Cruising with kids between the ages of 4 and 7 is much easier than sailing with babies and toddlers. I know from first-hand experience, having schlepped my 7½-year-old twin boys on 21 cruises to date. By age 4, children are old enough to join the drop-off kids' programs offered by the big-ship lines. (As much as I adore my boys, they need a break from me as much as I do from them). At age 4, they're also generally mature enough to use the onboard swimming pools, waterslides, miniature golf courses, and the like. Throw in some great ports, and a cruise can equal familial bliss. Here are a handful of cruises that I've taken with my boys over the past four years and why they work so well for families.
Star Cruises Star Virgo, Asia (www.starcruises.com)
My boys were not quite 4 years old when we sailed on the 1,804-passenger Star Virgo round-trip from Singapore on a 5-night cruise to Phuket, Thailand, and Penang and Port Klang (for Kuala Lumpur), Malaysia. Hands down, the onboard kids' facilities are among the best at sea: there's an ocean-view playroom with a climbing maze and ball bin, plus a separate video arcade. There's also an adjacent outdoor deck space with a real kids' pool (not just a wading pool), fun slides, and a climb-on submarine. The kids' counselors were great on the Virgo, and the playroom remained open all day, every day, until at least midnight. My boys loved going there, which gave my friend Sheila and I the opportunity to check out the ship's specialty restaurants and lounges. The only caveat to this playroom paradise: Star charges $6 an hour per child -- most kids' programs are free up until about 10pm. The upside of the fee is that it kept the crowds at bay. Usually there were never more than a handful of kids in the playroom at any given time, so my boys had oodles of space and one-on-one attention from the staff. (On other ships during high season, there can be 40 or 50 kids in one playroom). We took the kids to the beach in Phuket, and then Sheila and I toured Penang while the kids played onboard. All of us stayed onboard in industrial Port Klang; on this cruise, the ship trumped some of the ports.
Holland America Statendam, Australia/New Zealand (www.hollandamerica.com)
A two-week cruise worked well aboard the 1,266-passenger Statendam because of the long stays in a string of great outdoorsy ports. In contrast, the ship had a limited drop-off kids' program due to the low number of kids onboard. From the port of Tauranga, we headed to Mt. Ngongotaha, where we took a cable car to the top for panoramic views before heading back down on a luge, a zippy three-wheel cart. Next door is the Kiwi Encounter hatchery (www.kiwiencounter.co.nz) and the Rainbow Springs nature park (www.rainbowsprings.co.nz), where we checked out kiwi, rainbow trout, and iguana-like tuataras. Wellington has the family-friendly Te Papa national museum (www.tepapa.govt.nz), an exceptional tribute to New Zealand's native Maori culture. In Dunedin, sightseeing options include a tour of the Cadbury chocolate factory in town (www.cadburyworld.co.nz) and a tour of a seaside penguin refuge called Penguin Place (www.penguinplace.co.nz). From Burnie, on the northern coast of Tasmania, visit a Tasmanian devil refuge to see and touch the critters up close (www.devilsatcradle.com). Melbourne has a handy tram that whisks passengers right into the city within minutes; check out the sharks at the Melbourne Aquarium (www.melbourneaquarium.com.au).
Costa Marina, Asia (www.costacruise.com)
This cruise round-trip from Singapore to Thailand and Malaysia was a resounding success mostly because my parents came along. Since I was cruising without my husband on this one, having Grandpa and Grandma in the cabin next door was key in the child-care department. Every morning, one grandson would head over; Grandma was also kind enough to babysit several nights for an hour or two while father and daughter enjoyed a nightcap. The 800-passenger Costa Marina did offer a drop-off kids' program in a small playroom for about six hours a day. Though nothing fancy, my boys loved the homey, low-key vibe and the cheerful counselors, Carola and Ronaldo. Our family dined together each night in the ship's elegant restaurant. Both boys rose to the occasion in their little neck ties, coloring and decorating paper airplanes with Grandpa as they waited for their delicious pizzas to be made. After dinner, all of us enjoyed the entertainment, which included themed dress-up costume parties, magic shows and a local Thai dance performance. Overall, the cozy, multicultural ship of mostly European passengers was a convenient place to call home for 11 days. This cruise did have several days at sea, and the ports weren't particularly kid-friendly, though in Phuket, we all went ashore to go beach-hopping, temple-touring, and elephant-riding. Another day, Grandpa spent eight hours on a Bangkok tour while the four of us hit a beach near the ship. In Penang, Grandpa, the kids, and I did a bicycle rickshaw tour for a few hours, but otherwise, we happily chilled out aboard the Marina.
