‘Twas the night before Love Boat, when Miami, Florida, staked its claim to the title Cruise Capital of the World. Coastal cities around the U.S., like Baltimore, took note and threw open their sashes to the ships, giving Richmond-folk like us an easy three-hour drive to a cruise (versus a multi-hour trek to Florida). Today, Royal Caribbean and Carnival depart year-round from our northern neighbor’s harbor while other lines also occasionally use the convenient Port of Baltimore (Crystal Cruises used Baltimore as a departure port in 2014).
Late last summer, I was fleeing my kitchen for seven glorious days. My husband was itching to visit something NASA. And my twin 11-year-old boys? Raring to hop an elevator and ride it for hours (I’m so proud). We made the breezy drive to Baltimore and slid our van into the port’s long-term parking (just $15 a day if you pay with cash). The drive and parking experience couldn’t have been easier. We were excited to set sail from the very waters where Francis Scott Key penned his tribute to America trouncing the British. We were boarding Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas and would soon be cheering with a shipload of guests as we sailed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Destination? The Bahamas.
Those who haven’t actually lolled on a ship tend to disparage cruise-travel, insisting that they don’t want to be stuck on a boat and/or prefer to commune with nature. Others worry that cruises are unsafe having caught Titanic three or four times. Rest assured, today’s formidable safety specs amount to a lifeboat for every Jack and Rose. But are you seriously implying that I don’t love nature? I love a good s’more as much as the next mom.
As for being stuck on a boat? Urban myth. A seven-day sailing generally stops at two ports of call – sometimes more – and at a cruise line’s private island.
If you’re heading into the world of sparkling, sandy beaches like we were, private-island excursions tend to include snorkeling (packing your own gear is fine), scuba diving, parasailing, kayaking, petting stingrays, and so forth. Parents seeking solitude will thrill at the adults-only beach and spa treatments in private cabanas.
If you’re cruising to Canada and New England – as Grandeur of the Seas also does – your voyage will give you a floating first class seat to brilliant foliage in the fall and picturesque seaside towns year-round.
Depending on when, where – and how many days you cruise – Grandeur of the Seas’ port excursions are in the dozens making it tough to choose. Surf lessons in Cocoa Beach or a day at Disney World in Orlando (when you dock at Port Canaveral)? Paddle board in Key West or tour Hemingway’s home? Take the Forts & Pirates tour in The Bahamas to get the scoop on the island’s past as a pirate haven? Or do the Blue Lagoon Island Dolphin Encounter? But what about the Sea Lion Encounter? You see the pickle: hemming and hawing is part of the cruise package. (Same goes for desserts.)
Hoping to sprinkle STEM studies into your kids’ vacation? You’re also covered. My husband opted for an eight-hour Kennedy Space Center tour in Port Canaveral while poor Mom was “stuck on the boat” sunk in a stack of magazines. Later, the four of us took Royal Caribbean’s All Access tour that escorted fifteen cruise groupies to the ship’s bridge, engine control room, galley, laundry center, and areas where crew members dine and relax. My boys reveled in peppering the captain with questions like, “What happens if a person falls into the ocean?” (The captain detailed how it takes four minutes to stop the ship, make a U-turn, and coordinate a rescue with the Coast Guard, while Mom and Dad held tight to said boys so there wouldn’t be a strategic demonstration that day.)
Later we lounged on the beach in Nassau, and were also planning to debark at Royal Caribbean’s island, Cococay, but sadly couldn’t due to choppy waters. (Itty-bitty boats, called tenders, could not safely traverse the rough waters.)
But if tours and excursions aren’t your cup and you prefer not to dip into your kids’ college fund, plan to debark at a port and chill on the beach like we did, or take a self-designed walking tour and soak up the Bahamian culture.
Sure, getting off the ship can deliver once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but think twice before pooh-poohing your onboard moments. Thanks to the ship’s playcare, you can lounge at the adult pool or dine à deux while your little gems are in safe hands. Grandeur of the Seas provides a nursery for babies (ages six to thirty-six months), a separate fun space for kids three to eleven – and a rockin’ private club for teens. A criticism of Grandeur of the Seas is that their playcare spans too broad of an age range to create an exciting space for older kids. I was hoping for the best, but my boys agreed: boring. Wristbands won’t allow younger kids to leave the play areas, while older kids and teens (with your permission) are thrilled to have the freedom to come and go from the playcare and roam the ship. Keep in mind that newer Royal Caribbean ships artfully divide the ages so that every child is playing with appropriate-aged peers.
