Published Nov/Dec 2005

Left: Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios is noted for its natural beauty and the challenging climb up the waterfall. Deborah Reinhardt photo

Leave the minivan in the driveway and load up the family
for a fun-packed cruise vacation.
By Deborah Reinhardt

C Clear warm water enveloped us as we dug our toes into soft white sand. In the Cayman Islands–a premier scuba and snorkeling destination–my daughter and I were getting ready to swim with a few friends at Stingray City.

Capt. Kirk McCarthy from Caymanite Charters took us on a 30-minute boat ride to the sandbar. The opportunity to swim with and feed these gentle rays “was totally worth it,” according to my daughter, adding that “they felt like wet mushrooms.” Our first port-of-call with Carnival Cruise Lines provided a memory for us that would last forever.

The appeal of a Carnival cruise

I chuckle when someone says, “I’d be so bored on a cruise.” Today’s cruises are packed with activities–from onboard classes, games, movies and shows to terrific port tours. This nearly non-stop entertainment is what makes a cruise a great vacation for families with children, and Carnival delivers the goods for this important cruising market.

Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) estimates more than 1 million children under age 18 sailed on CLIA’s member lines last year. Multi-generational and family cruising–a popular travel segment for the cruise industry–will continue to grow, according to CLIA, the cruise industry’s marketing organization. Carnival expects that 500,000 children will vacation on their ships in 2005.

In addition, Carnival attracts passengers 55 and older, making grandparents traveling with their grandchildren a big market for the line. Roughly a million guests in that age bracket–about 30 percent of Carnival’s total number of passengers–are expected to sail with the cruise line this year.

Welcome to Camp Carnival

A fantastic youth program onboard Carnival ships, Camp Carnival, provides parents or grandparents with peace of mind, and gives children a chance to have their own fun. Traveling alone with my 8-year-old daughter, I found the cruise to be safe and almost hassle-free.

After a flight from St. Louis to Miami, we made an easy connection through the cruise line to catch a pre-arranged transfer to the Port of Miami, a bustling place that isn’t kid-friendly. Keep your children close by because there is a good deal of traffic on departure days.

During our first evening on the Imagination, Camp Carnival’s youth staff held an orientation meeting. A welcome aboard party for families helped break the ice and allowed us to get more acquainted with the staff.

On the first formal evening, my daughter attended a “Coketail Party,” a clever gathering for her age group. While adults mingled with Capt. Angelo Salvemini and his staff, the young set danced, played video games, had dinner and attended the early show in the Dynasty Lounge, featuring the energetic Imagination Dancers. My daughter had her first big evening out, enjoyed the independence, but knew I was nearby if needed. She joined in a pizza party and played games the next night, and then she hung out with me for the final two evenings.

Camp Carnival’s young, perky staff has activities all day in the playroom and other locations throughout the ship. Parents appreciate the security measures–including the onboard identity bracelets, cards and beepers.

And teen passengers can no longer complain, “there’s nothing to do.” This year, a new teen program–Club O2–aimed at the 15–17-year-old passengers was launched on 21 Carnival ships. Through a partnership with Carnival and Coca-Cola®, the ships will have new clubs and programming for this age group by the end of 2005.

Onboard the Imagination

With just five days, we had a lot of ship to explore. The Imagination can accommodate more than 2,000 passengers, but we never felt lost.

Like most families, the favored hangout was the Lido Deck, complete with a pool and slide, two hot tubs and the nearby Horizon Bar and Grill, plus the poolside grill that offered hot dogs and hamburgers.

Food is a big part of any cruise, and Carnival offers passengers plenty of choices–from multi-course meals in the dining room, to casual buffets and a 24-hour pizzeria. A patisserie was added to the ship this year.

