Cruises can appeal to all the generations, says Simon Redfern

When it comes to holidays, "one big happy family" can often be a contradiction in terms. The idea of parents, children and grandparents all merrily going away together sounds fine in principle but too often falls down in practice, as everyone discovers they have wildly differing ideas about how they want to spend their time.

But the multi-generational formula can work. Imagine a world in which someone else does all the catering, the children have plenty of things to do, ditto the grandparents, and the parents' only task is to lie back and think of relaxing. It's called a cruise.

The British like going down to the sea in ships – 1.5 million took a cruise last year, more than double the number 10 years ago – but the image persists that it's primarily for the blue-rinse brigade. In contrast, the Americans long ago latched on to the idea that it can be fun for families too, and the evidence of an eight-day fly/cruise to the eastern Caribbean suggests that they know something we don't.

The majority boarding the Veendam in Tampa, Florida, would not have been asked for ID in a pub, but there was a fair smattering of babes in arms, toddlers and teens. It's a difficult trick, trying to be all things to all passengers, but an initial mooch around the 1,258-passenger ship showed that Holland America Line, which has been around for 135 years, knows a bit about the business. Its Club HAL programme for children offers activities including a kids' Olympics, plus teens-only areas.

One of the pleasures of cruising is not having to cope with self-catering, and the service and meals in the Veendam's restaurants were a cut above those provided by many other lines in the same mid-lux category.

Our first stop was Cozumel, an island off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, a favourite with divers because it has the fifth longest reef in the world. The pirate Henry Morgan was its first British visitor, but he was probably too busy swashing his buckle to visit the well-preserved Mayan ruins at Tulum.

But it wasn't the trip of choice of some families. Michael Baer, a lawyer, and his family – wife Robin, daughters Julie, 10, and Jessica, eight, plus his in-laws Mildred and Norman – chose the Dolphin Encounter from the 32 tours on offer, and the dolphins duly obliged.

The Baers are old hands at family cruises. "We've been on four as a family," he said, "and Robin and I have taken about 15. It's great value for money; in a hotel, you'd be paying the cost of the cruise in food alone." For Norman, the attraction was simple: "We're with the grandchildren; we like that."

Flatteringly for the Veendam, the Baers have returned to the ship several times. Julie said: "I'd have liked a few more [children of] my own age," she enthused about the pillow fights and pirate nights she'd enjoyed with those that were around. Michael added: "Everyone can do their own thing, then meet up for dinner. On Grand Cayman I'm going snorkelling, while the girls want to visit the turtle farm."

Grand Cayman Island was the next port of call. "Very flat, Norfolk," Amanda observed in Noël Coward's Private Lives, and so is Grand Cayman, though possibly not as interesting. There's not too much to see, apart from the turtle farm. And yet it's a firm family favourite: the beaches are good and it exudes an air of snoozy safety.

In contrast, Jamaica was a little too vibrant for some. "We went into Montego Bay and were hassled from the time we stepped out of the cab until we got back to the ship," said Michael. The island has much to offer, but some of their street traders offer it rather insistently.

Back on board, life continued on its pampered way as the ship returned to Tampa. "People are always rather bored with their parents," said Somerset Maugham. Perhaps he would have changed his mind if his own had taken him on a cruise.

Compact facts

How to get there

Holland America Line (0845 351 0557; offers Caribbean cruises from September to April from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A nine-night fly/ cruise on the Eurodam costs from £989 per person based on double occupancy, including scheduled flights from London, pre-cruise hotel night (room only) and seven-night cruise including meals and taxes. The Eurodam sails on a four-night round trip from Dover to Zeebrugge, Cherbourg and Guernsey on 6 July, from £379 per person.