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Family cruises: Best shore excursions for kids

A woman looks at a sand sculpture of a medieval castle Tuesday, July 4, 2006, on a beach in Cannes, France.
A woman looks at a sand sculpture of a medieval castle Tuesday, July 4, 2006, on a beach in Cannes, France.Andy Newman / AP
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Back in the early days of leisure cruising, when the only thing to do all day was sit on a deck chair or play shuffleboard, the ports of call were almost a second thought. Fast forward to today, when families make up a significant and growing chunk of the cruise market, and the shore excursions are a crucial ingredient in the cruise experience.

Water sports for youngsters, dolphin encounters for animal lovers of all ages, and kid-friendly sightseeing are among the offerings that tantalize today's families as they pore through their cruise documents and ponder their selections.

But experienced cruisers know that the quality of the shore excursion can make or break the vacation, especially when little ones are involved. So how do you weed out the good from the bad choices, keep everyone happy, and avoid wasting money in the process?

We have selected some of our favorite shore excursions, organized by activity, along with some tips to keep in mind at the outset.

  • Know your kids. A lengthy catamaran ride and snorkeling tour may look great on paper, but if you know Johnny or Susie suffers from motion sickness (which may not be a problem at all on the large cruise ship), think twice. Ditto with long "scenic" bus trips.
  • Check out the lengths of shore excursions before you book. An eight-hour island tour is a great way to pack in a lot of sightseeing, but if your children have short attention spans and tend to get squirmy after a half hour, opt for a shorter outing.
  • Keep your children's interests in mind. Shore excursions vary by destination, so the Caribbean, Hawaii and Alaska are obvious favorites, whereas long trips to exotic destinations or fall cruises to New England will likely have fewer kid-friendly options (and fewer kids on board). This doesn't mean you can't have fun on those itineraries (see below), but do your homework before you book.
  • Consider the ages of your children. Alaska is growing in popularity for families, but for someone too young to appreciate the spectacular scenery, it's, well, no day at the beach.
  • Check to see whether the ship's children's program and/or group baby-sitting are available. In the case of young children who may need to stay onboard while you're in port, make sure the hours line up. A children's club that opens a half hour after the last shore excursion leaves the ship isn't going to do you any good. And even if baby-sitting is available, ask if it's guaranteed. Otherwise, by the time you're ready to book, there may not be anyone available.
  • Ask if snacks and/or lunch are available on longer shore excursions. If not, consider tucking a single-serving cereal box or a piece of fruit in your backpack to stave off temper tantrums later on. And, of course, bring plenty of sun screen, a hat or visor and even an extra sweater in case you need it.
  • Book early. Once you have decided on your shore excursions, book them immediately upon boarding or, better yet, online before you go. And keep in mind that itineraries can change -- especially in hurricane season -- so be prepared with plan B.

Kayak or snorkel
With all this in mind, here are a few of our favorite kid-friendly shore excursions:

Snorkeling from a boat. School age children can usually handle snorkeling from a boat (check to see if there is an age limit), and adults who have never tried it can learn in a few minutes. The equipment is provided (in a variety of adult and child sizes) and children are required to wear personal floatation devices. Best of all, kids who do have trouble getting the hang of it can float on the surface with their heads out of the water and still see the colorful fish below. The Bahamas and the Caribbean are perennial favorites for snorkeling, and generally the skipper of your boat will anchor where the best coral and fish are. If a wind kicks up, try holding hands with your young snorkeler as you float to keep him or her close by.

Snorkeling from shore. If your kids are tiny or you aren't sure you're going to like being in the water for your whole excursion, try snorkeling from shore. The option is usually available on the cruise ship's private island or at resorts and beaches at various ports of call. This way you can flop down on the sand and relax at any time during your excursion, and little ones can practice using their masks in very shallow water.

Snuba. Not ready for scuba but want to be underwater where the (marine) action is? Consider this alternative, which hooks an air line to your mask -- connected to a scuba tank that floats above you -- and allows you do swim below the surface breathing comfortably. While some programs allow kids as young as 4 to participate, gage your child's comfort level with masks before you go.

