ISLAND TIME: Cruise to Mexico offered sweet balance of fun and culture

The view from the top of Celarain Lighthouse in Parque Punta Sur Nature Preserve in Cozumel. Visitors can climb the lighthouse, see saltwater crocodiles in the lagoon, visit a Mayan ruin, snorkel and swim in the park for a daily fee of about $10 USD.
The view from the top of Celarain Lighthouse in Parque Punta Sur Nature Preserve in Cozumel. Visitors can climb the lighthouse, see saltwater crocodiles in the lagoon, visit a Mayan ruin, snorkel and swim in the park for a daily fee of about $10 USD. Courtesy Kara Kuzirian

I don't own a watch.

My relationship with time isn't so casual as to make me "that friend," — the one you tell to arrive 15 minutes before departure time — but it's close.

So it was with some trepidation I planned a cruise for our first big family trip. "Cruisers," as I've since learned you call those who do so frequently, say the experience is as planned or relaxed as you'd like. However, when my husband, Mike, and I go away without kids, we book an all-inclusive resort where our whims might lead us on an hours-long walk along the meandering shoreline, or, conversely, straight to lounge chairs, plotting the course of the waiter who'll keep us from making our own short trek for margaritas. A watch would simply create an unnecessary tan line.

But at 8 ½ and 6, my kids were ready for adventure. Neither had been on a plane since we took them to Disney World four years ago and they were in strollers or on our shoulders. The world was now our oyster — as long as we worked around school.

With only a short window open, we booked a four-day tour of the western Caribbean from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Cozumel, Mexico, on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas. Flying into Ft. Lauderdale, our agent said in her southern drawl, we'd see two ships, one that looked like a whale and one like a dolphin. Ours was the whale.

The whale analogy, paired with admonishment from a Canadian couple at the airport who said we'd never see the whole ship in four days, should have prepared us for the enormity of our boat. At 1,020 feet long, it holds more than 3,000 passengers and is one of the largest passenger ships in the world. The kids' jaws dropped as they climbed a gangplank onto a ship 14 decks high.

When we embarked, it fast became clear having no watch was a serious liability. We were handed our "Cruise Compass," a four-page newsletter detailing Day 1. First on the docket? The Planning Event, where staff map your itinerary for the next day. They also gave us a map as we stepped into sparkling glass elevators leading up through the Royal Promenade (think fancy, open-storied hotel lobby) to our suite on the ninth deck.

"We should look around the ship and see where everything is," we told the kids.

"But when are we going to the pool?" asked Jenna, our youngest, who needed to figure out her priorities.

Nick chimed in, "I just want to relax with you, Mommy, and read a book." Two days into traveling and keeping a tight schedule made Nick, my detail-oriented son, ready to unwind.

But we had a map, and activities around every corner. Do we rock climb? Play mini- golf? Catch a show at the ice rink? Head to the theater for a dance show? Swim in the pool? Play table tennis? Oh, the possibilities! And we had a challenge: Could we see the entire ship in just four days?

So we plotted our plan of attack. Rock climbing, where 200 feet off the deck Nick clambered up the wall, jubilantly ringing the bell. After, the ice show, where we marveled that we were in the Caribbean in sweatshirts, shivering. Next was mini golf, against a backdrop of endless azure seas bending at the horizon and just begging us to send a ball into the shimmering abyss. And shuffleboard, yes shuffleboard, the quintessential cruise ship game that prompted heated competition and peals of laughter, even without Captain Stubing and his jaunty white hat.

At dinner, we'd pour over the menu. Nick's challenge was to try something new each night, even if that meant the sugar-free dessert because it was made of coconut. Jenna, wearing her favorite dresses, brimmed with the confidence only a six-year-old-girl-who-is-convinced-she-is-a-princess-can, and found a way to always have pasta.

Meals were long. Filled with laughter and conversation, we all joined in planning the next day's itinerary.

Time, I very quickly realized, is a multi-layered entity. At home, racing between soccer, baseball, swimming and school, there just isn't enough. On the cruise, each minute created a lasting family memory. In each activity, with each shared joy, we enriched the fabric of our family's story.

Rattling through Cozumel in our Jeep, top down, gleefully traveling sans booster seats, my children saw youngsters their own age dash down narrow dirt roads, waving excitedly.

Cozumel is breathtakingly beautiful, located across the Riviera Maya coastline of mainland Mexico. Residents take great pride in their island. Our Jeep guide Alexander told us to leave our keys and personal belongings behind as we visited El Caracol, a structure the Mayan villagers of El Cedral constructed to warn of impending hurricanes.

The kids were spellbound trying to grasp the Mayan ruin we stood before was built almost 2,000 years ago. Mayans crafted the openings like doors and windows facing the four points of a compass. The top, similar to a cupola, they studded with hundreds of conch shells that whistled as storm winds funneled upwards, creating an eerie warning to villagers almost two miles away.

The time this trip afforded helped us expand our children's world view. It opened borders beyond the small town where we live and ignited in them a thirst for life and adventure.

As we boarded the plane home, a TSA agent looked over my son's and daughter's freshly-stamped passports.

"Why these look brand new," he said.

What a challenge it will be to break those passports in, I thought. Of course, next trip we'll work in some lounging time, books in hand, planned itinerary long forgotten.

Our family, (Kara, Mike, Jenna and Nick) after a round of mini-golf onboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas in the western Caribbean Sea.
Our family, (Kara, Mike, Jenna and Nick) after a round of mini-golf onboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas in the western Caribbean Sea. Courtesy Kara Kuzirian
Celarain Lighthouse is located in the ecological
reserve of Parque Punta Sur Nature Preserve in the
southernmost part of Cozumel.
Celarain Lighthouse is located in the ecological reserve of Parque Punta Sur Nature Preserve in the southernmost part of Cozumel.
El Caracol is a Mayan weather station constructed between 1200 and 1400 A.D. to warn El Cedral
villagers of impending hurricanes.
El Caracol is a Mayan weather station constructed between 1200 and 1400 A.D. to warn El Cedral villagers of impending hurricanes.
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