Everyone's On Board

A rock-climbing wall is among the many happily-tire-out-your-child activities set for family-friendly cruises.
A rock-climbing wall is among the many happily-tire-out-your-child activities set for family-friendly cruises. (Royal Caribbean International)
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

Every summer my son and I -- just the two of us -- take a vacation from school, work and strict rules. The theory is that playful downtime and shared memories will get us through the inevitable squabbles over homework, flossing and dirty socks. Last winter, I started noticing all those high-energy commercials from the cruise industry featuring attractive families having the multi-generational time of their lives. I'd never been on a cruise before -- never even tempted -- but this year, I needed a trip that straddled that fine line between adult relaxation and kid fun: My eighth-grader turned 13, which officially made me the mother of a wisecracking, precocious, hard-to-impress teenager.

As I watched the ads, somewhere deep in my brain a voice whispered, "You could read and play blackjack. Carter could have the run of the ship. Both of you could swim with dolphins. Quick, sign up while he's still willing to be seen in public with you."

So I signed us up for a seven-night Caribbean cruise in late August. If I was going to splurge, I wanted one we could both love. Carter had outgrown Disney, and therefore its ships, but wasn't quite old enough for a stately, sedate crossing. A spin on cruise critic Web sites convinced me that I needed a big ship full of amenities. My search quickly narrowed to Royal Caribbean's massive Voyager ships, which boast rock-climbing walls, basketball courts, mini-golf, arcades, ice-skating rinks and swimming pools with hot tubs. What clinched the deal was the elaborate Adventure Ocean program for children, which includes separate activities for teenagers 12 to 14 and 15 to 17, as well as a teens-only disco, lounge sundeck and Internet center.

I thought it was a safe setting for Carter to test his wings. I imagined my son, under the semi-watchful eye of a counselor, racing through the ship with a passel of giggling adolescents, and then I thought, "Yikes! He's going to be too busy for mom-son Kodak moments!" When I broached the idea of a cruise, I stipulated that he had to eat dinner and go on shore excursions with me.

Love at First Bite

Navigator of the Seas, a 138,000-ton, 15-deck mammoth that holds 3,000 passengers and a crew of 1,200, is a small city with more than 13,000 square feet dedicated solely to teenagers -- about a quarter of Deck 12. I was comfortable letting my kid wander the ship by himself, but wondered how we would find each other for meals and excursions. My travel agent suggested bringing walkie-talkies, but a ship representative told her a limited number were available free on a first-come, first-served basis from Guest Relations.

As it turned out, the free walkie-talkies had been discontinued. I declined to purchase a $50 pair from the ship store, and we decided to wing it on our first night on the ship: Carter went to the arcade and a Teen Mix & Mingle, I headed for the casino and Promenade, a three-story shopping mall that serves as a floating Main Street. We planned to meet up in two hours, but he missed the teen welcome and sensibly headed back to the cabin. His crazy mother wandered the decks for an hour hunting for him before it occurred to check the room. "We've got to come up with a better system," I muttered seconds before we both sank into a long, deep sleep. The next morning we devised a note-in-the-cabin method of keeping tabs, which we used exactly once before finding a noteless rhythm of designated meeting times and places.

Within 24 hours, we had settled into our temporary home. Our cabin was a small but comfortable interior room overlooking the Promenade. Hurricane Katrina was headed west, away from our scheduled path out of Miami, and the weather was sunny and warm.

Each day we received Cruise Compass, a comprehensive listing of the day's schedule and activities, and a separate roster of activities for the Navigators (ages 12 to 14). As with most cruises, most food and entertainment were included in the price, and we had plenty of options.

Our week-long cruise included two days at sea and four in Eastern Caribbean ports. By day, we lived in swimsuits or shorts. Nights were more complicated. As a rookie cruiser, I had tried to guess what passes for casual, "smart casual" and formal for a teenager. Renting a tuxedo struck me as excessive, and I decided dress pants, shirt and tie would suffice for him. I threw a couple of cocktail dresses in my bag, but correctly figured they wouldn't throw us overboard if I guessed wrong. Truth is, the definition of "formal" is broad, to say the least.

That first night, we bypassed the formal dining room and beelined for Johnny Rockets, an old-fashioned diner where we inhaled burgers, onion rings and chocolate malts. Carter fell in love with the place at first bite and declared it a perfect 10. "Mom, I can't find anything wrong with it," he said, shaking his head. "It's kind of disheartening, because I like to think I'm a tough critic. But it's perfect." But moms cannot live on burgers alone (not to mention the $3.95-per-person surcharge), so on our second night I dragged him -- tie and all -- to the soaring three-story dining room. We were escorted to a table in a side room, next to a waiter's station, where we were cheerfully served lots of mediocre food.

I asked for and promptly received a seating change, and we lucked out with a table in the main room and two delightful families with boys near Carter's age. But the dining room food never got a 10 from my teen critic, or from me. God knows there was plenty of it, and serving 1,500 people at once rarely lends itself to gourmet moments.

Ditto for breakfast and lunch buffets in the Windjammer Cafe. Then again, there were cookies and pizza 24 hours a day from the Promenade Cafe, and a $28 drink card bought Carter unlimited sodas from anywhere on the ship, which is all a kid really needs on vacation.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company