Monday, July 5, 2010

Some thoughts on the new Norwegian Epic, and Cruising in General

Its the thinking parent's dilemma: do you book a vacation that's going to thrill the young 'uns, or pick something that will engage an adult's interest and may have its ups and downs in terms of child friendliness? So often it seems like the types of vacations available to families please either one generation or the other, with very little overlap.

Take cruising's mega ships. My daughter and I just debarked the latest Leviathan, Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic, a 4100 passenger giant, which boasts the tallest water slides at sea. I've posted a photo above of that incredible water park above. It's the part of the ship I got to know best, as my seven-year-old literally camped here for most of the 2-day sailing.

Seeing her mile-wide grin as she conquered the water slides (in every possible sliding position), the climbing wall, the trampoline bungee jump, the massive jungle gym and the weird "ice-skating" rink (plastic sheets covered with oil)....well, it made my heart leap. There's no doubt in my mind that seeing your children enjoy themselves sets off some sort of endorphin surge for the parents.

But did that make up for the low-grade headache I had for most of our two days on the ship, caused by the constant, ceaseless blasts of pop music (there literally was nowhere on the ship one could escape from over-amped versions of the Pina Colada song)? Was it enough to make up for the mediocre food, the often witless nighttime entertainment options (the on board "Cirque" show, no relation to Cirque du Soleil, as anyone watching the rabbis dance out with martini glasses on their hats--no, I'm not making that up--would realize had to be one of the worst shows I've sat through anywhere), the constant crowds?

And really, was I doing my child any favor by exposing her to a small universe where there was no culture but the most obvious forms of pop culture (there wasn't even a library aboard the ship); and where unhealthy excess was celebrated non-stop (tables groaning with food manned by attendants always pushing you to take more of the most caloric options)? We toured the outrageously overpriced, elitist "villa" area of the boat, and my daughter remarked "Wow, it's so much better to be rich isn't it?". Whoops, that is not a lesson I wanted to give to my daughter, who last year in kindergarten wrote that she when she grew up she wanted to be a Salvation Army worker so she could give clothes to people who needed them. 

To my mind, she likely got more out of our spring break visit to Guatemala, where she got to explore a rich, very exotic culture and see great works of architecture and folk art. She saw some examples of extreme poverty there, and I was able to teach her about the conditions that exist in so many parts of the world. (I also felt good about spending my tourist dollars there, since the local economy really needed it).

To think about this from another angle: do I destroy her ability to enjoy vacations to calmer, cultural destinations by taking her on these action-packed cruises? Will she be satisfied with more subtle, intellectual pleasures if she's used to thrill-a-minute vacations? She isn't allowed to watch TV at home and her computer time is limited because I want her to develop the ability to amuse herself, without the crutch of spoon-fed media. But am I teaching the opposite lesson on these vacations? It's a conundrum.

For those traveling without children, the Norwegian Epic does have one terrific innovation that I hope other cruise lines will copy: studio cabins for singles. This will be the only cruise ship anywhere that single travelers can take without having to double their costs with an ugly singles supplement. The studios while tiny are quite cute, with a swinging-singles, Austin-Pendleton vibe (four settings of mood lighting, a groovy padded headboard and a nearby lounge where the solos will mingle).


  1. One of the more insightful posts on the topic I've read, Pauline. But tell me - how is cruising any different from, say, going to Disney World with its excesses? And I don't believe for a minute kids learn about foreign cultures from Epcot.

  2. Hmm, I hear ya, for sure. You state reasons that have kept me from ever cruising with my kids, Pauline. But lately I've been wanting to give it a chance...and I can't help but wonder what your experience might've been like on a 7 day trip, with days on shore that you could organize yourself, going where you wish, exposing your child to sides of the island unfettered by the cruise-folk. Might that not be a nice balance?

  3. Hi Steve,

    I have mixed feelings about theme park vacations, too.

    As for cruises with shore excursions Lisa: you get so little time on shore that they just don't compete, in terms of educational value, with land-based vacations. I took my kids to the Mediterranean on a family-reunion cruise last year, and while it was a little less mindless, I still would have preferred more time in the cruise stops.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary (beyond just the whole mega cruise ship dilemma) on the type of vacation to take with kids. We took our two kids (now ages 4 and almost 7) on a cruise around South America last Christmas that *almost* balanced our needs with theirs, but I am very hesitant to do anything of the sort again. We'll continue to try to hit that happy medium, but I do look forward to the day when we can all enjoy strolling around the Louvre all day!

