Best High-End Cruises for Families

Guests can kayak, windsurf or water ski from the water sports platform on board the Wind Surf. Photo by Windstar Cruises
Guests can kayak, windsurf or water ski from the water sports platform on board the Wind Surf.
A family enjoys a trip through France aboard the European Waterways barge Rosa. Photo by European Waterways
We all know the megaships are great for families, thanks to a casual vibe, extensive kids' programming, variety of activities, and multiple dining options. But for parents who prefer luxury cruises, these high-end cruises also provide memorable excursions and experiences for kids.

From giving families the chance to frolic with seals on the beach in the Galapagos, snorkel in French Polynesia, or hop off the back of the ship onto a Jet Ski for a zip around the British Virgin Islands, these cruises offer special family experiences that the big ships can't.

Photo Caption: A family enjoys a trip through France aboard the European Waterways barge Rosa.
Guests on the SeaDream II yacht can go jet skiing from the ship's marina. Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club
Guests on the SeaDream II yacht can go jet skiing from the ship's marina.
A young traveler on Paul Gauguin Cruises snorkels in French Polynesia as part of the Ambassadors of the Environment program. Created by explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, AOTE is a unique program that introduces young travelers to the extraordinary natural wonders of French Polynesia. Photo by Paul Gauguin Cruises
French Polynesia is one of the world's most beautiful places and a top spot for snorkelling. The 332-passener Paul Gauguin (www.pgcruises.com) is based in French Polynesia year-around. Most itineraries are 7-night sailings round-trip out of Papeete, Tahiti; some are longer than 7 mights.

During the summer months and holidays when more families are on board, kids (ages 9 to 17) can sign up for the Ambassadors of the Environment Youth Program ($299 per child). Kids enjoy fun hands-on experiences from exploring coral reefs to hiking rain forest trails, visiting marae (ancient Polynesian temples), and learning how to paddle an outrigger canoe.

Paul Gauguin has a retractable water sports marina at the stern, so families have easy access to kayaks, a windsurfer, and Zodiac boats used for optional diving excursions. Snorkeling equipment is free of charge and handed out to all guests the first day of the cruise.

Most suites and cabins have balconies, and all offer a full-size bathtub and shower, CD/DVD player and stocked mini-fridge. There are three dining venues, plus a gym, a spa and entertainment lounges.

If You Go: Fares start $4,795 per person for 7-night Summer 2013 sailings, including round-trip airfare between Los Angeles and Tahiti. Fares include fine wines, spirits, soft drinks, bottled waters and coffees, plus tips.

Photo Cpation: A young traveler on Paul Gauguin Cruises snorkels in French Polynesia as part of the Ambassadors of the Environment program.
SeaDream II Marina. Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club
SeaDream II Marina.
Guests on Lindblad Expeditions, observing Galapagos tortoise in the Galapagos Islands. Photo by Lindblad Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com) is known for offering hands-on adventure and learning-oriented small-ship cruises to offbeat locales. On every voyage, a team naturalists, historians, and other experts not only present lectures but organize activities and accompany shore excursions.

The Galapagos is one of Lindblad's most family-friendly itineraries. Aboard the 110-passenger National Geographic Endeavor and 48-passenger National Geographic Islander, kids can swim in the Galapagos year-round and snorkel with sea lions, penguins, and sea turtles. On shore, kids can hike and explore caves and visit the tortoise breeding sites. Aboard Zodiacs and kayaks, they can try to spot more wildlife. Based on the ages of the kids onboard, activities are customized to several groups. Kids receive journals and are encouraged to record their daily activities and experiences, which range from scavenger hunts on the ship and on excursions; lessons in stargazing; ship navigation and mapping; time with the Captain and crew on the bridge; Zodiac driving lessons and more. There are also glass-bottom boat rides to check out sea life and both vessels have underwater cameras and video microscopes with HD screens for viewing as well.

If You Go: Fares for Summer 2013 sailings in the Galapagos start at $5,950 per person and include meals, nonalcoholic drinks, excursions, guides, transfers, and a hotel night in Guayaquil before and after the cruise.

Photo Caption: Guests on Lindblad Expeditions, observing Galapagos tortoise in the Galapagos Islands
SeaDream II Marina. Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club
The 112-passenger SeaDream (www.seadream.com) twins are cushy megayachts that appeal to families with older kids who know their way around a nice restaurant and can maintain an indoor voice for long periods of time. The yachts have a deck with sunbeds, plus there's a pool and hot tub. The ships carry aboard mountain bikes for use in port. Each yacht also has a retractable water sports platform at the stern, providing easy access for water skiing, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, tubing, zipping around on Jet Skis, and more. (The platform can be used when the ships are at anchor, which is typically more often in the Caribbean than the Europe). Teens will also enjoy Wii, a huge selection of DVDs for watching movies in the cabin, iPod docking stations, and the movies shown up on deck under the stars, with recent films shown including Mirror Mirror and The Hunger Games.

The ships are all-suite and most accommodate three passengers (the third, no matter the age, pays 5% of the regular room rate); families of four or more must book a pair or one of the ships' double suites that accommodate four passengers.

If You Go: Summer 2013 fares for 7-night Europe cruises start at $4,199 per person.

