A family cruise when ‘the kids’ are adults

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Alice Shapin
Alice and Paul Shapin (right) took a European cruise with their son, daughter and her boyfriend, honing the finer points of traveling with adult children during the trip. They are pictured at the Acropolis in Athens.

Photo courtesy of Alice Shapin

During the years our two children were growing up, my husband Paul and I enjoyed vacationing with them — renting beach houses together, taking cruises and going on golf vacations.

Now in their late 20s, they’ve been on their own for some time. But recently, we invited Amanda and Scott to join us again, this time on a family reunion cruise.

It was made a bit more complex by the fact that there were “significant others” (SOs) in the mix this time. When we started planning, Scott, who lives in Tucson, had a long-term girlfriend, and Amanda, in New York City, had a new boyfriend she was crazy about.

What were the rules about inviting SOs? With no Dr. Spock or Dr. Bazelton for this type of thing, I wasn’t sure whether to consult friends or just go on gut feelings.

Bringing nonfamily along

Our criterion for inviting the SO was just how “S” the “O” was. Scott was living with his girlfriend, and they had been together three years, so that seemed pretty significant.

Since Scott was bringing his girlfriend, we entertained Amanda bringing Matt. Before we knew it, she had told him about the trip and Matt was onboard.

Then Scott and his girlfriend broke up before we booked the trip! One couple told us they had let their son bring his “girlfriend” on a family trip, only to find out that they had been dating for just two weeks. So we created a “six months” rule (which Amanda and Matt passed) to let our son know that he should not start scrambling to find a new travel companion.

So we decided to go as a family of four plus one. Wanting a vacation that allowed everyone to do their own thing while we’d still have some together time, we chose a 10-day cruise on Holland America’s Noordam, with stops at various European cities.

We booked three cabins, one for us, a single for Scott, and one for Amanda and Matt (they were practically cohabiting, so sharing a room wasn’t breaking new ground).

Even before we left, bonding took place. Scott and Matt connected online (they had never met face-to-face), Amanda and Scott texted frequently, and we had lots of input about the excursions from Scott.

Since there were five of us, we found it would be less expensive to book private tours at many of the ports of call rather than go with the cruise’s excursions. Also, that way we could customize them. We checked TripAdvisor.com and AllThingsCruises.com and found highly recommended guides.

Good guides will engage you in an email dialogue before your visit, often responding to you within 12 hours. Be sure that you book a licensed guide. In most cities, only licensed guides can take you inside the sites. Others are drivers who can take you around and provide narrative, but not go inside. We booked both a driver and a licensed guide.

All aboard

With our coming from three different cities — New York, Washington and Tucson — we needed to make sure flight interruptions didn’t endanger the cruise. So we made plans to arrive in Rome a day early.

Best laid plans…As it turned out, Matt’s luggage decided to take a different itinerary to places unknown, so he needed to buy some clothes quickly.

Luckily, since we had arranged a private tour of Rome for the day, we managed to get a nice overview of the city, find some cheap clothes, and get to the port of departure at 3 p.m. in plenty of time for the 5 p.m. sailing.

Hint: The times for boarding were 1 to 4 p.m. By arriving in the middle, there were no lines.

Hint number two: If you are traveling as a couple, instead of each having your own suitcase, divide your clothes between both suitcases so if one gets lost you will each have something to wear. And do bring a carry-on.

We welcomed our first day at sea. Time to explore the ship, sit by the pool (sun for Amanda, Matt and Scott; shade for us) and hit the gym. The kids gave us a gift certificate for a couple’s massage, and knowing that spa appointments book quickly, we made ours immediately.

For dinner we chose “open seating” (more flexibility) and were pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have too much trouble getting seats together. If you come at least 15 minutes before one of the set times, there should be no problem. I am happy to report the food was delicious with plenty of choices.

We usually sat at a table for six. The three kids soon created an imaginary sixth, “Fred.” Fred was inclined to order a full meal that Matt and Scott gladly split, in addition to their regular orders. (A big plus: On a cruise you never have to think about where to eat.)

After dinner we all went our separate ways. Paul and I went to the piano bar, Scott to the casino, and Amanda and Matt strolled the deck.

The kids were set on going kayaking once we arrived in Dubrovnik. While everyone had said that you could easily make arrangements once there, I had a moment of panic as theNoordam docked. Where should we go to do that?

I needn’t have worried. When we arrived by the walled city, we couldn’t have avoided finding information on kayaking (and many other options) since the tour operators know exactly where the cruise buses let people off.

At dinner we shared our day’s adventures. Kayaking was great fun, but plenty of work even for these buff kids. Glad we did the cable car instead.

Excursions with surprises

In Athens and Ephesus (Turkey) we had excellent private tours. Our guides maneuvered us through the huge crowds, gave us insight into the history, and told us where to stand for the best photo ops.

They even gave us some unsolicited thoughts, like “You’ll return to Turkey for your honeymoon,” or “Matt, are you joining the family?” Matt answered with a polite, “maybe.” At least these gems didn’t come from my lips.

In Corfu, Greece we rented a car. Quite an experience. Scott was behind the wheel for our four-hour excursion. Imagine steep winding roads, one-lane streets with traffic lights to indicate when to proceed, and crazy Greek drivers.

Normally, I’d be a nervous wreck and a back-seat driver. But being on vacation, I left the mother in me behind and thought of it as an adventure.

Santorini, Greece is the place of brochure covers and picture postcards. Bright white homes, small hotels and outdoor cafes hang on the edge of the steep cliff side that runs down to the blue Aegean. We took the cable car up to the top.

Once again, on the advice of friends, we didn’t arrange a tour in advance. The kids had done some research and thought we should take a boat excursion that went to the volcano and let you swim in a hot springs.

 Fair warning, I’ve learned that the Greeks aren’t as worried about public safety as we are in America. There was no mention that the trek up the volcano was strenuous. And there are no guardrails. Thank goodness we were all in good shape.

Don’t be a mother hen

The ship was scheduled to sail at 4 p.m. At 3:30 Paul said, “Okay, go knock on their door.” No answer. At 3:45 when the names of two passengers who hadn’t returned to ship were boomed over the loud speaker, I was relieved they weren’t Matt’s and Amanda’s. They had made it back on time.

Yes, my kids aren’t children anymore, but I’m still a mother (advice: keep the mothering under wraps). I was saved even more worry when they didn’t tell us beforehand that they were riding an all terrain vehicle on the narrow winding roads of Santorini.

But then again, over the years we’ve learned that Amanda loves adventure. We once watched her jump from a plane in New Zealand. So I was especially thrilled when she said, “We loved doing some adventurous activities in addition to sightseeing.”

Though I was sad to see the cruise end, it had been the perfect vacation. Best of all, the kids asked, “Where is our next trip?”

In case you were wondering: Matt’s luggage was waiting at Kennedy Airport.

And yes, Matt and Amanda are still together, and Scott is busy looking for an SO to take on our next family trip.