Cruising isn't just for bingo-playing seniors and hyper-tanned singles.
There we were: three generations of my family, dressed for a heat-wave and standing on the port in Tahiti as the heavens opened up.
My husband had opted out of an eight-day cruise from Papeete to Auckland because he was "busy at work" (that is, he had some serious Rugby World Cup spectating planned).
So I took my Mum. Together we wrangled the toddler, fought a battle of willpower with the beckoning dessert buffet, and denied our shared history of extreme seasickness to enjoy life on board a massive ship.
Travelling with a toddler is always challenging and travelling on a ship presents its own unique challenges. We stood there on the port with three suitcases, three daypacks, two handbags, a stroller and one impatient little girl.
There were a lot of facilities for older children – mini-putt, a climbing wall, a basketball court – but there wasn't a designated play area where small children could expend energy. Instead, we spent many hours challenging the toddler to run up and down the ship's corridors and walking her in a circuit around the various decks until she transformed from a pent-up terror into her usual jovial self.
We managed to take in some of the daytime shows but the evening ones proved a little more difficult. And the children's play groups were unavailable because of sickness. This was a huge shame as the programme usually involves activities such as baby gymnastics and music classes, all of them professionally developed and run by a staff of trained educators. Of course, with babies goobering all over their hands and toys, it just wouldn't have been smart to let them hang out together when some passengers were sick.
But there were other entertainment options, including a kids' pool which was the perfect depth for her. She ran around in the water and practiced blowing bubbles, climbing ladders and going down the slide.
The Royal Caribbean staff – who made a lasting impression with their friendliness and willingness to help – dropped us off a backpack of age-appropriate educational toys from the onboard toy library, which helped the toddler settle into our room and bought us roughly 10 glorious minutes of silence each day.
The mornings were particularly lovely. True to form, she'd wake at 5.30am and we'd get out and walk the decks until the poolside Park Cafe opened at 6.30am.
She'd eat a nectarine and we'd talk to some of the other early morning regulars in the indoor solarium.
During those early-morning walks, we'd silently look out at the view of distant Pacific atolls. As we passed the main pool, with it's pool bar and giant outdoor movie screen and whirlpools, they'd have music blaring and she'd wave her hands back and forth to Enrique or Adele. At 7am we'd go to the big dining room and get some fruit salad and granola to take back to the room for my Mum.
On a shore day, we'd race to get on land and back by her 11am sleep, or we'd let her sleep in the stroller as we wove in and out of markets and wandered along the quiet roads.
On ship days, we'd take her for coffee, check out the art gallery, travel up and down the escalators in the nine-story central atrium or set her up on our couch with a blanket, a peach and a book.
MEALTIMES were a dream. Instead of standing in the kitchen trying to fathom where her food whims might lie today, I could wander around the buffet grabbing just a mouthful of a variety of things and she'd try them all until we found something she wanted.
Some days it would be mashed spud, other days it might be grapes, pasta or scrambled eggs. One day, when she was famished between the breakfast and lunch sittings, the kitchen provided us with her own plate of plain pasta and she wolfed it down. She never went hungry – she developed quite the buffet belly – and there were no meal-times battles.
On three nights we achieved fine dining with the little lady in tow. The waiters would be prepared with a massive plate of grapes and a serving of macaroni cheese, so Mum and I could slowly work our way through four exquisite courses.
She was highly entertained watching ladies in flowing evening gowns and grinning at her many fans. She helped us strike up conversations and brought a smile to the faces of many parents and grandparents who were missing the small people in their lives.
In the early evenings, we'd hit the lounge bars so she could dance to live music. She was entranced by the parade of musicians playing everything from swing to modern ballads, but her biggest thrill remains the glass elevators which provided astonishing views of the expanse of Pacific Ocean between us and home.
No-one from Royal Caribbean ever suggested an eight-day cruise, predominantly spent crossing a large tract of ocean, would be a perfect fit for a toddler. And it certainly wasn't your traditional cruise holiday. I never once sat lounging beside a pool with a book, or drank cocktails at a pool bar. I didn't swim with sharks in Bora Bora or go to salsa lessons.
But I would do it all again. There were so many programmes in place and additional efforts made to cater for our little sidekick. The staff helped out in the smallest and kindest of ways every day – from scouring the ship for grapes to remembering her name and yelling out greetings whenever we passed their station. There was a friendly onboard doctor who offered free and very effective seasickness pills, and charged US$115 for a consultation and antibiotics (which our travel insurance covered). She was warm, well-fed and had a fun portacot to climb in and out of for kicks. As I had Mum in tow, I was able to check out the gym one day and have a manicure on another day, and Mum could take in a couple of shows and check out the onboard shops in the early evening while I bathed the toddler in our bathroom sink, put her to bed and sat happily in the room watching whisper-quiet telly or painting my nails by the light of a lamp. Although there were only a handful of babies among the 2000-plus people on board, we did meet other multi-generational families on board with similar child-sharing arrangements.
It was certainly challenging at times but the trade-off was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: We got to take our little girl to Tahiti, introduce her to the spectacle of a mammoth, rolling buffet, dress her up for formal dinners, swim on the top of a 90,090-tonne ship on sunny days, promenade around the decks while moored off Moorea, and watch her fall under the delicate spell of elderly ballroom fanatics on a dance-floor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The writer travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean.
- © Fairfax NZ News