Is it better to have vacationed and hated it than to never have vacationed at all?

Vacations … How can something so simple become so goddamned complicated?

Oh yeah. We had a kid.

Hey, babe. Where did you leave Tony?

Vacations were supposed to be like this (from our Alaska honeymoon)

Once upon a time, vacations were easy. Before meeting my wife, I’d traveled across Europe, living out of a shoulder bag. I partied my way through the Bahamas, and engaged the local cops in a medium-speed car chase (hey, you can only go so fast on those narrow island roads). I explored the Southwest and sampled nice restaurants in San Francisco.

Before Tony, my wife and I together backpacked the Painted Desert and stayed in B&Bs and boutique hotels. Basically, we did whatever we pleased that we could afford.

But since Tony …

We were going to be the kind of parents who don’t let a kid slow them down. We’d camp and go on adventures together and raise the kid to be bold and self-reliant. And we tried. We really tried.

But then we found ourselves in a wide-spot-in-the-road town in Utah, injecting antibiotics into our own tiny son who was howling with pain from an ear infection. Days later he was still howling — out of frustration, I guess, confined as he was to a baby backpack in Canyonlands.

So we tried resorts. And house rentals. And hotels.

At one point, I told Wendy that we’d had our last vacation; we could ditch Tony with his grandparents while we went somewhere, or we could wait until he was old enough to drive. But we were taking him nowhere any time soon. I had come to hate vacations.

So, you're saying we're gonna be trapped on that thing with a four-year-old?

Somehow, though, we let friends talk us into a cruise. We’d get adjoining cabins, open up the barrier between the balconies to use as common space, and the kids could amuse each other.

Do you know … It worked?

The thing about a cruise is … Well, there are a few things. You bring your hotel with you, so the kids aren’t strapped in a car for hours on end. You walk to the restaurant, which has kid-friendly chow. If you pick the right cruise line, there’s even day care, complete with activities the kids prefer to hanging with you all day.

What a revelation.

We’ve done two cruises now, which means we’ve had two good vacations since Tony was born. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been easily persuaded that a cruise ship was the way to go if you’d told me when I had my son pinned on that bed in Utah while my wife plunged a syringe into his thigh. I’m glad I let myself be convinced, though. I credit exhaustion with my surrender on the issue.

A bow tie and a smile -- top that!

Honestly, I really have no excuse for being blind-sided by the whole sucky vacation thing. I remember a string of lousy trips with my family when I was a kid, punctuated by the look of sheer misery on my old man’s face. I’m sure it was a special joy considering how little money we had early on. Oh, OK. Disneyland had its moments — for me and my sister; it still distinctly exuded awfulness for my parents. I think the first vacation my parents actually enjoyed was a family trip to Europe when I was 16 and old enough to legally drink (over there, that is). My father and I propped up a couple of bars in Germany and I argued us, in my high-school French, out of a hassle with a traffic cop in Brussels.

But cruises? I used to make fun of the sort of unadventurous people who go on cruises. Maybe, though, the key to a good vacation with a young child is removing a fair dose of the adventure, or, at least, the unpredictability, from it. That Bahamian car chase would not have been enhanced by a tot. Nor would a certain house rental in Virginia Beach. I think (I can’t remember that week very well).

That’s OK. Tony will get older and bolder as time goes on and we’ll try something different when he’s ready. Maybe we’ll drag him to out-of-the-way destinations in France and Italy, or perhaps we’ll choose a more adventurous cruise (yep, they exist). We’re fortunate that my wife makes a good living, which expands our options, and we have pretty wide-ranging tastes, so Paris sounds as good as the Galapagos.

For now, though, we’ve found a way to make a family vacation a pleasure instead of an ordeal. From what I’m told, though, he’ll have his teenage years to turn our time together back into an ordeal.

The only thing better than building sand castles is knocking them down.

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