An Adriatic adventure on the awesome Voyager of the Seas proves cruising with young kids is as easy as A, B, Sea! Aleney de Winter gives a first hand account of family friendly cruising - with little ones aboard.
Standing in the shadow of the gothic Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco with my three-year old son, Rafferty, and six-month old daughter, Marlo, I ask myself if there could be a more divine port city than Venice from which to set sail on our first family cruise?
For a history-loving mum Venice is magnificent and, to a small boy, it’s magical. Though Venice is an adult kind of place bursting with museums, art galleries and glass stores (think bull and china shop with a pre-schooler in tow) and a tad bereft of kids’ activities, there is plenty to keep my curious three-year-old amused.
If gondola rides, gelati and granitas aren’t enough then pizza, palazzos and pigeon chasing in the piazza certainly are.
Raff is wrapped up in the magic of his own imagination convinced he is Prince Charming and, when he isn’t swanning about on the watery world of the Venetian canals, rides his imaginary horse up and down the narrow lanes, neighing and clip-clopping all the way - looking and sounding all the world like a scale version Monty Python skit.
As enchanting as Venice is, it’s just a means to a much bigger holiday end. We’re here for a cruising holiday. And, princely fantasies aside, for my son it’s all about the big ship – though it is a Royal one.
The adventure begins before we even see our ship as a spy movie-style sexy speed boat taxis us up the Grand Canal to the port. Raff is beside himself, as are we at the surreal site of said child striking a dramatic pose on the speedboat dressed in an ensemble of tropical sunhat and the mysterious Venetian mask that he acquired at a market stall in the piazza. Convincing him of the necessity to remove it as we pass through customs is a challenge but he finally yields and we are whisked swiftly through (the speed and efficiency of check-in is impressive) to find ourselves face to bow with our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas.
Jaws drop! “It’s benourmous” whispers a stunned Raff who, so amazed by its gargantuan scale, has invented a new word “ ’Cause it’s bigger than enormous, mummy.” And he is right. It. Is. Huge.
It’s virtually a floating city. Sleeping more than 3000 guests, Voyager has an ice rink, rock-climbing wall, nine hole mini-golf course, superb day spa (I speak from experience), multi-story theatre, endless and excellent dining options including a spectacular three-storey main restaurant that can seat nearly 2000 people. Plus three pools, umpteen spas, a fitness centre and full-size sports court. The megaliner is coming to Sydney in November 2012 for a five month season and at 311metres long is so large that she will be the biggest cruise ship to ever call Australia home.
Our state room too is bigger and more comfortable than we expected and dropping off our things we’re off to explore the ship and find out what the next week has in store for us. And the answer is lots! There’s so much for kids (and mum and dad) to do that a week won’t see us even scratching the surface.
Our first port of call is Koper, Slovenia where we eschew the organised tours for some family time and head into the old town where we find ourselves stumbling across its annual Festa Dei Bambini. This stroke of luck means that mum and dad can bathe in a little Slovenian culture whilst Raff enjoys the fun with the local kids. But no matter how many playgrounds, shows, activities and balloons he stumbles across the lure of the ship is too much for a small boy to resist. There’s a waterslide back on board begging to be ridden at least 150 times before dinner, so leaving daddy on slide duty, Marlo and I head off for some baby-friendly play.
The Royal Babies and Tots programme is fabulous. A playgroup for parents with children age six months to three years offers fun, age-appropriate activity sessions where little cruisers can explore and play with tot-friendly activities. It’s a big hit with Marlo and me and the takeaway bag of Fisher Price baby toys that are hers for the duration of the cruise an even bigger one.
By very loud request each afternoon Raff visits Aquanauts in the Adventure Ocean kids club, one of the five age-based programmes for kids aged three to 17 run by qualified childcare professionals. It’s Raff’s first time to a kids club and he adores it especially meeting and playing with kids, and carers, from all over the world. The routine never changes, he stays for an hour or two and on-pick up insists on beating (not rigged at all) daddy at air hockey in the game arcade.
The ship’s My Family Time dining programme also means that Raff can enjoy an expedited dinner with us before heading off with the Adventure Ocean counsellors for a little more fun while we enjoy coffee and dessert at leisure. This is a great concept, though sadly no-one thought to tell a tired baby Marlo so it’s something we only take advantage of once or twice.
Further ports of call are Italy’s Ravenna, famous for intricate mosaics and the poet Dante and Bari, where we visit the pretty Apulian countryside with its quirky conical white-washed trulli homes or “fairy houses” as Raff dubs them. Then it’s off to Croatia and breathtaking Dubrovnik, where we find ourselves sailing on an old wooden “pirate” ship to the fortified walls of the old town. Much to Raff’s delight the captain offers him a feathered pirate hat and a go at steering the boat – the other passengers blissfully unaware they are sailing under the captaincy of a mad three-year-old pirate who can’t actually see over the wheel.
Travelling with small children always means a little bit of compromise so at each stop we ensure we either go it alone or pick the shorter tours from Royal Caribbean’s excellent selection of more than 70. We also try and choose tours that offer something to keep our kids happy while we soak in the glorious European sights, “somethings” which, if I’m being honest, are generally the promise of another ice cream and an hour on the waterslide when we’re back on board!
There’s a full day at sea (we’re amazed at how still the ship seems even as we are in transit – it’s like being on blue land) and plenty of playtime on Voyager including a performance of the dazzling ice show, which has Raff mesmerised, “the girls are all so pretty mummy, except the one with spikes on her head, she’s cool!”, then it’s back to Venice and an overnight stop to enjoy more canal capers before disembarking.
For families, cruising is an amazing way to see the world. No unpacking, no big changes to routines and bedtime schedules, no endless waiting in airports. Life simply goes on while in transit. And to be honest, though all the port stops were great, with so much to do and see on board the real star of the holiday is the ship itself and her attentive staff and crew. And Raff’s verdict? If he has any say in it our future holidays will be all at sea.