In February, our family went on our first cruise ever. Both Rick and I were very nervous about it as we were committing to full seven days on a ship, and were not ever sure we were going to like it. He is not a big fan of fuss, noisy people and crowds, and I just don’t like anything where you are not free to do as you please. The thought of a cruise never excited me, and I thought we were just the kind of people who should not be even looking for a vacation on a cruise ship. We love to travel, though, were looking to escape somewhere warm, and had found this great deal…, so this year we decided to give it a try.
And, we are hooked! Everyone in the family had a great time, and now that all the first impressions have settled, I highly recommend it (even for people who don’t like crowds and fuss).
If I had to summarize our trip, and pick ten highlights, it would be as follows:
1. Amazing views everywhere you go
Your cruise ship might depart from Miami, Vancouver, Ft. Lauderdale, or any of the amazing European cities, and no matter where you leave from or end up, you will always have an amazing view of all of these places. This is something that would have never occurred to me prior to the trip, and I was quite surprised by it. Whether you are on the top deck, in the hot tub on the top deck, or on your cabin deck, the view is always just as amazing. You get a perspective that’s hard to match.
2. One day you are in Jamaica, and another day you might be in Mexico!
There is something magical about traveling all night and arriving in new places in the morning. This might not mean much to your children – beach is a beach is a beach, but if you like to cover a lot of territory, cruises are great. In seven days, we were able to go horseback riding in Jamaica, snorkelling in Grand Cayman, and swimming with dolphins in Cozumel, Mexico. And I have heard from friends that Cozumel is not an easy place to reach unless you opt for a cruise. Otherwise when we travel, I like to stay put, and dislike ambitious road trips or itineraries because you just end up spending most of your time packing and unpacking, and sitting in the car. And the kids usually have little understanding for why we are all in the car again. Cruising is a painless way to visit more then one place with children.
3. Fancy five-course dinners every night
If your child is a foodie, unable to get excited about a kids’ menu, and intrigued by new terminology, such as angel hair pasta, escargot, or crème brûlée, then cruises are a perfect fit for your family. One of my children is definitely a food aficionado and appreciates the variety of dinner offerings that go beyond chicken strips and pizza. She got dressed up every night, gracefully picked her menu selections, and then with unwavering enthusiasm finished all her five courses (to the amazement of the other adults sitting at our table). Her brother didn’t find the fancy dining as fun as she did, so he spent most of his evenings with his friends at the Kids’ Club, eating his faves – kids’ menu standards. To each, their own, and fun was had by all!
4. Every port of call is a new adventure
Once you arrive in a port of call, no matter what you decide to do, it will definitely be a memorable experience. We participated in an excursion organized by our cruise ship crew only in Jamaica, and it was one of the best things we could ever do. Aliya really wanted to go horse-back riding, and so the two of us signed up for it, and joined a small group of adventurous people from our ship that decided to do the same. We first explored Jamaican countryside trails, and then went riding bareback in deep ocean water. All I remember is the big smile on Aliya’s face while trying to hold on to a horse that was pushing hard through deep bright blue water. She had to hold tight to the blanket she was sitting on, the only thing that separated her from the horse. She was barefoot, in her bathing suit, just nodding if you asked if she was ok, and had a big grin on her face. She was the only child in our group, so the guides took special care of her and made sure that I was right behind her the whole time. It was an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.
In Grand Cayman and Cozumel, we decided to go exploring on our own, and still had a fabulous time. In Grand Cayman, we enjoyed one of the most beautiful beaches ever – the Royal Palms Beach, and in Cozumel, we discovered the Chankanaab National Park. The kids got to swim with a dolphin and a manatee, and we also went snorkelling in the reef. We very quickly realized, that whether you decide to just hit the beach or do something a little more adventurous, you just can’t go wrong.
