Families at Sea

More families are signing up for cruise vacations, but coping with the emotional currents can be tricky.

C R U I S I N G

Cover Story

October 24, 2004|By Marion Winik | Marion Winik,Special to the Sun

When my sister, her family and our mom finally arrived at the dock to board Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas for our first family cruise, they seemed slightly out of sorts.

Aside from a disagreement about the directions to Cape Liberty, N.J., my mother, 76, set to sail in a lemon yellow pantsuit, hadn't approved of the overalls and tank top my sister, 44, had selected for the departure.

Upon sighting me, the two must have felt simultaneous twinges -- of disappointment (Mom) and glee (Nancy). Getting dressed for the trip 250 miles away in Pennsylvania, I had put on the exact same thing.

"You have to admit it's kind of funny," I said to my mother that night as I sat beside her at dinner beneath the glittering chandeliers of the plushy La Boheme dining room, in my overalls.

My mother wasn't ready for the amusing hindsight phase of things. "Is anybody else dressed like this in this place?" she said, gesturing around the three-tiered, opera-themed hall (downstairs is Carmen, upstairs the Magic Flute). "I don't know what's wrong with you girls."

Then she turned her attention to the real work of the cruise vacation. "I'll have the Vidalia onion tart, then the prime rib," she told the waiter. "Rare."

"How come there are no prices on the menu?" asked one of my teenage sons sotto voce.

" 'Cause it's free," the other one told him.

"Not free," I explained. "Included."

My sons and my sister Nancy's two younger boys soon fully comprehended that Nana's lovely gift to us came with all the food you could eat, available from various restaurants, cafes and snack bars around the ship 22 hours a day. And they were just the people to take advantage of it.

According to the American Society of Travel Agents, cruises have become the most popular destination for family reunions, and surveys show that 18 percent of cruisers travel with their kids.

"Multi-generational family groups find cruises a good way to be together without overdosing on togetherness," explains Eileen Ogintz, the author of the syndicated column "Taking the Kids" and a new book, The Kid's Guide: Cruising Alaska. "That's why cruise lines report that they are such a fast growing market."

"A cruise takes away a lot of the stress of traveling with extended family," Ogintz adds. "Everyone can escape to their own cabin. No one has to play social director, cook or clean up, and there's no argument over who will pick up the check or where you'll eat. Another plus: With all of the organized children's and teen programs on board, the adults will have plenty of time to be together without imposing on grandma to baby-sit."

Based on my observation, our ship was right on track with the trend, its dining rooms filled with large tables for families like ours -- and like ours in other ways as well, I soon determined.

At first I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but soon I was hanging around the elevators and hot tubs, collecting lines I would later quote over dinner. From the Archives of Nautical Family Life:

Outside the Johnny Rockets diner takeout window, a tall man to a small boy: "She gets upset because she's sacrificing for the rest of us and she thinks we don't appreciate it."

On side-by-side treadmills in a gym with a panoramic view of the sea, teenage girl to her mom: "Every time we see her, she showers us with money and you get mad!"

Four men with beers in the adults-only Solarium hot tub. "Where is everybody, anyway -- bingo?" "Your mom and them are." "What about Mike?" "Probably trying to find out if you can get divorced at sea."

Around them, the steam rose into the mists of the North Atlantic and the piped-in reggae music was interrupted at intervals by the ship's fog horn. On our five-day cruise from New Jersey to St. John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the sun almost never came out. At least for the first few days, we hardly minded, since we had never been on a cruise and just the sight of the vast Atlantic was enough to amaze us.

Through the large porthole of our compact stateroom, we saw the white wake in the black water as our ship sped through the night. We saw rays of moonlight hit the waves like a spray of diamonds. We saw ethereal shades of gray layered horizontally -- water / mist / far-off land / sky -- as we played shuffleboard with our preschoolers outside the casino.

Inside that casino was my mother, who at that moment and many others was hunkered down at the blackjack table. My mother is a devoted blackjack player, and even after spending part of each day in the casino, she left 20 bucks ahead.

Honestly, my mother probably could have had a perfectly good time on this cruise without dragging the other 10 of us along. But she really is a very nice mommy and grandma, and even if that thought occurred to her, I'm sure she dismissed it immediately.

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