December dilemma: to sail or to snorkel?

Some families opt to vacation during the holidays, even if it means throwing traditions overboard

Andy, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, leaps out of the crystalline waters of Nassau's Blue Lagoon and into my 9-year-old daughter's waiting arms. She squeals in delight, hugging the 260-pound mammal's smooth, steel-gray body to her own as it effortlessly treads water in front of her.

The wily dolphin lifts its head from Lyndsay's right shoulder and waits nose-to-nose for her to pucker up for the requisite kiss. Lyndsay takes one look at Andy's distinctive snout and howls: "He's got lipstick!"

It's Christmas Eve.

Most years on Dec. 24, this mother of three is knee-deep in wrapping paper and turkey trimmings.

But today, I'm knee-deep in tropical waters with my daughter and a half-dozen other passengers from Carnival's Paradise cruise ship. We're all laughing so hard at the playful dolphin still bearing traces of my lipstick that we nearly topple off the Dolphin Encounters' steel platform.

It's Day 2 of a week-long Caribbean Christmas cruise to the white-sand shores of Nassau, San Juan, and St. Thomas/St. John.

We departed on this holiday cruise in the nick of time – Dec. 23 – to avoid the domestic tsunami of cooking, cleaning, and entertaining that strikes our home each Christmas.

Home may be where the heart is, but I don't always want to be there for the holidays.

I'm not a Scrooge. It's just that there's something about the holiday crush – er, season – that brings out the less angelic side of moms. For every moment of festive fun, there are hours of shopping, wrapping, cooking, and housework.

Because we have two sons and a daughter, my husband, Christopher, and I chose Carnival's 2,600-passenger Paradise – the world's only nonsmoking ship – for its family-friendly activities:

It offers a stellar 2,500-square-foot children's area, and its Camp Carnival children's program is one of the largest afloat.

The fact that the Paradise has a 114-foot-long water slide, three swimming pools, six whirlpools, two formal dining rooms, and a 24-hour pizzeria didn't hurt, either.

During the holiday season, the ship is gloriously decked out with Christmas trees, wreaths, and mistletoe. And on Dec. 25, a cruise-line employee dressed as Santa Claus makes an appearance.

So, were our kids excited that we had signed up for a Christmas cruise?

They were appalled. Celebrating Christmas away from home – what were we thinking?

It took some serious cajoling – and the promise of presents to be opened early – to lure the kids onto the plane.

Like home, but better

All those concerns, however, melted away the minute we set foot on the festively decorated ship in Miami two days before Christmas.

A half-dozen sheer banners featuring Christmas trees topped with big red bows hung from the six-story glass-domed atrium. Tier after tier of sun-soaked decks and interior banisters were festooned with garlands trimmed in gold and silver tinsel and chunky red baubles, letting you know this was no ordinary cruise. And the familiar melodies of "Silent Night" and "The Nutcracker" filled the air, giving the huge liner a warm, cozy holiday feel. I was feeling less Grinch-like already.

And the kids? The two older ones had already grabbed their swimsuits and headed for the water slide.

My husband and I settled into our stateroom with Payne, our 2-year-old, who found plenty to love about his cozy crib. Then, with the help of Carnival staffers sporting red Santa hats and cheery holiday smiles, we firmed up plans for the days ahead.

My husband and older son chose to snorkel with the stingrays while Lyndsay and I smooched with dolphins. And our little one was happy at the well-equipped Camp Carnival area on Deck 12, threading a Fruit Loops necklace and making holiday treats.

On the sunny shores of St. Thomas, the shopping capital of the Caribbean, we resisted temptation and instead chose to opt for an afternoon sail and snorkel adventure.

After playing tag with the fish, father and son test-drove Chris Jr.'s favorite Christmas present – a remote-controlled powerboat from his grandmother – around the catamaran.

My daughter and I swam to the sandy shores and built our first sand castle together.

In San Juan, we chose to take the day off from shore excursions. Instead, we stayed onboard the ship, taking advantage of the sun and swimming pools, and filling up on pepperoni pizza and endless bowls of frozen yogurt.

Merry Christmas to all

On Christmas morning, when kids would normally be racing downstairs to see what was under the tree, they raced instead to the Rex Dance Club for the Camp Carnival Christmas Show dance class with one of the ship's entertainers.

They preferred, however, to watch rather than be in the musical performance later that afternoon that featured the ship's orchestra.

On a day when I would usually be midway through preparing holiday dinner, I managed instead to finagle a little Christmas gift for myself – an hour to do exactly what I wanted.

Then a quick call to the grandparents in San Diego removed any lingering homesickness the kids felt. My husband and I felt the same way, for that matter.

