FAMILY CRUISING

By Pam Hobbs

It's three in the morning and my daughter is missing. We are sharing a Miami hotel room, my husband Michael, our daughter Susan and me. And now Susan is missing. No matter that she's in her 40s and no longer fifteen, I momentarily panic until I hear a faint chuckle from the bathroom. Opening the door a crack, I find her sitting on the side of the tub texting a message on her BlackBerry. Wearing little more than an impish grin, she tells me it is to her friend Jane, an author whose latest book Incontinent on the Continent is about a journey she took through Italy with her aged mother. The title says it all.

Susan hands me her BlackBerry and I read: "So, here I am in the bathroom at three in the morning. Overnighting in Miami with parents prior to boarding a cruise ship where we'll share a teensy weensy cabin. Went to bed at 8 because my Dad missed his afternoon nap, and at l0 Mom started snoring. Sounds like a jet landing in the front yard. Wide awake now, answering 58 messages stacked since leaving TO office yesterday..." Jane's response later in the day, as pithy as I expected, reads: "No room for argument. Bail out now while you have the chance."

Nice. For years I have unabashedly stared at families enjoying cruise vacations together, especially when they're gathered for dinner and recounting their day's adventures. On our Alaska cruise last year I set my sights on a family numbering close to 20, assembled from Hong Kong, California, Ontario and Winnipeg. Some weeks later, a nurse attending my husband's infected leg cemented the idea of our family cruise. She told us she was off to Hawaii with assorted relatives, and when negotiating the price they were offered the ship's two-bedroom President's Suite for less than the cost of three staterooms. Giving them a lounge and dining room, their own pool, patio and a designated butler, it was a deal they couldn't refuse. What a laugh. I smiled whenever I thought of my brood of ten, aged 15 to 81, sharing such accommodation.

At Thanksgiving dinner, eight family members said they wanted in on our proposed winter cruise. By Halowe'en the four grandchildren decided they couldn't travel outside their March school break. One daughter was free only during February's university reading week, an impossible time for Susan who would be working on the winter olympics for CTV. So that's how only three of us ended up in Miami on a chilly January evening - with me learning that I snore louder than an idling Mac truck, and wondering if it is too late to substitute our one stateroom for two small cabins.

As a family of three we couldn't justify the cost of a deluxe apartment and, although our stateroom with adjoining balcony was one of the larger accommodations on offer, given the restlessness of our first night together it could spell disaster. The last time we had shared such close quarters was in a motorhome forty years ago, when we were all considerably smaller and far more tolerant. It wasn't as if we were your typical trio out for an adventure-filled week together. Michael, whose health issues limit his mobility, thought he might stay on board for the entire seven days. Susan was looking for a week's rest and relaxation. She wanted no more, she said, than to read, eat and sleep. Is this possible in the company of 2,697 other passengers? I was beginning to have serious doubts.

Let me say now that our trip was a resounding success. Michael was perfectly happy to potter about on board, or sit on the verandah, while Susan and I went ashore. Usually we were back in time for a leisurely lunch with him and then, after a wander around the ship, we would sit on an upper deck or poolside before spending time in the spa. We enjoyed almost all our meals, evening entertainment in some of the 31 lounges and nightclubs, and the theatre shows. Best of all we hardly stopped talking - a rare treat because at home Susan, a single mother, is so busy. And when we weren't catching up we were laughing, among ourselves and with other passengers. We loved our sun-drenched breakfasts and lunches taken onto various decks (this being January and all) where on two occasions we watched whales cavorting close to our ship. And our choice of dining rooms serviced by soft-spoken, ever-smiling young people from the Philippines. And the spa.