  5. I am struggling to understand why, for one week (maybe 2) out of the whole year, you would be on such a quest for culture and education from a holiday? Surely a holiday is about letting your hair down, socialising, spoiling yourself and doing things you wouldn't normally do at home. A hoilday is supposed to be enjoyable, so why would you want your 7 year old to be couped up in a library (having spent all year at school) when a child could be playing, having fun and mixing with other peers. Maybe i'm different, but I know I enjoy a holiday when my kids are enjoying it. As for the mediocre food and witless entertainment, you must have been on a different ship to the rest of the world - there were a few things to pick on on the ship (the crazy cabins for starters), but the food was some of the best I have had, and the entertainment couldn't be beaten. Cruising obviously just isn't for you...

  6. Hi Love to Cruise,

    First the food: I ate at Cirque, the Manhattan Room, the Teppanyaki place, the Garden Cafe, and the sushi place and I thought it was all mediocre. Perhaps you went to different venues and had better luck.

    As for the entertainment: Cirque was atrocious, the singer in the reggae band on the pool deck sang flat, and there are MUCH better dueling pianists in Vegas. Blue Man Group, as I said, was terrific. Again, perhaps you experienced venues I didn't.

    As for the idea that it's just one week, so what's the problem: most families in the US get a maximum of two full week's vacation. One of those weeks is usually spent with family and the other might be devoted to travel. So that means one week a year to show your kids the world. With those numbers, I'd much rather expose them to an area of great natural beauty or importance (like a National Park) or a place of cultural or historic importance.

    I don't think I'm a kill-joy for wanting that, because those vacations can also be a heckuva lot of fun. But they're not JUST fun (which is what cruises tend to be), they're also eye-opening. And I'm teaching my kids that life is about exploration, curiousity, life-long learning not just pampering.

    I think too many adults in this country think that the only vacations worthwhile for families are themepark visits or cruises, because they assume their kids need non-stop, planned entertainment. And I worry that we're building kids with short attention spans and an inability to enjoy what's called "high culture"--history, art, nature.

    So that's my response. I doubt we're going to agree on this one!

  7. Try a cruise on a smaller, more "traveler" friendly ship. We did two weeks on the Azamara Quest from Singapore to Hong Kong last February and I can tell you that with overnights in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang, Hanoi and Hong Kong we got to really experience those countries without the hassle of moving ourselves via airplane to each place. Done on a smaller scale, cruising can be a great way to travel. That said, I never took my kids on a cruise (could not afford it back then) and I probably wouldn't now. But I do think that cruising is valid travel. Not the Caribbean and not certain lines whose entire thrust is the ship.

  8. I took my 4 girls (ages 12, 14, 16, and 18) on a one-week Carnival cruise (the Valor) during this past summer. The first few days we all hung out together and they didn't express any interest in the organized kids' activities. But once they'd tried them (around days 3 and 4), it was tough at times to get them back.

    One major complaint: the parents who let their kids wander the ship unsupervised at as late as 2am. Carnival doesn't require parental check-outs of children after the age of 11, so kids can do as they please.

    Solution: Carnival would make BIG BUCKS by renting walkie-talkies that allowed communication between parents and kids, especially if we could attach them permanently to ankles or wrists. Just track those kids and round 'em up when it's time for bed.

    My 3rd Carnival cruise (2 in the past 4 months) and many good things to say (like only one place where you have to pay extra for food).

  9. If you have such a problem then don't cruise. If you don;t want crowds go somewhere else. Honestly if you don't have the money, don't go on a cruise ship.

  10. Not sure why you went on this cruise? Did you not realize that there wouldn't be any culture? Children learn all kinds of things no matter where they are. Cruise or beach or China, whatever. Not sure if they will grasp the idea of spending thousands of dollars to travel to a third world country to help with their economy just yet. Take them camping or to a local library or a nearby art gallery. They can get all the culture at home. By intermingling at their own school they should get a dose of different cultures etc. Go live a little. We are children just once. Sounds like you need to play too. Things aren't going to change by your visit to Guatamala.

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