Photo Caption: SeaDream II Marina
Mountain bikes on the deck of Nymphea, a barge that cruises through the Loire Valley, France. Photo by European Waterways
Enjoy a private family holiday down a tree-lined canal in the South of France or Burgundy aboard a 4- to 20-passenger canal barge operated by European Waterways (www.gobarging.com). Ideal for extended family groups to charter, a personal chef prepares meals for the whole family, from a casual barbecue on deck to an elegant five-course French meal. The chef can also whip up children's meals like spaghetti and burgers. Fine French wines and cheeses are also on the menu. Upon request, gobarging.com can equip its barges with high chairs, children's bicycles, and other gear at no extra charge. In port, wander around on your own or enjoy excursions arranged through European Waterways (book a minivan to visit historic sites and vineyards or try active family excursions like horseback riding).

Most canal barges come equipped with bicycles, so the kids peddle along the tow path a few feet away while Mom and Dad sightsee from the sun deck. Many boats have a hot tub on deck as well. The 8-passenger Anjodi, for instance, has a crew of four (chef, captain, housekeeper, and tour guide) and four air-conditioned en-suite cabins. The boat offers six-night cruises on France's 300-year-old Canal Du Midi that wends through ancient villages, fortified Roman towns, and vineyards.

If You Go: The cost for a full charter accommodating eight people, including all meals, fine wines, an open bar, and excursions, isn't cheap -- about $28,000.

Photo Caption: Mountain bikes on the deck of Nymphea, a barge that cruises through the Loire Valley, France
Guests can kayak, windsurf or water ski from the water sports platform on board the Wind Surf. Photo by Windstar Cruises
For families with mature teens, the 312-passenger Wind Surf (www.windstarcruises.com) is a great soft-adventure option for families. It feels like a private yacht -- from its billowing sails to classic teak decking, wood paneling, and soon-to-be-refurbished boutique-hotel style cabins -- but Wind Surf has the amenities of a much larger ship. There's a spa and a gym, multiple dining venues, a small pool and a hot tub, and a huge DVD library of 1,000 movies (plus another 20 new releases on the in-room televisions). The whole family will appreciate Wi-Fi throughout the ship and in the cabins, and every cabins has an iPod docking station.

The biggest hit though is the ship's water sports platform at the stern for easy access to paddle boards, windsurfers, Hobie Cats, sailboats, and water skis -- or swimming and diving off the platform. There's even a water trampoline for hours of fun when the ship is anchored offshore on Caribbean and Mediterranean itineraries, when it's typically used at least two days of the cruise and sometimes more.

If You Go: A June 2013 7-night cruise from Venice to Civitavecchia/Rome starts at $2,799 per person.

Photo Caption: Guests can kayak, windsurf or water ski from the water sports platform on board the Wind Surf.
Ping pong on board the Crystal Serenity. Photo by Heidi Sarna
This 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity (www.crystalcruises.com) offers a lot for families looking for a higher-end cruise experience. Adults appreciate the top-shelf service and expert lectures, while the whole family will love the ship's six dining venues (including an Italian and Japanese restaurant), plus the generous outdoor deck space that offers a pair of Ping-Pong tables and two paddle tennis courts. The wraparound promenade deck is ideal for strolls and jogs.

On summer and holiday cruises, children (ages 3 to 12) can join daily supervised activities in the kids playroom as well as play computer games on four machines in an adjacent room. Kids of all ages love the Scoops ice-cream bar offering multiple flavors and lots of toppings, as well as the poolside Trident grill for burgers and fries.

Crystal Serenity has lots of connecting cabins, making for an ideal set-up for families. Flatscreen televisions have DVD players (the library has a large selection of movies to borrow). All cabins have mini-bars stocked with complimentary bottled water, soft drinks and beer. Bathrooms have both a bathtub and a shower.

If You Go: A 10-night Serenity cruise in August 2013 between Copenhagen and Stockholm starts at $4,850 per person. Fares include all drinks, from wines to beers and spirits to bottled waters, soda and fancy coffees, plus gratuities.

Photo Caption: Playing Ping-Pong aboard the Crystal Serenity
The Play Zone for kids on Cunard's QM2. Photo by Cunard Line
Kids get the royal treatment aboard the classically-designed 2,592-passenger Queen Mary 2 (www.cunard.com) as much as their parents do. The kids' program starts at age 2 through 17, with a team of youth counselors on hand to organize fun games and activities for kids nearly all day so that Mum and Dad can enjoy the ship's Canyon Ranch spa or many elegant lounges, entertainment venues, and dining options. For babies 12 to 23 months, the night nursery service gives the youngest cruisers a place to sleep between 6pm and 11pm (parents get a beeper in case they need to be contacted while dining or enjoying some time off).

Just outside the playroom is a small family pool and sprinkler for kids, plus some climbing frames, cars, and tricycles. There's even a special daily children's teatime that's perfect as an early dinner. The icing on the cake: the children's programming is free of charge until 11pm.

If You Go: A 7-night transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton in July 2013 starts at $1,449 per person.

Photo Caption: The Play Zone for kids on Cunard's Queen Mary 2
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