Taking the Kids on a Luxury Cruise

family cruise

Earlier this summer, I became my fiance's worst nightmare when I unilaterally determined that our honeymoon would be a "familymoon" -- so much more fun with my 5-year-old daughter in tow.

That's right: 12 romantic nights sailing the Adriatic and Mediterranean on a luxury cruise aboard Crystal Serenity -- just the three of us, in one room. Under the wrong circumstances, this could be considered a gross miscalculation. The demographic on Crystal doesn't exactly skew toward the kindergarten set, and we were running several risks: 1) annoying everyone onboard with the (very occasional) tantrum, 2) having to opt out of shore excursions with age limits and 3) not getting any time alone. On our honeymoon.

Taking children on a luxury cruise is a dicey prospect, even if you're not celebrating a special occasion. The ships cater to a more sophisticated clientele with upscale dining and longer itineraries, and the onboard entertainment isn't as flashy and family-oriented as on the mega-ships. While, luxury lines might have some lovely options for kids, they are not the Barbie-themed, pirate parade-throwing, face-painting extravaganza to which mainstream cruisers have become accustomed. And with only a handful of kids onboard (numbers vary by cruise line, destination and sail date), your child might be forced to socialize only with adults for the duration of the trip.

The short ending to our familymoon story is that we had a mostly wonderful time on one of the world's most sophisticated cruise ships with our child, and we still like each other. Perhaps that's because my 5-year-old daughter, Emily, is a cruise veteran, having sailed with her heretofore single mother many times, and can find fun anywhere. Perhaps it's because my now-husband Reid was willing to compromise on his ideal vacation. But maybe it's because, with the right attitude from all parties, kid and adult, you really can enjoy a luxury cruise with the whole family.

Cruising, or conquering? The Shore-Tour Compromise

It goes without saying that people who choose to travel together should have similar goals for the trip -- or the willingness to split up for a day to get what they need from the trip independently of each other. Having cruised many times before, I was fully aware that there was simply no way to deeply explore the 10 cities on our sailing, and I was satisfied with trying to unplug a little and enjoy a bit of aimless wandering around some of the more accessible ports of call. Conversely, the "Gladiators and Empires" theme of our Venice-to-Barcelona sailing awakened in Reid, a first-time cruiser, a primordial desire to conquer all four countries and 10 cities on the itinerary. Emily's goal was simple: eat as much ice cream as possible. We would have to compromise.

Taormina, Sicily

We quickly found that the only way to happily navigate the trip was to agree which shore excursions were really on both of our bucket lists (and on which we could actually bring Emily), and which were destined to end unhappily in a sobbing mess of tears and melted gelato. Crystal, known for its fine onboard academic programs and equally sophisticated land excursions, had some tempting prospects that we grudgingly decided to forego. For instance, we opted for a stroll around the town of Taormina over our first choice tour, a combination hike and vineyard visit, because of the age restriction on the excursion and because we knew we'd end up having to carry Emily up strenuous paths for hours at a time. Likewise, while we could have booked an incredible excursion exclusive to Crystal -- watching the Monaco Grand Prix from Crystal's terrific seats near the start and finish line, and later hobnobbing with drivers and celebrities post-race at a private table at Amber Lounge -- that was clearly out of the question.

Sveti Ivan

Settling into the idea that wandering at our own pace was the better choice, with the knowledge that this wouldn't be our last trip to Europe, made the sacrifices a bit easier. Our successes included wandering around Venice (Bridges! Water taxis! Trinkets!), a daylong trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum (bus transportation, a break for lunch and more trinkets) and Kotor (where the child center was open while we were in port, and we were able to climb the 1,350 steps to the Fortress Sveti Ivan above the bay on our own). Epic fails included a meltdown in Monte Carlo (lots of walking and crowds and Emily's general disinterest in the Grand Prix).  

We only split up during one day, so that Reid could thoroughly explore Venice at a pace Emily couldn't possibly match. I'd recommend this idea to any family whose travel goals aren't completely synchronized -- and if we had a do-over, I'd plan a few more solo outings for each of us. On his "day off," Reid had a great day of turbo sightseeing, and Emily and I had some much needed together time onboard.

The key to successful touring, we found, was to pick a few must-do experiences and settle for more relaxed-pace touring the rest of the time. Remember that kids generally have a lower tolerance for excessive walking and museum visits, and schedule in regular stops for snacks and meals to keep young travelers fueled up and satisfied. If you plan ahead, you can locate kid-friendly attractions like parks, play areas and aquariums where you can stop between visits to more grownup-focused cultural attractions. 

Choosing the Right Cabin Pays off in Spades

Cystal Serenity Suite

Just being on a Crystal ship is top-notch, of course, but we found that some of the little perks that come with upgrading even on an already luxurious ship turn out to be critical necessities. We stayed in one of Crystal Serenity's newly refurbished Penthouse suites with a verandah, which, at 538 square feet, was the largest stateroom I've ever stayed in at sea. The bedroom could be curtained off from the living room with its convertible sofa for Emily (which the staff made up each night while we were at dinner). Each room had a flat-screen TV with Blu-ray DVD/CD players that could be played at the same time without the noise carrying over.

