If you think cruises are just for the older set who live for all-you-can-eat buffets and the thrill of playing bridge while sea-gazing, well, you aren’t necessarily wrong. But there’s been a plot twist in the cruising narrative in recent years. The tides have turned in the world of cruising, making waves for families of all shapes, sizes, and, most importantly, ages. Sure, the likes of Disney and Royal Caribbean have always been child-friendly, but even the voyages that have traditionally been geared toward a more mature clientele are now rolling out the red carpet for little adventurers.
Recently, my husband, Jonathan, and I set out to meticulously chart our grand Eastern Canada road trip. It wasn’t long before the realization dawned on us that a road trip with our nine-month-old “commander-in-crawling” might be the fast lane to exhaustion. A cruise struck us as the perfect alternative. Yes, popular opinion might champion leaving the baby with the grandparents, but we felt adventurous (or maybe reckless). We booked a trip leaving Montreal and traveling along Canada’s Saint Lawrence River up and over to Boston on Holland America’s Zaandam, all the while envisioning an unparalleled family odyssey with our baby, Aksel, in tow.
Spoiler alert: It was a brilliant idea. Cruising with our baby turned out to be smooth sailing (literally) that afforded us fleeting glimpses of our cherished pre-parenthood spontaneity. For families looking to do the same, there are a few things to make the trip go as planned.
Pick your cruise itinerary and ports wisely
Choosing your cruise itinerary isn’t just a big decision, it’s the motherlode — especially when you have a pint-sized passenger. Walkable (and, importantly, stroller-able) ports that don’t require Magellan’s navigational skills are the most baby-friendly. Strolling straight off the ship is a big deal when you’ve got a kiddo to consider. And trust me, a 40-minute tantrum-and-dirty-diper-filled trek back to your room isn’t exactly a vacation highlight.
Holland America seemed to have VIP parking privileges at every port we stopped at. In Quebec, we had Le Château Frontenac as a backdrop for our buffet breakfast of eggs, bacon, and baby food. At the departure point in Montreal, we could’ve strolled from our hotel’s central location and embarked with a bowl of hot poutine in hand.
Beat the travel tumult with an early arrival
What’s more nerve-wracking than a flight delay on your cruise departure day? Experiencing this nerve-shredding scenario with a baby on your hip. There’s no shortage of woeful tales about folks missing their Antarctic adventure or expedition around the Galapagos because they didn’t buffer in an extra day and arrive early.
Heed my advice and arrive a day early — especially if you’re cruising with a baby. We soaked up Montreal, gorged on the city’s famous bagels, butchered a few French phrases, and reveled in the magic of Mount Royal Park. The icing on the cake? Holland America’s partnership with the made-for-royalty Fairmont, The Queen Elizabeth Hotel allowed us to leave our luggage in the hotel room, where it was then transported to our cruise cabin at no extra cost. Considering that packing for babies means packing like the family is relocating to Mars, that extra help was a godsend.
Embrace minimalism for maximum fun
The cardinal rule for cruising with a baby is to keep it real and keep it relaxed. We refrained from rushing headstrong into every appealing excursion, wary of potential clashes with Aksel’s naptime or the ominous prospect of a diaper debacle. Instead, we decided to meander through adorable Canadian port cities on our own watch, and basking in the local charm became our preferred pastime. From the Canadian street performers who serenaded Aksel to sleep for naps to the local lobster shacks and friendly passersby, we savored every moment of our destination without feeling short-changed (or disrupting sleep schedules).
Share the night time vigil
One secret to cherishing a cruise with a baby is to share the after-dark responsibilities with your partner while the other embraces all the nightlife the ship has to offer. Your social lives might have taken a backseat since the baby’s arrival, but a cruise ship allows the perfect opportunity for brief interludes of personal time. While some may dub me the overzealous (teetering on neurotic) guardian, the assurance of my husband and Aksel slumbering peacefully merely two decks below lent a comforting backdrop to my evening festivities.
As I reveled in the comedian’s banter, flirted with lady luck in the casino, and savored the high spirits of Holland America’s famous Orange Party, I could ever so briefly feel like myself again. And I didn’t feel guilty enjoying my temporarily reclaimed freedom, as I knew my husband would get to experience it the following evening. And for the parent who has to parent, baby duty is much more enjoyable with the soft hum of the ship and the starry skies as your backdrop.
Unleash the little adventurers at the Kids Club
Picture this: your offspring, more miniature Sherlock Holmes than cherub, engaging in their own whirlwind adventure at the Holland America Kids Club while you sip a mimosa poolside. If your child is between three and 17 years old, don’t hesitate to cast them into youthful camaraderie and orchestrated fun.
Navigating the labyrinth of independence, even in the measured confines of a supervised setting, will stoke the fires of their self-reliance and social skills. It’s a win-win. Your child gains a taste of autonomy, and you get a much-deserved respite paired with the silent affirmation that your little one is growing up.
Savor a post-cruise sojourn
While cruising promises a near-effortless vacation where everything is taken care of, disembarking from the voyage often leaves you yearning for a breather. Therefore, consider allocating a few days to unwind post-cruise before rushing to your next destination or hurrying home. This pause can provide a precious opportunity to process your experiences, enjoy a slower pace, and gently transition back to the rhythm of daily life for both the babe and yourself.
We extended our adventure by allowing ourselves a few extra days in Boston, making returning reality with a baby far less abrupt. For us, the Boston Harbor Hotel served as the ideal decompression chamber. Barely a 10-minute cab ride from our disembarkation port, this five-star retreat allowed us to delve into New England’s offerings right from our doorstep. Paul Revere House, gelato in the North End, and the vibrant aquarium – all of Boston’s revered offerings, just a stroll away.
In essence, the end of the cruise needn’t mean the end of the holiday. Plus, the memories of our cruise aboard the Zaandam were given the breathing room to settle in, adding to our treasured memories as a family of three.
Taking it all in before the next adventure
Cruising with a baby not only offers an opportunity to reconnect with the forgotten spontaneity of pre-parenthood days but also serves as a testament to the remarkable adaptability of children, even in an environment we might initially perceive as daunting. It opens up a world of exploration and adventure, even as it ensures the comforting consistency of having your home-away-from-home nearby.
As we disembarked in Boston, the sight of the Zaandam slowly disappearing from view left us with a comforting realization: we had not just survived, but thrived on a journey that many might dismiss as fanciful. The tide of trepidation had receded, replaced by the waves of anticipation for the next family cruise.
To all the parent adventurers out there do not hesitate and do not second-guess whether a cruise is possible with a baby. Whether it’s the gentle sway of the sea that lulls your baby to sleep or the magical moonlit vistas that grant you that vital moment of tranquility, a cruise journey can be a surprising addition to your family vacation repertoire. The best adventures happen when you least expect them, including aboard a cruise ship, baby in tow.