Choosing from an Array of Floating Vacations

Donna Potter's enthusiasm for life aboard ship wasn't dimmed a bit by high winds, cramped quarters or even rain.

``It was like being part of a big family,'' explained the 10-year-old, who lives in East Islip, N.Y. ``You don't get lonely.''

She spent a lot of her time aboard the Windjammer sailing ship off the Maine coast watching the chef. ``I like to cook,'' she explained.

Six-year-old Scott Malhiet, meanwhile, was just as happy on the Delta Steamboat cruise he took on the Mississippi River with his family. ``He'd sit on deck and watch the big freighters,'' recalled his grandmother Mary Joyce Malhiet, who lives in Louisiana. ``How often do children get so close to big barges full of coal and grain? It was all new and wonderful to them. It gave them a whole new perspective on the country.''

Whether by historic steamboat or wooden sailing vessel, slow-moving houseboat, barge or 20-passenger boat designed for wildlife viewing, families now have an array of floating vacations to choose from besides huge cruise ships.

Just as cruise lines plan with the youngest passengers' (and their parents') needs and appetites in mind, so do smaller tour outfitters and even individual captains.

There are scenic barge trips through European canals (where the kids can help open and close the locks), houseboats to rent on Arizona's Lake Powell (plenty of time for fishing and tubing) and once-in-a-lifetime adventures exploring the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica (watch for the monkeys) or Alaska.

``We want these people and their kids,'' explains self-described Barge Lady Ellen Sack, whose Chicago-based firm books canal barge trips in the countryside to France and elsewhere. ``The captains will find places for kids, playgrounds, places to swim or horseback riding,'' Sack continued. ``They'll have children's bicycles. We've had grandparents in their 60s and infants and they've all had a ball,'' she boasts.

(For more information about barge trips, which typically start at $1,000 per person for a six-night trip, call 800-880-0071.)

The main draw of such trips, families say, is the chance to see places parents with kids don't typically visit.

``We toured castle ruins and little villages. We set our own pace,'' said Alan Oestreich, who opted for a three-night barge trip in France with his wife and teenage son last summer. When the going got too slow for the younger Oestreich, he'd bike along the shore. ``We'd do it again,'' said Oestreich, who is from Ohio.

An eco-cruise on a 20-passenger boat also allows the kids to be as active as they like. ``The kids were up at dawn and out trekking,'' said New Yorker Selma Ertegun, who gave a thumbs-up to the Costa Rican tour she took with her husband and middle-school-aged son and daughter. ``The kids adored it,'' she said, adding such trips are not for those who demand luxuries.

If you have an adventurous spirit and your budget allows, consider:

-- An eco-tour to Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands, the ancient Aegean or southeast Alaska. Seattle-based Wildland Adventures, in business for more than a decade, offers Family Adventure Voyages designed for active families ``who want to relax but have the maximum experience,'' says Wildland's Kurt Kutay, who has taken his young son along. Plan far enough ahead and the company will promote the date to interest other families. You need to save your pennies: These trips typically cost $7,500 or more for a family of four. Call Wildland Adventures at 800-345-4453.

-- A houseboat rental can offer plenty of new experiences for a more modest investment. It has all the comforts of home, from televisions and VCRs to dishwashers and microwaves. ``We had eight kids ranging from 2 to 17 and they never got bored. We'd explore different canyons, they'd fish and swim and climb the rocks,'' said Bob Katz, who lives in Salt Lake City and loves houseboating so much he has bought a share in one.

Lake Powell and Lake Mojave are good bets for families. Consider sharing the experience with good friends or extended family. You can expect to pay $2,100 and up over the summer for a boat that sleeps 10-12. Ask about early- and late-season discounts. Call ARA Leisure Services at 800-528-6154.

-- A Windjammer sailing adventure in Maine is a good bet for older kids who like to pitch in rigging sails, rowing and tying knots. The schooner TimberWind offers designated cruises for families with children 5 and older. Costs average $100 a day per person. Call the TimberWind at 800-759-9250 and ask about the early-bird discount. Another schooner, the Kathryn B., takes winter charters for up to 14 family members in the Caribbean. Call 800-500-6077 for prices. Don't forget to bring plenty of books and games.

-- Grandparents might consider taking the grandchildren on a historic steamboat river cruise. Ports include New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis. One child aged 16 and younger travels free when sharing the cabin with two full-fare adults in many cabins on the Mississippi Queen and American Queen. Prices for a four-day trip start at $690 per person. Call the Delta Queen Steamboat Company at 800-543-1949. Bring along Mark Twain's ``Life on the Mississippi.''

West Coast grandparents could opt for a similar deal aboard the S.S. Independence in Hawaii: One child 17 and under cruises free when sharing a cabin with two adult passengers on the week-long cruise. Grandma can lead the hike through a volcano or learn the hula alongside the kids. Starting next summer, three-night cruises will be offered. Fares begin at $585 for the shorter trips. Call 800-474-9934.

Bon voyage.

(Look for Eileen Ogintz's books from HarperCollins West: ``A Kid's Guide to Vacation Fun in the Rocky Mountains'' and, for parents, ``Are We There Yet?'')

(Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or e-mail to eogintz@aol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns.)

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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