Anything exciting is too difficult, and anything relaxing quickly becomes dull. But our extraordinary cruise on board Crystal Symphony showed me that you could in fact have it all, with very little of the dreaded C-word!
Whenever my wife and I travel with our young daughter it always involves a host of challenges: from making sure child cots, high chairs and all the other paraphernalia that we need are available, to finding a destination that appeals to two 30-somethings who are used to travelling unimpeded by a little one.
Previous family holidays have included a stay in Dubai (boring) and a tour of Jordan (exhausting), so when planning our most recent trip we had to go back to the drawing board to find an exciting itinerary which also offered some R&R. With our daughter still under two she's a little too young for many of the children's facilities on offer at family-focused resorts, so we decided to avoid these, preferring not to be surrounded by other people's children. After weeks of umming and ahing. and with a hint of desperation creeping in, I made the outlandish suggestion of a South America voyage with Crystal Cruises, half hoping my wife would dismiss it immediately. I'm very glad she didn't!
The itinerary really caught our imagination, and the more we considered it, the more we realised it could deliver the holiday we wanted for all of us. Sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires, with stops along the coast of Brazil and Uruguay, the voyage was a great combo of beach time and city strolls. It was an exciting itinerary for the grown-ups, yet with the comfort and convenience needed when travelling with our daughter.
It helped that we were no strangers to Crystal. My wife and I had travelled with them previously in the Mediterranean on our first cruise together, a trip that absolutely wowed us and dispelled many of the preconceptions we held about cruising. Since then Crystal has always held a special place for us, and we knew that of all the ultra-luxury lines operating, they were the best choice. Their ocean ships are a little larger than their competitors but with only slightly higher passenger numbers (848 on Crystal Symphony when full), which means more facilities rather than more crowds, perfect for our little trio. So with our expectations high we left to join the ship, and at every point we were blown away by just how good it was.
Throughout the cruise we were continually overwhelmed by just how attentive the service was and how in tune the staff were to the needs of a family with a young child, especially as Crystal's typical clientele is an older, sophisticated crowd and it's rare to see children on board, something we knew before we booked.
As soon as we arrived our room stewardesses introduced themselves, welcoming all of us on board. They immediately set up the cot and told us about the babysitting service. Our butler, a privilege afforded to guests in some of the higher room grades, made sure that our minibar also had milk and yoghurts and that we always had a selection of fresh fruits for the baby. On the first day the restaurant staff made us feel welcome the moment we entered, making sure we had a table with a lovely view and a high chair.
This all set the tone for the trip, and after a couple of days we quickly found our rhythm. We preferred breakfast in the main buffet restaurant, Marketplace. A casual affair, it offered an array of cereals, fresh fruit and plenty of cooked options. Then we'd explore ashore before returning to the ship for lunch, choosing to avoid the stress of finding a child-friendly restaurant in a strange city and instead eating at either the Silk Kitchen, an excellent Chinese restaurant, or heading back to Marketplace, which had an ever-changing buffet with temptations for all of us.
Then, depending on where we were, we'd either stroll ashore with the little one napping in her pushchair or let her sleep in her cot. If we stayed on board we enjoyed the chance for one of us to relax on the balcony, reading in the sunshine, while the other one could head to the pool, gym or even indulge at the spa.
After our daughter's siesta we'd do a few laps of the prom deck to give her some fresh air, and made use of the ship's library, which had a limited selection of children's books. There was also a small kids' club, unstaffed on our cruise because there wasn't the demand, but still offering a place to explore. We quickly discovered Scoops and its selection of Ben and Jerry's ice cream for parents, and the healthy froyo options for kids, and the usually quiet Silk Kitchen and Bar area was an excellent spot to enjoy it.
Our room was perfect. Designed to offer enough space for in-room dining, it meant we could spread out and play with the kids' toys we'd brought with us. There was a huge amount of storage so it was easy to squirrel away a collapsible buggy along with our regular luggage. The gorgeous modern bathroom was spacious and the shower had a hand-held showerhead as well as the rainforest option, so we were fine without the bath.
In the evening we dined in the main restaurant Waterside and the stylish Churrascaria, a Brazilian-style grill which serves amazing cooked meats tableside, as well as tapas, ceviche and salads. Both were incredible, and although there were no kids' menus we were welcome to combine a few dishes to create a bespoke kid-friendly meal. Brazil is 3 hours behind the UK and the adjustment to our daughter's routine was a struggle, so on our third night we took a different tack - teatime at 5pm for the baby and room service for us once she'd gone to sleep.
It was an inspired decision! Our butler Nicola would arrive punctually at the prearranged time, creep into the room with our consistently outstanding dishes and excellent wine, and leave us to enjoy a superb dinner on the balcony as the sun set. Being able to relax and spend our evenings this way was perfect, especially after a day exploring South America.
The food was out of this world, and we had the option of choosing from the ever-changing menu of Waterside plus the speciality restaurants Umi Uma, which boasts a menu designed by Nobu Matsuhisa, and Prego, an amazing Italian. Great food, fantastic wine, magical sunsets - one evening we even spotted dolphins in the distance.
The holiday wasn't entirely without its problems. One evening after we put our daughter to bed she was a little ill. It's always horrible having to deal with this, not least because your child is upset, and the aftermath is never pretty. A few minutes after a slightly sheepish call to housekeeping our room stewardesses had changed the cot bedding and only shown concern. Even an offer to call the ship's doctor was made. This care and consideration shown was exceptional.
Then there were the dozen little things that we loved. The self-service laundry was a godsend. The in-room entertainment gave a choice of movies on demand and talks on the destination were streamed live so we could watch without the risk of disturbing others. The WiFi was good enough to stream, so Peppa Pig was available for emergencies! We got used to the takeaway coffees from The Bistro for our prom deck strolls and there was always the option of the 24-hour room service should we have needed.
One of our biggest concerns proved to be completely unfounded. Travelling with so few other families, it's easy to be conscious of the disruptive presence you can be with a little one, especially in the restaurants. We were worried that we might get the odd disapproving stare but the reality couldn't have been further from this.
Other guests were either incredibly friendly, asking our daughter's age and happy to indulge her waving and grinning, or simply left us to it. I do have to say that we're lucky that our daughter is relatively well behaved, and if we had a particularly boisterous toddler the reaction might not have been the same, but people were nothing but nice to us.
This really was one of the best holidays we've ever had and certainly the best since travelling as a family. The experience was one we hadn't managed on our other holidays: during the daytime we had an exciting family holiday and in the evening a relaxing couple's escape, and we didn't have to compromise on anything.
Top tips when travelling with a baby on Crystal:
- Consider a higher room grade - unless you want to spend your evenings sitting in a darkened room, stay in a room with a balcony and do consider a Penthouse. The extra cost is significant, but you'll be able to order room service from Umi Uma and Prego, and you'll enjoy the extra space.
- Take a baby monitor - the balcony doors are substantial and designed to keep out the elements, so it's useful to have a monitor if you want to relax outside.
- The pool is off limits - at least for a child still in nappies, even swim nappies. We took a mini paddling pool we use on the beach, which would have been fine to set up on the pool deck.
- Invest in a good travel buggy - if you've not got one already a lightweight collapsible pram is a must; although getting around the ship is easy, getting on and off involves either a long flight of gentle stairs or a tender (small boat) transfer.
- Invite the grandparents! Many rooms can interconnect via a shared entrance corridor, ideal for families. It really is a fantastic ship for multi-generational holidays, catering superbly for everyone.