Fun-filled family vacation with teenagers" -- it's a seemingly ridiculous phrase. But that was just what we had in mind when we booked a cruise to the Caribbean last winter. And of all things, our teenage son suggested it. We were shocked at first -- it's hard enough to get a teenager to talk to you, let alone willingly go on a family vacation. And Owen, 17 and an athlete, isn't a good fit with the sleep-and-shuffleboard lifestyle we had thought was typical on cruises. Instead, we discovered, cruises have changed quite a bit in the past few years and now have many activities that appeal to teens.
Several of Owen's friends had taken family cruises and returned with tales of meeting teenagers from all over the world. He wanted that experience, too, and in these flat-world times my husband, Rick, and I thought it would be a good idea. But we did have a few concerns about how everyone would mesh within such strict confines.
One of the difficulties in traveling with teenagers is their crazy hours. We're ready for bed when Owen's ready to go out, and we're up with the birds when he's still down for the count. The other difficulty, of course, is that teens want to pretend their embarrassing parents don't exist.
On board our ship, all of those issues just disappeared. Safely at sea, it didn't matter that we slept while he stayed out late. And there were so many different things for each of us to do in port and on board that we weren't noticeable enough to be embarrassing to him.
"Teens want to get out there and experiment with the world," says Jaci Fink, who runs the kids program for Royal Caribbean International. On a cruise ship, "parents are comfortable with their teens getting out there and trying different things but also doing things together. They can participate in some of the adult activities like going to shows, but they have their own space, too."
Or as my son summarized his friends' experience: "Once they're on board the ship, they never see their parents again until it's time to go home."
Rick and I weren't exactly up for that kind of agenda, but we did think it was a good chance for everyone to have their own kind of fun in a well-contained area. I mean, the kids can't exactly wander away. And fully aware of teenage skills at rule-bending, the cruise lines have ways of identifying their ages so as to prevent underage drinking and gambling.
Cruise lines have taken notice of the increase in teen passengers, and many are building and retro-fitting ships to appeal to older kids. Royal Caribbean even conducted a national survey of teen travel and recently created a Teen Advisory Board.
Many ships already have teen-only discos and lounges, basketball courts and rock-climbing walls -- and who can honestly think the surf pool on the newest Royal Caribbean ship will be overrun by octogenarians? Some cruise lines have set up PlayStation 2 and Wii video game areas with large-screen monitors. Disney and Carnival offer teen-only excursions. Depending on which cruise line you choose, your teenagers will have a chance to produce a movie, play a teen version of TV reality shows, be a disc jockey or get a makeover.
Not all ships in each line have the same teen facilities, however, so it's best to check. And this is a perfect time to say: Buck the trend and use a travel agent. I did extensive research online before we booked our cruise and talked to friends who had cruised with their teenagers. It helped me narrow down which cruises looked like the best match for us. Still, our travel agent, Suzanne Gaertner, had far more expertise.
Travel agents who deal with the cruise lines know the ins and outs of cruising and of the ships themselves. And there are lots of ins and outs. Gaertner matched us with a cruise that fit our expectations and our budget, saved us from getting stuck on a noisy deck and successfully negotiated a last-minute glitch in our favor because of her long-standing relationship with the cruise line.
As a result, our experience on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas, sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean, was superb from beginning to end.
Check-in was efficient and friendly: "Your stateroom is ready and lunch is being served," the agent said. "Welcome aboard." The ship's glass elevators scooped us up over the harbor and onto our deck. We found our cabin, a spacious stateroom with a large balcony.
Some lines offer family-friendly staterooms, and here is another area where a good travel agent can help you choose. Some of these options are as simple as staterooms with connecting doors, giving teenagers a sense of independence (and their parents some privacy), while still maintaining parental supervision. Others are luxury suites.
We opted for a stateroom with a balcony -- all three of us in one room, with a pull-down bunk bed for Owen. With a curtain between our bed and his, we all felt like we had some space of our own. The room wasn't huge, but space was used so efficiently that it didn't feel tight. (I've been in larger hotel rooms that seemed far more cramped.)
