I have mixed feelings about the last vacation we embarked on. It was a 10 night Sydney to New Zealand cruise on one of Royal Caribbean International’s newest and largest ships, Ovation of the Seas. Of course, overall, it was a terrific experience, both for Eugene and I, as well as the kids. There is nothing quite like time together as a whole family, day in, day out, for 2 weeks. There can be no price put on this time; it is precious and such a luxury. We were also fortunate enough to have my parents and my sisters (one of them with her family) cruising with us.
We didn’t however, unlike so many people, fall hook, line, and sinker, in love with cruising. If I was asked whether I would go on a cruise ever again, my answer would be ‘not anytime soon’. I think, for my family anyway, there will be a time when cruising will be a truly fantastic holiday for us. Below is a list of what we found great and not so great about cruising with our family.
We chose Royal Caribbean International because it is a company well-known for its family-friendly itineraries. We had previously sailed with them (when Genevieve was 18 months old and I was pregnant with Lucinda) so we knew the kids were going to have a ball (and they did).
The kids’ club onboard ran like a well-oiled machine. As soon as we boarded, we registered the girls for kids’ club according to their age. Unfortunately (or fortunately, given the girls’ propensity for bickering), they were in different age groups so didn’t get to interact or see each other at kids’ club. There were “sessions” or “blocks” where they could be dropped off – the morning session from 9am-12pm, the afternoon session from 2pm-5pm and the evening session from 7pm-10pm. For parents who were keen to party the night away, their kids could be looked after in the club until 2am, for a small fee. When the ship was docked at a port, the kids’ club ran sessions without breaks, so that parents could go out sight-seeing for the day without having to return to feed their kids.
Overall, we were very grateful to have the kids’ club available to us. It gave the girls something to do while Gabriel went down for his afternoon naps and gave Eugene and I the opportunity to go out on a port day with just one child to take care of! I should mention there was also a nursery for children under 3 years old for those who wished to leave their infants and toddlers. A small hourly fee applied. Knowing Gabriel’s personality however, we didn’t leave him at the nursery during the vacation.
We found that Genevieve did not enjoy kids’ club as much as Lucinda; we suspect it was because she was one of the youngest in her age group (6-8 years group but if there were not enough kids, they would consolidate with the 9-12 years group) whereas Lucinda was the oldest in her age group (3-5 years) so could rule the roost, so to speak.
All meals are taken care of
We never had to worry about where we were going to get our meals. We’ve never minded researching and finding places to dine while on vacation but I have to say I did enjoy not having to think about finding places with food options that catered to the kids’ individual preferences. On a cruise there is something for everyone. Included in our cabin fee, we could choose from 3 different dining venues for a 3 course a la carte meal, or go to Windjammers, the buffet restaurant – a more casual affair. We did a bit of both but, to be honest, sometimes it was so much easier to go to the buffet with the kids where they didn’t have to wait for their food!
We were on a very large and new ship (capacity for around 5,000 passengers and 1,000 crew) with a lot of activities on offer for families, especially those with older kids. For the younger ones, there was only really the DreamWorks character “moments” (think Shrek, Princess Fiona, Po, Puss in Boots and the Penguins of Madagascar) where there would a little song and dance in the promenade area of the ship at particular times, with photo opportunities afterwards. There was also an outdoor pool area for younger non-toilet trained kids however, it was too cold most days to swim outdoors and, in what I can only think was a brain fade moment on the part of the ship’s architects, this outdoor pool area was adjacent to the only smoking area on the ship. Go figure. I certainly provided feedback about this after the cruise.
For older kids and adults, there was a lot more going on. Eugene and I tried the skydiving simulator iFly, which was lots of fun. There was also a wave simulator for those keen to “surf”, dodgem cars, Xbox, table tennis, trivia and karaoke sessions (I had a sing!), quiz shows, ballroom dancing lessons, craft classes, not to mention the theatre productions put on every night (with some matinee sessions).
Kids are king
There is no doubt that our kids were treated extremely well on this cruise, potentially to their detriment (i.e. they were spoiled). For example, when we sat down to one of our a la carte meals, the waiter incorrectly said that “mac and cheese” was on the menu as a choice for the kids’ meals. Genevieve, my 7 year old, happily ordered it. When the waiter returned to inform us that unfortunately he had been wrong and there was no “mac and cheese” on the menu, Genevieve burst into tears. We settled on a different menu item however this did not stop this kind waiter from attending another of the ship’s kitchens to specifically ask them to cook up a serve of mac and cheese which was presented in addition to the alternative menu item. Eugene and I were grateful for this but honestly felt a little uncomfortable – our kids certainly don’t get everything they want, especially if they wail about it! Oh, and another thing that happened on this cruise – Gabriel learnt how to put his hand up for the waiter’s attention and order chips! *facepalm*
It was lovely to see the familiar friendly faces of some of the waitstaff. Some of them even got to know the kids’ names! Pretty remarkable considering how many passengers are on board. While in the toddler playroom one day, I spoke to the wife of the 2nd in command (chief officer) and she told me the staff usually travel for 6 months before going home to see their families. In some instances, she said they would be away from their families for 9 months, which is a really long time to go without seeing your loved ones. It gave me some insight into why the children on board are loved so much by the crew.
It’s a very convenient way to travel
There is no doubt that cruising is an incredibly convenient way to travel with a family. A lot of the discomfort from travelling is done away with when on a cruise. Your room (albeit tiny and cramped – more about that later) is a short stroll away. Your meals are taken care of. You can pack really light because there are laundry services at your fingertips (for a fee of course). All your shore excursions can be booked before your cruise so you don’t have to worry about anything when you get on board. For my parents, who came along as well, they loved lounging around reading and attending the shows at night, something that they don’t really do at home (hmmmm…why is that? Perhaps a topic for another post). Each family member can choose to do as much or as little as they like – there’s no all-or-nothing approach like there is when you’re booked into a house or hotel room in a new or foreign place.