Disney Magic, Europe (www.disneycruise.com)
Six months later, this Disney cruise from Barcelona to Civitavecchia (Rome) impressed me because of the ports and the onboard amenities. By then, my boys were 4½ years, old enough to enjoy family outings such as taking a train into Rome to explore the Coliseum, spending a day in Sardinia at a beach, and meandering around Naples on a horse-drawn carriage. My family usually skips the organized tours, but Disney's Palermo for Kids bus tour was great fun and included a traditional Sicilian puppet show. On the other hand, the excellent onboard kids' programs meant the adults could explore the ports while leaving the kids to play games, climb around a giant pirate ship, and watch Disney movies in the sprawling Oceaneer Club. For example, in Villefranche, France, my husband and I rented a red convertible for four hours and drove along the French Riviera to Monte Carlo and then up in the hills to medieval Eze. In La Spezia, Italy, we spent half a day on a catamaran with four other guests and lots of food and wine. Back on the ship, we all loved the shows that featured Disney characters and songs weaved into hour-long performances with acrobatics, great stage sets, and plenty of special effects. The restaurants were a big hit as well, especially Animator's Palate, where the video-screen cartoon walls changed color throughout the meal.
Carnival Victory, Eastern Canada (www.carnival.com)
This convenient 4-night cruise out of New York City, where we all lived at the time, was fun because we sailed with friends who had a child the same age as our boys. This meant we had a built-in play date for four days. We dined together, played mini golf together, zoomed down the waterslide together, sent the kids to the playroom together, and explored the shore together. In Saint John, New Brunswick, I had pre-arranged a boat ride for the seven of us to the Reversing Falls, where the mighty Bay of Fundy causes the tides of the St. John River to reverse (www.jetboatrides.com). We enjoyed a nearly-private ride to the falls with entertaining commentary by the guide (and only a few other passengers with us). Our tour was cheaper than a ship tour and also more flexible; we booked the boat for 11am, instead of the crack of dawn when many other tours begin. Later, at an outdoor waterfront café, we lunched on fish and chips and sipped a couple of pints of the local Moosehead beer. We then strolled to the New Brunswick Museum (www.nbm-mnb.ca), where the 20-something docents doted on our children in the Hall of Great Whales section. The whale skeletons and hands-on exhibits were a real treat for them.
Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas, Europe (www.royalcaribbean.com)
At 5½, we found our boys were old enough to appreciate a gondola ride through the canals of Venice and the great food -- gelato, pizza, and prosciutto-and-cheese paninis. We arrived a day early to explore Venice before boarding the 1,804-passenger Splendour of the Seas for a week in the Mediterranean. The boys enjoyed the ship's nine-hole mini golf course and watched their father scale the rock-climbing wall at the ship's stern (alas, the minimum age for climbing is 6). On this cruise, the ports definitely trumped the ship. We visited four ports and toured each on our own. In Dubrovnik, Croatia, we spent an hour walking along the top of the 13th-century city's medieval wall, complete with turrets, towers and staircases. We then went on a boat ride around the harbor for more great views. Kusadasi, Turkey, is the port for the city of Ephesus, which is just a short taxi ride from the docks. The boys loved running up to the back row of the amazingly intact 25,000-person amphitheater. We strolled down the marble-paved main street, soaking up the significance of ancient temple ruins, piles of columns, and the dramatic two-story facade of the 1,900-year-old Library of Celsus. The best day was in Santorini, Greece, where my boys loved zigzagging up the steep stone path from the docks up to the town of Fira on the back of a donkey. At the top, we took in the views of the now-tiny ships in the harbor below and found a quiet café to enjoy lamb kebabs, pizza, and the most succulent red tomatoes we've ever eaten. We then went hunting for souvenirs along the cobblestone pedestrian lanes that weave through rows of whitewashed buildings -- we came back with one of the ubiquitous donkey marionettes. In Corfu, Greece, we set off on a two-mile walk from the pier to see the 14th-century Old Fortress on the Esplanade, then took a horse-carriage ride through Corfu's Old Town before finding that coveted gelato shop.
Costa Atlantica, Norwegian Fjords (www.costacruise.com)
We had it all on this cruise aboard the 2,114-passenger Costa Atlantica -- a solid kids' program with a mostly Italian youth staff and an international mix of kids (the boys' best friend for the week was Russian, and he didn't speak a word of English), a well-designed Panorama Balcony Suite with a dressing room for Mom to hide out in, and amazing ports. There was one day at sea; otherwise, the four of us were out and about in all the ports. We even signed up for two of the ship's organized tours, which were excellent. One all-day tour included a six-mile trek that my boys loved, from the port of Hellesylt along a medieval mountain path that hugged cliffs and passed farms strewn with wildflowers. From Flam, we all enjoyed a train ride up a steep track to a waterfall and were mesmerized by the drive to the top of the Dalsnibba mountain peak, where the boys threw snowballs and admired the Geiranger fjord way below us. In Bergen, the boys loved the 700-year-old Bergenhus Fortress and climbed up to the top of its Rosenkrantz Tower. In Oslo, we took in the Viking Ship museum and the 9th-century Viking ships. We also traipsed around Olso's Vigeland Park to have a look at Gustav Vigeland's bronze and granite sculptures of humans in different stages of life. By the end of each long (but satisfying) day in port, we had a nice meal waiting in the restaurant, plenty of comedic and musical entertainment -- and of course, that great kids' playroom was always there if we needed it.