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August 18, 2004

Cruising with Grandchildren

Joe Volz

The one item I neglected to bring with me on my cruise this summer was a grandchild.

I figured, what child would want to be cooped up in a floating hotel for a week with Grandma and Grandpa and a bunch of retirees when he could instead be running around the playing fields of Frederick and swimming in an Olympic size pool at Worman's Mill?

I figured wrong.

When I arrived in Boston for a weeklong cruise aboard Holland America's Maasdam, steaming off the Maine and Canadian coasts with daily port calls, I discovered that there were 160 children between 3 and 20 aboard among the 1,300 passengers.

They were traveling with parents, grandparents and, in the case of a four-generation California family, with great-grandmothers - two of them.

Cruising isn't just for us old folks anymore.

Not by a long shot. As a matter of fact, Holland America officials say the average age of passengers on the Canadian run has dipped from 70 a few years ago to around 55.

Some of the teen passengers had qualms about the pace of life with the older set when the cruise started. One told his parents, "Everybody's 100 years old."

But that was before he boarded the ship. A week later, after meeting other teens on the ship, he said he would definitely do it again. In fact, I couldn't find any teen who wouldn't sail again after trying it.

"You develop close friendships in a hurry," says Susan Singer, manager of one of the ship's restaurants who practices what she preaches. She is engaged to one of the restaurant stewards she met on the ship. And one of the line's captains met his wife onboard. She was the ship's nurse.

The teen passengers seem to limit extended contact with grandparents to meals and some shore excursions. Not that they don't love Granny dearly, but, well, there are other attractions, too.

Holland America officials are naturally anxious to promote the family business. One family brought 14 members aboard at Christmastime, a favorite for family reunions. Some families bring 40 relatives.

Kelly Boeing, 20, of Buffalo, N.Y., probably the oldest grandchild aboard, was recently a teenager herself and speaks for the teen crowd: "You really get the kind of freedom you don't have at home. Parents relax all the rules. You can stay out later. After all, what can go wrong on a cruise ship?"

The ship is a floating small town, a return, in many ways, to the time when parents had a rough idea where the kids were and who they were hanging out with.

A Holland America official puts it this way: "You don't have to worry about your grandchildren going off somewhere in a car."

Boeing was a bit distraught, though, to find out toward the end of the cruise that the young men she met who were sailing with their parents invariably had girlfriends back home - a fact they failed to mention until the very end.

"If it were girls who had left their boyfriends, you would know right away. They would be talking constantly about how much they missed them," she says.

The younger children have their own group, too. One crowd, ages 5 to 9, met regularly in the Kids' Zone on the promenade deck to dye T-shirts or one day to put up a tent in the room, which is also outfitted with tiny desks and computers. Staffers are with the children all the time. The parents and grandparents have to pick up the youngsters, though. There is no delivery service.

Grandparents of younger children note that they do not have to be drafted into baby-sitting duty. The children's programs even go on into the night, when Grandma and Grandpa might be watching a ship's show featuring rock from the '50s.

So grandparents get a chance to hang out, too, often in the casino where the impoverished feed quarters into the slot machines and the high rollers try blackjack or roulette.

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