CRUISING WITH A CHILD; Or, beware the low-flying broccoli

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Families who are still at sea about their summer vacations plans might possibly belong there. Though it is the "Love Boat" image that has given the reviving cruise industry one of its biggest boosts, family cruising is beginning to make waves as well. Carol Walsh of Thomas Cook & Sons explained "Some of the larger cruise lines are encouraging children to come along and providing facilities to keep the kids active. As a result children are traveling more, and more types of people are starting to take kids, such as grandparents."

Sitmar Cruises, for example, consciously caters to the needs of parents and children as well as those of the traditional passanger. Not only does it offer extensive services and facilities for children on its 7-, 10-, 11-, and 14- day cruises to the Caribbean, Mexico, and Canada/Alaska, but it has extended its bargain rates for children aged two through 11 to include ages 11 through 17 for the 1981-1982 seasons. Children within that age group travel in a third or fourth berth for 35 percent of the minimum fare -- about $40 a day on a seven-day cruise, for example. This means that a family of three could take a Caribbean cruise for about $2,500 during the summer "value season."

While this may sound like a lot of money, it is important to remember that it encompasses almost everything -- accommodations, meals, entertainment, and in the case of the longer cruises, air fare to and from the port of embarkation -- Fort Lauderdale for the TSS Fairwind and Los Angeles for the TSS Fairsea. Extras are shore excursions, tips, toiletries, etc.

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If one can affort it there are a number of reasons why a cruise is a suitable and even a desirable family vacation. (With very young children, though, it can be difficult: My husband and I learned this the hard way when we recently took out two-year-old son, Luke, on a 14-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Fairwind, but more of that later). A ship is a self- contained environment, a floating city, that eliminates the rigors of traveling and touring. The shorter cruise, which is most popular with families, provides enough variety and stimulation to keep children from becoming bored. It also gives parents and children a fluid option of togetherness and separateness. A young English mother whose two daughters aged 6 1/2 and 9 splashed happily in the children's pool while she and her husband lolled on deck chairs close by, summed up the advantages: "This is our second cruise, and I have to say that we love taking the kids. You get on the ship and unpack and that's it until you get off. You don't have the problem of packing and unpacking and carting the kids around from place to place.On a ship they become familiar with their surroundings and have stability. For us a cruise is better than any other kind of holiday. Obviously if they're happy and doing things on their level, it's more of a holiday for the parents, too."

During the summer and holiday seasons when the greatest number of children are on board, Sitmar's ships have a full complement of eight trained children's counselors plus a youth activities coordinator who conduct programs in the children's playroom and teen center from 9 a.m. to midnight daily, even while the ship is in port. They also supervise the children's pool at regularly scheduled times. There are two sets of activities, one geared to juniors up to age 12 and the other to those 13 through 17. The activities include shuffleboard, bingo, arts and crafts, masquerades, pizza parties, story hours, special movies, discos, exercises, etc.

On our cruise there were approximately 150 children, according to youth activities coordinator Patty Tsilidas, split just about evenly between juniors and teens. Commented Miss Tsilidas, "We are seeing more and more children and all age groups. People are even bringing babies. Lately we have had one or two infants on each cruise."

Luke was in fact only the second youngest on board, utclassed by a ten-week-old baby girl. (Children under two travel free by the way.) The baby's parents, Rodney and Margery Petersen of southern California, made their cruise reservations for themselves and their 19-year-old daughter. After learning of Mrs. Petersen's pregnancy they decided to go through with the cruise anyway so they wouldn't lose their deposit. Mr. Petersen, who describes himself as the family worrier, admitted that he was dubious up until the last moment. "I was afraid we'd be sitting in the cabin all day with the baby," he confessed.

Mrs. Petersen, who is breast feeding, was more sanguine; so, armed with 150 diapers, a baby carrier, and disposable bottles of apple juice, the Petersens set sail. They ordered a porto crib in advance, as did we, but did not realize that the ship's special services department would have provided the diapers as well. They used the youth center primarily at dinner time, but brought they baby to lunch and breakfast placing her in an infant seat. They also brought her along on all the shore excursions -- Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua, Aruba -- except the Panamanian San Blas Islands where conditions are quite primitive.

The Petersens had nothing but praise for the youth center, and pouch, the self-service washing machines (a must she feels for parents traveling with a small child), disposable diapers, and the entire experience. They did in fact fare far better than we. Barely had we set foot on board than our problems began. We had requested a change to the early sitting in the dining room, but there was no record of it so we were compelled to take our hungry, exhausted two-year-old to dinner at 8:45. Needless to say bedlam ensued and my husband and I slunk out of the dining room with our hysterical child while our tablemates looked on with varying degrees of sympathy and dismay. At their best , Luke's table manners fall comfortably between the deplorable and the impeccable, but we so dreaded a repeat of that scene that for two days thereafter we ate breakfast in the cabin, lunch on deck, and tried to feed Luke dinner in the cabin.

But he didn't care much for that arrangement and neither did we. Though Sitmar's cabins are roomier than most they are hardly spacious, especially with a crib and a child sitting in the middle of the room eating and dropping his dinner. So we screwed up our courage and switched to the early sitting, procuring for ourselves a quiet table alone in the corner.Here we occasionally enjoyed pleasant meals and endured the unpleasant ones, but at least it was only we who had to duck the low-flying broccoli.

