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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Family Escape to the Caribbean

Family Escape to the Caribbean on a Cruise
Leave the hassles of an ordinary vacation onshore and embark on a trip the whole family can enjoy.

Leaving our final port of call, we had just crossed the gangplank to our giant cruise ship when I began thinking it was already time to plan our next voyage. My wife and I had sailed an identical route 4½ years earlier on our maiden cruise. The itinerary: Depart from a Florida port; spend a beach day at beautiful Labadee on the northern tip of Haiti; and take in the scenery, sights and shopping at stops in Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; and Cozumel in Mexico's Western Caribbean. We were immediately hooked on cruising. Six months later, we sailed to ports in the eastern Caribbean. Our third cruise, in June 2005, we left Seattle and followed the scenic Inner Passage to Alaska.

This time, we chose to redo the western Caribbean route. We were in a throng of 13 family members and friends that sailed on Royal Caribbean International's Mariner of the Seas, the third-largest cruise ship in the world. Cruises on large ships are perfect for groups because there's so much to do on board. People can join organized activities with other cruisers, or find solace in solitary moments.

My oldest brother found napping on an open deck—away from the bustle of the pool areas—to be the perfect way to relax. Other family members jumped right into the fray of things. Several of the men, myself excluded, volunteered for a "sexy legs contest" and enjoyed the attention from several hundred hooting, appreciative women. I took lots of photos. With a dozen or so bars and several restaurants, few could have been dry or hungry on the ship. Most food is free on cruises. Alcoholic drinks are extra.

Our first stop on the June 2006 cruise was Labadee, a secluded peninsula with a beautiful beach and plenty of tropical shade trees. Passengers were thrilled to soak up the sun, snorkel, shop for colorful island art or rent personal watercraft for an exhilarating jaunt across the big bay. Mariner landed next at Ocho Rios. A popular shore excursion here is a trip to Dunn's River Falls, a spectacular 600-foot, stair-step waterfall that cascades to the ocean. The hardy waded in, holding hands in long strings, and carefully climbed to the top through the refreshing mountain stream.

As with other Caribbean islands, there are many other attractions on Jamaica. But with limited time to explore and the necessity of getting back before the ship sails to its next destination, choose carefully. Excursions can be booked with the cruise line, over the Internet or at the dock. Warning: They can be pricey and add considerably to the cost of a cruise. Our third stop was Georgetown, the most upscale port on our itinerary. Damage from the 2005 hurricanes was noticeable on both Grand Cayman and in Cozumel, but much of the debris had been cleaned up and the two ports were bustling with cruise passengers.

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