May 14, 2001
(L-R) Tyler, Bob, Deborah and Jake Stone in front of the MV Galaxy.
Yes, Virginia, family vacations can be relaxing
by Deborah Stone
Picture yourself relaxing on a sun-splashed beach on some palm-fringed island, sipping a cool, fruity beverage as you gaze at the crystal-clear azure water. Or perhaps you're swimming through coral forests among brilliantly colored fish, checking out sunken ships in the tranquil sea. Add children to this scene and poof, the picture disappears, right? You can hear the whining, the bickering and the incessant demands and suddenly the words "relaxing vacation" don't apply to this scenario.
That's what most people think, but their perception might change if they had the type of vacation my family and I had recently aboard a seven-day Caribbean cruise. I discovered that it is possible to experience paradise with the inclusion of the children component because now, more than ever before, cruise lines are catering to families with a host of activities and more facilities geared to kids of all ages.
Our Celebrity Cruises ship, the MV Galaxy set sail on a balmy night from Puerto Rico, with over 2,000 people on board, 400 whom were children. With that many people on board, you might assume this "floating hotel" would be crowded and lack any opportunities for privacy, let alone an open deck chair. However, with a ship this size, space is not a precious commodity.
There was plenty of room to move about unimpeded by the masses and many nooks and crannies, other than your room, to get you away from the hustle and bustle of the ship's main traffic areas. The decks were spacious with many levels, some of which were barely occupied. It was easy for my husband and I to take our books and find a quiet place of our own to be lulled into a midday nap by the gentle rocking of the boat.
Our children (ages 10 and 13) were happy to attend the wide selection of programs offered for their age specific groups and had fun meeting other kids from all over the country. They had complete freedom aboard the ship and were able to exercise independence in regards to choices of activities. These ranged from sports to board games, scavenger hunts, karaoke, tours of special areas of the ship, talent shows, crafts and a teen disco. If they chose, they could be occupied from early morning to late at night.
When the ship was in port (our itinerary took us to five ports in seven days), there was a myriad of shore excursions available, suitable for families with a range of interests. These included snorkeling, kayaking, mountain biking, bus tours of the islands with stops at various places of interest, beach outings, sailing, scuba diving, golfing, horseback riding, hiking and four wheel drive adventures. Of course, you can opt to plan your own excursions by doing some easy research on the ports, via the ship's knowledgeable staff, or simply remain on board to do as you please.
With two active boys, we selected more physical types of port experiences. In St. Croix, we took a mountain bike tour which also included a narration about the history of the island and its flora and fauna. Not only was it beautiful cycling along the white sand beaches, but also this excursion was informative and gave us a better view of life on St. Croix.
Snorkeling was another one of the activities we chose, as there is no better place to do this than the Caribbean, with its warm, clear waters and colorful sea life. In Barbados, we boarded a sleek catamaran to a snorkel site over a small shipwreck, inhabited by large schools of fish. A nearby reef provided additional attractions. My kids were amazed at the numbers of fish and how tame they were as they swam all around them. Snorkeling gave them an up-close and personal experience with the sea and its beautiful creatures. They were eager to find out the names of the fish they had seen and once on board the catamaran for the return trip, they were able to learn this information from the various referenced picture cards available.
In Antigua, we discovered one of the island's hidden spots on a kayak eco-adventure. Through mangroves and inlets we paddled as we gazed at the sea life and tropical birds in this natural unspoiled environment.
During our time in both St. Lucia and St. Thomas, we opted to explore on our own and headed for private beaches to simply "hang out." We also made time at each port to stroll through the quaint villages and savor the sights and sounds of island life.
Eating was never a problem either on board the ship or while in port. The ship had plenty of food, whether laid out on a massive buffet, available at an outdoor grill or in the main dining room, and all of it was well prepared and delicious. Each day, the menu changed, and there was always a wide variety of selections for all tastes. Children's menus were also available upon request. We chose to remain casually attired during the daytime and eat from the buffet, while in the evenings, we went to the more formal dining room for dinner.
My children enjoyed choosing from all the different items and had fun trying dishes they never would have tried if I had cooked them at home. This experience widened their palates and allowed them to be more adventurous in their cuisine. Waiters were incredibly willing to please and paid particular attention to children on cruises, making sure they were happy with their food. They also enjoyed bantering with them and took the time to develop special relationships with them.
Cruises offer just as many activities for adults as they do for children and if one wants, one can be busy all day long, going from one program to the next. Or, you can choose to do nothing, but simply lie comatose on the deck, baring your bodies to the sun (hopefully lathered with plenty of sunscreen, as the Caribbean sun is strong!).
There are port talks, games, such as bridge and yes, the proverbial bingo, dancing lessons, sports and fitness programs, contests, art auctions and wine tastings. There's a casino, a movie theater, a deluxe spa for pampering and a fitness center (to work off all that sinfully good food!), in addition to nightly entertainment shows (family friendly, too). We were entertained by Chinese acrobats, an aerialist, a pianist, a comedian and a slew of talented singers and dancers.
Overall, the quality of the entertainment was high and we were surprised by its diversity.
For our family, cruising satisfied everyone's tastes and interests and allowed us each to have the kind of vacation we desired. I have great memories of endless sunkissed beaches, spectacular sunsets and scenic overlooks, idyllic, sleepy villages and yes, happy, contented children.