Holiday Dreaming: Boating Holidays & Adventure Cruising with Children

“Welcome to ‘Holiday Dreaming’ – a new monthly series of posts in which I hope to bring inspiration for adventurous and outdoorsy holidays for active young families.

Being an avid researcher by nature and training, and a huge enthusiast for travel, I am always planning new family holidays with a ‘wild’ twist. Sadly my research activities far outstrip my annual holiday budget… Instead of just daydreaming those ideas away, I thought I’d put them together into thematic posts in the hope that they may spark someone else’s big adventure.” ~ Kate

antarctica-wildlife-1365738-640x480 cruising with children

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Last month saw the test launch of the world’s largest cruise ship. Accommodating over 6000 people,  Harmony of the Seas joins its fellow seafaring giants in providing an ever popular holiday for people of all ages with just about every mod-con provided, on-board swimming pools, beauty salons and family entertainment included.

For some this is understandably the dream option for cruising with children.  Call me antisocial, but for me personally the idea of sharing a giant floating hotel with thousands of other holiday-makers, all disembarking at the same place at the same time, simply does not float my boat. I prefer the lure of the wild and the possibility to explore in a slightly more individual way.

As for the on-board entertainment? No doubt our kids would love it but they are also pretty happy and resourceful in providing their own entertainment, with the outdoors, nature and new travel experiences forming a principal part in their activities. I’m keen to prolong that enthusiasm as long as possible. They have proved patient and enthusiastic passengers on our ferry trips to date and spent over three happy hours on board a catamaran watching for whales and dolphins in California last autumn. So far, all smooth sailing!

Whale watching, Dana Point, California, cruising with children

Whale watching with Beth on a catamaran in California.

It may surprise you therefore that I found myself at the London Cruise Show back in February. My mission was simple. Amongst the many trade stands promoting traditional options for cruising with children there were some offering sea-faring holidays of a more adventurous kind.

People have for centuries been using boats as a means to discover new lands, amazing wildlife and landscapes. To explore where those travelling by land still struggle to gain access. Having experienced sailing holidays exploring Turkey and Greece and a holiday of a life-time cruising around the Galapagos Islands in a boat sleeping just twenty people, I know that those alternative boating and small cruise holidays are out there. The question is, as a mum to two preschoolers, at what age, where and how should I start planning an adventurous holiday cruising with children? And which companies offer holidays that are open to enthusiastic young nautical adventurers?

Here are some ideas for boating holidays and cruising with children that really grabbed my attention. The great news is, it is possible to take the kids on all of them. Sure, for some trips the kids need to be a little bit older to fully enjoy them whilst others are open to all ages with some sensible precautions. If you’re up for adventure the seas, rivers and canals are waiting for you. Hop aboard the holiday dream ship!

Cruise the Caledonian Canal from Inverness to Fort William

Caledonian Canal Boat Trip, cruising with children


The idea of a canal or river boating holiday has appealed to me for a few years now. In the UK alone there are so many lovely options, with Europe offering even more waterway adventures. The slow pace of travel, the chance to explore under your own steam, to be able to combine with cycling, nature watching, walking and the odd pub and to hop on and off at will all seem a wonderful way to unwind on the water with family. I have several trips on my radar for future family holidays.

A trip to Inverness last summer and a great chat with my knowledgeable airport driver has put the epic 60 miles trip along the Caledonian Canal from Inverness to Fort William firmly at the top of that list. The journey not only gives you the chance to spot Nessy, passing through Scotland’s most famous loch, but also allows for exploring some fantastic family friendly walking & cycling in a ruggedly beautiful area of Scotland whose mountainous terrain may otherwise daunt very young families in search of outdoor thrills.

Options for boating holidays along the Caledonian Canal are varied. You can go fully catered and navigated for on a group barge cruise, such as with Caledonian Discovery (they also have options to walk/cycle along the way and themed holidays for wildlife). At the other extreme is the option to hire your own luxury motor boat or even sailing boat and do things entirely your own way, at your own pace. Many boat hire companies even have the option to hire bikes when you get there so you have on-land flexibility too.

Explore Croatia under your own sail

Sailing in Greece, sunset, cruising with children

Exploring Greece by sail-boat back in pre-children days. Sailing off quite literally into the sunrise here!

