It's a hallmark of the luxury cruise experience that you're met by a crew member at embarkation who asks — insists! — that you be divested of your carry-on baggage at the gangway and personally escorted to your cabin. And so it was on the Crystal Serenity, where our appointed crew member gently, but seriously, took our toddler's tiny, owl-shaped suitcase and rolled it to the elevator.
That the owl roll-aboard contained her battered copy of "Goodnight Moon," her stuffed monkey and the colored pencils we were given by Alitalia didn't matter much. It was treated with the same gravity as if the crew member was carrying a Louis Vuitton Keepall to the Crystal Penthouse.
The Serenity's crew didn't bat an eye at seeing our 2-year-old daughter on a ship that is primarily designed for an older, well-heeled, well-traveled clientele. And few of the well-heeled, well-traveled clientele batted an eye, either.
Instead, I was quick to confirm what I'd already been told: Kids aren't a rarity on Crystal.
In fact, much to our shock, our daughter wasn't even the cutest child onboard.
That honor went to a 6-month-old boy, whose cherubic face we spotted during the muster drill in the show lounge. He also showed up on the pool deck, napping in his stroller in the shade and, later, wearing an adorable, hooded Batman bathing costume.
Elsewhere, at the lunchtime Tastes restaurant by the Serenity's indoor pool, a group of women watched over a coming-and-going brood of school-age kids and their half-eaten plates of french fries. The Serenity could have used a few more high chairs, as all three of them were often in use during key mealtimes.
On a stroll around the top decks on the at-sea day I spotted a skull-and-crossbones flag fluttering on a forward mast, discreetly below the ship's rail. Crystal Cruises flying the Jolly Roger!
Turns out it was a totem in that afternoon's shipwide scavenger hunt, hosted by the Junior Activities program. Scheduled programming
Crystal has always had an activities program for kids, and its ships were built with dedicated kids' playrooms. Fantasia, for younger children, is connected to Waves, the teen hangout, by an all-purpose room. Even when the counselors are off duty, the rooms are open for kids and parents to play.
They're in no way as sizeable or robust as the children's facilities on the larger ships. The entire Serenity operation would probably fit into just one corner of a contemporary line's kids section.
But that didn't seem to bother the Crystal kids, or their parents.
Chris Corrigall, the manager of entertainment at Crystal, who oversees the Junior Activities program, was a junior activities director when he joined the line in 1999.
"Since then it has grown so much," he said. "It's so much more robust."
Hours have expanded almost by 50%, he said. "We have a dedicated teen program; a dedicated program for ages 3 to 7, and sometimes we even break that up; and then the 8-to-12 group."
On the number of kids per sailing, he said, "the Mediterranean we average … maybe 80 or 90. Northern Europe is a little quieter, maybe 50 or 60."
"Those numbers used to be half of that, definitely."
The 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity is on the large-scale end of the luxury cruise category. But even Seabourn, which is one of the smallest, has occasional kids' programming.
"We do provide a professional youth counselor onboard when we see that we will have a number of kids, to arrange social activities, games," said Bruce Good, Seabourn's director of public relations. "We can arrange a Wii setup on a large-screen TV and do crafts, scavenger hunts, mocktail parties and on occasion have even mounted a show starring the kids."
On Regent Seven Seas Cruises, the Club Mariner Youth Program starts for ages 5 and up, with activities tailored for age. Participants can indulge in arts and crafts, meet the captain and compete in Mariner Idol, among other activities.
Programming isn't available on every cruise. Crystal monitors its bookings and will assign counselors if the number of children exceeds a certain threshold. Other lines offer specific cruises on which the programs are offered, typically during the summer months. Nor do the kids necessarily gather in a dedicated space: On Regent, for example, the meeting place is revealed in that day's newsletter.
Our seven-day Mediterranean cruise in August met all the basic requirements — destination, date and length — for a family-oriented cruise, and the playroom was hopping on the day we came to visit.
Crystal's programs start at age 3, so a parent or guardian is required to accompany a younger child to Fantasia.
Our fellow participants around the arts-and-crafts table were an international, articulate, sophisticated gang of grade-schoolers. That evening was the cruise's formal night, and the kids were planning their own party, complete with crowns and cookies.
The morning activity was to trick out the crowns, and the international, articulate directors were helping with the foam crowns.