CHILLING OUT IN THE SPA
Ordinarily I am not a big fan of spas. Although my ancient body would definitely profit from regular massages and a little pampering, at home I begrudge the time and costs involved. Accordingly, my response registered luke warm when, on a self-conducted ship's tour, the spa manager invited me in. Wonderful though they sound, the myriad of treatments she described garnered only a modicum of interest from me. But then I was taken beyond an opaque door and my heart did a little flutter. For there we were in a thermal spa, surrounded by theraputic showers, a hydrotherapy pool with pulsating jets, individual thermal baths, heated tile loungers shaped to the body - and padded chaises affording uninterrupted sea views. Fruit and assorted teas are included in the cost of $l00 per person for unlimited use all week; only 60 passes per cruise are sold. Since Michael gets relief from water exercises at home, and we could all benefit from the therapeutic powers of thermal waters, unhesitatingly I bought three week-long passes. It was heaven. We spent approximately an hour a day in the thermal pool and baths, before reclining with our ocean view and books. The nattering BlackBerry came in for less and less attention. By our third day, as stress-related facial lines dissipated in the spa's lemon-scented air, Susan looked ten years younger and I felt it. Michael wore a permanent grin all week. True, we missed out on the karaoke, the dance lessons, bingo, synchronized swimming, et al, but for us this was just what the doctor ordered.

I should perhaps add that we weren't as unsociable as we sound. Some afternoons we started off by the swimming pool, enjoying the attendant band and fellow passengers. When it became too hot, or crowded, we would retreat to the quiet of Deck 13 with our books. That's the thing you see: whatever your idea of a good vacation with the family, you will likely find it on one of these big ships.

FOOD, FOOD AND MORE FOOD
Dining was a treat. During our first few hours on board, when it seemed that everyone was ravenously hungry, Michael was unable to negotiate crowds around the buffet. After that it was not a problem. Indoors we always found a window table vacant; on deck we often sat rail-side hoping the whales and dolphins would show up. Norwegian Pearl's two main dining rooms where passengers are charged only for wine are truly first class - Indigo featuring a modern decor, and the Summer Palace designed with all the extravagance favoured fby Russia's Catherine the Great. Reservations are accepted so there are no long line-ups, and to accommodate last-minute diners video screens around the ship indicate which restaurants are busiest. The open-around-the-clock Blue Lagoon became our on-board meeting place, where we'd assemble for a drink and snack after going our separate ways. Specialty and themed restaurants seem to be particularly popular with families.

Executive chef Neil Album of Mississauga, Ontario, (formerly of Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel) is justifiably proud of his work on Norwegian Pearl. Everything served on board is super-fresh. No using lunch's left-overs in dinner's soup. In fact, all food must be served within four hours of leaving the kitchen, after which it is ground up and tipped over the side to the fishes.

BRING ON THE KIDS
Although this didn't turn out to be the family trip I had in mind, I can tell you that this ship is an excellent choice for inter-generation groups. Over 250 cabins have connecting doors, 27 have wheelchair capacity. (Wheelchairs may be rented on board, or you can bring you own.) Family-sized cabins enable you to have the kids in with you. Children's activities are nicely tucked away, allowing junior to be as noisy as he wants, while a pool slide, climbing wall and a bowling alley are fun for families wanting activities to do together. As well, young children have their own water games, and teens are kept happy with a disco, cinema, hot tub and video games. Escorted shore excursions are geared to children in various age groups.

ALL ASHORE THAT'S GOING ASHORE
On our eastern Caribbean itinerary we had three ports of call, two days at sea, and a final day at the Bahamian Great Stirrup Cay owned by Norwegian Cruise Line. Our first stop was Samana on the Dominican Republic's north coast. Horseback riding, whale watching, swimming with sea lions, kayaking and the exploring of caves would have attracted me a few years ago. Now, with Susan looking for larimar, a pale turquoise gemstone mined only on this island, I was content to do no more than walk through the market and tiny craft shops, sit on a wall taking in the lively seafront scene.
Exclusive jewellers in serene air-conditioned emporiums display larimar exquisitely inlaid in silver by local artists. For something less pricey, we check out the more simple pendants and bracelets offered in less auspicious waterfront properties. Ignore the wonky fan, the cockerel strutting about your feet, and a toddler with a bottle dangling from his mouth - or treat it as one of those delightful Caribbean experiences - and you will find very affordable larimar in Susana's and neighbouring ramshackle stores across from the market.
While motorcycles appear to be the transport of choice on Samana, and poverty lurks beyond the waterfront, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands has a prosperous, upbeat air to it. Shops here advertise British goods, especially foods. British accents are heard at every turn. Leisure craft from around the world, including two from Canada, are docked in the harbour. And here our favourite stop is Pusser's, a Victorian pub already packed with tourists when we drop by for a pre-lunch pint. Vintage prints on the walls and interesting artifacts could keep us long after our drinks are finished, but we're out of time, having dawdled in historic alleys and squares when we promised to be home for lunch.
A short drive from Tortola's dock, Susan gets to cross 'Swimming with the Dolphins' off her bucket list. I go along as an observer, and am pleased to see an excited three-generation family of seven troop into the Dolphin Encounter orientation room. In small groups, participants jump into pools containing friendly dolphins ready and willing to swim, kiss, dance and apparently enjoy their human playmates upon command. During her 30 minutes in the water, Susan's new flippered friend, Darwin, performs beyond all her expectations.
St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands provides a dazzling number of excursions from easy bus tours ending on a beach, to boat rides, kayaking, scuba diving and all the water sports you could possibly want on a warm and sunny day in the Caribbean. With most organized trips lasting 4-5 hours, and several beyond my capabilities, we choose to hop a cab to Magens Bay, a magical palm-shaded beach which experts invariably include in their World's Ten Top Beaches list. A small admission fee gives us use of clean change facilities. The turquoise sea is calm and deliciously warm, the morning sun comfortable, and for a total of $30 we have an idyllic trip.

