the sleek nymphoid bodies gyrating rhythmically on the dance floor, and wonder if I should have had silicone implants myself before the “Age of Managed Care.”
A muscle pulls and I lie down. Spirits wilted, I look at my watch to see how many minutes I have left to live. And guess what – we have 30 measly minutes to get to our early seating dinner. Recovery mission aborted. Back at the cabin we’re in fast gear – shower, shampoo, dinner, pack and put suitcases out of room for early morning departure!
With 6,520 guests — or 2,650 — (who remembers?), the ship has efficiently arranged for disembarkation. Suitcase tags are color-coded. Our tag is presumably orange, but when we go to the “orange” location as instructed, we learn that our color is actually of unknown hue. We are then sent to “yellows” then to “browns” and finally to “beiges.” Each change of venue presents a veritable obstacle course. Knowing my horrendous sense of direction, Madeleine yells, “That way,” Hillary yells, “This way.” After almost three hours we finally achieve the impossible and get off the ship with our luggage.
Tomorrow, A Memory
In retrospect, it was clearly not the fault of the cruise operations that we were “miscast” on a ship with so many swinging singles. The staff members were courteous, the ship was clean and programs were organized. Madeleine loved the trip because “the ship was huge and amazing – and three waiters liked me.” Hillary said, “It was good.”
But there were some hair-raising moments – which I am convinced could have been avoided had we employed some of my Do’s and Don’ts.
Grandma’s Cruising Don’ts and Do’s
- Choose your cruise carefully
- Set rules up front – before boarding
- Pre-determine bedtimes
- No one stays alone in cabin to sulk
- Set daily deck time (one hour minimum for grandparents)
- Reserve quiet time each day to rest or recover
- Never be without sun block, Bandaids, room key, Kleenex, money
- Leave ample down-time between activities
- Let everyone do a favorite thing each day
- Whole trip – three days tops
Remember, a grandparent alone can successfully travel with grandchildren. Best of all was hearing my phone machine when I got home, “Thank you, Grandma, it was a neat cruise and we love you. When’s our next trip?”
Soon, I hope, now that I know the ropes.
[Editor’s Note: To book a family Carnival cruise, contact a travel agent, call 800/CARNIVAL or visit Carnival Family Cruises.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.