Reunions Afloat - My Family Travels

Extended Families find fun at sea with a Carnival Cruise Lines sailing up the New England coast to Canada.

Everyone talks about how wonderful cruises are for families, but we recently put the concept to the test by defining “family” in its broadest sense. That is, we decided to take the plunge with our own three children, aged 8, 9 and 11; our brother- and sister-in-law, who were traveling without children, and our children’s grandparents.

The latter, who are in their 80s, have enjoyed traveling in the past but slowed down in recent years as the mechanics of travel became more exhausting than fun for them.

And, like most families, we enjoy each other’s company but don’t want to spend every waking moment together. Nor do we want to subject all of the adults to our children’s occasional rambunctious behavior.

Cruising Pros And Cons

While wondering what product could possibly accommodate such a range of ages and interests, we came across a Carnival Cruise Line sailing from Boston to Canada in May.

Since we live in Boston, the departure point was an attraction, both in terms of the money we would save on airfare and the minimized hassle. Secondly, the destination was tempting. We reasoned that Canada, unlike the steamy Caribbean, would likely appeal to the older generation in our group and would attract a quieter clientele not likely to keep them up at night with poolside parties.

On the other hand, would there be any children on board for ours to play with— the trip did not coincide with a school break— and what would our kids do in Halifax and St. John? Lastly, would our brother- and sister-in-law, who enjoy upscale travel, find the food and amenities satisfactory?

My misgivings were reinforced during the check-in process in Boston’s Black Falcon terminal, during which I saw all of three children in the entire hall.

“Uh oh,” we thought, as we moved through the line.

In fact, these and all of our reservations were unfounded once we got on board Carnival’s new Victory, a surprisingly elegant ship with a distinct European décor and a minimum of glitz. We found that there were 83 children and nine infants on board out of 2,896 passengers, compared to the 600 to 700 who would sail in a typical summer season.

And the Camp Carnival children’s club was up and running at full speed, unlike some lines whose youth programs require a minimum number to operate.

Action for All Ages

Activities, which were divided by age group, included unsupervised scavenger hunts throughout the ship, disco dancing, board games, art projects and pizza parties.

Also available was an indoor pool with a retractable roof, where the children swam every afternoon in relative warmth on an enclosed deck that also featured pizzas, grilled foods and a self-service ice cream bar for families who had a hard time waiting until dinner. (The ship’s outdoor swimming pools, including a wading pool, are in use on Caribbean sailings.) At night, the children enjoyed spending time with their new friends at parties or games supervised by the children’s club staff or spending a few dollars playing air hockey in the ship’s arcade.

Adult-friendly, on-board activities include visiting the Nautica Spa, from which my sister-in-law emerged daily with a serene glow; jogging around the deck; reading in the ship’s library; attending art auctions; playing bingo; shopping, or hitting the casino.

As to the shore excursions, there were several options appropriate for young families as well as more straightforward itineraries for adults intent on sightseeing.

During our stay in Halifax, for example, I took the children horseback riding on a ranch that also offered a small petting zoo, an outdoor cookout and kid-friendly jousting in well-padded gear in an inflatable arena. The outing was pricey at $76 per person, with no discounts for children, but it was a highlight of the trip for us. The excursion bus to and from the ranch met us at the transit area at the dock, so that I was able to easily take the children on my own while my husband stayed on board relaxing with his parents.

The same day, my brother- and sister-in-law booked an excursion that took them out to Peggy’s Cove, one of the most scenic spots in the area, where they spent about 3 ½ hours seeing the sights via motorcoach and on foot for $39 per person.

In St. John we chose an excursion together: a one-hour, horse-drawn trolley tour of the city. The short duration of the tour, combined with the friendly patter of the costumed guides, made for an entertaining outing while still allowing us plenty of time to enjoy the ship’s amenities. To keep the kids interested during the tour, the guide passed out tricornered hats, told funny stories and handed out samples of a local specialty, a kind of dried, edible seaweed. The trolley ride cost $21 per adult; $15 for kids aged 3 to 12.

Gourmand- and Kid-Friendly Dining

Onboard the Victory, the cuisine proved to be a pleasant surprise. Generally not a fan of shipboard fare, I enjoyed the meals more than one might expect to on a mainstream cruise line like Carnival. In fact, I had heard that the line has made great strides in the last few years to improve its dining experience, and this turned out to be the case.