Our final day is Susan's birthday and her BlackBerry is back in hand at dawn as congratulatory messages pour in. It's only 8 a.m. but when chocolate-coated strawberries are delivered from her daughters in Toronto, we sit on her bed eating them. Our daughter tells us how much she has enjoyed having us to herself; we reciprocate her sentiments in spades. I feel we should have done more. But then again, we enjoyed every minute of our week together, so where's the problem ? High fives all round as we agree to another vacation together very soon.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT FIT FOR YOUR FAMILY CRUISE

Costs:
First you should know that all-inclusive isn't what it used to be, especially on ships where the initial price is low. Port charges may be extra, cancellation insurance is always a good idea, and in winter especially you will want to arrive at your departure port a day early - which can mean around $250 - $300 for a hotel room and meals.
On-board extras include $l0-$12 per person, per day, suggested for the crew's gratuities. Every drink you buy has a 15% tip added. Specialty restaurants carry a cover charge of $15 - $30 per person. Some ships charge for soft drinks and even bottled water. Pay for on-board tennis, bowling, spa treatments and children's programmes, and your credit card will be working overtime. Most shore excursions on our trip are well under $l00 per person, but they quickly add up if you're treating the family. All of which is fine, so long as you know to factor these expenses into your vacation budget.
On the other hand, if you want no more than the basic cruise, it can still give you a memorable family get-together for much less than the cost of a similar land vacation. You will be well looked after, have lots of dining options (you want surf and turf and junior wants hamburgers, no problem) loads of entertainment, shore visits and more - all included in your origianl cruise price.
It costs nothing to use the ship's resort style leisure facilities. Free entertainment includes professional theatre shows, nightclub and lounge entertainment, competitions, movies and seminars.

Get the right ship for your needs:
Like Goldilocks before us we got lucky on the third try when looking for the right ship. Working on-line with a cruise specialist advertised in a Toronto newspaper we were first shown adjoining cabins on a medium-sized ship. This was acceptable, except for the formal dining aspect which would see us at a specific table at the same time every night for dinner. The second package included air fare, and looked good until we learned we would have to change aircraft in Detroit. Concerned that winter weather could delay us there, we declined it and were next offered Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl out of Miami. For $2,700 we could have a large stateroom with Queen bed and a sofa-bed separated by a privacy curtain at night. The ensuite bathroom has a full-sized tub. Closet space and drawers exceed our needs. Our verandah is spacious enough for all thee of us to relax on it together. (One of Susan's highlights, she said later, was to watch the sun rise over the water, from her bed or the verandah.) Having already experienced this cruise line's free-style dining programme, we knew we would enjoy our meals where and when we chose. No formal nights here calling for tux and tiara. Complete freedom of choice to do our own thing.

Book early:

Tell your cruise specialist exactly what you want and how much you can spend, and with more than 350 cruise ships out there you are bound to find a good fit for your family. Last minute bookings may get you a lower price, but it's likely your cabin will not be ideally located. Discounts and upgrades are given to early birds. Having made your reservations, then it's fun to get together with the family to look at your on-board options and excursions.