Getaway: Family bonding on the high seas

Felicity Long

There comes a time in every family, no matter how tightknit, when for kids the idea of traveling with parents is a lot less appealing than hanging out with friends. That said, cruise lines have put a lot of energy into creating a product that entertains hard-to-please teens.

A case in point is Royal Caribbean's new Liberty of the Seas, a 3,634-passenger ship, which shares the title of world's largest cruise ship with its sister, Freedom of the Seas.

Lured by features that include onboard surfing, indoor ice skating and a rock-climbing wall, I set out to experience the Liberty with my 14-year-old daughter, Chloe, on a weeklong eastern Caribbean cruise out of Miami.

It was the wave pool that proved to be the A-list attraction. The FlowRider lives up to the hype, drawing crowds of kids and adults looking to brave the wave. Even though staff is on hand to help surfers climb onto their surfboards, falls are frequent, much to the hilarity of the spectators - bathing suit mishaps add to the laughter. (We recommend you wear a T-shirt over your suit.)

Because we had three full days at sea, we had plenty of time to snag some rays at the ship's main outdoor swimming pool and H20 Zone, where water sculptures and spray features are a real hit for families with younger kids.

Chloe and I strapped on skates and hit the indoor ice rink, where you can also watch an impressive ice show performed by a professional cast.

With the ship attracting a family crowd, Adventure Ocean youth programming is offered at five age levels for kids 3 to 17.

I had to nudge Chloe to try the teen program, not so much because she was driving me crazy - she wasn't - but because I knew she would have more fun if she found a few kids her own age to hang out with.

She quickly made friends, and the activities turned out to be pretty cool - especially Scratch DJ 101, with hands-on turntable lessons created by New York's Scratch DJ Academy. Teens also have their own lounge called Fuel. And young drama queens can try their acting chops via a series of performance sessions taught by professionals from New York City's Camp Broadway children's theater program.

With Chloe occupied, I had time to enjoy drinks in the bar and sneak away by myself to the adults-only solarium area, lured by hot tubs that sexily extend over the edge of the deck.

A favorite feature for both of us was the ship's Royal Promenade, an atrium-style interior walkway lined with shops and restaurants where there is nearly always a party, musical event or parade going on. Picture Jumbie dancers on stilts, jugglers entertaining small fry, performances by a classical trio and a few uniformed crew zipping around on Segways and you get the idea.

The shops had some surprisingly trendy items, including Roxy jeans and T-shirts and Havaianas flip-flops, all for about what you'd expect to pay on shore.

The Promenade is also the place to come for a free slice of pizza, a deli sandwich or fresh-baked cookies. Or you can pony up a few dollars for a Ben & Jerry's ice cream or designer coffee drink.

For a splurge, the ship's Day Spa not only offers a full menu of adult treatments, but also a program for kids with treatments like Surfers Scrub and Acne Attack Facial. Those under 16 have to have a parent in the room during spa treatments, some of which are quite pricey - about double what you'd pay at home.

Dining venues on the Liberty of the Seas include the three-level main dining room, the Windjammer buffet and the poolside grill. But for us the real attraction was the onboard Johnny Rockets, where onion rings, burgers and floats are served by dancing waiters. The specialty restaurants, Chop's Steakhouse and Portofino, serving Italian (both have a cover charge of $20 per person) are a worthwhile splurge.

While much was happening onboard, there are plenty of options for onshore fun.

On St. Maarten, we signed up for the ship's Loterie Farm Treetop Adventure Tour, a combination zipline and ropes course. Beside the fact that participants had to hook up their own cables at each of the 30 or so treetop stops - and I would encourage the company to get a better system - the course was fun in a high adrenaline sort of way. It made for some good mother-daughter bonding, except that Chloe whipped through the course so fast I barely saw her.

We spent our day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, horseback riding in the rainforest, stopping for a refreshing dip in the river at the halfway point.

In Labadee, Haiti, where Royal Caribbean operates a private beach (but allows pushy vendors) we joined the ship's fitness staff for yoga on the beach, followed by a joyously crazy 2,600-foot Dragon's Breath zipline flight over water.

The smile from Chloe after the hair-raising adventure said it all.