Growing up, one of my most memorable family holidays was to Turkey. We spent a week sailing in flotilla – where you have all day to explore under your own sail, meeting up each evening with the rest of your fellow holiday sailors and reps at a new port of call. I remember quiet picnic lunches in little coves inaccessible from land, watching the silent sunrise on deck whilst tiny little fish flashed around in the water below and swimming from the boat in our own crystal clear private bays. It was magical.

My husband and I relived this experience by holidaying joining friends more expert sailors than I on a bare-boat yacht hire from Athens to explore the characterful Greek Saronic Islands. Each day we would nudge into the twinkling lights of another small, picturesque port, long after the day trippers had hopped back on their ferry to the mainland or to their large cruise ship. It was a wonderful holiday and one I’d love to repeat at some point soon with our girls.

Our family holiday in Turkey was organised through Sunsail and they are still going strong, organising fantastic family sailing holidays today. The best news is, there is no minimum age for little sailors wanting to join their parents on-board (though you’ll need to bring your own life-jacket for under-fours) and they can even provide netting to edge the sides of your yacht providing additional protection to the usual guardrail for little ones.

If you can’t sail, don’t despair! There are courses available  in the UK as well as in Greece, Croatia, Thailand and the British Virgin Islands, with older children and teenagers able to learn the ropes alongside you on select courses and learn a skill for life. Alternatively sit back and hire your own skipper to do the sailing for you!

I got in touch with Sunsail and asked their advice on perfect adventure sailing holidays with little ones. One tempting option is to explore Croatia under your own sail. The sea off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is scattered with over 1000 little islands, all waiting to be explored. Sailing time is generally short and simple (even shorter when split between lunch and swimming stop-offs), the coastline has plenty of history and natural beauty on offer and there is plenty of summer sunshine.

I love the look of the one week Krka flotilla holiday starting from Marina Agana, just 25 minutes from Split Airport. The itinerary includes a mix of 2.5 and 5.5 total sailing hour days plus some free sailing/leisure days. Stop-offs include small fishing villages, islets and finally to visit the famous Krka Falls National Park – one of Croatia’s natural highlights and home to spectacular waterfalls and hiking.

For those in search of more distant shores, Sunsail have recently launched sailing holidays around the pristine British Virgin Islands with a pirate twist. Mini treasure-seekers can help navigate to six different treasure troves over the course of their week exploring under sail, adding extra fun for families to what already sounds like the most idyllic location for an active family holiday.

Discover Norway’s Fjords and Coastline by boat

red-mountain-1317127-639x472, cruising with children


Norway has been calling my name for a while now and is a tempting destination for active and adventurous families looking for an alternative way to go cruising with children. There is so much beautiful and wild countryside to explore, some spectacular beaches and of course the world-famous fjords and mountains. Head far enough north and in the summer the days become endless whilst in winter the magical dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis frequently put on a show in the night skles. For me another big draw is the chance to head up towards to the Arctic Circle and see polar bears. From a nice safe distance of course… The huge variety of other wildlife along Norway’s coastline is also something I’d love to experience for myself.

I first heard about Hurtigruten from my sister whose husband is handily Norwegian! The Hurtigruten ships have their history based in transporting goods and people along the extensive Norwegian coastline. These days though they also transport holiday makers in pursuit of experiencing Norway’s dramatic coastal scenery. As well as the Norwegian coastal route, Hurtigruten offer dedicated explorer cruises to further-flung destinations.

It is the mix-match possibilities of the Norwegian coastal journey that appeals most to me. You can join a boat for the twelve days round-trip that takes it through 32 ports of call all the way from Bergen in the south-west to Kirkines in the remote north-east. Alternatively you can hop off the boat at your choice of port along the way, even taking your car with you and turning your Norwegian adventure into a sail-drive combo of ultimate flexibility. Crucially, there is no minimum age restriction for Hurtigruten coastal cruises, with children of 0-3 travelling free of charge and decent discounts available for older children. This is definitely on my wish-list for the next few years!

Take a Voyage of Discovery in South America

Galapagos Island Cruising, cruising with children

Sealion encounter from my small  ship for a Galapagos adventure I’ll never forget.

Most of the really far-flung cruise destinations remain exclusively the domain of adults and there is often good reason for this, not least long-haul flights and considerable financial investment! If you are in the market for a luxury once-in-a-lifetime voyage by sea though then Silversea are one of the few companies out there offering exactly that with the option to take the family along too. Don’t expect family lounges and on-board entertainment for the little ones on the more adventurous voyages but the boats are pretty swish and what you will get are some incredible experiences that will stay with adventurous young explorers for a long time to come.