Onboard Crystal Serenity, the two penthouse floors have a free launderette, plus free same-day pressing -- which let us pack lighter and deal with gelato stains before they set. Every afternoon, our butler forestalled pre-dinner tantrums by delivering a cart of canapes he'd selected based on Emily's tastes. Both fruit and mini-bar were replenished constantly (free) as was a bottomless box of chocolate truffles.

Keep in mind that, although adjoining staterooms are a tempting prospect when you're traveling with kids, it's hard to keep tabs on young travelers who have their own exit. (Many lines won't let you book two under-18s in a cabin on their own, necessitating some complicated booking arrangements and key card swapping, to arrange the set-up.) If you don't opt for a big suite and you're traveling with a single child, look for a stateroom with a third berth so you can control egress. 

Spend Some Time With the Kids

On prior cruises (I'm thinking of you, Royal Caribbean), it was possible for me to dump Emily off for the day and know that she was having the time of her life for hours and hours on end. We had to be a bit more strategic on our Crystal Serenity sailing. Fantasia, the kids club -- which was conveniently located just a flight of stairs away from our penthouse -- was generally open from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., then from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on sea days, but on most port days, it was closed until the afternoon. All this means that you should expect to eat meals with your kids (there wasn't a program to take them off parents' hands at dinnertime, as on some other kid-oriented cruises), and that pick-up is promptly at 10 p.m., unless you want to hire a private baby sitter. (If we were late-night folks, we could easily have hired a baby sitter for a reasonable fee -- $10 for one child -- but after full days of exploring, we were generally content to have dessert and sack out in our suite.)

Cystal Young Cruisers

The upside to the small kids program: Your child will get an unbelievable amount of attention. Emily's visits only sporadically overlapped with other kids (mostly the children of visiting lecturers or performers), and junior activities directors Kaleigh and Lauren tirelessly made pipe cleaner art, built forts, made animal masks and had pajama movie parties with their single client. For kids who love tons of adult attention, it's heaven. And on certain nights, the junior activities directors took the kids to performances like "Across the Pond," performed by the Crystal Ensemble of singers and dancers and accompanied by the Galaxy Orchestra.  

The downside is that advance planning can be difficult: the Surf Runner newsletter, letting you know the kids club hours for the next day, comes out only the night prior. When the club was closed, we were saved by the incredibly well-curated library, which carried a stockpile of great kids' books and DVDs.

Navigating the Rough Waters of Dining With a Child

On Crystal, passengers take dressing for dinner seriously and have paid top dollar so they can have the luxury of a sommelier recommend wine pairings from an extensive list (or for bottles up to nearly $1,000 from the Connoisseur's List). Suffice it to say, not everyone appreciated the extra noise of a 5-year-old in the formal dining room. Although we'd opted for the early seating of 6 p.m., Emily just couldn't make it through a formal dinner service, despite the unbelievable patience of the restaurant staff. Unlike other cruises Emily was accustomed to, a freestyle buffet experience wasn't available for dinner.

So we developed a dining strategy that generally bypassed the dining room. Most nights we took her to the breezily casual Tastes on the Lido deck for dinner, where we could order as many or few dishes as we wanted. Emily's tastes are more sophisticated than the average kindergartner, so the global-inspired menu, with its street tacos, Middle Eastern spiced lamb and Argentinean steak, were all fine with her. But the servers were happy to oblige special requests for pizza and chicken nuggets.

The Bistro on Crystal Serenity

On the nights we really wanted a romantic dinner together, we ordered room service for Emily while we got ready for our restaurant reservation at Prego or Silk Road and dined at 8 p.m., when the kids club opened for the evening. If your child is a strictly mac 'n' cheese, chicken nugget and pizza diner, in-room dining has the most options in the evening.

On the second day of our trip, we discovered perhaps the best but most overlooked room on the ship -- the Bistro, with its chocolate fountain. Our nightly tradition became forsaking dessert and heading straight to Deck 6, midship, just at the top of the sweeping staircase overlooking the Crystal Cove atrium. Accompanied by the Romantica Strings players (in their "princess" dresses, according to Emily), or Thomas Daniels playing the transparent Crystal piano right below but well within earshot, Emily could simultaneously dance and eat chocolate. Who ever said kids can't appreciate luxury?

Bottom Line

Taking a child on a luxury cruise isn't for everyone. It takes more planning and more sacrificing lovely opportunities than we'd expected. But in our case, it worked, and on the days and nights we planned well, we still got to take advantage of some of the advantages only Crystal can offer. Our luxury cruise taught this new family something that more experienced families already know: It's all about compromise.

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