As night fell, we made our way to one of the ship's dining room for a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

The peaceful sound of passengers singing traditional Christmas carols in the atrium greeted us en route.

After dinner, instead of dealing with a sinkful of dishes, we celebrated the final hours of Christmas together, squirting colorful paints into the spin-art machines with the kids.

Walking back to our stateroom, with our first Christmas at sea ending, our son and daughter admitted what Mom and Dad had decided during dinner: It was a kind of cool Christmas after all.

"Can we stay on for New Year's Eve?" Lyndsay asked.

Cruise lines have the holidays all wrapped up

Our family of five were among the more than 250,000 passengers celebrating Christmas and/or New Year's holidays at sea in 2001, according to James Godsman, president of Cruise Lines International Association, the nonprofit organization representing 23 major North American cruise lines. And 2002 is expected to be even bigger for family travel, especially on ships sailing round-trip from United States ports.

Why such popularity?

"On a holiday cruise, every last detail – Christmas trees and menorahs, traditional holiday meals and desserts – is taken care of for you," explains Mr. Godsman.

Traditionally, because the holidays are one of the busiest times for the cruise industry, it's a good idea to book your trip early. Here are a few things to consider as you make your selection:

Menorahs and Christmas trees

Carnival Cruise Lines ships' atriums, public lounges, and the promenade decks are decorated with Christmas trees, wreaths, and mistletoe. Seasonal music is piped into guests' cabins and incorporated into the live entertainment. A special Christmas dinner menu features traditional roasted turkey and pecan pie; eggnog is served on the lido deck throughout the day.

Carnival also features a large electric menorah in the atrium aboard every "Fun Ship" during Hanukkah. The shipboard staff schedules a time before the first dinner seating to allow guests the opportunity to gather before the menorah to light the candles. Song and prayer sheets will be handed out to guests at this time.

Clergy onboard

Crystal Cruises' two ships, the Symphony and the Harmony, continue the line's well-known luxury experience with a holiday extravaganza that includes more than $100,000 worth of seasonal decor such as handcrafted ornaments, ornate sleighs, old English toy soldiers, and a dozen twinkling Christmas trees. And that's on each ship.

Guests will also enjoy an elegant Christmas dinner, eggnog party, Christmas brunch, and elaborate buffet, as well as a holiday-themed production show. Clergy will be onboard to conduct midnight Mass and Protestant religious services.

Crystal always has a rabbi onboard for Hanukkah (sundown Nov. 29 through Dec. 7 this year) and has a menorah-lighting each evening during that time.

'Snow' falling indoors

Disney Cruise Line guests enjoy a festive holiday celebration sprinkled with pixie dust on sailings between Nov. 24 and Jan. 1. The celebration starts at Disney's private cruise terminal at Port Canaveral, Fla., where festive holiday decor and Disney characters dressed in their season's best await guests. Onboard, cruisers will find the ships decked with boughs of holly and filled with holiday-themed entertainment and family activities.

Highlights include a nearly three-deck-tall tree in the atrium lobby, where "snow" magically falls; a Christmas Eve visit from Goofy with surprises for kids enrolled in children's programming; international holiday caroling by crew members from around the globe; special family time to design and decorate gingerbread houses; a classic holiday story time hosted by Disney characters; and traditional holiday feasts in three themed dining rooms. There will also be presentations of the new movies "Santa Claus 2: The Mrs. Claus" and "Treasure Planet." Holiday religious services will be offered for those of many faiths.

Shipwide parties will ring in 2003, and football fans can cheer their teams at New Year's Day "tailgate parties" in the ESPN Skybox and Promenade lounges.

Holly and caroling

Princess Cruises' ships will be trimmed from stem to stern in festive holiday decor, including Christmas trees, wreaths, holly, and mistletoe. Expect yuletide carolers to stroll the decks singing holiday tunes, and themed production shows during the voyage. Christmas dinner features traditional favorites such as roast turkey, plum pudding, and chocolate yule logs. Passengers can attend midnight Mass or interdenominational church services.

Just for children

Youth counselors on Princess Cruises provide a wide array of activities including parties, singalongs, and arts and crafts classes, where kids can create ornaments to decorate the ship's Christmas tree. Junior cruisers can also participate in a holiday play, performed for passengers. On Christmas morning, each child on the cruise receives a present.

For those who celebrate Hanukkah, a rabbi will sail on Princess cruises during the holiday period and conduct special prayer and song services. An area of the ship will be reserved for those participating in the services, and the ships will display menorahs and fresh flower arrangements decorated in the Hanukkah colors of blue, silver, and white. Kosher meals are available throughout the sailing, when requested in advance, and dining rooms plan to feature specialty items such as matzo ball soup and gefilte fish.

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