First cruises are genuinely special. With no reference point, no comparisons, whatever experiences you have are unique. I went on my first cruise in 1984 on Chandris Fantasy Cruises' Britanis. Built in 1931 and entering service in 1932, the ship had gone through several owners, even serving briefly in WWII as a troop ship, shooting down an enemy bomber that flew overhead and rescuing 1,675 seamen from another ship in the same convoy that was torpedoed and sunk. Refitted for cruise service in 1971, the Britanis served in numerous parts of the globe, finishing up in the Caribbean.
It was, in retrospect, ill-designed for cruising. But for someone who didn't know any better, it was a great ship. The food, catered by Apollo Ship Chandlers, was really great, an opinion that held up after taking cruises on a number of other ships more modern and glitzy. The service was fantastic. I can still smell the aroma of the Italian food in the hallways as I went to my first midnight buffet. We loved cruising so much, we changed from being an outbound tour operator and opened Tennessee's first cruise-only agency in 1988.
My wife, Sherrie, and I introduced her mom and dad to cruising [see It's Like This: "Billie's Final Odyssey," Nov. 2, 2009]. They loved cruising so much they took all 13 members of the extended family on cruises in 1989 and 1993.
This year, Sherrie and I decided it was time to take a seven-night Caribbean vacation with two of our children, their spouses and their kids. It turned out that one had schedule conflicts, but our daughter Angela; her husband, Jim T.; daughter Maeve, age 10; son Truman, age 8; and mother-in-law Nelle were in. So on July 23, the seven of us headed to New Orleans to board the Norwegian Spirit.
I might add that I went with some anticipation mixed with apprehension because Truman has Asperger's syndrome. Some of his Asperger's traits are more pronounced than others, but my greatest concern was that when we got to the pier, Truman was going to take one look at the huge ship and flatly say, "Nope, I'm not doing this." And from past experience I knew that compelling him to go would make for an unhappy week.
I need not have worried, because it was "Wow!" at first sight. And it got better from there. I could feel the excitement.
The adventure began with lunch at Cagney's, one of the alternate dining venues. When told he could order a steak for lunch if he wanted, Truman looked at his mom incredulously and exclaimed, "Really!" To which his mom replied that it was included. His response was, "It's free?"
This was going to be a fun adventure for me, as well.
Maeve was a bit of a mope when we arrived, because she had left all her friends in Nashville, so daily summer activities and hanging out were on hold for a week. Even worse, she was rooming with her brother. Except at check-in she met two young ladies about her age from Texas, where her dad's family lives, and hooked up with them and two others almost as soon as we were onboard. Except for occasional breakfasts or when we disembarked for shore excursions and sightseeing or when she checked in from time to time to let us know where she was, we hardly saw her. Despite our concerns, Maeve missing her friends turned out to be a nonissue.
And then there was Truman, who has always had an intense curiosity about all things mechanical, mathematical and scientific. He notices and comprehends things and details that most do not. He's one of the few kids I know who actually reads user handbooks for computer and game applications. He also meets and makes friends slowly, and because of medication he takes for his condition eats sparingly and often at odd times.
But Truman was in heaven. In a few days, I learned the following from Truman:
• A "secret stairway" was all the way forward on Deck 12 and led to Deck 11 and an observation window that showed the bridge and its operations. He was quick to point out that while there was a "wheel and some dials" at the observation area, it was OK to play with them, because they didn't really make the ship turn or anything.
• Carpets at the forward elevator were red, midships were blue and aft elevator-area carpets were green. Not one of the adults had noticed that.
• One must not press all the floor buttons in the elevator unless everyone on the elevator agrees that it's OK.
When told by his mom that he was behaving very responsibly (something that was sometimes marginal at best), he observed, "It's the cruise that's making me do it."
One morning as the elevator door opened on my deck as I headed to the room after breakfast, a tow-headed blur flashed past me onto the elevator exclaiming, "Come on, I'll show you!" Truman had a posse of six or seven young men roughly his age following him.
So much for worries about not making friends.
At breakfast, if it didn't bite or run away, he ate it. And on the fifth day Truman explained to his mom that he had six or so boxes of cereal stashed away in case he needed a snack. And besides, he noted, "We can't get these at home."
So much for concern about him not eating.
Freestyle Cruising and Dining and other similar programs were invented for multigenerational travel. Truman checked in at the kids' club each evening about 6 o'clock, Maeve was off with her new friends, and the adults had dinner at the venue of choice and were free to enjoy ship activities until it was time for the kids to return to their cabin. It was truly an enjoyable vacation.
The best part of the whole trip, though, was watching how my grandchildren reacted to all the new sights, sounds and experiences. It was almost like it was 1984 again.
Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency owner training throughout North America. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success," "A Blueprint" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events.