And what a team we made! After months of long-distance planning (they live in Minnesota, we live in New York) and researching and coordinating, our first "grandchild travel tradition" was launching. Burt and I were in Seattle, boarding the Celebrity "Infinity" bound for Alaska, with a couple of very special travel companions: two of our granddaughters, Lauren (age 10) and her sister Alexis (age 8).
Lauren was the first to reach the age of ten, so she was the first to christen a brand-new Fine family tradition: reaching the age of double digits means being old enough to take a solo trip with the grandparents.
However, for this cruise an actual "solo" wouldn't have worked because of the ship's sleeping arrangements. There were no adjoining rooms. But we certainly didn't want Lauren staying in a room by herself. I didn't want to room with her and leave Burt alone. And having her share a stateroom with the two of us would have been both cramped and awkward. So the solution of having the two sisters travel together was ideal. And it was even more ideal because it was Lauren's own choice to share this adventure with her sister, rather than with a friend.
What we experienced, what we learned in terms of planning the future "10-year-old trips" for our group of younger grandchildren might include some tips on what to do and what NOT to do for all you doting grandparents of growing grands.
We four shared an entire week of adventures in the wilds of the North, aboard a floating wonderland that was filled with unaccustomed luxuries and delights. A hard combo to beat! We learned a lot about Alaska, about the fun of cruising, and about each other.
This floating wonderland, the Celebrity "Infinity," is a cruise ship so impressive in size and style that when Lexis first saw it from the taxi window as we approached the pier, she blurted in breathy whisper: "Wow! I want to marry this ship!"
And later, at the end of our adventure, after the girls had hugged all their newfound buddies in tearful goodbyes, they were already plotting ways to save for enough money so they could someday do it all over again.
The idea of taking the grandkids on a cruise sounds so simple, right? It's the perfect no-brainer vacation - once you get everybody settled on the ship, you're home free. No hassles. No shuttling from hotel to hotel, no trains to catch, no luggage to keep track of, no foreign currencies to have to worry about, no trying to find restaurants everyone will like.
All true. But we also learned that there's still no substitute for well thought-out pre-planning.
Grandma Brenda's Essential Planning Tips:
1. Get the kids involved. Lauren and Lexi did research on Alaskan wildlife for months before the trip. (Lauren had already done a school project on whales, so she was thrilled with the prospect of seeing them in their natural habitat.) We, and the kids and their parents, all poured over details of the destinations and the shore excursions as well as the ship, studying and preparing for the real thing.
2. Bring along a buddy. Invite a sister (as Lauren did), or a friend. It helps if the sisters are (as these two are) also good friends!
3. Bring along some quiet time activities. No matter how exciting the vacation. Everyone benefits from a bit of down time. In addition to books and games, we brought lots of art supplies so the kids could paint (and journal) their adventures. And while the girls were safely in their room doing projects, we had a chance to grab a nap. Lexi drew a picture of the ship which she later presented to the Captain. A gesture that was a big success!
4. Establish the ground rules immediately. The responsibility of being grandparents-in-charge, made us super-cautious. Our rules were that the girls were not allowed to wander the ship alone, nor were they permitted to leave their room without telling us. (We were in adjacent rooms; there were no adjoining rooms available)
5. Be alert to Shore Excursion "brochure- ese". Read carefully and watch for red-flag clues. We spent a lot of time selecting what we hoped would be just the right shore excursions, based on the descriptions. Our super-cautious mode ruled out doing any "high-risk" activities with the girls, such as heli-flightseeing and sea kayaking. And my bad knees (the double replacement was still in my future) meant steep climbs or stairs were not an option. Yet it was important that the girls experience a good cross-section of Alaska's natural wonders. Of the three excursions we selected, two turned out to be a bit
disappointing: one because
the undersea "views" promised in the description were really not very interesting. (Other than the leather sea stars, which prompted Lexi to dream of owning a home aquarium populated with dozens of such exotic star fish. And the other, a "walk" through the rainforest, which turned out to be a continuous series of steep (too steep for my knees) stair climbs through the rainforest. But the whale watching and authentic
Alaskan salmon bake at a remote lodge near Juneau were a big hit.
6. Be sure to have a notarized letter authorizing you (as grandparents) to be traveling with these children. Many border crossings require it, as did our cruise ship.
Structure vs Unstructured
Lauren and Lexi chose not to participate in the ship's very extensive Youth Program. They decided they would rather hang out with us while on the ship, and also be able to take all the shore excursions with us. Celebrity's Youth Programs sounded appealing, offering literally dozens of activities and options for kids of all ages. We noticed that many of the kids on our cruise chose to participate in this program.
Shannan Still, the "Infinity's" Youth Program Manager, highlighted some of the essentials she felt grandparents should check out in advance:
Explore the Youth Program, even if your kids think they don't want to sign up. Once you've seen it for yourselves you can then feel comfortable either encouraging them to join, or agreeing with their decision not to.
Ask questions: You'll want to know how the ages are grouped together as well as the ratio of kids-to-staff in these programs. Shannon told us that her staff quadruples during the key cruise periods during school vacations: Christmas, Easter and President's Weekend when there are larger numbers of kids on board. (Interesting note: Generally speaking, the shorter the cruise, the larger the number of kids on board.)
Ask in advance about specifics of the program. Significant (and often unmentioned) information such as: Does your ship's Youth Program have a "lending program" (supplies and activities your kids can borrow while on board) Do they charge a late fee? Some ships charge as much a $1 per minute over the specified pick-up time. (Celebrity does not charge anything at all)
Check out the backgrounds and experience of the councilors who will be in charge of your kids.
LAUREN'S AND LEXI'S TIPS FOR KIDS
1. Pack warm clothes, even if the forecast for Alaska is nice.
2. Put a change of clothes (swim suit, shorts, etc) in a carry-on bag so you can swim in the pool even if they don't deliver your luggage right away.
3. Bring along some quiet-time projects, games, and cards. There's so much going on all the time it's nice to chill out every once in a while.
4. Order the halibut. (Even if you think you hate fish.) It rocks!
For more than 30 years, Brenda Fine has written travel articles on romance, honeymooning, adventure and pure love of travel for national and international magazines including Travel + Leisure, Islands, Caribbean Travel and Life, The Peak, Travel Holiday, Bridal Guide, Brides, Modern Bride, Endless Vacation , Diversion and others. Same for newspapers, which include The New York Times, The New York Law Journal, the Daily News and The Post.
Alaska is a state in the United States, situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with the international boundary with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait. Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area, the 4th least populous and the least densely populated of the 50 United States. Approximately half of Alaska's 731,449 residents live within the Anchorage metropolitan area. Alaska's economy is dominated by the oil, natural gas, and fishing industries; it has these resources in abundance.
Alaska was purchased from Russia on March 30, 1867, for $7.2 million ($118 million adjusted for inflation) at approximately two cents per acre. The land went through several administrative changes before becoming an organized (or incorporated) territory on May 11, 1912, and the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959.