A brief trip with littlies puts Paul Little up there with holiday trend-setters.
Who'd have thought I'd have to wait until I was a grandfather to become fashionable? But there it was staring me in the face in an email: intergenerational travel, like the cruise we'd recently done with our granddaughters, is a growing trend. I thought I was taking them on holiday, but apparently, I was breaking ground in a fast-growing tourism demographic.
Lila and Emmie live in Los Angeles, which means time spent with them is a) tricky to arrange and b) even more precious than usual. So when my wife and I were going to spend a week with them there, we hatched a plan to abduct them - in the nicest possible way - and have them all to ourselves by taking them on a three-night cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, and back.
At 8 and 6 the girls were just the right age to be awed by the glamour and sophistication of a medium-size ship with restaurants and bars and swimming pools and an old-world library, stocked with just the sort of board games Emmie liked. They didn't notice that it was old by cruise ship standards - launched in 1995 with a refit in 2007.
We had been not long on board when we noticed that it wasn't just the crew wearing uniforms. Here was a group with matching T-shirts emblazoned "Oh ship! It's Frank's birthday"; there were several women whose tops bore the phrase "Bride's bitches" in gold and silver writing; others boasted they were members of "Team Bridget" in gold lurex on black; bringing up the rear was "Groom doom - dead man walking". It seemed everyone was in a group that was celebrating one kind of landmark or another. Many, indeed, like they'd started the parties on shore. What would happen if the tribes fell out and went to war?
There was no time to ponder this because before any ship sails it has to conduct a safety demonstration. With departure imminent, many passengers were a little over-excited as they strolled into and out of their assigned muster areas with drinks in hand, or sometimes both hands. Needless to say, it took some time to settle everyone.
Meanwhile my wife was engrossed in a safety card she had found. "Someone needs to know what to do," she muttered darkly.
Just as I began to wonder whether we'd brought our grandchildren on a three-day floating safety hazard, order was imposed. Somehow the crew counted enough heads to keep the authorities happy and everyone was told what to do in an emergency.
These days such drills are usually kept as simple as possible and no one gets anywhere near a real-life lifeboat. But at the end of our lecture we were all marshalled outside and up two decks to stand near our designated rescue craft and wait again. In fact we were waiting so long that I began to wonder if this wasn't a drill and we would soon be invited to get into the lifeboats and taken to safety, but eventually we were dismissed.
Our little group followed this with the traditional self-guided orientation tour which involved going to the top of the ship and working our way down deck by deck so we could see everything that was on offer. This included the children's section, which was a spartan and dark precinct that would have sent a chill down the spine of a Colditz survivor. As the crew member ran through the range of activities on offer - not many - Lila, who appears to have her grandmother's gift for both muttering and for self-preservation, began repeating quietly "I don't want to come here . . . I don't want to come here . . . I don't want to come here", a litany which, despite my repeated assurances that it would not be allowed to happen, she maintained until we were well clear.
In the lead up to the cruise, when we were winding them up good and proper, the girls were most exercised by the prospect of the onboard waterpark and the all-you-can-eat buffet facilities. The former with its corkscrew waterslide, side-by-side racing slides, water cannons and other opportunities to splash out was a hit. But the buffet was no competition for the formal dining room once they realised that in the latter they would be shamelessly fussed over by waiters and invited to have seconds of every course. There was also an itinerant Russian magician whose looming presence and funereal manner of speech suggested clowns could soon be in for some competition in the scary children's entertainer stakes. The live shows, however, traditionally a last resort for kitsch amusement on any cruise anywhere, were live jukebox shows with themes such as Epic Rock, Divas - and surprisingly good and rounded off each of the three evenings to intergenerational satisfaction.
From our point of view, not the least of the ship's attractions was the price: about US$200 each for the girls in a spacious Grand Suite with balcony. Possibly because of its age, the Carnival Imagination has very few rooms with balconies, which are more common on most ships these days.
Although it wasn't a big focus for us, the cruise did include, as I've mentioned, a destination - a few hours in Ensenada, population around half a million, which is almost deserted by Mexican standards. We'd have enough time to walk around, eat a taco and buy a souvenir sombrero. And that was pretty much all there was to do in the port.
Ensenada is a one-burro town with a main street lined with restaurants, bars, souvenir stores and pharmacies selling normally prescription medications, such as Viagra, Ativan (Lorazepam) and antibiotics, over the counter. The girls bought jewellery and their grandmother found them some frocks and that pretty much exhausted the town's attractions for anyone below tequila-drinking age. Despite the US President's famous misgivings we passed the whole day there without sighting any bad hombres.
The return journey was more of the same, albeit a little quieter without the contribution of hen parties and Frank's birthday, all of whom presumably were recovering in their rooms. They would have enjoyed the leisurely northbound pace - Ensenada is so close to Los Angeles (closer, in fact than San Francisco is) that at one point we noted we were travelling at 1.1 knots so we wouldn't get back too soon. We were in no hurry.
Carnival Imagination sails regularly from LA, calling at Ensenada, Mexico. See carnival.com for dates and prices.
Closer to home, Carnival Spirit and Carnival Legend will visit New Zealand in 2018, with various itineraries departing from Sydney or Melbourne.