Our cabin attendant quickly came by to introduce himself and welcome us. The tone was set quickly: Relax, have fun, do your own thing. Rick and I hadn't even started unpacking when Owen said, "See ya," and he was off.
Fink said a lot of teens are timid at the beginning. "Then through the week they develop relationships with people from all over the United States and all over the world. On the last day, it's all tears and hugs and phone numbers and e-mail addresses so they can continue that relationship when they go home."
Owen wasn't in the timid group. He almost immediately made friends with kids from Canada, New Mexico and Texas, spending his days with them on the poolside sun deck or in one of the ship's hot tubs. The first few nights, he ate with us in the formal dining room but after that chose the casual buffet with his friends. They played pool (the tables level automatically at the speed of light) or just hung out. One night he ordered room service (included in the cruise price).
He spent one day with me exploring St. Maarten / St. Martin and taking a water taxi over to Great Bay Beach. When we docked in St. Thomas, he and his friends piled into a cab and went to highly recommended Magothy Bay Beach. We went snorkeling as a family in Nassau, Bahamas.
On board the ship, we ran into Owen several times a day without even trying. And we found that, perhaps because of his shipboard independence, he actually wanted to have conversations about the kids he was meeting and the fun they were having.
So his part of the vacation dream was fulfilled. But was this just going to be a giant kidfest?
I love the beach, but when we spend a week at the shore, "Mom" always ends up on duty at least part of the time: getting groceries, cooking a few meals, hauling the kids to mini-golf and the boardwalk. There was none of that on our cruise. I had no responsibilities, no obligations -- Mom was off duty.
Jewel of the Seas has mini-golf and a Promenade filled with shops -- say goodbye to the car-crawl up and down Ocean City. Sudden snack attack? The kids can call for room service -- free and available 24 hours a day.
Even better, when we explored the ship on our first afternoon, I found the Solarium and immediately claimed it as "Mom's room." Designed by someone who understands adult stress, this lovely, sun-splashed adults-only pool has a retractable glass roof, comfy chaises, a hot tub, a bar and snack bar -- and no one younger than 16 allowed. It was pure serenity. I dozed, I read, I smiled like someone in a cult.
Right outside the Solarium -- separated by noise-dampening glass doors -- the main pool rocked all day long with sun, music, laughter, its own bar and a younger crowd. But I enjoyed that, too, and found myself switching throughout the day between pools. One day the kitchen staff even hauled grills poolside and cooked a huge buffet lunch -- with ribs, chicken, burgers, dogs, side dishes and desserts.
Unfortunately, Royal Caribbean adheres to the more traditional timed dinner "seatings," rather than allowing passengers to eat dinner where and when they want. But after an entire day of relaxing and doing your own thing, it's jarring to suddenly be expected to meet a scheduled dining appointment. Happily decked out in flip-flops and beachwear, we often opted for buffet dining in the Windjammer Cafe, where we could dress the way we wanted-- our own version of "freestyle cruising."
We tried some of the ship's excursions, but also went off on our own a few times. At St. Maarten, there's a long pier with a large tourist information center where you can arrange for your own tours. Owen and I had taken a ship-sponsored excursion in the morning -- a bus tour of the island. He was the only kid along for the ride, and though he was gracious about it, clearly it wasn't his kind of action.
When we got back to the ship, I stayed to shop on the pier and he went in search of friends. But they had all taken off for other amusements, so we decided to see what else we could do. He wanted a beach. The tourist center pointed us to water taxis about a block away, which gave us a quick, breezy ride over to Great Bay Beach, where we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon in the sun.
My husband, meanwhile, decided to visit gorgeous Orient Bay. The brochures make clear that the beach is also next to a nudist colony and warn sightseers that the "sights" most likely will include nudity. Rick found it hilarious, though. Instead of South Beach bods, he saw mostly paunchy middle-aged men gleefully trying to shock the tourists.
