When families think about cruise vacations, the big cruise ships often come to mind. All have fantastic programs for kids, but there are many more lines offering family experiences that go beyond the typical all-you-can-eat buffets and shore excursions, instead offering bird watching, scavenger hunts and guided tours with certified naturalists.
“Kids get immersed in rainforest ecology,” says Jacquie Whitt, who heads U.S. operations for Adios Adventure Travel, which offers a family cruise in Ecuador. “They’re not just looking at wildlife, but the wildlife in context. They see the system that supports wildlife, how important it is to have fresh water, a food source. Kids gain insights and get a travel experience they can’t get on an ordinary family trip.”
Rainer Jenss, founder of Smart Family Travel, recently took his family on a cruise of Alaska’s Glacier Bay with Alaska Dream Cruises. “We were able to go to the bridge anytime. My son, Tyler, even had the opportunity to steer the ship. You can’t do that anywhere. The captain spent time talking to him about how the ship operates. He got an education in seafaring,” he says. He also noted that a small ship makes the location the main event, while on larger cruise ships, it can be more of a side show.
Here are five cruises that should be on your radar when planning your next family cruise:
Mountain Travel Sobek – Galápagos Islands
See the Galápagos from a 16-passenger yacht as part of the Galapagos Wildlife Adventure Cruise along with top guides, including a geographical ecologist and a professional nature photographer. Take a volcano hike on Bartolomé Island, investigate tide pools on James Island and learn about giant tortoises, land iguanas and blue-footed boobies from naturalist guides. Then get in the water for a look at marine life in the Pacific Ocean. Prices start at $4,595 per person for an 11-day trip (eight days of cruising).
Alaska Dream Cruises – Alaska
Hop aboard the Admiralty Dream, which caters to no more than 66 passengers. Enjoy up-close glacier viewing, even bear watching, and keep your eyes open for whales, sea lions and sea otters. Daily programs on where you’ll go and what you’ll see expand on the marine life, geography and geology of the area. Spend time getting to know the crew as you explore towns out of reach of larger ships, like Wrangell and Petersburg. Prices start at $1,516 per person for an eight-day cruise.
Adios Adventure Travel – Ecuador
Float down the Napo River on a 30-passenger riverboat as you take in the jungles, wildlife and river communities of Ecuador aboard theSmart Voyager. Experience Ecuador through the eyes of local guides who take guests bird watching and on hikes to learn about medicinal plants. Children even learn first-hand how native communities support themselves with fruit and coffee plantations. Prices start at $1,672 per person for an eight-day cruise.
Tauck Bridges – Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Germany
On the Blue Danube Family Riverboat Adventure, you’ll sail through Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Germany on a 118-passenger river cruise. Go on an interactive scavenger hunt in Slovakia, visit a traditional palace in Austria and giggle at the trick fountains that spray at random at Hellbrunn Castle. Even try your hand making marzipan candy and strudel. Prices start at $3,490 for an eight-day cruise.
American Safari Discoveries – Hawaiian Islands
Climb aboard the 36-passenger Safari Explorer for snorkeling in coral gardens, exploring organic macadamia nut farms and making ti leaf leis. Sail in a hand-carved voyaging canoe like early Polynesian warriors and learn about the history of Moloka’i and Kailua-Kona from local guides eager to share tales about the islands. Prices start at $4,995 per person for an eight-day cruise.
More in TODAY Travel