A Family Reunion At Sea

By Julie Hatfield

The Love Boat is in a family way.

Not that the Crown Princess, part of the fleet of ships that starred in the popular television series, doesn’t still have lovers lounging on her moonlit decks, hormonally-manic singles consuming umbrella drinks in the hot tubs or private romantic balcony champagne/lobster dinners for two.  But the cruise line, realizing the increasingly popular trend toward families traveling together, has turned what used to be occasional children’s activities onboard into three extensive, active programs for kids from three years old to teens so that everyone can enjoy each other on a trip without that 24-hour togetherness that often sends family members home relieved just to be alone again.

Onboard our ship for a nine-day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean in July, there were extended family reunions of clans as large as 35 people traveling together, a set of grandparents giving their 18-year-old triplet grandchildren a high school graduation gift, and everything in between, including us; we tried  -- successfully -- a three-generation get-together at sea.  I hadn’t seen my four-year-old grandson since Christmas, and he, living in New Mexico, hadn’t seen an ocean in a year.  His dad, who accompanied him with me, hadn’t been SCUBA diving in a very long time.  We each carry memories of our favorite things about the resulting same trip, and all are very different.

I for one was anxious to devour my beloved grandson with grandma love, and spend 24/7 playing with him, as he lives so far away from my Boston home.  This was the first and only nine-day period I had ever spent with him.  So I wasn’t anxious to give him up to the Pelican Zone, the center for 3-to-7-year-olds which takes them off your hands every day from 9 to noon, 2 to 5 p.m. and again 7 to 10 p.m., all free to parents who book the cruise.  We figured we’d take Sam there for an hour to see how he liked it, and if not, never use the service again.

When Christian went to pick up Sam after an hour, Sam cried “Oh please, Dad, don’t take me away yet!”   He had colored his own T-shirt given him by the ship, and was about to make an Under-the-Sea Nemo collage.  A jungle gym, rock climbing wall, and constant activities guided by a group of talented, multi-lingual, caring women who are for the most part teachers when on land, make Pelican the place where children beg to be taken.  This is no babysitting service, but more like a school-at-sea, with contests, pirate face-painting and penguin-magnet and Sponge-Bob-making sessions.  It was as a Pelican that Sam learned the lure of Play Station 2, enjoyed pajama parties (only ‘til 10 p.m.), and met friends who shared the same interests on land as he.  When he met Anders, a young lad from Wisconsin just three months younger than he, the two immediately began discussing their latest favorite films in the way adults would, except that the films were centered on Scooby Doo and his pals.  Once I tried to tear him away for a special meeting with Captain Alistair Clark, of Southampton, England.  “He’s the most important man on this boat,” I explained to Sam.  “He’s like the king of the ship.”  “Grandma, I know he’s important,” Sam replied, “but he might be boring.”  We let him pass up the meeting this time.

When he first laid eyes on the 951-foot Crown Princess from his stroller 19 decks below, Sam understated, “I didn’t expect it to be so big.”  Our mini-suite, with our own balcony (with a Plexiglas and teak railing that was thankfully higher than Sam’s head), was forward, and Pelican was aft.  If you walk the deck around two times you’ve walked a mile, and each morning, after Sam asked if it was time yet to go to Pelican, he wanted to race down the hallway toward it and then either press the elevator button himself, or, just for fun, walk with us up the seven stairways, to get to his friends.  Almost every day he brought back medals he’d won for various contests.  When he showed me his Politeness medal, I congratulated him for saying please and thank you so much that it deserved recognition.  “I didn’t really have to say it that much,” he admitted.   “I just told them I was polite.”

When we were at sea, while Sam enjoyed himself at Pelican, his dad was able to use the treadmill in the well-appointed fitness center, loll on deck with a novel, try a little blackjack in the casino, and enjoy the cigar bar kept far away from nonsmoking passengers.  Grandma was happy to hear lectures from the bridge teacher and from Master/Doctor Chan Hock Guan, James, on traditional Chinese medicine therapy.  I loved the live string quartet in black tie playing at cocktail hour, while Sam preferred the jugglers and freeze dancers.  The ballroom dance classes were too easy for me; I’ve been to Arthur Murray; but the yoga, taught by a Scottish man, was made most challenging by the fact that the floor under our balancing poses was constantly rocking with the waves outside.

Swimming in any of the six pools was a new experience as well, at 22 knots an hour and in a choppy rocking horse sea on the way to our first port, Bermuda.   It was not so rough that any of us ever experienced any mal de mare, but when we got into the pool, each time the boat lurched forward a massive tidal-wave-like swell swept in, sloshed out one side and back to the other, with the result that we had hold tight to Sam while he stared, delighted but dumbfounded, at the “swimming pool that moved.”  The 3-to-7-year-olds when at Pelican, incidentally, were never allowed to swim without parents, for safety reasons, and parents had to leave a picture ID when leaving a child, and take a battery beeper with them so that the staff could be in touch with them wherever they were on the ship at all times.  With 3000-+ people on board, Crown Princess is a small city, and all those picking up their children also had to identify themselves each time.  For a $5-per-hour fee one could add three more hours of group babysitting to their evening, but we were ready for bed when Sam was for the most part, and didn’t want that extra time without him.

