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Planning a cruise is smart thinking for people who may wish to avoid unnecessary air travel but still want a special family trip. When I tell my friends that I - just me - recently took my granddaughters, Madeleine and Hillary - ages 8 and 5 - on a three-day boat cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico, their response is instant disbelief: “Without their parents? Are you CRAZY?”
Our cruise, my first solo with grandchildren, could have been a Harry Potter nightmare had we not enlisted ground rules which I firmly recommend for intrepid grandparents (see final page). While planning in advance may appear like a buzz kill, believe me, in the heat of battle one does not always think clearly - so rules up front are your lif- saver.
Our adventure begins one day in July as we attempt to board the most enormous ship I’d ever seen. We spend two hours winding along a serpentine line of fellow passengers filling out forms and switching sweaty hands between hand luggage and guitar cases. Finally, we are allowed to walk on board. As we negotiate the route to our cabin, we face ten floors, four sets of elevators in varying locations, stairways too numerous to count, and 2650 passengers scurrying around a 70,000-ton vessel whose 700 crew members know absolutely that everybody is lost. Once located, our cabin proves more than adequate. In fact, it features a toilet which flushes like a bomb blast. On the bed is a bath towel folded like a rabbit.
Originally I believed this would be a cruise for families. Later, I learned this is a cruise for making families: the ship is named Ecstasy. According to the brochure, Ecstasy would "Make your cruise a memorable one with Your Kind of Fun." Pleasure seekers have a wide range of opportunities - board games, a camp for kids, slot and video machines, dance classes, sweet treats, "teen scene final blowout" in the Stripes Disco, and Hey Mambo Shows with Ziegfeld feathers and fluted fans. What I hadn’t expected was the bevy of bare-legged, hip swishing Baywatch babes busily gyrating to loud "hot cool and swing" music. Yet, for "my kind" there are seminars on anti-aging, eat more to weigh less, cellulite solutions, and aching back remedies. As for the kids, they seem oblivious to the more "mature" aspects of the cruise.
Day # 1 goes like a dream. I am certain my friends were just plain chicken. The kids eat right, talk right, sleep right. They even act like troupers when Hillary pulls an ankle muscle charging down the corridor and Madeleine slams a heavy glass door against her head.
Day # 2 gets a bit dicey. Arriving in Ensenada, Mexico, we sign up for the "blowhole" tour. The girls especially want to see foam shoot up through an underground tunnel. A cheerful local guide herds us onto a bus which takes us to a refugee camp look-alike. Tents as far as the eye can see sell hold all manner of lures for sale to eager tourists: beaded and silver jewelry, striped Indian blankets, handsomely decorated pottery, embroidered blouses, and Mexican team baseball caps. My two girls are satisfied with gorgeous dolls , gecko t shirts and “fashionable-for-the-funky” toe rings. As we re-board the bus and it leaves, I ask the guide when we’d be going to see the blowhole. She says "this is the blowhole" which we never see since it is hidden behind the tents. But the worst moment is when she interrogates all the other passengers with "did anyone else not understand me except for this lady? I am sure not!" At least my two girls don’t cross their arms and glare. They don’t even tell me I’m not cool.
But on day #3, the darlings strike. They take their positions and FIRE. It was the talent show that started it. Since the love of Hillary’s life is ballet, she jumps at the opportunity to display her talent. So, we register her at “cruise camp” where she spends the morning presumably practicing her steps, painting her face, playing pirate and going on a scavenger hunt. The treat of a lifetime, think I, querying her as she returns with: "tell us everything - it was wonderful, yes?" Stone- faced and mute, she bunches up her mouth, raises her head like a queen and marches off. Efforts to find out what went wrong are rebuffed, and the silent treatment prevails.
At lunch, even the waiters notice the mood problem. To their credit, they, who are invariably kind, are now beseechingly attentive to Hillary. The Chicken Mcnuggets and fries don’t leave the plate, but at least they never hit the floor. Hillary practically has to be dragged to the cabin for a badly needed rest.
