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The Big Red Boat

As a seasoned traveller, I should have known better than to pack away our five passports and hand over the big beige suitcase. But it was our first family cruise to the Bahamas on the Big Red Boat. I wanted four days of unencumbered fun. As parents unloaded luggage and kids rushed off to hug Daffy Duck, the scene at the Port Canaveral terminal was one of eager anticipation. Holiday mode had taken over- until, that is, we reached the front of the line at the tour desk. "Passports please," said the woman.
"I didn't think we needed them to board the boat," I answered.
"That's only if you're American," she replied. "If you're an alien, you need them stamped."

Who knew where the passports were by now? It took two attendants and about twenty-five minutes of unloading case after case of luggage (where big beige suitcases seemed to be the norm) before we located ours and I could collect our necessary documents. "Don't worry," laughed the fellows. "It's not the first time we've had to do this. Besides, you're on vacation." Perhaps this was an omen. By the time we boarded, the warm grey drizzle had changed to drenching downpour. Our cabin TV called for more rain and gale force winds along the coast-not your ideal conditions as you are heading out to sea with your kids in tow.

We had picked the SS Atlantic (one of the two Big Red Boats) for our first cruise because of their short three- and four-day try-out trips, their kids programs in five age categories (your teens don't have to sing songs with Bugs and Wile E. Coyote unless they choose to), and their well-designed cabins for five. One double bed, two couches that rolled into single beds and a bunk folding down from the wall fit us fine. We'd heard food was good from the wake-up coffee and Danish buffet to the midnight extravaganza and shore excursions interesting. Besides, the Looney Tunes characters were on board to liven things up. We hadn't expected wild winds and waves to perform that duty for them.

"I'm not a big fan of all this rocking," one son announced as he lurched back and forth on the way to dinner. "Oh, it takes a while to get your sea legs," I say nonchalantly, the voice of experience. After all, as a kid I crossed the Atlantic six times, encountering both the end of a tornado and a fire at sea. Today, the boats are built using stabilizers and Sumo-strength materials. Nevertheless, I was somewhat alarmed that the front desk on board was handing out seasick pills, as many as you needed, for free. It seemed that elsewhere on the boat, you were constantly handing over your cruise credit card. The welcome Bahama Mama cocktail in a plastic glass without alcohol was US $4.50; a tuck-in with Tweety Bird was $25. Even Bingo cost money -five games for US $10. Free packets of motion sickness medecine was a welcome but unsettling gesture.

By morning, the ship was cutting through 50 mile per hour winds and 20-foot waves. Some activities were cancelled which was disappointing for the kids. No ping-pong tournament, Pool Olympics or trip to the Bridge to visit the Captain. Presumably, he was busy battling the storm. Some people complained but what did they expect? There was nothing the crew could do to calm the water. After a couple of days of exciting sailing, the sun re-appeared and we could look the part of a television ad-sunning by the pool, dancing on the deck, cocktails in hand.

Despite the rocky ride, our kids loved cruising life. All three roamed the boat, played card games on the games deck, video games in the arcade, loaded sundaes with cherries in the ice cream parlour, and enjoyed the family-friendly shows, especially the Elvis and Blues Brothers impersonators. A fleet of trained children's counsellors kept activities going 24 hours for ages two to 17; pyjama-clad kids even dropped in for sleepovers with Tweety so that parents could party the night away. Food was plentiful including favorite kid fare such as plain pizza - cheese only - or chicken fingers. Our waiters Edmundo and Manuel ("the same name as the waiter from Fawlty Towers," the kids pointed out) were great. With the kids' favorite drinks ready, they ignored spills and ordered double everything for our ravenous 16-year-old. As for us parents, I loved having high tea every afternoon in the lounge and learning how to do the Macarena in the disco. My husband spent most of his time in the casino playing the slot machines.

We never did meet the Captain of the Ship. He was continually battling the waves and the wind. But we enjoyed our time on the Big Red Boat. All of us agreed we'd do it again in a second, even if they were predicting a rare rough ride on the high seas.

This year until December 13, Canadian dollars are at par on the Big Red Boat. That means on certain dates from September 5 to November 22, and December 5 to 13, you pay only $539 for a three-night cruise including all meals. Kids two to 11 sail at a reduced rate;tips and port tax are extra. The company also offers a combined week-long cruise/Disney vacation and special rates and surprises for family reunions of 10 people.





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