Luxury Cruising: Families Welcome – Youngsters and Teens Rock Aboard Crystal Cruises

By Penny McTaggart

Remember the song “It’s a Small World (After All)”? Well, in the big world of luxury cruising, high-end Crystal Cruises is singing the right song. Over the last five years the demand for multi-generational cruising has grown so much that both the Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity experienced huge increases in the number of families occupying their spacious staterooms, suites and connecting staterooms. Crystal’s response was to add more child-friendly cuisine and a highly acclaimed program for children, ‘tweens and teens ages 3-17.

Lucky me and my junior critics (Nathan, 9 and Chloe, 6) boarded the Crystal Serenity for a 12-day trip from Barcelona to Venice. We had booked two connecting staterooms, one for the kids and one just for me. As anticipated, the rooms were beautifully appointed, generously sized and comfortable.

Nathan had done his research and told us what to expect when we saw Gaudi’s Segrada Familia in Barcelona, the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence, the Colosseum, Pantheon and Sistine Chapel in Rome and the beautiful floating city of Venice. I knew that Nathan would be into the excursions, but I have to admit that I was a little worried about Chloe who couldn’t have cared less about visiting historical sites and museums.

My qualms were quickly quelled when I took a look at the onboard facilities. The Fantasia playroom, with its supervised activities, was full of tables and chairs for board games or arts and crafts. There were giant padded cubes, Sony PlayStations, Xbox 360 kiosks and large-screen televisions. The experienced Junior Activities Directors had organized scavenger hunts, games of hide and seek, story-telling time, ice-cream socials, pajama parties, dress-up playtime, a mask parade, movies galore and even cookie baking lessons. For the “more-adult” Nathan, offerings included bridge tours, karaoke, Trivia contests, paddle tennis, water polo, shuffleboard, volleyball and, of course, can’t-live-without computers. Teenagers can participate in late night pool parties and a teen disco, their own Trivial Pursuit, teen karaoke, pizza parties, Computer University@Sea® and Twister popcorn parties.

Dining “tout famille” was surprisingly easy. Breakfast, with buffet or table service, pleased Chloe no end with a limitless variety of exotic, never-before tasted fruits, pancakes, waffles and her beloved oatmeal with all the “stuff”. Nathan, more-often-then-not, stuck to his tried and true: a slightly green banana, fresh OJ and cream cheese (and occasionally PB) schmeared on a toasted bagel. Lunch and dinner were usually eaten in the Crystal Dining Room or one of the specialty restaurants with the executive chefs preparing custom dishes comparable to those found on shoreside kids’ menus. The Trident Grill & Ice Cream Bar serves complimentary hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and sandwiches as well as ice cream, yogurt and cookies throughout the afternoon. One evening in Sorrento I was invited to join a couple who had heard about a great restaurant high up in the hills. I felt perfectly comfortable leaving Nathan to enjoy a burger with his newly found friends and left Chloe in the capable hands of the onboard sitting service. I just needed to arrange 24 hours in advance. Fees were $10 per hour per child. The same routine applied when Nathan and I would disembark for an excursion. When we returned, Chloe was always anxious to hear about our forays but only after showing us her latest creative output like her glittery princess tiara or giving Nathan a detailed rundown of the adventures of “Kung Fu Panda”.

Family travel is one of life’s most rewarding and memorable experiences. Thanks to Crystal Cruises’ well-developed and creative family program, parents, grandparents (or in my case, guardians) can say “Kids Ahoy!”.

Meadowood Memories

By Penny McTaggart

Napa Valley isn’t just about wine. It’s for families, too, especially if they want to create lifelong memories. A great place to do just that is at Meadowood Resort where family gatherings are a fond tradition. Two, three and four-bedroom family lodges are located throughout the resort, allowing a luxurious, beautiful, private setting for reuniting two or three generations under one roof.

Large central living rooms with fireplaces, spacious kitchens and French doors leading to private balconies all contribute to the “one big happy family” feeling. Gather around the roaring fire to play games, share stories under twinkling stars, watch movies and get to know each other a little better. The Hillside 4-bedroom suite has 3,025 square feet so everyone can have privacy amidst the splendor.

