For weeks after I told my mother I was taking her on a cruise for her 80th birthday, she texted and emailed nonstop. She was eaten up with excitement and curiosity.
What was I packing? (Dunno.) Did I think we should stay an extra night in Fort Lauderdale? (Sure.) Was I checking my bag? (Not a chance.) How big was the cabin’s balcony? (Did math.)
I’ve always been close with Mum, but not four-chats-a-day close. Even so, as the days and weeks passed, the shared adventure meant we were having conversations we don’t normally have. It was a lot at first, but once we embarked on the trip itself, spending almost every hour of 10 days together, it turned into an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary with an extraordinary woman.
But I didn’t just get insight into my relationship with Mum. We discovered the world of cruising together. Here’s what I learned.
Do your research first. There are more than 50 cruise companies.
The first question anyone asks is, “which cruise line are you going with?” Turns out, it matters because which ship you choose and where you go speaks volumes. For example, there are 323 cruise ships plying international waters, ranging from smaller ships like Windstar’s 148– to 342-passenger ships to Royal Caribbean’s monolithic Icon of the Seas, capable of holding 7600 passengers. Some cruise lines are ideal for budget-conscious, first-time sailing families; some are more for those wanting an intimate experience. Start your research here on CAA Magazine for great reviews and articles. We chose Celebrity Cruises, specifically for Celebrity Beyond, the brand new, $900 million, 3250-passenger ship, one of 17 new cruise ships launched by various companies in 2022.
I learned how to get 10 days' worth of clothes into carry-on luggage.
I’d heard about the rolling method of packing perfected by the military and was keen to test it. And with tales of people’s baggage doing solo trips to foreign places, it was time to learn. Although I tried to pack light, I still managed to get in outfits for workouts, evening wear, day trips and lounging. The rolling method is easy enough to master and works very well with lightweight clothes. Dress in layers – think palazzo pants, tank tops and lightweight cover-ups. Because I had to be thoughtful about what I took, I didn’t fall into the trap of bringing more than I needed.
There’s a trick to picking shore excursions.
There are countless shore excursions to imagine yourself taking every time the ship docks and plenty of opportunities for self-guided fun. Celebrity offers their own excursions, with discounts if you book before you go. But we went with CAA’s preferred partner ShoreExcursions.com, partly because they guarantee you’ll get back to the ship on time. But the main reason was to avoid the big coach buses packed with tourists. Shore Excursions offer small groups with expert leaders. On the Yucatan Peninsula, we headed to the ruins at Chacchoben in a small, air-conditioned bus seating about 12 people from around the US and Canada. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable – an actual Mayan and a history professor with 30 years of teaching behind him. His insights and ability to describe daily life as we walked through Chacchoben, one of Mexico’s 10,000 Mayan ruins, brought the ancient civilization (360AD) to life.
Forget what you thought about shuffleboard on ships.
The range of activities is so varied the full list forms a four-page daily newsletter delivered to our cabin. Itching to learn to play pickleball? Want to do a yoga class? Keen on a tour of the massive industrial kitchens? Looking for an LGBTQ social hour? If you are interested, you’ll likely find kindred spirits through cruising activities. Beyond’s fitness facilities are exceptional, including a 400m–long outdoor walking and running track, which Mum used almost daily to get her steps in. The tricked-out gym – found right at the front of the ship, overlooking the prow, with a strategically-placed Peloton bike lined up at the ship’s centre – was my second home.
I was not ready for the quality of entertainment.
That’s no exaggeration. Every cruise line has some form of nightly entertainment in a theatre, ranging from magic shows and comedians to dance troupes and singers. But Beyond sets a new standard for what to expect: eye-popping acrobatics, astonishing visual displays, bold and dynamic choreography, and Vegas and Broadway singers belting out tunes night after night.
When it comes to eating, pace yourself.
Life on board a cruise ship looks something like this: rest, eat, rest, play, eat, rest. With the variety of cuisines and restaurants on board these floating resorts, it’s not hard to overdo it and regret it later. To avoid the eat-til-you-drop buffet on the Beyond, we signed up for five meals at the speciality restaurants. We started with Le Voyage by Daniel Boulud, the two-Michelin star chef who’s made a big name for himself around the world with his signature New York restaurant, Daniel, six other restaurants in NYC, another six internationally and of course, aboard the Celebrity Beyond. Expect exceptional dining and service because that’s what you’ll get. We actually cancelled one of our other specialty bookings to return to Le Voyage, if for nothing else than the oven-warm madeleines served at the end of the meal. The other stand-out meal was at Eden, the two-storey restaurant and lounge bar found at the stern of the ship. Despite our determination not to overeat, we scraped our plates clean of every elegantly displayed, freshly cooked morsel.
Don’t underestimate your older parent’s ability to tear it up.
Being 80 hasn’t meant a lot to my mother. Her natural Energizer Bunny vibe was peaking on the trip because she still has a lot of living to do. When I was ready to pack it in at 10 p.m., she was dressed and ready to dance. When I climbed to the top of one of the Chacchoben’s steep ceremonial stairs, she wasn’t far behind. We explored every inch of the ship, including the renowned “Magic Carpet,” a bar that slides up and down the side of the ship. On the other hand, we also had to allow her a bit more time to rest between activities, but it felt lovely to do so once we discovered quiet groupings of deck chairs and lounges in the shade.
Travel insurance is totally worth it.
Although we both intended to travel light (Note: our carry-on bags were not at all lightweight), I knew that as veterans of American discount shopping malls, there was a chance we’d have to check our bags on the return home. We bought travel insurance through CAA’s fast online quote, and although we didn’t have to use it, it was good to have it for the unexpected. There’s also travel medical insurance for older adults for extra coverage. CAA North & East Ontario has plenty of other information through caaneo.ca.
If you go: Airfares tend to be a bit cheaper midweek and if bought in advance. Plan to arrive a day or two ahead of departure to avoid stress and airline disruptions.
Mum’s hot take: Travellers over the age of 75 no longer have to remove their shoes at airport security.
Best bets: Prebook your excursions for the best discounts by checking out CAA’s preferred partner, ShoreExcursions.com.
Bring it with you: Make sure you have your CAA card with you, as it’s honoured everywhere AAA is.