The problem that defied solution was that of child care, through no fault of the ship or the children's counselors. Luke at two is a gregarious and curious child, but he is also at the dependent stage. While he was enthralled by the "big boat" and the shore excursions on which he astonished us by his model behavior, he wanted no part of the youth center or the babysitters. It had to be mommy or daddy and preferably both. Many tears and sobs later we gave up on the center and resigned ourselves to full-time child care during the day which gave neither of us much time for rest and relaxation. Every evening we had a babysitter as he could never have gone to sleep in the center though there were cribs available. But this routine seemed to make him feel insecure as well, for the babysitter changed almost every night.

There is private babysitting available on board by the children's counselors at a rate of $3 an hour, but few passengers require the service as consistently as we did. In most instances, the children are old enought to sleep in the cabin by themselves or to stay up in the youth center until their parents are ready to go to bed. Other possibilities are relatives such as grandparents and older siblings who may be recruited for child care. Also, the room stewards are willing to check on children while they are sleeping.

The counselors, most of whom are warm, sensitive, and trained in education, couldn't have done more to try to help us all adjust, but the Fairwind had picked up Luke in the port between babyhood and childhood and there was no forgetting it. Two is simply the wrong age to take a child on a cruise, but it is perhaps the only wrong age because the child is old enough to be aware of changes but too young to understand them. The three-year- olds, for example, did very well in the youth center, and some even cried when they were taken outm of it by their parents. A few children were left there too long late for their own good, we felt.

Miss Tsilidas feels that the best age to bring a child along begins at six or seven when they are old enough to be somewhat independent and to appreciate the novel dining, social, and cultural experiences that a cruise offers. Safety is also a consideration because the only fully enclosed open deck is the promenade, and on the others a small child must be watched constantly lest he slip through the railings.

When asked what he liked best about the cruise one 8 1/2-year-old boy replied , "Playing ping-pong." Then he thought a minute and added, "But I can do that at home. I guess what I really liked best are playing games at the youth center, the three swimming pools, and going to different places." As for the teenagers the excitement of a cruise is not only that of traveling but of socializing. "Sun, weather, and night action," were the highlights for one tall, tan, blond, 17-year-old girl. Supervision of the teen disco sets a limit on the "night action" however, and of course no drinking is allowed.

It is important to recognize that programs and activities such as the disco are not designed solely for the benefit of children and their parents but for the other passengers as well. As one perceptive and envious ten-year- old lurking outside the disco observed, "Most of the teen-agers are in there every night. That's why they're not running around the deck."

"Running around on deck" is one of the few prohibitions which junion passengers are requested to obey. Others relate to dress, swimming pools, elevators, etc., but a more ambiguous and delicate caveat appears in the brochure for junior cruisers: "Parents are asked to restrain their children from engaging in any loud or disruptive behavior."

During our cruise most of the passengers were friendly and forbearing in their attitude toward us though on that first benighted night in the dining room or a grandmother at our table recommended that children be fed in a separate dining room or in a cabin. On another occasion a young childless husband suggested that we put Luke in the freezer for two weeks. We also overheard occasional complaints about other children running and using the adult swimming pool. The disapproval of other passengers, whether fair or unfair, embarrasses the parents and fosters a spirit of mutural resentment. A good rule of thumb is to leave a very young or an unruly child at home.

This would also be an act of mercy to the overworked and prodigiously patient crew. Most are Italian or Portuguese and their love of children is unfeigned. I have in my heart nothing but pity and gratitude for our waiter Angelo who raced back to the kitchen far too many times for "more juice" and shoveled the flotsam and jetsam of the evening meal out from under the high clair. Or Lino, our room steward, who valiantly kept the diapers coming and the chaos under control.

In summary, here are a fews do's and don'ts for parents contemplating a family cruise:

Don't take your child if:

* He is not toilet trained.

* He is not amenable to a babysitter or the youth center.

* He is not reasonably well-behaved especially at the table.

* You really want to take a vacation alone with your spouse.

Do:

* Get confirmation in writing of the main sitting if that's why you want.

* Make as many arrangements as possible in advance (diapers, cribs, high chairs, special foods, etc.)

* Book as large a cabin as you can possible afford. It's true that you don't spend that much time in the cabin, but you do have to get dressed and washed there and conditions can get pretty crowded with a crib or children in the upper berth.

* Travel during the school vacations to ensure that your child will have others to play with.

* Pick a line that offers the most plentiful activities and services for children. quantity and quality vary considerably. The Queen Elizabeth 2 is certainly the most luxurious for children, but it is also the most expensive, and a disadvantage is that the play room/nursery closes at 5 p.m. and babysitting is $5 an hour. Costa, the largest of the lines, also caters to children on some of its ships. For the most up- to-date information on these programs and rates it is best to check with your travel agent. Important questions to ask are the hours the youth center is open, whether it is open in port (you may not always want to bring your child), and the cost and availability of the babysitting service.

Finally, you may be wondering if we'd take Luke again on a cruise. Sure we would. Not at two, of course, but maybe 22. . . .

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