Offerings included plenty of fresh seafood, including boiled lobster one night, well-prepared steaks and pastas and a range of children’s meals. My brother- and sister-in-law, both of whom enjoy cooking and dining out at tony restaurants, had no complaints.

As on most lines, those who prefer not to attend set meals— which can be difficult for young children to sit through, especially on formal nights— have other eateries from which to choose, including the Seaview Bistro and the 24-hour Pizzeria. Our children liked the sit-down dinners in the dining room, partly because of the presence of extended family and partly because, on two occasions, the waiters and maitre d’ performed a well-rehearsed song and dance routine.

One minor complaint we had was the slow-moving line at the self-service bistro, seemingly held up by the placement of the omelet man at the end of the line, who was busy making eggs to order. On the plus side, he overheard my 8-year-old daughter ask me if fried eggs were available and cheerfully cooked some for her.

Evenings Aboard Ship

Our cabin was located on deck six and offered one double bed, bunk beds and a trundle bed so that we were all accommodated in one room. The veranda— a must for families who can afford the added expense— also gave us a feeling of openness. Our relatives were ensconced on Deck 8 and 9, respectively, and enjoyed accommodations similar to ours but— because of having fewer inhabitants— with more breathing room. While having adjacent cabins would have been a plus— it’s very easy to get lost on this ship, even after a few days— we made a point to meet for before-dinner drinks or at meals.

The only aspect of the cruise that none of us particularly enjoyed was the roster of nightly Las Vegas-type variety and magic shows, which didn’t seem particularly family friendly. In all fairness, however, the other passengers crowded in every night to see them, so our lack of interest is likely a family quirk.

Probably the most telling aspect of the cruise overall was our unanimous reluctance to disembark on the fourth day. And later, when another sister-in-law spoke to me of her desire to rent a villa in Italy for herself, her husband, us and her favorite elderly aunt, I found myself saying: “Gee, I don’t know. Have you thought of a cruise?”

(FTF Note: Itineraries and prices have changed since Felicity Long wrote this article a few years ago, but the basic advice about family cruising on Carnival remains valuable. Check out for the latest trips and ships for your family reunion.)

Felicity Long is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who specializes in family travel. She travels often — by land, sea and on the slopes– with her three young resident critics: Cole, Shane and Chloe.

Tips for Multigenerational Cruising

  • Destination. Depending on the age and fitness level of the older members of your group, beaches and islands might be just fine. Seniors who dislike the heat, however, and want a more serene experience might want to try an itinerary similar to ours or head to Bermuda or Alaska. While Europe can work well for adults and older children, most very young kids won’t have the patience for an extended tour of the Sistine Chapel.
  • Children’s Club. Carnival’s children’s club is always in operation, but this is not the case on every cruise line. Even lines that offer wonderful programs might not offer them on the week you are sailing, particularly if there are not many other children on board, so ask at the time of booking. Also, if the shore excursions aren’t kid-friendly, make sure the children’s program hours are timed to allow you to participate, or you may be left behind babysitting while everyone else is off climbing Mayan ruins. If your children are infants, realize that some lines don’t guarantee babysitting.
  • Departure Date. Those with preschoolers or those who don’t mind taking children out of school might want to consider cruising during non-vacation periods. As on our sailing, ships are less likely to be bursting with children, which makes for a calmer atmosphere poolside and in other public spaces. Non-holiday travel also can result in considerable savings. Again, however, make sure your children will have someone to play with.
  • Discounts. Seniors are eligible for AARP and other discounts, and if your group is big enough, there is no harm asking about group discounts. Make sure to take advantage of third and fourth passenger discounts for the children and consider booking well in advance for maximum savings.
  • Departure City. The advantages of departing from a port city within driving distance are obvious; you avoid the hassles that can come with air travel, which particularly affect seniors and children. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to fly into your departure city a day ahead of time, to insure a calm, trouble-free embarkation. And since you have paid for that time while the ship is in port, enjoy it, have an early meal and be the first to sign up for shore excursions, children’s clubs and spa treatments.
  • F.L.

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