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Mix well, then enjoy

Caribbean cruise perfect holiday for blended family

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MY father had a name for it: a mulligan. Not a golf shot, but a meal -- one where you pull together all available foodstuffs, toss them into a pot, add some spices, heat and hope it all turns into a tasty stew.

A mulligan was on the menu for our Caribbean cruise. The ingredients consisted of a broadly blended family of travellers: me; my wife, Isabella; our six-year-old daughter, Julia; and joining Isabella's sister, her 15-year-old son, plus her new husband and his two sons, aged 22 and 24.

The boys expected a week of food, drink and sun. Julia had other plans.

"They can play Polly Pockets with me," she said with a giggle as she packed her mini-dolls.

"Or I can paint their toenails pink," as the giggling grew.

"Or I can make them put on Mommy's bikini and tell them they have to wear it around the pool," she roared, now rolling on the floor.

The boys would never know what hit them.

Luckily, they were all good sports and hold much affection for our little girl. Greg, the 22-year-old, even agreed to bring her pink stuffed bear onto the plane for her.

"Takes a big man to carry pink," quipped the guy at the gate. Greg did not bother to explain.

The ship made a nice juxtaposition to our mulligan crew.

The MSC Poesia is part of an Italian-owned line that specializes in Mediterranean cruises. Every winter, they send one ship to the Caribbean, bringing an alternative product to a crowded market.

"The only way to beat the competition is to offer something different," the Poesia's guest relations manager, Alessandro Bellantuono, said as we chatted in his shipboard office.

The difference is an atmosphere that is much more international than the others. While Americans were the largest single group on the passenger list, they were the minority: 25 nations were represented, and the crew boasts natives of 42 countries.

Ship announcements were made in five languages by the astonishingly fluent cruise director Anna Werner.

If you are on an Italian ship, you expect to eat well. And we did, with a different Italian menu every evening, along with a so-called "Stars and Stripes" selection for those palates that preferred American fare.

"We try to accommodate everyone," Bellantuono said. "But it's not easy. Spanish people don't necessarily want to eat at the same time as Americans."

As for our polyglot group, everyone seemed to find his or her own way. Julia met a similar-aged girl to play with in the kids club, sparing the boys the pink toes and bikini ordeal.

But somewhere along the way she developed an infatuation with the 24-year-old Dean, constantly asking where he was and when he was coming and whether he would go swimming with her in the ship's pool.

When it was time to say good night to the group, she would give him a hug and stride right past the other male members of the team as though they were invisible.

Isabella attempted to do the older guys a favour with girls their own age, chatting up two fetching Argentinian women in the ship's hot tub and explaining she knew two nice boys.

"They were beautiful," she told Greg and Dean at dinner. "But I think they're probably out of your league."

Their shoulders drooped while I roared in sympathetic laughter.

"I meant they were OLDER than you," she said, in a belated attempt to soothe their wounded egos.

She made up for it later in the evening, introducing herself to an Australian mother of two, who helpfully brought her daughters over for an introduction. A new tactic for meeting girls: Get your step-aunt to befriend the mother.

A late night of dancing ensued. The stops offered a nice blend of attractions.

In Key West, I appreciated seeing Hemingway's house while the boys made a stop at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Café.

In Ocho Rios, everyone tried to hike up Dunn's River Falls, although I broke off early to hit a snack bar for a patty and Red Stripe beer.

In Georgetown, Grand Cayman, my sister and brother-in-law hired a wave runner, but somehow managed to get lost -- they tried to orient themselves on a blue house on the beach, not realizing until too late that Seven Mile Beach is full of blue houses. Wave runner rental guy eventually chased them down, but his scowl disappeared with the production of a $20 bill.

Aboard the ship, we made generous contributions at the casino most nights, although Greg showed an uncanny talent for winning money at the roulette table -- except when Isabella gave him money to play for her.

On our final leg back to Florida, we joined other passengers crowding the railing for a fascinating and disturbing sight: Two young men were bobbing alongside in an inflatable raft. It was the open sea, 30 kilometres off the coast of Cuba, so we presumed they were Cubans trying to get to the U.S. Abiding by maritime law, the Poesia came to a halt and sent out a boat to bring the two aboard.

Others who had a close-up look said they appeared to be terrified. Who wouldn't be with a giant cruise ship looming over your dinghy? A couple of hours later, they were handed over to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, which appeared to be full of other would-be migrants.

My six-year-old daughter got an unanticipated lesson that day, as I struggled to explain the concepts of communism and refugees.

I am not sure if it sunk in. But the cruise certainly taught her about what it was like travelling with young men. Not long after our return, she created a Valentine's Day card for Dean. Somehow the other boys did not rate a similar gesture.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 D7

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