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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE: TRAVELER'S JOURNAL

Going our separate ways, together

Ship life gives members of an extended family the chance to unite -- and shore excursions allow them to run for freedom.

January 28, 2007|John Corrigan | Times Staff Writer

Magaluf, Majorca — AFTER jostling crowds at one tourist-clogged port after another, the chance for a shore break on this sunny Mediterranean island was just what the ship's doctor ordered.

The beach at Magaluf beckoned, and Kevin, my 19-year-old son, and I stretched out under the shade of a thatched umbrella hut. Bikini tops tied to the yardarms of the huts around us fluttered in the breeze, like flags of hedonism, while their owners got that little extra bit of sun.

Now we know why some call Magaluf "Majorca's Party Capital." But not all was perfect in this seaside slice of heaven.

My wife, Alison, and our daughter, Kelly, 21, dressed like Nebraskans in November and looking poker faced, surveyed the free-spirited beach scene and then stomped off to the nearby shops.

Then there was our 14-year-old daughter, Katie, who was missing. She left our ship, Holland America's Noordam, in a separate taxi with her aunt, uncle and cousin, and we hadn't seen any of them since.

Still, if I learned anything on our 10-day Mediterranean voyage with 14 family members, it was to relax and enjoy the moment. This time at the beach would be over soon enough; the ship's unbending schedule would see to that.

And keeping everyone together on shore excursions? Why start now?

Still, there's much to be said for taking a cruise with a group. Whether it's playing bingo or sampling the midnight buffet, you can probably find someone to go along with you. Even better, you might get conscripted into doing something you might normally never try (such as, oh, tango lessons, in my case).

As a bonus, there's the chance to share a series of adventures ashore in a way that might be impossible without the structure of a cruise. With our bunch, for example, endless disputes would arise if we tried to chart the course for a European tour on our own. The cruise format made it simpler: Once the itinerary was chosen, we were done.

Well, almost. After booking the cruise, passengers can buy shore excursions in advance. Here's a decision: Do you roam on your own or get on a tour? There's pressure to decide early, because the most popular tours sell out before the ship sets sail. Cost is another consideration: Each tour can cost $200 or more per person, so if the budget is tight, you may be able to choose only one or two.

Traveling with a group adds another wrinkle: Do you tour together or go your separate ways?

We wound up doing a little of everything. Sometimes we took the tour, sometimes not. Sometimes we traveled en masse, and sometimes we broke up into small groups.

Next time, we'd do a few things differently. Here are some do's and don'ts based on our experiences:

Do your homework. After taking tours in Monte Carlo and the Tuscany region of Italy, we looked forward to exploring Barcelona, Spain, on our own. We walked through the famed unfinished cathedral by Antoni Gaudi, ate tapas at a sidewalk cafe, navigated the narrow alleys of the Gothic quarter and shopped Las Ramblas.

And then, at 2 in the afternoon, we ran out of ideas. Trouble was, we didn't have to re-board till 9 that night.

One relative suggested the monastery at Montserrat 35 miles away, but we didn't know whether we could get back to port in time.

So we wandered the streets aimlessly.

We should have done a better job researching things to do, and we should have had a guidebook or two with us; they're inexpensive, especially considering the cost of a cruise.

Don't try to do too much. One of the toughest decisions was how to spend our time in Tuscany. Options included a half-day tour to the walled city of Lucca; an all-day tour to Florence and Pisa; or just a bus to Florence and back, without a guide.

I was tempted to take that last option, but the temptation to bag another Italian landmark proved too strong. Most of our group decided to take the Florence-Pisa tour. For me, at least, it was a mistake.

Because of time constraints, we didn't have time to do the thing I really wanted to do in Florence: climb the 500 stairs to the top of the Duomo. We also didn't get to see Michelangelo's David or cross the old bridge over the Arno River.

We did see Pisa, but there wasn't time to climb the tower there either.

Two of the family members went to Lucca instead. It was a short trip, but it sounded more satisfying.

Do take the video camera. I was surprised by the groups and families who didn't keep a camcorder at the ready, both ashore and at sea. It's true that nothing screams tourist like a video camera, and the constant surveillance of the lens can make your cruise seem like a bad reality show.

But take the long view on this. What would you give to see moving images of your grandparents or great-grandparents in their travels?

Footage of people standing next to monuments or fleeing the camera isn't much fun either, so it helps to think of a story line in advance that could lend a unifying theme.

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