What do the words road trip conjure up for you? If you’re solo or a childfree couple, perhaps carefree days where you sleep-in, have coffee around 11 and hit the road with a surfboard hanging out the back.
If you’re a family, it might be a packed SUV, small heads buried in electronic games, pit stops, car sickness and the whine of “are we there yet?’ ringing in your ears as you pull into another fast food drive-through.
That's why cruising could be the new "roadtrip".
This could sound like another marketing ploy to coax families into cruising, but look at the selling points: beautiful surrounds and ports of call, multiple destinations yet unpacking just once, activities and great food on tap and, because you’re not driving (or flying), more quality time together.
To see whether the theory stacks up, we boarded the Rhapsody of the Seas for the 11-night Queensland Islands cruise. Being virgin cruisers, we're as good a test market as any.
Our cruise started when we sailed through Sydney’s magnificent heads and turned north, chasing some sun. The ship stops in ports along the eastern seaboard where you'd most likely head on a family road trip by car, except you’d probably be too tired to do anything much when you got there.
In Brisbane some headed for Australia Zoo, or south to wear themselves out at the Gold Coast’s theme parks. In Cairns, families disembarked for trips out to Green Island or snorkelling expeditions of the Great Barrier Reef. Others whizzed up the Kuranda Skyrail to the lush Atherton Tableland.
Yet this is but one aspect of family-based cruising. When the ship sails between ports, the Ocean Adventures kids' club offers age-based activities for children three to 17. There’s also a nursery for littlies aged six months to three years, with an hourly charge of $US8 ($7.60).
Our daughter, Ella, was entertained daily in the Aquanauts (a program for three to five-year-olds) with everything from circus activities, ice cream and pirate parties to face painting.
There are three sessions a day and kid’s club was included in the cruise price, so if you decide to spend most of the day by the pool (and many families do) or you’re onshore, then your children can attend the night-time session while you and your better half head out for dinner.
The commercial manager for Royal Caribbean Cruises Australia, Adam Armstrong, says seeing Queensland by sea is a unique Australian experience.
"Right on our doorstep is some of the most magnificent marine and coastal geography in the world, such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsundays," he says.
"Imagine being right in the middle of all this natural beauty, and also having the time of your lives every minute of the way on board.”
On our cruise, scores of families were having the time of their lives, including many non-traditional family units such as three women from the NSW south coast, who took "custody" of their grandchildren. For them the ship offered the chance to have a break while holidaying with their young charges.
Others were enjoying multi-generational holidays or celebrated milestones – dad’s 40th or grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary.
It would be a serious challenge for even the most active family to be bored. A number of pursuits are available from sun-up to sundown, from yoga to family karaoke and line dancing. There's also a rock-climbing wall, mini-golf, casino, basketball court and outdoor movie screens, plus iPads in every cabin.
Getting lost is difficult with the "way-finding" system that helps young (and not so young) guests navigate the 915-foot, 11-deck ship.
The quality of the standard meal package, which gives you six dining options, is outstanding, but it makes sense to upgrade your meal package so you can enjoy couple time at the ship's specialty dining areas.
The Japanese restaurant, Izumi, and the Chef’s Table, where you enjoy a five-course degustation menu with 14 guests, is well worth the additional cost (between $US55-$US135 a person). There was no chance of a dodgy roadside meal on this road trip.
What we really loved was strolling the top deck watching the sunset, having dinner with Ella at the Windjammer Cafe attended by our favourite Balinese waiter, Kedek, going for ice-creams on the pool deck (as many as your heart desires), enjoying the outdoor movies under the stars and watching the amazing aerial performers in the ship's atrium.
Perhaps it's fitting that the family experience we will never forget started off the ship, at Airlie Beach. After disembarking and enjoying lattes at the Sidewalk Café (note: coffee on board is abysmal), we headed for the man-made-stinger-free lagoon.
In the rush to get going, I’d left Ella’s swim vest on board.
But my absent-mindedness was rewarded when she started swimming free of flotation devices. Back on board there was much celebrating as some of the ship’s crew, an incredibly hospitable and professional bunch of people from 62 nations, high-fived our proud little mermaid.
Rhapsody of the Seas has nine-night cruises around the south Pacific from 3 April 2013 starting from $995 per person, with children at a discounted rate.
Three other ‘road trip’ alternatives:
- Budget option: P&O Cruises offers four-night ‘Sea Breaks’ including an itinerary along the popular NSW coast to Moreton Island, priced from $469 per person quad share on Pacific Jewel departing March 14, 2013
- Premium option: From 2014, P&O’s Pacific Pearl will offer a six-night round-trip cruise along the Great Ocean Road from Melbourne to South Australia from $849 per person quad share.
- Gold-plates option: www.ecruising.travel offers a twist on the traditional American Route 66 road trip (minus remote petrol stations, "interesting" motel options and questionable diner food). The 37-night cruise aboard the Norwegian Jewel takes in Alaska, North America and the Panama Canal from Seattle to New Orleans, priced from $6939 per person twin share ex Sydney.
The writer travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean.