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Sailing with Santa & the Family

by Douglas Terhune

Picture yourself in a bathing suit, sitting on the Lido deck or under a palm tree with temperatures in the mid 80s and a gentle tropical breeze at your back and all you can see is the tempting blue waters of the Caribbean. Sounds tempting, huh? Well, how about doing this on Christmas morning?

Such was the case recently when I took my first 'winter holiday' cruise. I had mixed reactions, and still do to some extent, about soaking up rays versus bundling up in front of a roaring fire on the year's most festive day of gift opening.

My first eighteen years found me typically digging out from heavy snow on Christmas Eve. To me, snow equals Christmas - always has, always will. They go together like fresh whipped cream on top of a sundae. But for the majority of my adult life, the 25th of December has been spent in the southeastern United States - with average temps drifting in the 40s.

Terhune FamilyThis year found Katie, my eldest niece in Atlanta, in her senior year of high school, with Kristie and Kourtnie right behind her. Knowing full good and well that Christmas at home is no guarantee once you enter college, I figured that this might be our only chance to gather the six of us and spend Christmas together somewhere other than Atlanta, Myrtle Beach or Wilmington, NC.

I will admit that doing a cruise was my first thought - but, I did have second thoughts, especially as time grew nearer to sailing. See, it goes back to the meaning of Christmas to me - call me old fashioned, but on Christmas Day you are supposed to wake up and jump to the window to see if Santa's sleigh left any sled marks in the snow! Strange looking in the sand for sleigh marks - not sure I'll ever adjust to that...

My process of determining what ship and itinerary to take were based upon the audience - 3 teenage girls and 3 young at heart siblings in their forties. My concern truly was that the girls not be bored, because they gave up Christmas Day with their Dad/Aunts/Uncles and Cousins, and one even gave up an outing with her church.

For the record, I do enjoy all the lines I have sailed on, but have been a strong fan of Carnival - especially the Fantasy-class ships. Last summer I checked the Carnival homepage and found that the new Megaliner Carnival Triumph was sailing on the dates we needed to cruise - so pretty much, in one day, it was a done deal. I called Sharon and the two cabins were booked.

Ship Tip: Look closely at your possible dates of sailing and double and triple check that everyone's schedule will not be interrupted before you put money down.

This became apparent about a week after I booked the cruise when Katie announced her church group was doing a several night trip between Christmas and New Years. This caused a fair amount of concern over the ensuing months because we all wanted her to go, but she felt it more important to be with her friends since it was her last senior trip. This was no one's fault because the cruise was already booked when she found this out - but be careful about EVERYONE'S schedule if you can.

Ship Tip: Choose the ship that best fits everyone's requests.

With a gap of 35 years in ages, and I am sure many families have larger gaps, we needed to find a ship that met our requirements. First for us was not to be traveling home on New Years Eve - it would not be any fun being stuck in an airport that night for sure. So we needed a 7-day cruise from south Florida that departed on the 23rd and returned on the 30th. You'd be surprised how much that narrowed down the field.

Ship Tip: Even with just some basic input from everyone, the list of potential ships is narrowed down quickly.

Next we considered cost, or ergh umm, I considered cost since this was Uncle Doug's treat. Putting my sister in a comfortable sized quad cabin with all three daughters was an important part of the equation, for some ships have cabins where two people bump into each other all day long. (Carnival's standard cabins are still among the largest afloat) Of course a quad is also an economical move, especially since the rates during holidays are at their peak. My brother Court and I shared a room and we requested the rooms be located near each other. Here again, after looking at prices and comfort, a few other ships were sunk.

Since my high school nieces' typical meals are frozen pizza and Taco Bell, the quality of food never was an issue. So with our factors being weighed, the 101,000 ton Carnival Triumph was selected.

Ship Tip: All ships provide quality food and service - you just need to figure out what level of quality and food your crowd demands.

Winter holiday travel also poses a difficult situation with regards to flights. I booked the cruise in August, but waited till November to check flights. WRONG! Man, I checked every website and had my TA check multiple configurations trying to get us all to south Florida. In short, my sister and the girls drove 12 hours from Atlanta to the boat and Court and I patched together an itinerary that took us through Raleigh, Nashville, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

Ship Tip: For holiday cruises, book your flights as early as you can.

Suzy and the girls had school Friday and were not supposed to leave till 6 PM on Friday night. Luckily Georgia had some snow/ice and school was cancelled, so they got a 3pm start. However, w/Atlanta traffic, it did little good. The Carnival Triumph's departure was at 4pm sharp on Saturday and they pulled up to the pier at 2:30pm. From noon till 2:30, Uncle Doug had much unneeded stress.

Ship Tip: Always get to your port of embarkation at least 4 hours before blastoff.

Everyone liked the ship and were amazed at the huge atrium that could fit the Sears building in it... We left a little late due to weather in the Midwest - which translates to a plane-load of whiteknuckle passengers wondering if the ship would wait for them. The Captain made up the hours enroute to San Juan and we pulled in right on schedule. One side note is that everything in Old San Juan was closed, but there were many locals there who had just finished celebrating a small outdoor festival and the walk around the fort at night was charming.

Sunday was my first ever full day of rain on 26 cruises - and rain on a vacation, is there anything more depressing? But the sun graced our skies the next 6 days and everyone got all the sun they needed. Christmas Eve on the ship was nice - but different. We caroled around the lobby (which was very nicely decorated) and went to midnight service (the man of the cloth had either enjoyed too much Egg Nog or, Bears rent him to help put them into hibernation!) One thing is for sure, it never felt like Christmas the whole trip.

Most of our time together was spent doing Karaoke, playing cards (Crazy Eights, Kings Corner, etc.) snorkeling or playing shuffle board. Later at night Court and I hit the casino and I think the whole lot of us only got to the Disco just a few times. Suzy was in the Spa working out everyday and there were hundreds of teenagers on board to keep my nieces occupied.

The nicest part of this cruise was that we spent a lot of time together. I had kind of wished we went skiing, but since Court and Suzy don't ski, we would have done a lot less family things. I spent lots of time with my nieces in their earlier years when I lived in Atlanta, but not so much the past 9 years - so the time we all devoted to each other was the best gift I could ever receive.

Ship Tip: Cruises can be a great way to spend family time together!

Everyone had a good time on the cruise and doing one over Christmas is a good idea because you do spend (or have the ability to spend) lots of time together. It's very hard not to have a good time on a ship because you can do nothing or everything or, create your own private mix of activities. Sailing with Santa is not the same as skiing with Santa - so as long as you don't mind warm tropical days on December 25th, book your holiday cruise now!


Doug TerhuneDoug Terhune is quite the experienced solo cruiser and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter. His Ship Tips columns are very popular with our readers.

Doug's special interest is interviewing various officers on his cruises, including interviews with the Tropicale's head chef, the Inspiration's Chief Engineer, and the Grandeur of the Sea's Captain. To find all of Doug's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Doug is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.

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