Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Adventure on the High Seas

An action-packed family vacation is on deck for this Caribean cruise

The recipe for a great family vacation is no secret. Start with an all-inclusive destination with good food, entertainment for all ages and plenty of diversions. Add organized programs to keep the kids busy and leave plenty of time for adults to do their own thing. Drop in a few changes of scenery with nature, history and light adventure, and you've got it. Can't decide on a destination? No problem, you'll find all this on Royal Caribbean International's (RCI) Adventure of the Seas -- and they bring the destinations to you.

To be completely honest, the idea of sailing on the Adventure of the Seas, the world's biggest cruise ship, was slightly overwhelming. Thanks in part to the hype surrounding its "phenomenal" indoor skating rink and outdoor rock climbing wall, I couldn't help but wonder if I would succumb to claustrophobia on a ship filled with 3100 passengers. Could my husband and I (sailing sans children) relax amid a sea of folks with 630 tots to teens in tow? The answer, surprisingly, was yes.

The Adventure of the Seas is so well designed, that even with its sports, entertainment and dining complexes and extensive children's facilities, it has enough cosy enclaves and inviting lounges that we never once sensed its large population. In fact, having seen first-hand how welcoming the ship is to all generations on our week-long cruise, we later decided to return with our own brood.

Exploring a cruise ship built 15 decks high and as long as a 17-car freight train demands a serious plan of attack, and there was lots of chatter as we boarded the Adventure in Puerto Rico. Ahead of us, two teens conspired to convince their parents of the merits of the PADI Scuba Certification course at the onboard dive school. Behind us, two giddy 10-year-old twins debated with their parents about what to check out first: the Adventure Ocean day camp, or indoor attractions like the pools, spa and sports facilities.

It takes a village
The Adventure is designed as a sort of floating town. At its heart, a lofty interior boulevard known as the Royal Promenade evokes a quaint European atmosphere. Lined with boutiques and cafés, it's overlooked by three decks of indoor staterooms. Every evening, the promenade becomes a venue for buskers -- comics, jugglers and characters of all kinds singing and dancing on a bridge suspended above the crowd.

Exploring the ship, we found no rhyme or reason to the collective decor, just touches of whimsy holding it all together. There were three dining rooms inspired by Mozart, Strauss and Vivaldi, the Asian-style Imperial Lounge, the Art Nouveau Lyric Theatre, the pseudo-Gothic Jester's Nightclub; the Venetian-inspired Solarium Pool; the '50s-style Johnny Rocket's diner and the Hollywood-themed Casino Royale, which you enter by crossing a glass floor encasing real gold coins.

We hadn't even left port and passengers in the know had wasted no time staking out spots in the sports facilities: families practised putting on the mini-golf course, youngsters whizzed by on the in-line skating track and couples were shooting hoops on the basketball court. All sorts of people, from teens to seniors, were already clad in helmets, waiting to test their mettle on the rock climbing wall towering 60 metres above the sea. In the main pool area, energetic types danced to the Caribbean band, soaked in whirlpools, swooshed down the giant slide into the water and sucked back frothy frozen piûa coladas to ward off the afternoon heat. Things were decidedly more subdued at the adults-only Solarium Pool, where parents had gone seeking a little peace and quiet.

Fun on board
We stopped in to Adventure Ocean, a vast, open space with age-specific areas designated for play, arts and crafts, science experiments, computers and disco parties. The kids' program was in full swing under the direction of Canadian-born Sara "Snickers" Robertson Bird. Like Sara, who has a university degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies, all the Adventure Ocean staff are certified in education, recreation and/or preschool, as well as CPR and First Aid. Many speak several languages. The Adventure of the Seas is the only cruise ship to offer a no-charge supervised day camp for children from three to 17 years old, divided into five age groups. Depending on the time of year, the program can attract from 400 to 1000 children of diverse nationalities.

Watching Snickers welcome first timers and register them with identification bracelets, I asked her how the program works. "Well, first of all, children must be toilet trained," she grinned. "And of course they have to behave appropriately or risk dismissal. The kids sign in and out daily with their parents' permission. Since the older ones can roam free, we ask parents to wear beepers in case of emergency. Even kids who start out shy get so tuned into the fun that they'd rather eat with new friends than their parents, especially on sea days. Most parents rent walkie talkies just to stay in touch."

Since the Adventure Ocean activities run during sea and port days alike, parents can relax, shop or even scuba dive. Group baby-sitting is also an option at $5 per hour. (All prices in US dollars.) In-cabin sitting, for children six months and older, is available at $8 per hour.

 

A moveable feast
By the time we checked out the Fitness Centre -- an ocean-view space loaded with the latest professional Life Fitness equipment -- and Studio B -- a huge indoor ice skating rink that doubles as an arena, complete with wood floor and bleacher seats -- I'd already missed my chance to reserve spa treatments.