Even if you are not a big fan of cruise ship-type entertainment, there is something wonderful for parents with children to be able to go see a show (any show) after dinner. To organize babysitting and do a dinner and a show in one night can be logistically very complicated, so to be able to do this every night for seven days in a row, was greatly appreciated by these two parents. We never missed a show for the simple reason that we have no idea when we would be able to accomplish something like this again. In addition to this, seeing Rick forget about his shy side and participate in random dancing events was just priceless for all of us. I’m glad Aliya snapped this photo; we now have proof that he too can dance.
6. You’re definitely traveling in style
If you go for a cruise, you definitely know that you will not be roughing it! The ships are generally spectacular, with superb service, and excellent food. We went for MSC Divina, a gorgeous new Italian ship that belongs to the MSC family, also known as the other Italian cruise line company (the one everyone usually knows about is Costa Cruises). On MSC cruise lines, children travel for free, but are provided with a unique experience when it comes to traveling in style. No shorts of flip-flops are allowed in restaurants; when it’s a formal dress evening, everyone dresses up; and children sooner or later have to ask about all the forks and knives in their place settings. Children are also required to behave or else…are “encouraged” to join the Kids’ Club for dinner. This is a fine-dining and style immersion children rarely experience in the world where things are becoming less and less formal.
7. Children are safe
Children are safe around the ship to explore and do what they please. It is a very child-friendly environment and the children can gain a new level of independence on a cruise ship. There is nowhere really for them to get lost. Once they can find their way around the ship, they can get the food or drinks by themselves at the buffet; older kids can sign themselves in or out of the Kids’ Club; and they can decide to do the dinner & show combo with their friends and meet you after. A cruise gives children lots of options, and they very quickly learn to love this new-found independence.
8. New habitats, new species
Covering a lot of ground, and parking in different places every day also means that each place you come to offers new experiences – new languages, cultures, different habitats, different animals. When your vacation time is very limited, this can be a quick way to get a good overview of a region, and get a chance to see species that we don’t regularly see on our way to school. Even though Kenan was probably still too little to identify subtle or less subtle differences between places we visited, Aliya has every single encounter deeply engraved in her memory. She is the one to correct us on the itinerary details, remind us of names of people we met during any part of our trip, describe to us in great detail where in Cozumel we purchased that fish mobile and repeat verbatim what the man who sold us the mobile said about how he built it from coconuts. This is when you know your money was well spent.
9. The staff are just amazing!
All the staff work very hard (a little too hard, I would say), and they are always there to help. And any parent would appreciate this. From the housekeepers and servers, to the medical and kids’ club staff, you really feel that they are there to help you, make your vacation memorable and pretty perfect. And even on days when they get no breaks because the ship is at sea for the second day, or when they get little sleep due to tight boarding schedules, they still smile. At times I wasn’t sure where they found the energy to keep going, but they did. The staff really made the trip extra special, and we were honoured to be traveling with such an amazing group of people, who were also very far from their homes and families (and coming from different sides of the world – Madagascar, Bali, Montenegro, Great Britain, India, Puerto Rico…).
10. You can get two vacations in one
Unless the cruise ship leaves from your city of residence (which is also really convenient and quite fantastic), you get to travel to the city of departure, and can hopefully spend some time there, as well. We were able to take even more vacation time to do this, and we spent some time in Florida. And we just love going to Florida – visiting family and friends, Legoland, swimming in pools when Vancouver is sad and rainy. By the day we were boarding our cruise in Miami, I felt I could easily go home as I was already rested, but there was another wonderful trip awaiting us. How fun!
So, if you are thinking about a cruise, but are just not sure, we would definitely recommend it. Also, if your kids are in French Immersion, we highly recommend MSC Cruises. They market mainly in Quebec and Europe, which means that there won’t be too many English-speaking children on the ship, and there will definitely some kids who French. So you also get a bonus French immersion experience, which is so beneficial for all the kids attending French Immersion programs in Western Canada. Trust me, your children will never ask you “why French?” again. The relevance of French will suddenly be so very obvious – if you want to play with other kids on the next cruise we take, you had better be learning French!