On St. Thomas, we scattered. I had said before we left Maryland that they could count me out of any group activity because I'd be shopping all day on St. Thomas. Sure enough, I had a glorious time wandering through the jewelry stores and crystal shops, loading up on Australian opals and Sunset Topaz, Waterford martini glasses and cool T-shirts for my guys. And when I ran out of money, just looking was exhilarating.
Meanwhile, my husband left the ship after breakfast just to look around and soon spotted a motorcycle for rent. Off he went for his own cycle tour of the island. And Owen and his friends hopped in a cab and rode to picture-perfect Magothy Bay Beach (pretty, but a bit of a rip-off and terribly crowded, they said).
The one excursion we all did together was snorkeling in Nassau. We had tried in Antigua, but the captain of our little boat detected far-off storm clouds and turned back. It was a very different story in Nassau -- we were on a large boat, professionally equipped, with instruction for rookies. And we got a wonderfully dishy tour of the waterfront palaces as we sped by en route to the reef. Once there, we all spent a fascinating hour flowing through exquisitely beautiful schools of tropical fish.
At night on the ship, my husband played blackjack in the casino while I looked for duty-free bargains or enjoyed live music and dancing in the 10-story atrium -- each of us perfectly content. Sometimes we'd meet in the Safari Club lounge for a quiet nightcap, just enjoying the no-hassle days. The club had nightly audience games, which looked like fun for larger groups. Our dinner companions loved the evening theatrical shows, but for some reason neither of us made it to any of them. Maybe next time.
We enjoyed spending time on the balcony outside our stateroom. It was larger than I had expected, with plenty of room for a small table and two chairs. We had room-service breakfast there on several mornings. And the view from the balcony at first light was incomparable: the shadows of unknown hills just visible off the bow as we crept along a new shore, the blue-glowing lights of the harbor boats escorting us in, and finally a pink sky unveiling the land.
At bedtime, we left the balcony door open. The gentle motion of the ship rocked us in cradle-sleep all through the night, and as the ship glided on the water, the sea splashed the hull like waves washing ashore.
Most nights, the ship floated to a new island. I awoke almost every morning to see a different tropical paradise emerge in the dawn -- and we didn't have to do anything to get there. It was a variation on the old Jimmy Buffett song "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem": No schlepping, no driving, no stress.
By the last day, we were all planning for our next cruise -- together.
IF YOU GO
Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas offers a variety of itineraries and destinations from the Caribbean to New England to Europe. The ship offers lots of onboard activities that appeal to teens, including karaoke, scavenger hunts, video game challenges and sports tournaments, as well as pool tables, a rock-climbing wall and a teen-only nightclub. To book a cruise, call 866-562-7625 or go to royalcaribbean.com or call your travel agent.
Do some online research first to get a feel for which ships have the kinds of activities your teenager likes. Here are Web sites for additional cruise lines that offer options for teen entertainment: Carnival Cruise Lines -- carnival.com; Disney Cruise Line -- disneycruise.com; Norwegian Cruise Line -- ncl.com; and Princess Cruises -- princess.com.
Ask friends who have been on cruises to recommend a good travel agent.
The best way for your teen to meet lots of other kids is to travel when school is out -- summer, Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. The timing of spring breaks varies from school to school, so that's not the best option.
If you take a cruise during the winter holidays, plan to fly in a day ahead in case bad weather disrupts the airline schedules.
If you fly in to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and your cruise is leaving from there, save yourself some money and don't opt for the cruise line's "transfer" service. The cruise piers are close to the airport, and it's cheaper to just get a cab there. If you fly in a day ahead, choose a hotel that offers free shuttles to the cruise piers.
If your cruise ship offers a "soda package," it's a good buy. The package gives your teenager unlimited sodas, which are not included in the cruise price.
In the interest of vacation harmony, keep your teenagers' preferences in mind. If they love sunshine and beaches, head for the Caribbean or Hawaii instead of Alaska.