For an hour while Madeleine sleeps, Hillary lies on her stomach, elbows bent, resting her chin on her hands -all the while repeating her mantra: "I will not sleep, I will not sleep, I will not sleep." Well on my way to hypnosis, I dress the diva for her upcoming performance in a long taffeta blue-green dress with bows and streamers, redden her pouting lips and create a Rita Hayworth coiffeur. The performance goes adorably as she tap dances her way across the stage between bows and assorted kicking movements. As she tips her hat and points her cane toward the audience, we respond lovingly with “yeahs” and “hurrays” in a flurry of applause.
AND THEN THE SUN COMES OUT, the first time in three days. I rush the little ladies out to the stern deck where it is surprisingly peaceful, and encounter their commentary: "This stinks - it’s boring - we’re going inside." Of course, they do just that. But knowing the hazards of leaving them unattended among 2650 strangers any one of whom might be a serial killer, I stick with them. My mouth waters for fresh air and sunlight. I am burned out on newlywed games, karaoke and ice carving. And “Teen Scene Slammin Jammin Welcome Parties” have lost their appeal.
I take the upper hand. Pulling the girls this time to the bow deck, we are outside at last. We sight a pool with a thirty foot spiral slide, hot tub, and enough people to populate Chicago-all sprawled out and hanging over chaise lounges. Deftly dodging glass after glass of rum cocktails and pina coladas strewn over the deck floor, I make a beeline for the one unoccupied lounge chair into which I release my aching back. I then look up blissfully at the sun. Its heat soothes the incurable - my body. My immediate thought: “ An Affair to Remember” ……visions of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr on that glamorous cruise to Europe flash through my mind. Their lips touch.
Immediately, I hear five frightening words: "I want my bathing suit." So, all three of us wind through the labyrinth back to the cabin, then return to the deck. Again I lie down. Thirty seconds later, the same five words emerge from the other child, so I don’t have to tell you the routine. Once back to my deck chair, I can hardly believe my ears: Hillary is demanding her suntan lotion, which of course is in the cabin. By then, I’m ready for a lobotomy but dutifully schlep back, re-emerge onto the deck - only to hear "Grandma, where are my glasses?" My fourth trip within one hour takes its toll big time.
So when I return, I’m into stress reduction. I actually join the mambo dancers and sway my spastic body to the soothing tunes of six maniacal steel band players. I am mesmerized by the sleek nymphoid bodies in rhythmic gyrations on the dance floor, and wonder if I should have had silicone implants myself before the Age of Managed Care.
A muscle pulls and I lie down. Spirits wilted, I look at my watch to see how many minutes I have left to live. And guess what - we have thirty measly minutes to get to our early seating dinner. Recovery mission aborted. We trek - now on remote control - back to the cabin. We're in fast gear - shower, shampoo, dinner, pack and put suitcases out of room for early morning departure.
With 6520 guests -or 2650- (who remembers?), the ship has efficiently arranged for disembarkation. Suitcase tags are color-coded. Our tag is a nauseating mixture of light tones, presumably orange. But when we go to the “orange” location as instructed, we learn that our color is actually another color - also of unknown hue. We are then sent to "yellows"-then to “browns” and finally to “beiges.” Each change of venue is a veritable obstacle course, especially since we are the only people going UP the stairs jammed with people rushing down. Knowing my horrendous sense of direction, Madeleine yells "that way", Hillary yells "this way", and I go into my zigzag mode. Meanwhile, as I reach down to retrieve Hillary’s Mexican doll whose head is lolling down the steps, I lose my balance. Nothing breaks, but almost three hours pass -and we’re still on the ship where logic dictates we will be for the next millennium. Yet, miraculously, we finally achieve the impossible and get off the ship with our luggage.
In retrospect, it was clearly not the fault of the cruise operations that we were "miscast". The staff members were courteous, the ship was clean and programs were organized. The girls had their own comments. Madeleine loved the trip because "the ship was huge and amazing - and three waiters liked me.” Hillary said "it was good."
But there WERE some hair-raising moments - which I am convinced could have been avoided had we employed some of the following do’s and don’ts:
A grandparent alone CAN successfully travel with grandchildren. Best of all was hearing my phone machine when I got home: "Thank you, grandma, it was a neat cruise and we love you. When’s our next trip?" Soon, I hope, now that I know the ropes.
Travel writer, 12-year American Museum of Natural History tour guide, and internationally touring amateur pianist Marjorie Gilbert holds degrees from Smith College and Columbia University. She writes from New York.
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