Cruises on giant ships benefit kids little

Last summer, two of my granddaughters, ages 6 and 9 at the time, went with their parents on a Mediterranean cruise that stopped at many of the fabled ports of that historic sea.

In Athens, they climbed to the top of the Acropolis and visited the Parthenon, overlooking the city, and learned something of the stunning accomplishments of the ancient Greek civilization.

In Istanbul, they visited the mosques, shrines, bazaars and palaces of a Muslim culture; talked to women in head scarves; and discussed what they had seen of the world of Islam. Sailing to Kusadasi in Turkey, they traveled to Ephesus and toured the ruins of an immense Roman city of antiquity.

In Naples, they went to Pompeii, but afterward visited sites in central Naples associated with events in World War II. They discussed the eruption of Vesuvius and the flood of lava that entombed Pompeii and preserved artifacts of an ancient civilization. They learned something of the history of the last century's war.

In Rome, they visited the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and then the Vatican, where they took a tour for children of the artistic masterworks, including frescoes, that one finds throughout Vatican City.

Just a few weeks ago, my 6-year-old granddaughter toured the Cloisters Museum in upper Manhattan, and was shown a fresco painting. "Yes," she pointed out, "they have those in the Vatican, too." She had remembered!

In sum, the two girls received a grounding in history, culture and art that will stay with them, and assist them, throughout all their lives.

Now, compare the experience of my granddaughters with that of children who are taken on Caribbean cruises aboard the giant, new, 4,000-to-6,000-passenger cruise ships — the ones so large that they spend half their time simply at sea, and additional days at artificially contrived "private beaches." On perhaps one day out of a weeklong cruise, they stop in an actual "foreign" city. And yet the cost of their cruise is only marginally lower than the air-and-ship cost of cruising the Mediterranean.

What is the "travel" experience of the children who go on those humongous, oversized cruise ships plying the waters of the Caribbean without any real intention of encouraging their passengers to see the world? It is an experience of zip lines and rock-climbing walls, of electronic games, of Las Vegas-style stage shows presented in enormous auditoriums and viewed with their parents. It is a scene of constant competitions in the children's area, overseen by young supervisors, a memory of water chutes hurtling them into pools, and of pingpong and mini-golf.

Later in life, which group of children will have benefited more from their cruises? Which of them will be better equipped for their later education, for their ability to enjoy and understand history, culture and art?

I know how I'd respond to that question.