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How to Plan a Successful Group Cruise

Can five adults and four kids survive a Mexican Riviera cruise without getting on each other's nerves? Whether you're traveling by land or by sea, use these tips to plan a successful group trip.

Cozy and secure, cruises are the travel equivalent of comfort food. Enjoying a cruise generally boils down to three factors: the itinerary was mind-blowing, the ship was amazing, and/or you sailed with your favorite friends or family members.

Though one factor will typically stand out more than the others, your cruise experience can include all three if you pick the right ship, itinerary, and travel partners.

On a recent Carnival Splendor cruise to the Mexican Riviera from Los Angeles with my husband and seven-year-old twin sons, the 2008-built ship impressed us with its roomy cabins, variety of international cuisine, and the range of activities, which included an outdoor water park for the kids.

Of the three ports of call, Cabo San Lucas and its stunning rock formations and powdery white beaches wowed us the most. But more than all this, what elevated this cruise from good to great were the friends who joined us. My college-pal Rachael and her 16-month-old son Gabriel booked a cabin. So did my husband's childhood friend Rohit, his fun wife Shonali, and six-year-old daughter Anoushka -- both sets of friends had met each other before so we were pretty sure the dynamic would work, and it did.

The inherently intimate and convenient cruise setting was the ideal backdrop for our reunion. Better yet, the 3,700-passenger Carnival Splendor was well-designed and large enough to offer plenty of opportunities for all of us to do our own thing as well. After all, the secret to a successful holiday with friends or family is time together -- and time apart.

How to Spend Time Together

Eat Meals as a Group. Meal time for nine started at breakfast when we'd meet every morning in the same corner of the lido buffet restaurant to refuel and chit-chat. We marveled at how many bananas baby Gabriel could mash between his gums and were always curious what Shonali would sample --- the consummate taster, she loaded her tray with a bit of everything, from a tasty egg burrito to eggs benedict, cold cuts, and cheese. I focused on fruit and yogurt (for once in my life) in effort to shed a few pounds during the week (I lost three). The men usually hit the omelet station for something fresh and made-to-order, while the older kids enjoyed their daily intake of pancakes and bacon.

A highlight of a Mexico cruise is the food onshore. In port, we enjoyed the local fare and were never disappointed with the delicious homemade guacamole, salsa, fresh tortilla chips, fajitas, and burritos. We appreciated the local beer (Corona, Sol, and Tecate) and icy margaritas as well. At lunch on the ship, we always hit the buffet restaurant for its casualness and the variety of options, including Indian (from fish tikkas to tandoori chicken, curried veggies, and several types of Indian breads and sauces) and a Mongolian noodle soup station (where unfortunately the lines were prohibitively long). Rounding out the selection were burgers, pizza, the classic salad bar, and more.

A lively cap to each day was dinner in one of the ship's two main dining rooms, the Black Pearl, at a large round table. The adults guzzled wine while our efficient waiters did a great job keeping Gabriel sated with bowls of watermelon, strawberries, and rice, and the older kids with plates of chicken tenders and fries just minutes after we sat down.

As part of my "can you lose weight on a cruise" experiment, I opted for the light "Spa Carnival" option each evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the dishes were delicious and filling. Highlights included a scrumptious tomato gazpacho soup, pan-seared tilapia, spinach, and Portobello mushroom salad, grilled chicken with dried cranberries, and steamed filet of salmon with mashed pumpkin and a salsa tapenade. The others tried dishes ranging from a marinated pork loin to grilled lobster, linguini with Italian sausage, and sweet-and-sour shrimp with fried rice noodles.

While no one would say Carnival cuisine is five-star, overall, the meals aboard Splendor were very good -- the best I've had aboard the dozen or so Carnival cruises I've taken in the past 15 years. Other dining highlights included a roaming magician who made his way between the tables deftly making red balls appear and disappear.

Plan Group Activities. On sea days, there was plenty to do. When the kids weren't in Camp Carnival playing video games or joining trivia games, bingo, arts and crafts projects, or American Idol-style name-that-tune contests, they enjoyed the ship's outdoor water park, running through sprinklers, and zipping down sliding boards set up on a safe padded surface. The three-deck-high twisty waterslide and a miniature golf course were also hits.

The nine of us finished several evenings by occupying a row of seats in the balcony of the immodestly named Spectacular Theater. As we watched the glitzy after-dinner production shows accompanied by the 10-piece live orchestra, even squirmy Gabriel sat still and was mesmerized by the color and music.

Explore the Ports. In all three ports, we skipped the ship's organized group tours, and the nine of us opted to walk or to use local transportation. The Mexican Riviera is primarily about beaches, food, and shopping for silver jewelry (Mexico is the world's second largest silver producer), and those three things were our focus.

In Puerto Vallarta, we grabbed a pair of taxis and drove 20 minutes to Mismaloya Beach, an arc of sand framed by greenery and rocks. In the 1960s, John Huston's Night of the Iguana was filmed here with Richard Burton (mistress Elizabeth Taylor came along for the ride), attracting paparazzi and putting the once remote Riviera on the tourist map.