The sweet spots for adults include a full service spa (I opted for a fancy pedicure figuring I could take my toes home with me), a fitness room that overlooks the ocean, a casino, and entertainment that included a stand-up comedian and song-and-dance shows. Royal Caribbean’s mega-liners sailing from Florida feature Tony Award-winning musicals, an AquaTheater show with divers, dancers and acrobats, and well-known bands
But luxury pedicures and coffee with croissants on my cabin’s balcony aside, my favorite part of the Grandeur was gasping in disbelief with fellow cruisers as we watched four twenty-something aerialists perform an air-ballet several floors high in the ship’s open-air lobby. The dancers are rigged in safety gear – but still! Later, I jokingly asked a performer if his mother knew about his risky performance. He gave my question thought and finally answered seriously, “Most of it.”
On or off the ship, all-inclusive cruises are a rockin’ deal for families. Every meal, including appetizers, elegant desserts, pool-side snacks, and room service, your cabin, playcare for kids, and most onboard entertainment is rolled into the per-person price. Excursions are extra and can cost a pretty penny (but not always) so choose with care. Sodas and alcoholic drinks are extra and a fifteen percent service charge is added to most purchases. There’s no need to carry cash, thanks to the daily price per person gratuity that’s automatically built into your bill. (Don’t like a particular staff person’s service? Just call guest services and request that specific tips be removed from your bill. It’s that easy.) Want to purchase a glass of wine? Maybe souvenir cups? Simply give your cabin number and you’re good to buy (which sounds lovely until sticker shock arrives under your door on the last day, so spend wisely).
My only regret was not realizing that our cruise was “two ships in one.” Case in point, we boarded our cruise with scores of people whom I never saw a second time. Why? Turns out the Grandeur belongs to families from morning until about nine at night. Then, from mid-evening to around who-knows-when the ship is bequeathed to the night owls. If I had a do-over, we would spend mornings by the pool – instead of sleeping in and eating a full breakfast in the restaurant – when the party set is recharging and, rather than dine in the upscale restaurant every evening, I would fill a plate at Royal Caribbean’s buffet and eat outdoors overlooking the ocean.
That’s how we spent our last night.And while dipping in and out of the (uncrowded) pool, hot tub, and buffet, we glanced out to sea, when what to our wondering eyes did appear? An entire pod of dolphins gracefully arcing out of the calm water while a dozen of us ooh’d and ahh’d and snapped away with our iPhones. The sky swirled in cranberry. An ocean alive with wild dolphins. Our last evening filled with what would become fabulous memories.
The grandeur of nature.
Cruise with Confidence
• Curious about the mega-liners that are akin to small floating cities with aqueducts (okay, waterslides), shopping malls, the first ever skydiving simulator (on Quantum) and iceskating rinks? Then you want Royal Caribbean’s Oasis, Allure, or Quantum – the three largest ships at sea – that sail out of Florida.
• Plan to childproof your cabin’s bunk beds as much as possible. At age four, one of mine thunked out of his bunk on an otherwise child-friendly cruise line.
• Never, ever leave your kids unattended in a cruise pool. Most cruise lines don’t employ lifeguards.
• Hoping for a sale on your sail? October and early November are often the best times to score a fantastic cruise deal.
• Good news! WiFi is offered on cruises, but bad news: It’s not free or quick.
• Frightened by formal night? Plan pretty sundresses for you and your girls, ties and/or collared shirts for the boys, and you’re good to dine. (Formal gowns and suits are only de rigueur on ultra-luxury cruises.)
• Does your picky eater need grapes and strawberries, hold the kiwi? It’s a snap to ask the friendly servers for items you don’t see on the menu.
• Read the fine print well in advance of your cruise so when your fun week arrives, no surprises will sail your way.
It’s a Wrap!
Need an utterly exciting, totally novel, last-minute Christmas gift that could save you a boatload of traditional shopping this holiday season?
Wrap sun block and a beach towel. Maybe a camera. Definitely a new bathing suit. Then let your confused darlings open an envelope that spells out the details of an upcoming cruise. Excitement ensues. Smile like, Yep! I had this one planned for months, sit back, and call it a Christmas!