Cruising offers a different experience
Cruising is just a different type of holidaying. I don’t know how else to put it – it’s just different. When all the travel you’ve done involves staying on land, it can come as a bit of a shock. Mostly a pleasant shock, occasionally not so pleasant (read the cons below). What I loved? Having my whole family with me on this giant boat, all 11 of us at most meals together. The fresh ocean air. Seeing the world from a different perspective. A particular highlight was waking up one morning after 2 full days of being on the open ocean, drawing the curtains to our balcony and seeing our approach into the magnificent Milford Sound. There was something quite magic about being 10 storeys up and seeing the misty mountains with the occasional waterfall, some trickling, some gushing.
Tiny living quarters
As previously alluded to, one of our biggest gripes about the whole cruise experience this time around was the size of our family stateroom (18 sqm, long and narrow). Technically, we were all meant to fit in this room but with the sofa bed out and the cot for Gabriel set up, we were packed in like sardines. The wardrobe on my side of the bed could not be opened without shifting the cot. The wardrobe on Eugene’s side of the bed could not be opened without the pram being folded up or pushed up against the cabin door. Don’t get me started on the size of the bathroom!
So yes, we certainly missed the space and separation we are so fortunate to have at home and had come to expect on vacation. It would not have been felt so much except for the fact we had to endure 10 nights of being packed into this tiny space.
As a side note and worth mentioning, the ship does offer luxury “loft” style accommodation with up to 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. However, I didn’t dare look at the price because I was scared at what I would find (I suspect the price would have paid for a year’s worth of private schooling for the kids!).
Who would have thought that the Tasman Sea would be so wild and rough? I have no recollection of even the slightest bit of ick on our other cruise (Mediterranean). On this one, seasickness tablets were being given out like lollies. Both my parents and my sisters had to take tablets at one stage (I felt yuck but surprisingly, rocking with the ship while standing in a hot shower seemed to cure the nausea). Mum and one of my sisters were holed up in their rooms for a day or two just because they felt so awful. The worst part is, there’s nowhere to go to escape; it’s simply a matter of riding out the “storm” and hoping for calmer waters as soon as possible.
While the kids never got sick of the food on offer (Gabriel reverted back to his holiday “blond” food diet, basically eating hash browns for breakfast and chips for lunch and dinner every day), I must admit after a handful of days of eating similar type food, Eugene and I were hankering for some specialty dining. These are meals in the ship’s “special” restaurants, aka ones you have to pay extra for. Our ship had Jamie’s Italian, Wonderland (wannabe molecular gastronomy), Chops (steakhouse) and Izumi (Japanese). The specialty dining was good and a lovely change from the buffet and same-same 3 course meals, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. On a 10 day cruise, you’d be hard pressed not to get sick of the non-specialty food – we were craving a home-cooked meal by the end of the holiday!
Oh, and unless you drink like a fish, the beverage packages are ludicrously expensive. There’s free tea, percolated coffee, water and cordials but if you want anything more than that, including soft drinks, fresh juice and, of course, alcohol, these can be purchased either a la carte or on a beverage package. We worked out it would be a lot cheaper just to buy a drink whenever we wanted rather than purchase a beverage package, bearing in mind we aren’t heavy drinkers.
Given a lot of places we have stayed at include free wifi, it’s useful to note that wifi is charged for on the ship (and it’s not cheap). While lots of people would see this as a negative thing, we decided not to purchase any wifi packages on board and enjoyed our time offline. When the ship docked at the various ports and we disembarked to go into the cities, we had little snippets of time with internet connection. I found this was more than enough and really savoured not being switched on all the time to receive emails and messages and social media notifications.
It goes without saying that the bigger the cruise ship, the more passengers it can carry and the more crowded it is (our cruise was fully booked so it was at capacity). We had to queue up for everything (not fun with impatient kids). Everything is a giant logistical exercise merely because there are 5,000 passengers. At all the ports we stopped off at in New Zealand, we couldn’t simply disembark and “walk into town”. Those who wanted to spend the day exploring the sights had to catch a shuttle bus into town. At one stage we had to collect a ticket and wait around for our number to be called over the ship’s PA system when it was our turn to catch the shuttle bus. All a bit inconvenient but very necessary when thousands of people need to be transported in an efficient manner.
Cruising is not the best way to explore a destination
As I mentioned above, cruising is a different way of travelling. It is convenient. It can be budget, luxurious, family-friendly or somewhere in between but a cruise is really all about the cruising and the time spent on board the ship. It is not the best way to explore a destination. Put it this way, I would be really disappointed if I went on our cruise hoping I would get to see a lot of New Zealand (we’ve explored New Zealand in the past so this was not an issue at all). The most time we spent on land was a day. Cruising is the main part of the holiday – the shore excursions and sightseeing at the various ports is just a little extra to add to the main experience of cruising.
If it’s not going to be too disruptive to your children’s schooling, I would suggest going during the school term. Flights are a lot cheaper, there are not so many children vying for spots at the kids’ club (you are free to register your children but at any given session there is a limit on the numbers accepted and it is first come, first served). The way I look at it, travel is just another great way to educate kids.
The cruise we went on was 10 nights. I would suggest going on a short one first (say, 3-4 nights) to see if it’s something that your family loves.
Finally, research the waters you will be cruising on and look for cruises in calmer waters if you or any family members tend to get motion sickness.
For those who have cruised with your families, what did you think of your experience?