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By Arline and Sam Bleecker

RISMEDIA, Dec. 27, 2008-(MCT)-You might, like us, wonder if sailing over the blue horizon as a family group is a good idea, especially as the holidays are winding down.

Earlier this year, we weighed the advantages of holding a family gathering at sea versus, say, a week at a land resort or mountain retreat. There was much to consider, including cost. We are an aging group of four couples-sisters, brothers and their spouses-all sixty-somethings or older, each with diverse interests and physical limitations to consider.

It had been years since all of us had spent that much time cheek by jowl. A friend had once tried to assemble a family reunion for as many couples and remarked that the effort nearly turned her hair gray trying to meet everyone’s needs.

In our family, for instance, one member is an amateur singer, gregariously funny, with a 9-to-5 job from which she really needed a vacation. One member of the group loves to golf, while others love to read and relax. Yet another and her husband deal with disabilities that make getting around difficult.

All of us, though, agreed that fine food, many amenities and choices of things to do and see were essential.

In the end, we didn’t want to be cooped up in one location, especially without readily available options for entertainment, including shows, gyms, spas and dining choices.
What better choice than a cruise that lets everyone pursue individual pleasures?

Ultimately we settled on Carnival Victory’s seven-day sailing from New York in autumn to New England and Canada, making stops in Boston; Portland, Maine; St. John, New Brunswick; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

By selecting a mega-vessel with a reputation for inexpensive fares but fun-ship cruising on board, we were able to satisfy everyone’s desire for time together and apart as well as provide numerous things to do on shore.

We also learned how to plan better for our next family outing. Some tips might help you in arranging a reunion on your own.

1. Know your cruise line. Each line has an individual identity. Match it to your family’s needs. Carnival is deservedly known as a value line with inexpensive fares and great food, for instance, Royal Caribbean International offers a solid vacation for the sports-minded. Norwegian Cruise Line is more like a floating food court with 10 mostly exceptional restaurants running the gamut from steakhouse to sushi. Regent Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises offer high-end luxury on spacious ships, while Seabourn and Silversea boast gourmet dining and enrichment lectures on intimate vessels.

2. Know your ship. Amenities differ from ship to ship, even within the same cruise line. Not all of Royal Caribbean’s giants of the seas, for instance, have wave surfing.

And though Carnival’s newer ships have alternative dining venues, our ship, the Carnival Victory, did not. Also, absent alternative dining options, Victory’s two evening seatings in the dining room often resulted in crowds at the door.

3. Choose your itinerary carefully. Because a few of us were less mobile, it was important that we could all easily enjoy a port of call either together or in pairs.

For instance, Halifax provides a free shuttle bus from the pier that makes a downtown loop and accommodates getting on and off at fixed stops for shopping or for other entertainments, such as museum visits. Had we chosen a Caribbean setting, we pretty much would have been limited to sharing a beach together or browsing near the pier.

4. Protect yourself against the unexpected. With so many people involved in a family reunion, there is a chance something could happen to force one or more members of the party to abort the family get-together. To avoid putting a damper on the party, consider trip-cancellation insurance.

5. Get help. When it comes to arranging a cruise for several families, it makes sense to get the assistance of a seasoned travel agent. A pro not only will get you the best fares but also make sure everyone gets the proper documents, as well as arrange for dinner seatings and shore excursions.

6. Stay far from the madding crowd, even at family times. Yes, ships can provide oodles of organized diversions on board. It’s nice to know they’re there, but no passenger is obligated to participate in any of them. On sea days, our family chose a variety of options. And then, in the evenings, we gathered for long, leisurely dinners where we shared our experiences and laughed until we were nearly the last ones left in the dining room.

© 2008, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.