Our tyke struck a bond with one of the counselors: He would stick faux rhinestones on her crown, and she would unstick them. A growth spurt
Extended-family cruising has been a theme for years. It seemed to really pick up steam after 9/11, and the boom years of the mid-aughts also likely had a hand in the trend, as matriarchs and patriarchs had the financial means to sponsor all-family getaways.
The trend to aspirational travel also might help explain the popularity of family travel on the upscale lines. And, of course, as more travelers become familiar with a line, the chance is greater that they'll want to repeat and bring their family along.
Corrigall brought up another boon to Crystal's family boom: the expansion into international markets.
"South American, Mexican and Asian travelers tend to travel in big family groups, so the kids' program has grown," said Mimi Weisband, Crystal's vice president of communications.
Everything seemed to come together in Fantasia: Heads of families bringing extended groups, international travelers for whom family travel is a given, the financial means to do it all.
That being said, luxury lines aren't for all children.
A kid who might have loved a luxury ship when they were 2 might find the same ship more restricting when they're older. For energetic youngsters, a smaller ship might be limiting, especially when compared with ziplines, comprehensive kids' camps, custom-designed shore excursions, sports facilities and state-of-the-art waterparks.
On a smaller vessel, passengers are in tighter quarters with fewer onboard distractions, making the management of the younger guests extremely important.
"We carry a lot of children, interestingly enough, in extended family travel," Mark Conroy, then-president of Regent, said during a Travel Weekly CruiseWorld panel last fall. "And you know what I love about children is … the fact that they bring two adults with them, or more.
"So what you have to do in this business is keep them busy and happy," he continued. "And if you can do that, then everybody's happy, because you're keeping them engaged and focused, they're having a great time, their parents are having a great time and, more importantly, the people who don't have children there are having a great time."
Seabourn's Good, for example, noted that most of the "kids" on their ships are pre-adolescent or older, a range echoed by Peg Haskins, president of Viking Travel/The Cruise Shop in Westmont, Ill.
"I don't think we've had anybody who's been as young as that on a luxury line," she said of our daughter's age. "I'd say more like high school and up … maybe junior high and up."
Using Regent as an example, she said: "Our experience is that, in terms of kids, they're very well-traveled kids. They've been used to traveling since a very young age … for the most part, if people are doing Regent or Silversea, it's our experience they've traveled all along as families.
"And then it's about finding out, customizing some of the things they're interested in."
Some families with grandparents who are used to the luxe life, she said, might take the top suite on a Royal Caribbean ship and then book standard accommodations for the kids.A Crystal kid
But for our young daughter, Crystal worked out beautifully. She, and we, settled quickly into the rhythm of shipboard life.
We set up her portable crib in the cabin (housekeeping removed one armchair to give us more room). We'd go ashore in the morning, then we'd come back for lunch, and she'd nap in the cabin with her father while her mother treated herself to Kindle-and-pina-colada time by the pool. (Our daughter wasn't allowed in the pools because she wasn't yet toilet-trained, a rule we didn't know about till we read a notice in our cabin at embarkation.)
We went exploring on the ship, and at the Bistro coffee shop the barista gave her water in an espresso cup so she could sip along with her parent's latte.
We supervised her on the cabin balcony. We had to sign a waiver at embarkation in order for housekeeping to unlock the balcony's sliding door, and, once the waiver was signed, they gave us the key so we could lock it ourselves.
We did sprints on the promenade.
For dinner, the early seating was too early for us. We did late seating just once; luckily our neighbors were sympathetic to our daughter's tired, crabby attitude and looked wistfully at their accomplished, grown-up children across the table.
The next day I went to a purser, who made us standing reservations at 7:30 p.m. through the Crystal Perfect Choice program. When it didn't seem ideal to subject her to structured dining, we ordered room service.
And to Conroy's point, I also figured it behooved us to put our — and our daughter's — best face forward with the other passengers.
This we did by keeping an eye on our girl and removing her if a tantrum was coming on, gently reminding her of toddler-appropriate manners and dressing her up in her cute-toddler-girl outfits in the evenings when everybody was looking their best.
One of the best surprises was in-cabin baby-sitting by a member of the crew, for $10 an hour. We used it twice and had glorious, adults-only dinners at the specialty restaurants Prego and Silk Road.
On the nights that we were on duty, we asked our butler to drop off a cheese plate, and then we sat on the balcony and read or talked quietly while the kid snored in her crib.