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Cruising: Cruising with Kids Best Holiday Ever

"What's the best vacation you've ever had with your kids?" is a question I ask a lot of travelling parents. One type of holiday that keeps cropping up over and over, even among well-seasoned kid-toting travellers, is cruising, a vacation that seems to be winning more converts each year. Their reasons? It's an all-inclusive holiday with lots of stimulating activities to keep both adults and kids busy; there are some great deals especially during the off season; the sheer number of ships and itineraries gives you lots of exotic locales to explore with none of the worry. Parents can opt to spend the whole time with their kids, or take them out of kids programs for shore excursions and meals. And it's a great holiday for grandparents travelling with their grandchildren.

Judging by what's now available to the junior sailors-an 18-hole miniature golf course on Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas, an all-night pizzeria on Carnival's Imagination, and programs such as "Circus at Sea" on the Norwegian Cruise line or Celebrity Cuise's summer stock theatre sessions where kids get to help with everything from sets to costumes and makeup-you may not get to see them much. "It's the one holiday where I can truly relax," says one mother of three who looks forward all year to their annual post-Christmas stress-erasing cruise.

But with so many boats and itineraries, it's confusing to know which cruises will match your family's needs. A cruise specialist will be able to point you to cruises suitable for large families, single parents or even for a family reunion vacation. Make sure that the children's program will be running on your particular ship the week you're on board. Here are five companies that promise Bon Voyage deck-side fun for junior cruisers:

CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE: By the end of 1996, this cruise company will have 11 ships afloat. With an estimated 86,000 kids running around their decks this year, it's no wonder they've been voted Best Family Cruise by the readers of Family Circle magazine. The Imagination, launched last July, is a spiffy new ship with an all-night pizzeria. The Holiday tempts kids with their ice-cream parlor and new one million dollar entertainment centre, complete with its virtual reality arcade of 62 games. It also has the largest number of youth counsellors at sea with extensive programs-clowns and finger painting for toddlers, magic lessons and Olympics for juniors, pizza parties and karaoke contests for teens. Four kids groups between ages two and 17, 9:30 am to 9:30 pm. On the Festivale and Tropicale, ages 5 and up.

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE: As the official cruise line of Universal Studios, the NBA and the NFL, it's not unusual to find famous athletes on board or special theme cruises. Until March 31, a third and fourth passenger can cruise for just $99 when sharing a cabin on seven-day Caribbean sailings of Norway, Dreamward, Windward, and Seaward. Besides sports competitions arts and crafts, kids in each group can participate in "Circus at Sea," a program in which kids learn circus routines such as juggling and clown acts. Three kids groups between ages 6 and 17, 9 am to 11 pm For ages 3 and up in summer and school holidays, mornings at sea only.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN LINE: . There are six-person family suites on the Majesty and Monarch of the Seas. The Legend of the Seas has a 6000 square foot 18-hole minigolf course and the new Optix Teen centre which looks like a MTV set with a huge wall fitted with television monitors. Their children's dinner menu features eight pages of favorites such as chicken nuggets, grilled cheese and peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Kids under 12 cruise free on many of their seven-day voyages. Three kids groups ages 5 and 17, 9 am to 10 pm.

PRINCESS CRUISES:The Star Princess and Sky Princess feature shallow-depth swimming pools for children. There are full-time counsellors on 4 boats; on others, a counsellor will be arranged when 15 or more kids show up on board. Teen and youth centres on several boats serve "coketails" to the junior set who also get to film their own version of the "Love Boat." Note: You must be at least 18 months to cruise and there are no diaper-changing or bottle-feeding services. Age groups 2 to 17, 9 am to midnight.

PREMIER CRUISE LINE: Known for its well-developed kids programs, the two Big Red Boats, the Oceanic and the Atlantic cruise between Florida and the Bahamas for short 3-day and 4-day cruises. The Looney Tunes characters-Daffy, Sylvester, Tweety and Bugs-make special appearances to tuck kids into their berths. Our family is actually embarking on our first cruise ever during March break on the Oceanic. We picked it because it has cabins for five people (a rarity), and great shore excursions for kids: "Splashdown," an easy-to-learn snorkeling program for children, treasure hunts and games on Salt Cay, the setting for Gilligan's Island, an environmental interaction with dolphins (my daughter can hardly wait) and a Teen Nite Club (for my guitar-playing and drum-playing sons). 24-hour childcare available for ages 2 to 12. Four kids groups ages 2 to 18, 9 am to 10 pm.

TIPS: Seasoned experts warn against selecting the more expensive staterooms -you're hardly there. Gratuities are not included. Suggested tips of about $50 per passenger per week can be put into envelopes for the hard-working crew.





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