"No sweat," I said, relaxing on our balcony as Old San Juan's skyline faded in the distance. "The money saved will buy golf balls in Aruba." Still, I didn't want to miss out on the evening's entertainment, and after checking the daily Compass, the ship's newsletter, I reserved seats for the Ice Capades extravaganza.

Relaxing on the Adventure is easy enough. Of its 1557 ample rooms, 60 percent have ocean views, half have balconies, 26 have excellent wheelchair accessibility and the ship has tenders with special lifts allowing wheelchair-bound passengers to explore ports of call.

Something to note before booking your stateroom: while most of the Adventure's indoor cabins are extremely quiet, rooms overlooking the Royal Promenade can be noisy from all the revelling below. In addition to TV/VCRs, all cabins are wired for Internet use with a personal laptop, available for a $100 per week, and the Internet Café charges 50 cents a minute.

And the food! Dinner the first night set the standard with an abundant variety of fish, poultry, meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes. We ate in the dining room every night, except for two tasty trips to Portofino, the Italian gourmet restaurant which requires reservations and a $20 surcharge for a seven-course dinner. But there are half-a-dozen other eateries on board offering everything from burgers and pizza to pub fare and pastries. And of course, room service was available any time.

After dinner, we faced endless choices for what to see and do. We could take in a Broadway-style show, Ice Capades or '50s-inspired dance, or listen to live music, from jazz to classical piano in one of the ship's many bars and clubs. We ended most evenings stargazing on our balcony. The Milky Way was a swath of sparkles, and meteors flashed across the sky.

Fine Port
According to cruise-line surveys, families prefer the Caribbean over any other destination. Travellers with school-aged children found Puerto Rico an interesting and appropriate boarding point. Old San Juan, one of the oldest capitals in the Western Hemisphere, still bears traces of Christopher Columbus and Ponce de Leon. The city is beautiful and it was all uphill from there.

On Monday, a perfect sea day, Captain Johnny Faevelen invited us up to the bridge. "The Adventure has more technology at sea than most small cities on land," he said, noting that all major systems, from fuel storage tanks to propellers to freshwater supplies, are doubled so that a failure anywhere in one half of the ship would still leave the other half fully operational. He explained how the ship's dynamic positioning system rotates the propulsion system with satellite signals so the ship can stay in place without anchors. High tech on the high seas.

Tuesday in Aruba was typically hot and sunny. While some families embarked on ATV safaris to explore the island's unusual desert landscape, rife with prickly cacti and windblown divi-divi trees or were submerged on the Atlantis Submarine for a peek below the surface of the sea, many simply headed for the sugary white beaches or walked into quaint and colourful Oranjestad to shop. Since we're avid golfers, we joined the Golf Ahoy! program to play the Tierra del Sol course.

People lined the decks early as we approached Curaìao's picturesque harbour, lined with bright, Dutch-inspired buildings. Shore excursions ran all over the map -- from sightseeing tours on the arid terrain to guided father-son canoe safaris around the coastline or a cultural walking tour that included the MikvÄ Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

Island fun
Thursday at sea was blissful. After waking early to jog around the deck at sunrise, we tucked into lounge chairs at the quiet Solarium Pool, content to while away the day with a good book and a nap. Every once in a while, we popped out to watch people rock climbing or in-line skating, while a counsellor led a scavenger hunt for ardent young passengers dressed as explorers.

Friday in St. Maarten offered a wealth of nature-oriented options. Most families with young kids visited the lushly landscaped Butterfly Farm. Others joined a guided snorkelling tour or kayak safari. A dozen athletic types crossed the island on mountain bikes, exploring both the French and Dutch sides. We relived the thrill of the America's Cup in a sailing regatta along with a dozen singles and families with young teens, some of whom had never been on a sailboat before. Later that night, we spotted three of our young crewmates singing Beatles' songs in the kids' talent show.

Our last day in St. Thomas gave first-time cruisers a real challenge: should they tour the island known as much for the notorious Bluebeard and Captain Kidd as for its Dutch colonial history? Or should they head to Magens Bay to swim or snorkel? And what about the eco-hike through the island's Nature Conservancy, home to mangrove wetlands, birds and exotic marine life? They could forgo culture and nature for shopping in what is arguably the Caribbean's premier duty-free Mecca. Having visited many times before, we knew exactly what we wanted to do: golf Mahogany Run, a truly exciting course, since its recent reconstruction.

We returned to the ship just in time to see the beaming faces of parents as their gleeful young kids paraded down the Promenade in pirate costumes. Now, this is the stuff family memories are made of.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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