Scuba. Even if you aren't certified, some excursions will allow you and your youngster 12 and older (check at the time of booking) to try an introductory dive with an instructor. Keep in mind that scuba dive excursions are the first to get canceled in high wind, and make sure you and your children aren't suffering from head colds or allergies at the time of the dive -- or you may end up with sore ears.

Dolphin encounters. This increasingly popular excursion is available in Bermuda, Hawaii, the Caribbean and places in between. Typically, school-age children and adults enter the water in a small group with the dolphin and the trainer, whereupon they are instructed on how to interact with the animal. Some programs allow kids to actually "swim" with the dolphin (that is, hitch a ride by hanging on to its fins or be pushed along the surface of the water with the dolphin's nose in the arch of their feet.) Be prepared to have the dolphin smooch you for a photo op during the encounter, after which you will likely be pitched to buy expensive photos and videos of the experience. These excursions are pricey -- usually more than $100 a person -- but they can be the highlight of the trip, especially for first-timers.

Kayaking. Some kayaking excursions allow children to participate in two-person kayaks, and venues can range from calm lagoons on private islands to ecological excursions through tangled mangroves. In Key West, for example, guides will point out interesting sea fowl and pass around gooey sea creatures. In season, you might even spot a manatee.

Archeological sites. So you want to see a Mayan ruin, but you aren't sure about whether the excursion will work for the kids? It might not. Here's a tip. From Cozumel, the popular excursion to Tulum takes about eight hours, several hours of which are spent on a bus. Consider taking a cruise that stops at Progreso, Mexico, instead, where there are nearby ruins to choose from. Dzbilchaltun, for example, is only 20 minutes from Progreso, and the ruin itself is interesting and small enough for little legs to navigate without tears. Be sure to bring sunscreen and wear comfy shoes.

Horseback riding. Even novices can take part in riding excursions (again, check the age restrictions), which usually involve a bus transfer from the port to a ranch or farm; being assigned a horse based on your respective ages, sizes and abilities; and receiving brief instructions before heading out single file on a guided trail ride. This is an option that works better if the weather isn't blistering hot, especially under riding helmets (they are usually available in adult and kid sizes, but ask ahead of time). In a destination like Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the other hand, where the weather is cooler and in the absence of water sports, riding is a great family-friendly option.

A day at the beach. Typically, among the least-expensive of the organized excursions, beach outings are usually just that: transportation to a family-friendly beach and with such options as a deck chair, floaties and access to snack bars. Beach lovers know who they are, and if this is your idea of a great way to spend your day with the kids, go for it. Keep in mind, though, that you may not need an excursion if all you want to do is sit on the beach. Find out ahead of time what the best beaches are and hop in a cab to save money. On the other hand, if the beach is at a private resort, the excursion will facilitate your entrance.

Aquariums and museums. Sometimes aquarium visits are combined with other sights and can provide a fun "edu-tainment" component for families during a cruise. If the attraction is right near the port and the admission is low, however, it may be less expensive to go it on your own.

Nature tours. Rain forest hikes and guided excursions to botanical gardens interest some children, especially if there are exotic-looking birds, iguanas, or other animals nearby. In Alaska, the options are especially enticing -- kids can pan for gold, join in whale watching excursions and even go "flightseeing" over the glaciers on a floatplane.

Excursions that don't work for kids
Okay, we've helped identify the great-for-kids options. Now let us warn you away from shore adventures that generally don't appeal to small fry:

  • Sunset or "fun" cruises. Any description that includes the words "free margaritas" or the equivalent is a tip off that the outing wasn't designed with children in mind. Fun cruises are typically suited to young adults who want to mingle and party hard.
  • Shopping excursions. To most children, being dragged through Nassau's Straw Market or St. Thomas' jewelry shops for hours is not going to make Mom and Dad popular. Save it for when the children are in the kid's club or for another cruise.
  • Motorcoach sightseeing. Even children who like lighthouses and museums are going to balk at hours of stops and starts on a motorcoach -- especially if they are zipping by sandy beaches and inviting blue waves. If you really want to sightsee, consider an excursion that tacks a few stops -- at a botanical garden, say, or a shipwreck museum -- onto an activity-based outing on a boat or beach.