One evening should be dedicated to a magnificent dinner at the three-star Michelin-rated Restaurant at Meadowood under the direction of Chef Christopher Kostow. If parents are interested in teaching their children the fine art of dining, this is the place.

Playing with Pachyderms

Saddle up for the remarkable experience of an elephant-led trek through the rain forest of Thailand

By Penelope McTaggart

Elephant Walk - Thailand

Trying to decide where to take my 13 year-old goddaughter, Ally, was a major challenge. She’s easy going, athletic and extraordinarily curious but she’s also a seasoned traveler who pooh-poohs anything ordinaire. When I met Jonathan Chell at a party recently, I knew I had found the perfect place…Elephant Hills Nature Lodge, Thailand’s first luxury jungle camp combining the camp idea of African national parks with the Thai tropical forest environment.

The Journey begins

After spending a few relaxing days on the beaches of Phuket, we begin our trek to Khao Sok where the sumptuous tailor-made safari tents are located. Transportation is a part of the all-inclusive price, so we jumped in the van ready for what we thought would be a two-hour drive. Boy, we were in for a surprise. On the highway leaving Phuket we turned down a long dirt road through deep woods to a tiny pier next to a hut, where we boarded a speedboat that took us to another Burmese-style boat. Then we transferred to kayaks, and watched puffer fish and huge schools of other fish and visited a waterfall, then a private beach where we caught and released giant hermit crabs. After a gourmet lunch on the boat, we breezed along a river, past 100 year-old mangrove trees, where we saw a monitor lizard and snakes coiled in the branches. Before ending up at Elephant Hills, we stopped at a local market and bought bananas to feed monkeys that hung around a Buddhist temple built inside a cave just ten minutes away from the camp.

Staff members are there to greet us on arrival where the open-air reception and dining area are the size of a football field. Sturdy beams hold up a soaring, two-story roof of bamboo and broadleaf palms and a tinkling fountain empties into a koi pond. A stone-ringed campfire burns in the center. Asian artwork hangs from some of the beams and orchids dangle from a tree trunk. The view from the room is of the lush, craggy mountains.

We both look at each other and say, “Wow!”

Elephant Walk

Our tents are luxurious and bug-free with reading lamps and, behind a tent flap, a full, modern, private bath with hot and cold running water. Our dinner that night is family-style at a table covered with linen and adorned with bird-of-paradise flowers. Our waitress offers a variety of mildly spicy Thai dishes and fresh fruit.

The next morning, we wake to the sound of the call of gibbons and birds in the rain forest. We’re anxious to head for the elephant camp which is about a 10-minute drive from the tents, where we’ll finally get to see the elephants living among the huts on stilts that are the homes of the Karen trainers and their families. The Karen tribesmen have been in the elephant-trekking business for generations. Ally expresses concern when she sees the short iron hooks held by the mahouts (elephant trainers) who balance atop the elephants just behind their massive heads. But during the two-hour ride, the mahouts never even touch the elephants with the emergency tool. Instead, they guide their charges with quiet grunts and gentle prods with their bare feet.

We’re also happy to find that while we sit in seats atop the elephants’ backs, the animals are not so much taking us for a ride as they are going on a snack run. The mahouts don’t object when the elephants often stop to enjoy green plants or even wander into thick underbrush to pluck out pineapples invisible from the trails but apparently fragrant enough for an elephant to smell. Back at Elephant Hills after a perfect morning, lunch is as good and plentiful as dinner the night before, and we’re soon off on a canoe trip through the clear waters of a river fed by mountain streams. We pull the canoes ashore in the middle of the ride and leap into a cool swimming hole while the guides make a fire to brew tea served in bamboo cups.

Lasting Impressions

By now we have seen the jungle from the back of an elephant, from our canoe on the river and even all around us from our boat but nothing compares to Ally and I actually walking side by side inside the jungle. It is not an army survival exercise, there are no prizes for the fastest, snakes and spiders do not jump out at us. It is just a fabulous opportunity to explore the ecology of the rainforest, to see a great variety of plants, trees with huge roots, hornbills living high above, gibbons heard calling to their mates and perhaps a macaque or leaf monkey seen swinging through the branches. We take it slowly, look, learn and listen to the great variety of life forms that co-exist together. We’ll always have this experience of knowing how it feels to be close to nature in the jungle and our shared experience will last a lifetime.