Watching movies under the stars aboard a Caribbean cruise ship was the clincher: as soon as our children heard about that, they became obsessed with the idea of going on a family cruise. Different islands to explore, sunshine-filled days and balmy nights sounded pretty fantastic to Nick and me, too.
We still weren’t sure the children would really enjoy being on a ship for a week, so we decided to try a mini-cruise – which is how Brittany Ferries describes its crossings from Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander, in Spain. We sailed on the Pont-Aven, which takes 24 hours to get to Spain – just enough time to enjoy the swimming pool and whirlpool on the conservatory-like top-deck, check out one of the two cinemas showing new-release films, and catch a magic show in the main bar.
The children were happy from the moment we stepped into our top-of-the-range Commodore Class cabin: it was huge, with a private balcony and flatscreen TV adding an extra touch of luxury. Meanwhile, Nick and I were delighted with the first-class food in the waiter-service restaurant, piling our plates with shrimps, langoustines, poached whole salmon and salads from the vast hors d’oeuvre table.
Toddlers and young children have a play area, with an activities program in high season; teenagers have a video games room to escape from adults. Everybody can enjoy regular magic shows, and the live bands and dancing in the evening. The journey is a truly great way to get to the beaches of northern Spain, and proof that the children can cope with a cruise. But which cruise to choose?
Most cruises targeted at the British market are for adults, so you need to seek out a family-friendly company with suitable entertainment and – crucially – other children on board, plus play areas or rooms solely for children. You also need to make sure the dining arrangements are suitable: some cruise companies allocate tables and family dinner slots, but I find that a ship with a ‘relaxed dining’ policy is better, so you can eat when you want, and have a choice of restaurants offering food both adults and children enjoy. (See also our feature on eating aboard cruise ships.)
Your choice of cabin can also make or break your holiday. It needs to be big enough for comfort, with adequate storage and, if possible, a private balcony – invaluable for those who need to get away from the crowds now and again, and a great spot to enjoy a glass of wine in the evening while your children are asleep inside.
One of the best cruise companies for families is Royal Caribbean International, with creches for babies six months and up, kids' clubs for three- to 11-year-olds, teen clubs, ice-skating, decktop climbing walls and basketball courts. Some also have pools for surfing – although they are very small – and all have swimming pools. These huge ships also have cinemas, theatres, shops, bars and a wide choice of restaurants – 1950s-style Johnny Rockets diners are particularly popular with families. For those looking for some quiet time, there are adult-only pools, gyms and spas too.
Royal Caribbean’s ‘My Family Time Dining’ allows young kids to have dinner with Mum and Dad before being whisked away by the play-club staff for more activities while the latter continue a more leisurely meal. There’s also a paid-for babysitting service, and considerable facilities for teenagers.
The drawback with Royal Caribbean is that you pay in US dollars. An alternative is British-based P&O Cruises, whose family-friendly ships have activity programs for ages two to 17, PlayStations in the youth areas, games rooms, cinemas and theatres, and special evening meals for kids so parents can eat with other adults if they want, then enjoy the bars and nightclubs while their children sleep (there are cabin-listening facilities and babysitting, plus evening activities for older children). Very young children are particularly well catered for by P&O, with character breakfasts and entertainment.
If you’re still not sure whether a full-scale cruise is for you, try a family short break package across the North Sea. DFDS Seaways' two-night breaks from Newcastle to Amsterdam offer the chance to explore the cities as well as on-board children’s activities including watching for dolphins, whales and seabirds with ORCA wildlife officers.
Read more about family cruise holidays and our favourite suppliers, plus tips for choosing and making the best of your holiday.