Cunard hadn't been my first choice when I looked for a family vacation earlier this spring. But the line offered a weeklong itinerary that sailed over both the Canada Day and Independence Day holidays, roundtrip from New York (Brooklyn) to Halifax, Boston and Newport that looked irresistible. The timeframe fit. The price fit. And it was on Queen Mary 2-- one of my all-time favorite cruise experiences.
This was my seventh time aboard Queen Mary 2, and my first non-crossing voyage. It was also the first time I've brought my two-year-old daughter with me on what I affectionately refer to as "my ship." I knew there was a kid's club onboard, and I knew that I'd seen other kids onboard my crossings. That's all I knew.
My toddler daughter is no stranger to the sea; she had already been on two cruises -- one to Hawaii on Norwegian's Pride of America, and one to Mexico on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas. Attracted by the uniqueness of taking a non-crossing over Independence Day and Canada Day, we figured we could make do on Cunard even if the kid's facilities weren't great.
We ended up with a big surprise: the kid's facilities on Queen Mary 2 are unexpectedly phenomenal -- and completely free of charge, to boot.
Conventional thinking dictates that family-friendly cruise ships have to have lots of bright and shiny diversions to be considered welcoming to kids. Waterslides, bumper cars, surfing and skydiving simulators all have their place on modern megaships, all of which scream "Family Fun!" from the tops of their masts.
At just over two years old, our daughter isn't able to partake in those diversions, however. She's too young to ride bumper cars, and too small to make use of the more active outdoor sports areas found on larger ships. Until she's potty-trained, even most shipboard pools are off limits.
Cunard ships have none of those activities anyway. What they do have is an excellent kids club which, after a decidedly un-family-friendly embarkation in Brooklyn, we found to be an absolute delight. When we registered our daughter at The Kid's Zone on Deck 6 aft, they were already expecting her: they had a printout of all the eligible kids onboard, about 70 in total, that gave them all the details they needed to know. A quick form was filled out, and our daughter was enrolled.
Sessions usually began at 10 a.m. until noon, then 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. An evening session ran the longest, typically from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and all were bookable by logging into the My Voyage portal using Cunard's shipboard internet. Not only is that free of charge, but so are the kid's facilities on Cunard. These incur a charge on many other lines, and the costs can really add up.
What distinguished the Kid's Zone aboard Queen Mary 2 for us was the high quality of the space, which offers floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ship's stern and aft pools. It wasn't the dark, sad spaces we'd seen on other ships (though facilities on many newer ships are quite nice), and the team of instructors had already lined up activities and art projects. The place was stocked with toys to play with, books to read, and even nightly movies to watch from the comfort of some oversized bean-bags.
Our daughter loved the Kid's Zone, and we got to keep the art projects she created for us throughout the trip -- even ending up with a whole folder full of them, plus some complimentary activity books -- at the end of the cruise. As the cruise progressed, it became harder and harder to pull her away.
It may come as a surprise that all Cunard ships -- including the smaller but elegant duo of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth -- come with some pretty impressive kid's clubs built into their designs. Even the forthcoming Queen Anne, due to launch next year, has The Kid's Zone kids up on Deck 12 forward.
On Queen Mary 2, The Kid's Zone is accessed by the port side corridor on Deck 6. It's all the way at the back of the ship, almost to the exit onto the after pool deck, and is split into three sections: The Play Zone for ages 2 to 7; the Kids Zone for ages 8-12, and The Teen Zone for ages 13-17. The ship also has a Nursery (Baby Zone) for those between 6 months (12 on crossings) to 23 months. The latter requires parents to attend with their infant but does offer nighttime babysitting services that are a welcomed relief for weary parents.
These facilities are bright, airy and welcoming. A series of concave windows wrap around the after pool deck, illuminating the rooms with fresh daylight. Toys, games, books and facilities all look fresh and refitted, and the staff are by far the friendliest and most knowledgeable I've encountered on the three cruises I've taken my daughter on -- something that is hugely comforting for parents leaving their kids behind of a few hours.
Not only that, but these kid's clubs are stocked with toys and diversions. It's not the obligatory smattering of heavily-used toys you might expect, but a whole paradise for kids that is as well outfitted as any mainstream-brand cruise ship.
And, just outside the Kid's Zone on the open decks is a small wading pool for kids who are potty-trained, and a small outdoor playground that features a slide, a tunnel, and a small rock climbing ramp suitable for little ones. It's fully sheltered from the wind and the elements, too -- something important on foggy sailings like ours, or transatlantic crossings that are the bread-and-butter of Queen Mary 2's sailing schedule.
The real surprise -- for a ship that prides itself on its adult-related pastimes and oceangoing tradition that still enforces dress codes in most public areas at night -- was how kid-friendly the rest of the ship all was.
When she wasn't in The Kid's Zone, our daughter traveled with mom and dad, roaming the spacious corridors of Queen Mary 2 at will. The ship's 2,600-passenger capacity helps create far more space onboard than we had on our past trip on Navigator of the Seas, and we felt comfortable having her explore the ship -- with our watchful eye -- than we had in the past.
She also delighted in decidedly adult pastimes. She relaxed in one of Cunard's padded outdoor deck chairs on the Promenade Deck one afternoon, before joining us for Afternoon Tea in the Queen's Room. We discovered she loves scones and, at dinner, pork rillette. That was followed by an outing to listen to the folk music of Aileen & Sticks in the Golden Lion Pub on Deck 2. She got up and danced on the chair -- a sight that cruisers approached us for days to say they admired.
As there aren't a ton of kids on Queen Mary 2, their presence is more of a novelty than on other lines -- and that helps, too, in ensuring passengers are delighted (rather than annoyed) by the presence of your little one.
Then, it was off The Play Zone again -- allowing for some much-needed adult time for the parents. And it was largely due to the Play Zone staff -- all fully qualified young Brits -- that we all had such an amazing time onboard, even despite some lousy weather and a missed port of call. Ali, Sophie and Rhiannon made our daughter feel like a Queen.
Our family voyage aboard Queen Mary 2 was so successful, we'd take our daughter back in a heartbeat.
Is Queen Mary 2 suited to all kids? No. It's important to consider what your child or children need, and how much activity they are likely to participate in. If you need constant stimulation and non-stop activity, the lager Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ships are probably the way to go. But kids don't always need whiz-bang gadgets to be entertained -- as our cruise on QM2 showcased.
Our daughter delighted in roaming the decks, dancing in the Queen's Room, riding the glass elevators hidden near the ship's bridge wings, playing at the playground on Deck 6 -- and attending the kid's clubs when we weren't ashore. Every morning, she asked to see the ocean from our sheltered balcony stateroom (another great kid-friendly option), and when it was time to say goodbye, our daughter steadfastly insisted it was not time to leave.
Our experience was perhaps best summarized by an older child -- probably around 10 -- who was waiting with her parents outside the Kid's Club on the last day of our voyage. As we all waited for it to open for the first time that morning, she turned to her parents and said, in a confident and authoritative voice that wouldn't be amiss here at Cruise Critic, "This is the best kid's club of any ship we've been on!"