While keeping the tradition of seated dining on a cruise for those who favor it, Crown Princess has expanded its meal options to include “Anytime/Anywhere” dining, which means you don’t have to sit at an assigned table, at an assigned time, with the same assigned fellow dining passengers for nine possibly boring dinners.  The food is delicious, and more gourmet than we expected, but we sometimes took Sam for a casual 5:30 p.m. pizza dinner, or a cafeteria-style buffet.  There were two specialty restaurants on the ship – a steakhouse/lobster room and an Italian gourmet restaurant in which all of the antipasti, soups, salads and pastas, were offered in a tasting-style service before the entrée.  On several “formal” nights, we fed Sam early, then dressed to the nines and enjoyed a leisurely late dinner while Sam returned to Pelican.   Even when we did take him to one of the best restaurants, they always offered a children’s menu with “Swords From the Sea” fish sticks, Spaghetti Snakes, and Love Boat Volcanoes, the latter a seaboard version of a chocolate sundae.

With an executive chef – Martial Diffor – from France overseeing the preparation of food as rich or as light as any fine restaurant on land, what is it about a ship that makes people consume so much more of it?  The 3373 passengers and 1230 crew members of the Crown Princess consume 21 tons of food daily, all of it prepared only after it is ordered.  Chef Diffor said that when the waiters offered certain passengers a choice of four different entrees, some ordered all four.  For this reason, writer David Foster Wallace, in his hilarious essay on cruising in the book of essays called “Supposedly Fun Things To Do That I’ll Never Do Again,” said that on his first, last and only cruise on the Royal Caribbean, he finally realized the true meaning of the old Roman-based word “vomitorium.”  Princess passengers, it has been recorded, eat three times their normal average while onboard.  Luckily, Sam eats lightly, and we were able to choose plenty of fruits and vegetables from the buffet so that his shipboard diet was not just hot dogs and ice cream, and on this particular cruise, we saw just as many passengers working out and walking the deck as we saw those who were over-indulging on their prepaid all-you-can-eat vacations.

A tremendous variety of shore excursions were offered on the four different islands where we stopped and visited.   Once, when Christian went with Sam’s mom to dive to Mexico, they had to hire a woman of unknown childcare experience to babysit Sam, so they severely limited their diving.  Our three-generational cruise, however, was perfect for our three different adventure activity levels.  Christian thus dived off Bermuda while Sam and I took an air-conditioned minibus to the Crystal Caves and then the aquarium, which he loved.          

There was no diving available on Puerto Rico, so all three of us took a van up to the lovely, deep and lush El Yunque Rain Forest, the only rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system, where Christian and Sam climbed up to La CoCa Waterfall.

In St. Thomas, Christian dived again, while Sam and I took a ferry and a safari bus tour to St. John.  Grandma loved seeing the gorgeous St. John, while Sam was most impressed by the termite nests and the seagulls that swooped down to the ferry to gobble up his pieces of breakfast croissant (his desert town doesn’t have one seagull).  Older children took helicopter rides over the Virgin Islands or mini speedboats to secluded beaches.  On Grand Turk, Christian enjoyed what he reported was one of the best dives of his life, while Sam and I took a horse and carriage ride around the tiny town and then swam at a lovely beach.  A 12-year-old passenger said the snorkeling was wonderful off the beaches of Grand Turk, and an 8-year-old girl’s eyes were still sparkling when she told about her horseback ride over a Grand Turk beach and into three feet of ocean.

For children, this trip is an incredible multi-ethnic and geography lesson. Thirty-seven different cultures are represented in the crew, and probably many more languages than that.  Maps and descriptions of each island where we stopped were provided each day in the Princess Patter, the shipboard newsletter.  Christian, a busy trial lawyer at home, was able to catch up on his sleep and enjoy the fine cuisine that his northern New Mexico town sorely lacks.  Grandma could watch Sam see his first flying fish off the balcony, see him enjoy the Atlantic Ocean as much as she does (we sailed the whole time within the Bermuda Triangle, but I didn’t tell him about that), and cuddle in with him at night.  Was this the trip of his life?  Well, it’s the first time I’ve ever received a thank-you letter before the trip even started; with the help of his dad, Sam wrote that he was so excited he could hardly wait to come on the big ship.  And if there are any doubts about whether this floating palace – the only large cruise ship in the world, incidentally, on which weddings can be performed at sea -- still deserves to be called the Love Boat, one couple we met, who brought their two children, aged four and seven, with them and found their kids were as delighted with the Pelican Zone as Sam, said that this nine days at sea represented the most time they have spent alone together since the children were born.

The Crown Princess sails multiple itineraries during the year.  For more information on itineraries and pricing, visit the cruise line's website at www.princess.com, call Princess Cruises at 1-800-PRINCESS, or contact your favorite travel agent.

Julie Hatfield is an award-winning travel writer who was fashion editor of The Boston Globe for 22 years and continues to write travel stories and a philanthropy column for The Globe. She lives in Duxbury, Mass., with her husband, is the mother of three, stepmother of two, and grandmother of one.

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