Luxury cruise company Silversea will take children on-board from as young as six months on their Classic Fleet Voyages (although even I don’t think your little one is going to benefit sufficiently to merit such an investment at such a tender age). For Expedition cruises (think smaller boats and more exotic destinations such as Galapagos, Papua New Guinea, Japan, the Andaman Islands and along the African coast all the way from Cape Town up to Dakar) you can take your kids on board from one year old. In reality though, they will be unable to go on any off-boat expeditions that involve the use of a Zodiac launch until they are six so probably best to hold off until at least then.

For hose cruising with children nothing can compare to the amazing experiences on offer in the Galapagos Islands. Snorkel with sea-lions and penguins (yes, really), explore on-land wonders such as the giant tortoises and super-close bird encounters and drink in a world of wildlife that would have even the most screen-obsessed youngsters scrambling eagerly to exchange their iPad for flippers and binoculars in a heartbeat. Actually, forget the binoculars. There’s no need when the wildlife is that close. Did I mention whales? When I visited Galapagos we spotted not just one but several humungous blue whales incredibly close up. Watching over the sides of our zodiac RIB boat to see where they were going to surface next is an experience I will never, ever forget.

Go on a Polar Expedition

Polar bear spotting with Quark, cruising with children

Credit: – Sam Crimmin

A long-standing travel ambition of mine has been to explore the world’s polar regions. From the penguins of Antarctica to the polar bears, whales and majestic wildlife of the frozen north, I am utterly entranced by the remote, pristine and inhospitable landscapes of these icy wildernesses. After becoming surprisingly absorbed in the polar bear display at San Diego Zoo informing about the melting ice-caps, Roo, at a mere four years old, is already showing just as much of a fascination.

Sadly, most polar expeditions require a little more maturity than Roo’s tender four years. On such a phenomenal adventure, with what can be an choppy exciting voyage and some extreme climates, in order to get the most out of it you need to be able to drink in the knowledge from the on-board guest lecturers and take the journey and climate in your stride. The age limit is therefore pretty sensible. It also gives you time to do some saving!

We loved the look of polar experts Quark Expeditions (any brochure that starts with ‘Dear Explorer’ has already caught my attention) and I had a great time chatting to their team at the London Cruise Show. The minimum age limit is actually lower than I thought – kids need to be eight years old to travel with Quark although until they are eighteen they cannot participate in additional ‘adventure’ options, so it pays to research exactly what you all want out of your trip first.

My dream family expedition with Quark? It would have to be their nine-day Introduction to Spitsbergen: Polar Bear Safari. Not only does it offer the chance to spot some fantastic wildlife, with polar bear and walrus sightings pretty much guaranteed, but you will get to explore the polar landscape by foot, enjoy daily presentations from the expedition on-board naturalists, take a close look at glaciers,explore by small zodiac RIB boats and even perhaps do some snow-shoeing. If that’s not enough then there are also options to extend your trip, perhaps with an on-land adventure in Iceland. The possibilities are endlessly exciting.

Have you been on a small cruise or sailing holiday with the kids? I’d love to hear all about your trip and experiences – do please leave a comment below.  

If you’d like me to research ideas for a theme or location you’re looking into then do send me your question/s by email
and I’ll do my best to include it in a future ‘Holiday Dreaming’ feature. 

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  1. I’ve been on two sailing holidays for a week on the South coast. The first time I was pregnant and the second time with our two year old daughter. She loved being on the boat, helping with the ropes and seeing all the different sites.

    It hasn’t occurred to me to go to either polar region, but my parents went to the Antarctic a few years ago and really enjoyed the trip.

    1. That’s great to know that your daughter loved it at such a young age! Yes – polar regions is a bit of a dream of mine, as is seeing polar bears. Glad your parents enjoyed their trip – must have been incredible. So many adventures out there just waiting…and to be able to share them with children is amazing.

  2. These are so tempting – I’ve always liked the idea of sailing holidays but have always had someone else to do the actual steering for now. The thought of just heading where you fancy and dropping anchor in a quiet cove is blissful though.

  3. I would absolutely love to do this with my kids, and I’m certain they would love it too! It’ll have to wait until they’re a bit older, though.

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