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Seeking sanctuary at sea -- a cruise guide on where to avoid children

By Arline and Sam Bleecker

Special to the Tribune

January 22, 2010

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With the recent launch of a flotilla of vessels offering an abundance of Six Flags-like amusements, the seas are awash with kids -- not that kids hadn't already taken to cruising.

Of the 13 million vacationers who sailed last year, more than one in 10 were of the Twitter-me generation, 18 or younger, according to the Cruise Line International Association marketing group.

The likely reason? There's so much to do.

For example, Oasis of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's latest sports extravaganza and the world's biggest cruise vessel, delivers thrills every minute with the first zip line ever afloat. But that's just the start; it also has rock-climbing walls, wave-surfing pools, a boxing ring, an ice-skating rink, miniature golf and a basketball court.

Carnival's recently launched 130,000-ton Dream adds more to the briny with the largest splish-and-splash water park on the oceans as well as with an expansive roster of activities at Camp Carnival, geared to teens, tweens and toddlers.

And for 2011, Disney's recently announced 128,000-ton Dream will have kids zipping down a see-through acrylic AquaDuck water slide that daringly twists and turns over the sides of the vessel 150 feet above the water for the length of three football fields.

This, of course, is terrific for kids. But what about older adults or childless couples or couples of any age who want nothing more than calm seas on a traditional cruise with plenty of pampering and peace as well as adult entertainment?

The first rule of thumb for anyone who prefers not being around kids, said Jean Mallory of White Travel in West Hartford, Conn., is "not to travel in February and April or during the summer or holiday vacations." At these times, she added, "kids can be found sailing every week and on every ship."

Children and couples can coexist, however, on a vessel filled to overflowing with pools and playgrounds and happy children as well as with serene spaces, sumptuous spas and adult sanctuaries.

When Barbara and Tony Lesniak, of Orlando, Fla., who have no children, want to get away, they go where a lot of kids go -- on a Disney Cruise, the line that practically defines family vacation. And they have done it not just once or twice but 70 times.

A Disney fan for most of her 45 years, Barbara Lesniak wants the best of both worlds -- Disney's imaginative entertainment, attentive service and a vacation alongside her favorite Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, as well as kids-free areas where she and her husband can veg out by themselves or spend time with other adults.

Indeed, many lines do the smart thing: They invisibly partition the vessel into adult-only safe havens and kid-only play areas.

"Nobody does a better job of keeping kids and adults separate," Barbara Lesniak said.

On Disney's vessels, for instance, the line has reserved several areas for adults wishing to escape the hordes of happy children romping along the decks, typically two-fifths of the passengers.

Palo, the adult-only specialty restaurant with 270-degree views of the ocean, also offers brunch service and high tea during at-sea days.

Quiet Cove Pool is a peaceful oasis, exclusively for guests 18 and older, while the line's adults-only Vista Spa & Salon offers a posh sanctuary.

Disney also provides an adults-only nighttime entertainment district -- three unique lounges spanning a traditional pub, dance club and piano bar.

There also is an adults-only beach on the far end of Disney's private Bahamian island, Castaway Cay, though you may encounter some of the older set acting like children, donning Mickey and Minnie ears and floating past you in the azure-blue waters.

Disney, of course, is not alone in this strategy.

Princess Cruises practically invented the adults-only Eden-at-sea concept with its Sanctuary, where "far above the noisy darlings," as White's Mallory said, "you can tune out the world in Sanctuary's stunning open-air, spalike area with palm trees and shaded white-linen tents."

The Sanctuary also pampers adults with a host of amenities, featuring light meals, massages and a staff of Serenity Stewards who provide chilled face towels, Evian atomizers and healthful beverages.

ShipCritic blogger Anne Campbell raves about Carnival Dreams' twin-deck adults-only retreat featuring Jacuzzis, lounges and dreamy hammocks. "Parents who want to ditch their kids for a few hours," she observed, "will love Serenity with oversized lounge chairs screaming for you to sun in."

Pleasant as adult sanctuaries are, providing retreats for couples who want to avoid the madding crowd, they are, after all, only half of the equation. Keeping kids occupied is the other.

The four lines that carry the most Tweeters -- Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian -- are no slouches in this regard.

The Lesniaks "prefer Disney cruises," Barbara Lesniak said, "because Disney does a better job of keeping kids separate." It's win-win for both, she added. "Often times, kids won't leave a program even to come to dinner."

Many ships offer baby-sitting services. Disney and Carnival, of course, do it. But so does Norwegian, a line renowned more for its restaurants than its children's programs.

So if even parents taking kids aboard can find peace, all others, young and old should have no fear.

ctc-travel@tribune.com