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By Lauren Kramer

All through the cruise there were animals in our room.

They would appear at night, around turndown, when the room was dimly lit and ready to embrace its sleepy occupants. First night we were startled to see a pig. By day six it was a monkey, hanging nonchalantly from a coat hanger.

Shaped from terry cloth towels, the animals delighted my three small children, who had forgotten to bring their favourite stuffed animals along on this winter escape from the dreary rain of Vancouver. We had left on the spur of the moment. Booking last minute tickets on impulse, we were thrilled to swap a wet week in Vancouver for a Caribbean cruise on the MS Westerdam that promised heat, blue skies and a brilliantly blue ocean.

We weren't disappointed. In addition to terry cloth towel animals, the kids' mealtimes were peppered with little gifts of origami animals from the waiters. As we tried to get through a meal with as much dignity as possible - no easy feat when twin four-year-olds are splattering pasta sauce and diving beneath the table to retrieve bread sticks and other lost food scraps - those origami animals sure helped pass the time.

It was supposed to be a family cruise, but once the kids were introduced to Club Hal, Holland America's kids' club, they were lost to us for a full week. The club operated up to eight hours a day, and given the choice our progeny did not want to miss a single minute.

The two enthusiastic Club Hal staff members arranged a busy week of activities interspersed with ice cream, cookies and picnics. Under their instruction the kids made pasta necklaces, played volleyball on the sports deck, coloured t-shirts and formed 'tribes' where they competed against each other in Survivor-like challenges. The swimming pool was the only bribe capable of luring them back to Parent-land.

With the kids happily occupied, the ship and the three Caribbean isles it visited became our oyster. We gleefully checked them into Club Hal for a full day of activities and rented a moped on the island of Curaçao. Careening along the colourful streets lined with old Dutch buildings, we were young lovers once again, not stress-addled parents.

We stopped to snorkel over the sunken ruins of a tugboat, to sample fresh island pastries from the local bakery and to browse by the floating fruit market near the waterfront, where produce from Venezuela glistened in the sun. We packed a picnic lunch and ate it with the wind teasing our hair, the sun on our faces and the crashing waves as our backdrop music. Back on the MS Westerdam, we found three ecstatic children who hadn't missed us at all.

By day two we easily adapted to a routine of decadent laziness. Beneath the hot blue Caribbean skies we swam in the ship's pool and spent hours soaking in the bubbly warmth of the hot tub. There were breakfasts in bed and afternoons spent browsing in the library, or surrendering to the hands of a masseuse in the Greenhouse Spa. Come sunset we took walks on the deck, mesmerized by the massive expanse of ocean and the wake rippling off the sides of the ship. Evening meant fine dining long after the pasta splatters had been cleaned, and the kids were happily ensconced in Club Hal. At night there were performances in the theatre and later, a few hands at the poker table. Ah, home felt far, far away.

Sure, there were some rough moments. A Caribbean sea filled with 20-foot whitecaps made for a bumpy journey at times, one that sent the swimming pool water hurtling from side to side, and with it, more than a few queasy stomachs. There were times of pure indecision: a culinary arts presentation or a morning by the swimming pool? Burgers for lunch, or the Asian buffet? Then there was the task of getting sugar-filled kids to bed after an exciting evening at Club Hal. There was yelling in those cabin walls - but what's a good family vacation without a few hearty yells?

In our minds' eye we return with pictures. For the children, those images are filled with endless afternoons at the swimming pool and hours of fun in the kids' club with new friends. Their parents' pictures are filled with nostalgia at the romantic bliss of couple-hood, an experience they joyously rediscovered on board.


Holland America offers a variety of cruises to the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and New York between October and April. Choose a southern, western or eastern Caribbean itinerary with prices ranging between $649 and $4899 per person for a one-week cruise.

Holland America offers Club HAL for clubs for kids age three through 12, with one staffed section for children aged three through seven and another for tweens age eight through 12. Teenagers are entertained in The Loft, a teen-only lounge for movies, games, music and hanging out.

For more information call (800) 355-3017 or visit

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PHOTOS (Courtesy Holland America Cruises):

1. Towel Elephant in our Room
2. Willemstad's historic, elegant buildings.
3. Half Moon Cay is a Bahamian island occupied only by Holland America's staff and guests. The uninhabited island offers an array of water sports for cruise ship passengers.
4. Snorkling near a submerged tugboat off Curaçao
5. Colourful houses in Willemstad, Curaçao


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