My daughter’s favorite eatery was the Horizon Bar and Grill, where we enjoyed a bountiful breakfast each morning and hamburgers or hotdogs–with plentiful side dishes–for lunch. The dining room (Spirit or Pride) seemed a little too elegant for her, although the wait staff was entertaining as well as efficient. In the dining rooms, children are provided a menu of their own, which included an activity book, and items like salad, macaroni and cheese, and tomato soup.

While there were palate-pleasing foods for the younger crowd, adults had plenty of choices, including a sushi bar (a favorite of mine), in addition to fine cuisine within the Spirit or Pride dining rooms.

Activities keep calorie counters from packing on pounds. From the beginning of the cruise (yoga and pilates class) to the end (ladies golf clinic), there’s some form of exercise. The Sports Deck had a fitness room, golf lessons and outdoor basketball court. Classes in yoga and body cycling were available for $10 in the aerobics studio. Golf tours included some of the best links the Caribbean offers.

The ship’s cruise staff keeps the social games coming for all ages. There’s also bingo, art auctions and shopping in the Promenade Deck boutiques. It’s a challenge to squeeze all the fun into five days.

Western Caribbean ports

With two days at sea on a shorter cruise, the Imagination calls at two western Caribbean ports–Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Of the two ports, I enjoyed Grand Cayman the best, but my daughter enjoyed Jamaica. We visited the Cayman Islands prior to Hurricane Ivan’s visit in September 2004. In addition to seeing Stingray City, our tour took in the sea turtle farm and the photo opportunity known as Hell, a volcanic rock site and T-shirt shop.

For passengers who do not want to book a tour, consider a few hours on renowned Seven Mile Beach, one of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the world, followed by shopping. Good buys here include Tortuga rum in bottles and cakes, fine watches and perfumes. Carnival recommends a list of stores in each port. These places work with the line and offer customers a 30-day guarantee.

The next day, the Imagination called at Ocho Rios in Jamaica. We booked a tour to Dolphin Cove and Dunns River Falls and Park. At Dolphin Cove, we interacted with four grey bottlenose dolphins for about 20 minutes, but most of the time was spent listening to trainers, giving us limited time to touch Betta, Cometta, Mitch or Sugar.

Dolphin Cove is geared toward tourism and trade, and you will be approached for extra services, from buying photographs to braiding hair. However, the salespeople–while present–weren’t pushy. The tropical grounds were beautiful and included a small, pretty beach.

A better beach was at Dunns River Falls and Park just outside of town. The site is a Jamaican national park, and one of the country’s best treasures. While the attraction can accommodate plenty of tourists, it felt less commercial than Dolphin Cove. Skillful, surefooted climbers guide the daring up slippery rocks. I’m told the climb takes about an hour. For those who don’t want to climb the falls, a boardwalk follows the scenic falls to the lovely public beach, where the climbing tour begins.

A nice feature to this tour was freedom. The package provided admission and transportation, but we could explore on our own, keeping to the time frame.

Other tours in Ocho Rios were available, or passengers could shop. I’m not a big shopper, which is why I usually don’t go after expensive souvenirs, such as fine jewelry. If this is your bag, attend the shopping talk that’s held prior to the ports of call. It’ll arm you with good information, so bring a pen and take notes.

Back home again

After Jamaica, the Imagination spends another day at sea before returning home to Miami. Post-cruise tours of Miami were available. My daughter and I loved our Imagination experience and would absolutely take another cruise. Carnival leaves from so many nearby domestic ports–like Galveston, Texas–the family vacation is evolving from a week in the minivan to a week on the high seas.

Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of “AAA Midwest Traveler” and “AAA Southern Traveler.”

Above: The 2,052-passenger Imagination. Carnival Cruise Lines photo.

Below: At Grand Cayman, an encounter with a sea turtle is popular with cruise passengers and other tourists. Emily Klein photo

Before You Go
Carnival sails to destinations around the world. To book a Carnival cruise, contact your nearest AAA Travel agent. A list of offices to serve you is on page 5. Call AAA Travel, 1-888-366-4222 or book online at www.aaa.com/cruises.

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