Kristie Kellahan joins a cast of thousands sailing out of New York to chase the northern winter sun.
From Newcastle to New Jersey, holidaying families are pretty much the same: they want a fun trip at a price they can afford, they want the kids to be entertained, and they want to eat and drink too much as they forget about the daily grind for a week or two.
For many, a sunny cruise to the tropics is the ultimate getaway. It means value for money, family time, a few days at the beach, a good laugh and, if they pick the right cruise, a 24-hour supply of pizza.
I was reminded of this recently, sailing out of Manhattan aboard the mammoth Carnival Miracle ship. Bound for a week of fun in the sun in the Caribbean, I was surrounded by thousands of penny-bronze Long Island and Jersey Shore family members posing for the cruise photographers as they held frozen Margaritas aloft like trophies.
Carnival Miracle was made for all-inclusive fun on a grand scale. Its whopping 12 decks accommodate more than 2000 passengers and close to 1000 crew. It sails primarily in the Caribbean and Mexico, picking up passengers in New York City and Fort Lauderdale.
Lead-in prices are often stupefyingly low - less than $100 a night including shared cabin accommodation and three meals a day, plus copious opportunities to snack. This makes it a good option for the 500,000 or so Aussies who visit the Big Apple each year and have the time and funds to extend their trip to take in a slice of the beautiful Caribbean.
(Last October, the Miracle's identical twin sister ship, Carnival Spirit, took up residence in Sydney where it is now home-ported year-round, sailing to destinations in Australia and the south Pacific).
There's something for everyone on board, or so the saying goes. Hot dogs on the pool deck, a sprawling spa and salon for pampering, a busy kids' club, boutiques, casino and multiple dining options for dinner including the high-end Nick and Nora's Steak House (a small surcharge applies). The adults-only late-night Punchliner Comedy Club is as popular with the grown-ups as the self-serve ice-cream sundae station is with the kids.
To be fair, it rarely feels as though there are 2000 holidaymakers on board, so spread out are the accommodation and facilities.
On our seven-night cruise out of New York, we docked first in Puerto Rico's San Juan, a pretty town of shady boulevards, bargain boutiques, spicy food and rum cocktails. Our next port was St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, home to Magens Bay, without doubt one of the world's most beautiful beaches. A vision of talcum-soft white sand and warm, seductive blue water, a day here was one of the most popular shore excursions.
A tropical storm forces a detour away from the Bahamas, our next stop. Instead we spent the day on Grand Turk Island, swimming in the blue sea and hopping on island tour buses. Jimmy Buffett's mega restaurant, Margaritaville, at the custom-built marina, hosted a Vegas-style pool party and did a roaring trade in frozen drinks, Bud Lights and hot wings. We might have been in the Caribbean, but for many, this was still the American dream.
The writer sailed courtesy of Carnival Cruises.
Stateside ships for Aussies
Royal Caribbean for excellent knowledge of the region, mega ships with mega entertainment and convenient itineraries. Australian travellers may also be familiar with the line as it sails Down Under.
Star Clippers for tall-ship sailing adventures under mast, just 170 passengers, fine dining, no tacky poker machines and an elegant European sensibility. The smaller size means Star Clippers' ships can access beach ports unavailable to larger ships.
Princess Cruises for great value — 10 nights ex-NYC for $699 (plus taxes) a person, twin-share — frequent and convenient sailing dates, attractive itineraries and ports of call. Regular cruisers will recognise the Princess line from its visits to Australia.
Fun in the sun
The islands of the Bahamas and the Caribbean are a favourite playground of North Americans, with many cruises departing from Miami and New York City. The region is well serviced by cruise lines, from mega ships that carry thousands of guests to intimate yacht cruises of 200 or less. Aussie travellers keen to extend their North American holidays are adding on sunny cruises to the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Martinique and beyond.
United flies from Sydney and Melbourne to New York, via connections in Los Angeles or San Francisco. united.com.
Carnival Miracle sails from New York to the Caribbean (Bahamas, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands) during the northern summer and from Fort Lauderdale to Mexico and the Caribbean (Jamaica, Belize, St Lucia, St Kitts) in the northern winter. Online prices start from $US569 ($545)a person, twin share, for an eight-night cruise ex-New York.
carnival.com. Carnival Spirit is at present home-ported in Sydney Harbour, sailing to Australian and south Pacific destinations.