For lunch, we went back to town, where, on the recommendation of our driver (Rachael is fluent in Spanish, so that was a big help), we found an excellent restaurant called Margarita Grill. We dove into sizzling fajitas, some frosty margaritas, and the fresh guacamole that was prepared tableside. Afterwards, the three moms and Gabriel (who had dozed off in his stroller for a glorious hour) browsed for silver jewelry in the Municipal Market and nearby Rio Cuale Island market, picking up several necklaces. Meanwhile, the dads took the kids back on the ship, hit the water park, and then watched a movie in one of the cabins.

Mazatlan was less about beaches and more about the colonial architecture. Before exploring the town, all but Rachael and the baby opted for a 30-minute hike up a steep hill to the El Faro lighthouse on the edge of town for panoramic views of the harbor. The dads took the kids on the more adventurous off-road route up, while Shonali and I stuck to the path and enjoyed some girl talk along the way.

After our workout, we headed for Plaza Mechado, the heart of the city's lovely old colonial district, and enjoyed a well-deserved lunch of shrimp fajitas and more guacamole and salsa. Afterwards, the dads and kids were tired and ready to head back to the ship, while Shonali and I lingered for another two hours browsing through the old town's galleries and small shops.

Perched on the tip of the Baja Peninsula, the jagged rock formations of Cabo San Lucas are super scenic, until you get close enough to the shore to spot the tacky Hooters and Señor Frog's signs. Oh well.

Passengers have to be tendered ashore in Cabo, though it's a short ride. On shore, we hired a water taxi (a very basic panga) for the short ride to Lover's Beach, a gorgeous spot framed by a natural stone arch. The boats nose onto the beach and you hop out right into the water, so wear a backpack to minimize your stuff getting wet.

On one side of the small islet is the Pacific Ocean (too rough to swim in) and on the other is the Sea of Cortez, which was also fairly rough -- the swimming here is not ideal for children. There are no facilities on the beach, so bring your own water, snacks and towels -- and definitely go early to avoid the crowds.

En route, our skipper took us on a short tour through the surf for great up-close views of the rocky arch and jagged stone that poke out of the choppy surf here. Before heading back to the ship, we had another tasty Mexican lunch at a café near the tender docks. Afterwards, the crew went back to the ship while once again, Shonali and I stayed in town to shop. We took a taxi to the main shopping strip on the other side of the harbor along Boulevard Marina, buying a few more pieces of silver jewelry.

Downtime: How to Spend Time Apart

Seek Refuge in the Cabin. Even the best of friends need a break. We could all escape from each other and the maddening crowd at any time by retiring to our cabins. Fleetwide, Carnival's standard cabins are roomy and have mini fridges. Bathrooms offer ample storage space, and the showers are big enough to turn around in without getting tangled in the shower curtain. The husbands enjoyed taking naps in the cabins, Shonali studied there, and several times, the kids were happily plunked in front of a laptop or the TV to watch a movie.

With an infant in tow, Rachael spent the most time in her cabin, which was stocked with a crib borrowed from the ship, the requisite baby stuff she brought from home, and plenty of snacks from the buffet. Several evenings, after my family was asleep, I'd visit Rachael for an hour or two and we'd sit on the floor in the corner and whisper as the baby slept. It was college dorm déjà vu, but we didn't mind; we were just glad to have an opportunity to reconnect.

Explore the Decks. The massive ship's 14 decks provide plenty of stomping ground. Three decks in the middle of the ship and four at the top are filled with shops, eating outlets, lounges, pools, waterslides, a gym, a spa, and other diversions. I spent a lot of time taking the stairs between decks (all part of my diet experiment) and exploring the ship, while Rachael spent hours trailing Gabriel as he toddled down corridors and through various public spaces on his newfound sea legs (the drop-off kids programming wasn't an option, as the minimum age is 3 years old).

Every evening before dinner, my boys and I joined Rachael and Gabriel for a romp in the atrium lounge. The moms took the edge off with a glass of sauvignon blanc while the boys danced around with Gabriel as live musicians belted out classics like "It's Now or Never" and "La Bamba."

Hit the Gym. The adults spent plenty of quality time here. Shonali and I took an invigorating spinning class (for $12 apiece, not including the tip the instructor cheekily reminded us to fork over), and all of us came by several other times to lift some weights or to use a treadmill and step machine. A long row of cardio machines face forward to the sea, offering a good vantage point to zone out and enjoy an adrenaline rush.

Take Advantage of the Cruise Entertainment.

One afternoon, with the boys happily occupied in the playroom and the other adults otherwise occupied, I went solo to the "Game of Love" contest, a cruise-ship standard that pitted four couples against one another in a hilarious question and answer game-show-style laugh fest. Another time after the rest of the brood called it a night, Shonali and I had a ball at the late-night standing-room-only comedy act in the El Morocco nightclub. Comic Seth Buchwald provided a mildly raunchy adult shtick that had us both in stitches.

Find a Deck Chair. Sure, you're not really alone when you're sitting among a few thousand strangers, but still, your chair is your own little island. Arun and Rohit spent quality time chatting with each other or vegging out alone on deck while the kids splashed nearby in the ship's awesome water park. When the kids were occupied in Camp Carnival, parents could sneak off to the Serenity Deck, the adults-only patch of padded chaise lounges on the forward starboard side of the ship just below the mini golf course. It was the prefect place to wind down and reboot before joining up again with the whole brood.

Seven-night Mexican Riviera cruises aboard the Carnival Splendor start as low as $410 per person for an inside cabin and $550 for an outside cabin.

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