Family cruise vacations don’t have to involve huge mega-ships and oversized waterslides. Smaller ships can just as well serve up family bonding in faraway places, where nature and an intimate look at other cultures trump the big-ship bells and whistles.
In fact, taking kids on small-ship adventures is a growing trend. In the Galápagos, during some school holiday periods, more than 20 percent of the passengers on Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic ships are under age 18—the number rises to 25 percent in June and 29 percent in July, according to Lindblad Expeditions. Similarly, luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent attracts dozens of young people on its holiday family sailings in Antarctica.
Small ships lack space for kids to run around, but they make up for it both on and off the ship with one-of-a-kind excursions. Here are our picks for unconventional cruise experiences to enjoy with the next generation of travelers.
Best for intrepid explorers
Aqua Expeditions’ sailings in the remote Peruvian Amazon are a natural for children age seven and up, especially because the lush jungle is full of creepy-crawly (or swimming or flying) surprises. Naturalists aboard the 32-passenger Aria Amazon lead tours on small skiffs through the tight waterways of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve to spot monkeys, flocks of toucans, giant frogs, and caiman, or small alligators. You might fish for sharp-toothed piranha, kayak, go swimming, try exotic fruits, and mingle with locals in rural fishing villages. Onboard is the bonus of an outdoor Jacuzzi, and the ship stocks family-friendly movies and board games.
To Book: aquaexpeditions.com. A one-week cruise is priced from $9,450 per adult, for two adults traveling together, and from $3,500 for a kid sharing a suite with two adults. (A family of four needs two suites.) Child rates are for 7 to 11 years old. Adult rates apply to kids 12 and older.
Best for cultural immersion
With its clear seas and laid-back islands, Tahiti is a wonderland for family activities. Want to kayak? Bike? Snorkel with blacktip sharks? Have at it. But on summer and holiday sailings on the 332-passenger Paul Gauguin, kids ages 7 to 15 can also learn about Polynesian culture and nature through the Moana Explorer Program, offered in partnership with a South Pacific marine education and conservation foundation. Special kids’ excursions on shore provide hands-on science activities such as identifying coral species, learning firsthand about a giant clam breeding program, and recording findings in a field journal. Island-focused arts and crafts include creating your own Polynesian tattoo design. The ship’s troupe of local cultural ambassadors teach lei-making and tell ancestral stories through dance and song.
To Book: pgcruises.com. Priced from $6,245 per adult—one child age 17 or under can travel for free in the same cabin. This includes airfare from Los Angeles for the adults, but the child is cruise only (so no airfare included). For two adults and two children under 17, two staterooms would be required, and the price is from $6,245 per person. (In both cases there are additional port, security, and handling charges of $159 per person.)
Best value exotic itineraries
On rivers in Asia—the Mekong through Vietnam and Cambodia, the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, and the Lower Ganges in India—cruise operator Pandaw draws families with kids ages 5 to 17 with a special school holiday deal: Two adults pay full price and one or two kids can stay in a second cabin for free. The line’s intimate ships (typically only between 28 and 60 guests) carry a fleet of adult-sized mountain bikes for families who want to explore on their own, while organized tours include such kid-friendly elements as rides in ox-drawn carts and tuk-tuks. The ships stock board games and family movies as well as fishing rods and badminton nets that crew will set up on a sandbar for those who want to play.
To Book: pandaw.com. A one-week Classic Mekong cruise is priced from $2,596 per adult, and kids in a second cabin are free.
Best for multigenerational families
In the Galápagos, where the wild creatures are as curious about you as you are about them, families can snorkel together with baby sea lions, kayak past penguins, and get eye-to-eye with blue-footed boobies, all under the watchful direction of the seasoned Ecuadorian naturalists on Lindblad Expeditions’ laid-back ships. A program developed in conjunction with National Geographic Education (National Geographic’s educational arm) encourages youngsters to record wildlife sightings and try their hand at science experiments and arts and crafts activities, collecting “points” to become a NatGeo Global Explorer. The whole family will want to kick back together to watch video presentations by naturalists who use high-tech underwater microscopes and cameras to detail finds under the surface of the sea. There is no minimum age on these cruises.
To Book: expeditions.com. Priced from $8,700 per adult, and from $8,200 per child, for a cabin that can accommodate three people in July for a 10-day cruise on the National Geographic Endeavour II.
Best for luxury
Each winter, high-end tour operator Abercrombie & Kent charters a ship from the fancy French line Ponant for cruises for up to 199 guests to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. An 18-day trip over Christmas and New Year’s adds family programming with a luxury twist. The kids (the minimum age is seven) are kept happy by Young Explorers Guides who lead hands-on workshops (you, too, can touch a starfish or squid). The Young Explorer Guides are experienced teachers, so the focus is on educational activities. The kids are divided into groups based on their age. Hands-on workshops include Marine Mammal Identification, Squid Biology, Charting the Ship’s Course, Fish of the Southern Ocean, Drawing Penguins, and photography. The guides also run kids’ Zodiac (a type of inflatable boat) excursions to play in the snow, spot whales, and get to know penguins. The adults, meanwhile, experience glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife on longer Zodiac tours and treks on land led by scientists and naturalists–when not indulging on board in French cuisine and wine, visits to the spa, and butler service (the latter of which is reserved for suite guests). In the evenings, Abercrombie & Kent organizes art projects, games, or movies and popcorn for kids, so parents can get some adult time.
To Book: abercrombieandkent.com. Prices for adults start at $20,995 per person, and kids ages 7 to 18 are 50 percent off the adult fare.
Best for a traditional experience
Cunard’s 2,695-passenger Queen Mary 2 is not a small ship, but the ocean liner is unique in that it is the only ship upholding the tradition of weekly transatlantic sailings between New York and the United Kingdom, a trip that was once considered a rite of passage for the rich and famous—both HRH Queen Elizabeth II and actress Elizabeth Taylor sailed across the Atlantic on Cunard ships as kids. Today it remains a unique experience with a British edge. Families head to the buffet for a daily kiddie version of afternoon tea, and youngsters may take dance lessons and then dress to the nines at night to join their parents on a real ballroom dance floor. The ship has such attractions as a planetarium and indoor and outdoor pools. A supervised program in designated play spaces serves up age-appropriate activities for toddlers to teens (your kids won’t be deprived of their video games). And little ones as young as 12 months old are allowed onboard.
To Book: cunard.com. Priced from $1,289 per adult and $645 per child during springtime sailings if two kids between the ages of 2 and 17 are sharing a room with two adults.
Best for active families
The small, casual ships of UnCruise Adventures in Alaska are like floating summer camps for adults and kids (age 8 and up). Mother Nature provides the playground; everyone is encouraged to go kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, and take a polar plunge. If the crew spots a bear or whales, you grab your binoculars and head to the deck for views. Some itineraries stick entirely to the wild, while others visit Alaska towns. On special one-week family departures on the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer in July and August, a youth adventurist leads kids in scavenger hunts, paddleboard relays, ecology-themed games, and beach parties.
To Book: uncruise.com. For the one-week family sailings in Alaska, adult fares are from $4,695 per person, and kids age eight and up get $500 off.
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