No place like a cruise ship for the holidays

08/17/2013 12:00 AM

08/15/2013 5:13 PM

Santa met us at the embarkation gangway. He was five days early for gift-giving, but he set the tone for a two-week holiday cruise to the Caribbean. Behind him on Oceania’s Riviera, docked last December in Miami, four carolers, dressed in English style from the Dickens era, sang for each new group of passengers checking in.

Don’t plan a holiday cruise to get away from it all, if “all” includes the seasonal music, pots of poinsettias, and a Christmas goose served in the main dining room.

While some cruise lines do more than others to hark and herald, most ships are decked out for the December holidays, and elevators are awash in seasonal tunes.

You can expect more children aboard, too, traveling not only with their parents but also with their grandparents or perhaps aunts and uncles, as multi-generational cruising takes an uptick at holiday time.

All of which recommends paying attention to your wants and expectations, as well as a cruise line’s reputation for tinsel tossing. If you are cruising round trip out of Florida — the most economical of the holiday cruises — you may want to ask how much seasoning is likely to be added to the usual Caribbean spice.

Spokespersons from several cruise lines pointed out that ships on weekly round trips typically offer significantly different atmospheres when comparing Christmas and New Year’s voyages, with far more children aboard during Christmas week, and more of an adult party over New Year’s. This year, those two major holidays fall mid-week, so festivities on cruises that begin on the weekends will not spill into the other holiday week. (Hanukkah, by the way, is early this year, starting Nov. 27, the evening before Thanksgiving.)

Most ships plan a Santa with gift giving for children on Christmas day — Celebrity Cruises promises a gift for every child ages 3-17 — and all ships prepare special dinners and brunches for Christmas and New Year’s. Many provide leaders for weekend religious services, as well as for Hanukah and Christmas. Ask your travel agent or cruise line for details.

Crystal Cruises, which has a reputation for decorations and festivities, has one ship deployed in South America in December, while the other is sailing out of Miami for 14 days, starting Dec. 21. You can expect more children on the Miami cruise.

“It’s huge for families,” says Crystal’s Mimi Weisband. “We have more than 100 children on holiday cruises, but many of our programs strategically take kids behind the scenes so even those who don’t want to be around children are not bothered. For Hanukah, we have a life-size menorah and light the candles (which carry no flame because of maritime rules). We also have dreidl games and give out gold chocolate coins.”

On Riviera last December, most of the holiday decorating was subtle — a Nutcracker here, a gingerbread house there.

“The key is to make everyone feel comfortable, to make everyone welcome,” said Thierry Tholon, Riviera’s hotel general manager. “For Christmas, we decorate each ship, but we don’t overdo it. The goal is stylish, not overwhelming. Even on a Christmas cruise, we draw about 100 guests for Friday night (Jewish) services.”

Still, there were 110 poinsettias, greenery lined the grand staircase to the lobby, and a Santa statue stood watch next to the reception desk.

If you were up and about on Christmas morning at 8, Santa and several elves strolled through the buffet restaurant on Deck 12, down an elevator to deck 6, through the main dining room, then down the grand staircase to the lobby, where a pile of presents awaited to satisfy the 52 children onboard. (The cruise line, which does not encourage children, brought on two extra employees to oversee their activities on this voyage).

“Someone, go round up the children,” said Santa about 8:30, as the lobby was empty of all but a dozen adults hanging around, waiting for what the occasion might bring. Business was slow, despite a shipboard announcement heralding Santa’s mission.

At 8:40, Olivia, 10, arrived with her sleepy father. She sat at Santa’s knee, chatted a bit, smiled, and walked away with two presents. By 9, after fewer than a dozen children had showed up, Santa called it a day. For the record, the temperature outside, at the port city of Kingstown, St. Vincent, was 85 degrees, perfect for a long hike in the forest.

On New Year’s Eve, Oceania’s Riviera put on a pool deck party that drew hundreds (the ship sailed with more than 1,200 aboard) for drinks, snacks, and dancing deep into the night, which, thanks to the guidance of some young folks, included my writhing about, Gangnam Style.

Riviera’s herd of chefs arrived before midnight, dragging out a four-piece ice sculpture. They set it up beside the pool for all to see the “2 0 1 2.” As the New Year arrived with the traditional singing and champagne toasts, the chefs appeared with one new piece of ice, to complete the dripping sculpture that now read “2 0 1 3.”

Though the holidays still are months away, booking is most economical in summer, as discounts for the late December cruises tend to end by Labor Day, or sooner.

Holiday cruise sales from Oceania and Carnival end Aug. 31. Though Royal Caribbean’s holiday sale ended in July, Celebrity is offering up to $1,000 in onboard credits through Aug. 25.

And it’s not too early to plan ahead for December 2014 if you have a specific cabin suite or exotic destination in mind. Passengers onboard Azamara Journey’s 12-night Southern Hemisphere cruise in 2014 will spend New Year’s Eve anchored off Copacabana Beach, Brazil, for the midnight fireworks.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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