Family Travel Q&A: A lie-in on the ocean wave

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Q.Our children are aged 10 and three, and friends have suggested a family cruise, but we are doubtful. What do you think of the idea, and if we go ahead, where do we start?

Mrs M Palmer, Cambs

A.Your views of cruising probably reflect that of many people, imagining that life afloat is a case of dressing for dinner every night and being entertained by the ship's Palm Court orchestra. But modern cruising can provide an excellent family holiday with lots of help at hand to look after and entertain the kids. "We've never lost a child overboard yet," one captain told me, somewhat wistfully I thought, when I enquired about their safety.

To boost the family market, many ships, particularly the newer, larger ones, now provide clubs and cruise programmes for children of all ages. These are run by trained professionals, with specially prepared and supervised meals, kids pools (off-limits to adults), video rooms and junior discos. The children are usually divided by age.

But few ships will look after children while in port, and so the port- a-day, sail-at-night type of cruise may not be suitable. I've found that many kids actually resent their shipboard routine being interrupted, and get thoroughly bored with too much sightseeing. So, beware of booking too many (often pricey) excursions: get a taxi to the nearest beach when the ship's docks or do your sightseeing in your own time.

If you're all energetic, you'll find great advantage in a holiday where you can all do your own thing: you can lie in, perhaps, while your husband joins in jogging round the deck (or vice versa), and the kids hare off to "junior volleyball". And it can be a relief to know teenagers are in the ship's disco instead of some seedy club you-know-not-where.

Cruise food, in my opinion, isn't always what it's cracked up to be, but there's practically a 24-hour supply of it, so that cuts out the cost of endless snacks ashore.

Look out for ships with family cabins - much cheaper than booking two separate cabins. If there are no family cabins, pre-book two together as early as possible. There are numerous cruising discounts for families, as well as other passengers. Very few holidaymakers in the know pay the full brochure price.

I suggest you get hold of these brochures and compare itineraries, children's facilities and prices:

Disney Magic, launched in 1998, and its younger sister, Disney Wonder, that caters for up to 1,000 youngsters. Family cabins sleep up to six. Nearly a whole deck is dedicated to three to 12-year-olds (teenagers have their own programme), with mini-sized furniture, kids pools and a chance to meet their favourite Disney characters. On one day, groups play Robinson Crusoe on Disney's own private island, Castaway Cay. The drawbacks? These cruises are very short - three or four days - with a restricted itinerary from Florida to the Bahamas so you don't get an overall impression of life at sea.

Most British firms combine a Disney cruise with a stay at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, as part of a week's package. Virgin Holidays (01293 617181) offers this with adult prices from around pounds 1,100 and children's from pounds 650, including flights. If you can face all the Disney hype, the quality is excellent.

P&O Cruises' (0171-800 2222) Oriana offers a large Peter Pan activity area where the captain attends "Coketail Parties", and activity clubs cater for 2s to 17s, with a night nursery for children of two to five, so parents can have a "night out".

P&O's latest ship, Aurora, set to launch early next year, will offer similar facilities. Expect to pay from about pounds 1,800 an adult for a 12- 14 night Atlantic or Med cruise in the summer holidays, with your children sleeping in pull-down berths in the same cabin, at pounds 600 each.

If you like to think big, consider the Royal Caribbean's (0800 018 2020) mega Voyager of the Sea, twice the size of the QE2. Adventure Clubs cope with 3s to 12s as on all the line's 12 ships. Voyager is the first ship with an ice-skating rink, and there's also rock-climbing... up the ship's funnel. Nine-day Caribbean cruises start at some pounds 1,040 next year for adults: children share with them from around pounds 500 each.

Norwegian Cruise Lines' (0800 181560) itineraries include Circus at Sea children's skills programme). Princess Cruises (0171-800 2468) also offers children's facilities on Sun Princess, Dawn Princess, Sea Princess and the 3,100-passenger Grand Princess. Carnival Cruise Lines (0171-229 1929), Airtour Sun Cruises (0870-157 7775) and Thomson Cruises (0990-502 5628) operate modestly priced cruises with children's clubs run along the same lines as they offer in their resorts.

When you have studied the brochures, you might want to discuss your options further with a specialised cruise agent, such as Paul Mundy Cruising (0171-734 4404). For further information, you could also try the Cruise Information Service (0171-436 2449) and The Complete Guide to Cruise Ships (Berlitz, pounds 16.96).

Q.We'd like to go somewhere warm next Easter, but feel we have outgrown the Canaries and Florida. Our daughters Katie (13) and Joanne (14) are adventurous and enjoy sightseeing as well as the beach, but we don't want anything too rugged or too expensive.

Mrs S Bond, Cheshire

A.Marco Polo's favourite island, the 270 by 140-mile Sri Lanka, once called Serendip, offers a superb blend of beach, fascinating and accessible sightseeing, and good value. You can expect to pay between pounds 606-pounds 750 each for a week's holiday in April but your daughters, sadly, won't get a discount as they're both over 12. However, costs are low once you're there, English is widely spoken, and the long-established tourist amenities and very friendly people, all add to its attraction as a family holiday destination.

"Family" resorts include Bentota and neighbouring Beruwela, with a calm freshwater lagoon behind, and holiday-village style hotels with pools, tennis courts, watersports - and rather bland "international" cuisine. Kalutara and Wadduwa are also good, safe choices, away from the areas of conflict. Further south, Unawatuna is less developed with splendid beaches.

But Sri Lanka's history, culture and sightseeing gives it the edge. Tour operators offer excursions, but you'll find it cheaper and much more flexible as a family to hire a car with a local driver (about pounds 40 a day).

Top outings include Kandy, the 14th-century capital that houses Sri Lanka's most sacred relic, the Buddha's tooth. A day trip can include Pinewalla elephant orphanage, while at the cooler Nuwara Eliya hill-station you learn how tea is planted, picked and graded.

The most adventurous excursion is to Sigiriya, or the Lion Rock. Having killed his own father, a 15th-century king built this stronghold to avoid his brother's vengeance. He failed. The sure-footed can climb it.

A week over Easter at the Ocean View Villas - an all-inclusive hotel with direct access to the beach near Kalutara, lots of entertainment and a more or less resident elephant - including flights would cost pounds 593 by charter or pounds 651 by scheduled via Somak Holidays (0181-423 3000).

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