GALVESTON, Texas — When we booked a tropical Caribbean cruise, I envisioned sunny days lounging by the pool, deep tissue massages, turquoise waves splashing on white-sand beaches, and lazy afternoons strolling the decks under the golden light of a low-lying sun.
I did not expect to have a wet monkey wrap its tail around my neck, to go tubing through caves believed to be the underworld by the ancient Maya, or to watch our daughter learn to speak Thai while dining on the Caribbean Sea. But we had it all on Princess Cruises’ newest voyage to the Western Caribbean, a seven-day trip that took me, my husband, our 1- and 3-year-olds, and 3,012 other passengers from Galveston to Honduras, Belize, and Mexico, a trip that was full of welcome surprises.
Princess started sailing out of Galveston two months ago for the first time in five years. We boarded right after New Year’s.
We spent our first two days on the Crown Princess relaxing in the pools and hot tubs, catching snippets of movies on a giant outdoor screen, playing miniature golf on the top deck, and finding all the kid-friendly spots to hang out, with occasional stops at the ice cream bar. Most pools on the ship are 5 feet, 1 inch at their shallowest points, so the best place for our beginner swimmers to play was in a wading pool next to the fabulous Princess Kids’ Club, a free onboard amenity.
Children 3 to 17 can attend the kids’ club day or night on sea or shore days. Parents may bring children under 3 to the youth room as long as they stay with them. Here, infants and toddlers can climb around a padded playhouse, color, play with LEGOs, ride a tricycle around a secure outside play area, or sink into a bean-bag chair and watch a movie.
We had planned to take our daughter, Grace, only a couple of times, but she loved it so much and enjoyed the routine of going to “camp,” as she called it, that we took her there daily, for an hour here and there, or for entire afternoons or evenings. Each time, she came “home” with new crafts, like fingerprint art, a crown decorated with feathers and faux jewels, and fanciful drawings that soon brightened our cabin’s walls. She even learned about the Caribbean’s sea turtles and humpback whales.
Traveling with kids made for a much different experience from our last Princess cruise, a high-thrills Alaskan honeymoon adventure (think heli-hiking, glacier exploration, and flightseeing over Mount McKinley). This time, we made closer connections with other passengers and the staff, who soon formed our new onboard community.
Although we had chosen anytime dining, we sat down at the same corner-window table in the Michelangelo Dining Room at 5:30 p.m. throughout the cruise.
“Sawatdee ka (Hello),” Grace said to our Thai waitress, Nantana Saensrira, when we arrived each night, much to Nantana’s delight.
“Sawatdee ka, Miss Grace!” said Saensrira. “Sabai dee mai ka (How are you)?” she added, teaching her another phrase.
The waitstaff brought out our kids’ dinners almost instantly, and then the maitre d’ often scooped up our son, Sam, while Grace went to the kids’ club, meaning my husband and I enjoyed some of the most relaxing dinners we’ve had in nearly four years. We hadn’t expected such a kid-friendly experience.
What also drew us to this particular cruise was the variety of shore activities, ranging from cultural and nature-based to adventurous. Our ship first docked at Cozumel on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Some passengers took off for stingray encounters, helmet diving adventures, and catamaran trips. We opted for a tour of the Mayan ruins at Tulum with a two-hour stop at tropical Playa Paraíso for lunch and a swim.
Our kids and some of the other passengers felt queasy on the choppy 45-minute ferry ride across the Cozumel Channel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland, a tough way to start a hot, 9½-hour day trip. The crossing can be a bit rough during winter months, December to April, we later found out.
Tulum, 45 minutes south of Playa del Carmen by bus, was still worth the adventure. The ancient walled city sits on a 40-foot-high cliff overlooking the Caribbean and was one of the last cities occupied by the Maya, according to Manuel Turriza, our tour guide.
Our one-hour tour included an informative yet hurried explanation of the site, which served as a trade hub starting in the 13th century. Turriza pointed out several temples and a castle perched on a bluff. Then many of us hiked up to a viewpoint overlooking Playa Tulum, a postcard-like white-sand beach. The sea breezes revived us for the mile-long walk back to the bus. As interesting as the ruins were, the day’s highlight was splashing through waves at nearby Playa Paraíso.Continued...