The problem with vacations planned around the sun is the sun doesn't always shine just because you planned to be on vacation.
That was the situation we faced during our four-day cruise aboard the Carnival Fun Ship Fantasy. Cool, cloudy weather made it unpleasant to spend time on deck. Even my kids, normally immune to the chilly air if there is a pool nearby, took only a couple of trips down the winding water slide.
Luckily, a cruise ship is a hotel on water, so there were plenty of other things to keep us busy even if the weather wasn't cooperating. Our favorites were playing ping pong and mini golf on the windy upper deck, which made for some very funny moments as we attempted to walk against the wind or keep a golf ball on the green.
The Fantasy is 16 years old and showing its age a bit. Our cabin was fine, until the two twin Murphy beds were pulled down for the night. With one bed over the head of our king sized bed and the other along the foot, it got a little claustrophobic.
The food was plentiful, in typical cruise ship fashion, but unremarkable in quality and taste, a real disappointment for a boat that sails out of New Orleans, one of the world's culinary capitals. But service was spectacular, everyone was overwhelmingly pleasant and several of them were quite funny, including the waiter who did a raccoon puppet show that left us all in stitches.
We were a bit disappointed in the excursion desk, however. The attendant was downright unhelpful when I had questions about whether our jeep/jungle/island adventure would include time for swimming and, if so, whether there would be a place to change into our suits. We chose to be optimistic and bring our suits and towels, but some of our fellow travelers were angry to find we had three hours on a beach. They hadn't brought suits because they had expected to spend the day bouncing along jungle roads in a jeep.
The shows were terrific, although a bit racy for kids. (As the cruise director noted when he warned parents there would be some skimpy outfits, it was "just perfect for a 12-year-old boy." The specter of that brought a lascivious smile to the face of my 12-year-old son.)
For a cruise boat, shopping prices on board were very reasonable. We bought much more that we would have otherwise.
The kids' club offered a wide variety of games and activities. Most were free, but a few had a fee, including the late night slumber party that kept the 9- to 11-year-olds going until 3:30 a.m. (My 10-year-old daughter took a pass. The thought of staying up until 3:30 was too overwhelming.)
Kids' clubs can be a mixed bag. If the kids find a friend and bond early in the trip, they can be great. If they don't, it can be torture. And I have always been troubled by the idea of sticking the kids in a room and keeping them there for the hours when they could be outdoors taking in the fresh air, swimming in the pool (assuming it's warm enough) and otherwise being active.
Having said that, the Carnival Kids Camp was filled with cheerful toys and projects for the little ones and enough computers, video games and other electronics to keep the bigger kids happy.
This was our fourth cruise and, like the others, great for families, whether the kids are little or getting big, as mine are now. There's always plenty to do and we felt comfortable letting the kids roam around the ship, confident they couldn't get far.
Post-storm Nawlins quieter, but still racy
We've been to New Orleans twice with our kids, once before what the locals simply call "The Storm" and once after. It was definitely better before.
The tourist strips of the French Quarter sustained some damage from Hurricane Katrina, but were spared most of the post hurricane flooding that left great portions of the city under water. Still, the repair work continues and the shops and attractions are open shorter hours, partly because they can't get enough workers and partly because they can't get enough tourists.
Unlike the pre-storm New Orleans, when the streets teemed with strollers, revelers and gawkers whether it was 10 a.m. or 10 p.m., we shared the sidewalks only with clusters of construction workers. Lunch at Johnny's Po' Boy was us, the firefighters and paramedics.
But that is not to say the streets are tamer. There may not be many gawkers, but there's still plenty to gawk at, which can make it tough on parents walking with children. Keep your eyes open so you know when it's time to cross the street or at least distract the kids as you walk past the posters of naked women.
On both of our visits to the Big Easy with kids, we found it best to retire early, snug in our hotel rooms before the real action started.