Pool deck on Norwegian Gem

Pool deck on Norwegian Gem

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Stacy Thompson left her husband and three kids behind and headed off for a special fall family vacation.

She wasn’t crazy. Just the opposite. The New Jersey nurse and her sister surprised their parents with their first cruise vacation aboard the Norwegian Gem, which sailed from New York to Atlantic Canada and back, just the two daughters and their 72-year-old parents. “We’re all having a great time,” she reported, even racing down the water slide with her sister Sandy, and trying the rock climbing wall. “It’s a real vacation,” she acknowledged, without having to worry about the kids.

Two other sisters I met had also left their families behind, surprising their mom with a cruise to celebrate her 75th birthday. Another plus for those traveling without children: there were only 15 kids among the Gem’s 2,300 passengers (as compared to as many as 800 on school vacation and summer sailings), which made for a considerably quieter pool deck.

But even without a lot of kids, the ship was still packed with families — mothers and daughters, aunts and cousins, brothers and sisters-in-law, grandparents and young grandchildren, even four lifelong friends celebrating their 70th birthdays. “We’re closer than sisters!” boasted Monica Collistra from their perch in the hot tub.

I wasn’t any different — traveling with my husband, his brother and wife. We don’t get to see them that often, as they live across the country, so the seven-day cruise was a rare treat, especially with no holiday meal to prepare or activities to plan geared toward pleasing all generations.

“A lot of us with a lot of college debt can’t otherwise afford vacations, if we don’t travel with our parents,” said Aubrey Neff, 35, traveling with her mom and some family friends from Minnesota.

Norwegian Gem anchored off Bar Harbor ME

Norwegian Gem anchored off Bar Harbor ME

Families I met like the Neffs suggested a cruise offers what families crave most — unfettered time together when no one has to cook, clean or make the beds. “Sometimes I feel guilty that the crew is so nice,” said Russ Ciffo, a New Jersey Transit train conductor enjoying his first cruise.

Our only decision was which activities to join on board and in port, where we wanted to dine (besides the two dining rooms, buffet and 24-hour pub, the ship offered five specialty restaurants, which require an upcharge (though many cruisers seemed to have packages that included these) — all part of the cruise line’s FreeS5tyle program, which enables passengers to eat when and where they like.

There were Broadway-style shows, a pool, hot tubs, casino and a range of activities from cooking demonstrations to how to make towel animals to a talk with the senior crew about what it takes to run a big ship (1,100 always smiling crew for starters). But mothers and daughters also simply sunned by the pool, cousins played cards in the library and brothers indulged in a second martini before dinner.

In port, about half the guests opted for shore excursions (whale-watching in Maine; learning how maple syrup is made in Nova Scotia) while the rest headed out on their own exploring. We soaked up a lot of Titanic history in Nova Scotia (some 140 victims are buried in Halifax). We also hiked in Acadia National Park in Maine and St. John, New Brunswick. (Read my travel diaries about our adventures here.)

Liz Kowalzyk, on board with her husband and in-laws to celebrate their 60th anniversary, indulged in a spa treatment nearly every day at the always busy Mandara Spa with its Hydrotherapy Courtyard, complete with heated benches, hydrotherapy pool, steam chamber and more. “At home in New York I don’t take time for myself,” she said. “It’s go-go-go.”

Arroz con pollo ready to be served on the pool deck of the Norwegian Gem

Arroz con pollo ready to be served on the pool deck of the Norwegian Gem

Karen Neff, a grandmother from Santa Barbara, California, is a fan of cruises for multigenerational trips — this time she and her husband are just traveling with one of their four children and two youngest grandchildren, including a 9 month old. On other trips, there are more than 20 of them, she said. Her secret is to book the expansive Haven Suites, a kind of a ship-within-the-ship experience that includes villa accommodations, a concierge to attend to every need and a separate, quieter spot for breakfast. “The Haven always books first,” said Jovo Sekulovic, the Gem’s hotel director.

October, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), is Plan a Cruise Month with special deals and promotions, as well as the chance to win a cruise each week with the Cruise Smile social media contest. (Post a photo of a great “Cruise Smile” on Twitter, Instagram or the campaign landing page using (hashtag)CruiseSmile and (hashtag)sweepstakes from Oct. 1 through 31, 2016.)

Consider that you have your choice of more than two dozen ports around the country making a no-fly cruise vacation a real possibility — even in winter from New York when Norwegian and other lines cruise south rather than north.

In case you are wondering, the kids on board couldn’t have been happier with food whenever they wanted, the Splash Academy staff ready to play games and, of course, the water slide. The play room was stocked with toys for “Guppies” (those under three) to play with their parents, as well as a small kids’ pool in a shaded area.

This is Brooklyn and Kaitlin Vaughn’s first cruise — courtesy of their grandparents who thought they’d enjoy seeing the country beyond their native Arkansas. Their mom, Charlotte, who left her husband and preschooler home for the trip with her 6- and 7-year-old daughters, parents and sister, said the duo would forgo dessert at dinner to make sure they didn’t miss anything at Splash Academy. “It’s the best!” declares Brooklyn.

Along with the food, her sister added. There is nonstop food starting with the breakfast buffet at 6:30 a.m., huge deck barbecues on sea days, afternoon tea and multicourse meals whether you opt for the dining rooms, steak house, French bistro, sushi or Italian. Want 3 a.m. fish and chips? No problem!

“Eating too much is a given on a cruise,” said Stacy Thompson. Her parents, she added, were already talking about when they could cruise next.