Stena Line's Kids' Day Cruises from Belfast are back! Priced at just £12 per person, or £44 for a family, you can take them somewhere a little more exotic than the play park next weekend. They'll have quite a cool story to tell come Monday morning when the teachers asked what everyone got up to this weekend!
So what do you need to know before you set sail, to get the most out of your day?
This year the day cruises are themed either 'Pirates & Princesses' or 'Superheroes', you can check for the theme of your choice when you book online. There is a full afternoon filled with craic to be had for free onboard, plus added extras you can pay to add on, for a more luxurious trip, for instance a quick trip to the spa for a manicure for Mum. I'll tell you about those as we go, but let's start with your booking and arrival.
You book your tickets online, where you can also get the Sat Nav postcode or coordinates to get you to the port Stena sail from. Finding it is really easy without maps though- you travel on the motorway out of Belfast toward the North/Carrick and you'll see huge signs for the port and Stena Line to follow right to the parking and terminal at the docks.
Its a pay to park car park (more on that later) and it has tonnes of room, so there's no panic trying to find a space if you are running late. Speaking of which, the boat leaves the dock at 1130am, with last check-in being 1045am. You board shortly after 11am, but we sat for a while and had coffee in the terminal, so if you are early there's somewhere to be fed and watered.
There will be passengers who are driving on and who will actually only be on the trip to get to Scotland, but you'll strictly be a foot passenger and no-one is allow to disembark in Cairnryan if you are travelling on the day trip cruise.
So, once on board your child will get a coloured wristband. This is simply because one of the activities is a disco, which would be chaos in the small allocated space if every child wanted to dance at once, so that part of the fun is done in sessions by wristband colour.
The specific day cruise entertainment all takes place in the main bar and lounge, just one of the places you have access to during the cruise. I would refer to this lounge as having a bit of a Butlins feel. There's face painting, games, balloon modelling etc. so most of the families with young kids set up camp here. There are staff on hand to entertain the little ones, including a puppet show and a magician. All the themed fun goes on here. There's even karaoke and a best dressed costume competition.
There is plenty of seating, and this is definitely the hub for kids and families. However, as you can imagine with all that fun comes a lot of excited noise! Six hours at sea in a children's disco might sound daunting, but there is a whole ship to explore and much more to do, even for the kids too.
Beside that entertainment lounge is a gaming section with arcade games.
There is a cool little shop akin to a Duty Free, with equally tempting bargains. They've all the top perfumes with good price deals, make-up including a snazzy Benefit counter, plus toys, sweets and souvenirs.
It's worth noting with the day trip ticket you will receive two vouchers, both for £5 when you spend £25- so if you've your eye on a particular perfume or aftershave, you could come away with a cracking deal on top of the already lower prices.
The Pod Lounge is a quieter space which suits older children and teens better. It houses the onboard cinema, PlayStation 4 terminals you can use for free, plus internet access.
The internet terminals however aren't that great. They are frustratingly slow, so it's handier just to bring your own laptop or tablet.
Another word on the internet at sea, which is cleverly called- 'Internet@sea'. It's free wifi, but in the old tradition of all free wifi, it's a bit slow.
So if you plan to watch Netflix or stream the BBC IPlayer onboard while your kids are having fun- you'll be stuck. I would recommend downloading a movie or to episodes to your device.
There is a lot of exploring to do however, so you probably won't even need to use it apart from to share photos of the day as it's happening- which it works fine for.
There are lots of places to eat onboard, including the first entertainment lounge. The Taste restaurant has a selection of great freshly made food, and many offers to chose from, including family deals. You can check the deals out and even pre-purchase before you sail. Because of the size of the ship, you won't have to wait for very long to order when you want to eat, so it's hassle free.
Theres also a separate coffee lounge with sandwiches and pastries as a lighter bite. There are also bars onboard with wines, beers and spirits. Sporting fans can watch Sky Sports in the Pod Lounge too, so you won't miss an important match.
With any luck you'll have a nice, clear, dry day like we did, so you can get out on the outside decks. There is access on floor seven and floor ten. It can be a little windy, but exhilarating. Smix loved that part as he's really into boats and planes, so he could nosy close up at the lifeboats.
About 2pm you'll arrive in Scotland. As this is a regular ferry trip for many onboard, there will be a departure of many families at this point. It's a good time to relocate to a better seat if you want a window view for the journey home.
I recommend trying the Living Room Lounge, it's nice and quiet and there are huge windows to enjoy the scenery of Scotland as you depart again.
The Living Room has a coffee bar, big TVs showing news, and a selection of free magazines to borrow to read.
The ship also has vending machines for snacks, and for the iPad obsessed like us, plenty of charging sockets!
You'll be on board from 11am until 530pm, so that's plenty of time if you want to slip away to deck ten, where the Pure Nordic Spa is located. Treatments begin at £10 and include manicures, massages, pedicures, gel nails etc. Or you can pay £10 to get access to the jacuzzi and sauna. If you travel as a family maybe one parent could visit the spa on the Scotland bound journey, and the other on the return.
You'll arrive back in the Belfast port at 530pm, and you can disembark quite quickly, there's not much having to hang around.
One last thing I have to mention which I knew about from travelling before, but that many families around me were ticked off about- expect to pay £8.50 for your day's parking. After spending money on food and gifts onboard, it's irritating to have to pay almost the same price as a day trip ticket for your parking, and with being in the harbour area you don't have an alternative option for parking. If I had one suggestion that would make the day perfect, it would be scrapping the parking charge for the day trip customers. Just be prepared and factor in that cost when you are planning your trip.
So the dates are available for the kids cruises up until June- with the different themes available, but all priced £12.
I definitely recommend it. For £12 each it's a very exciting day for kids. As adults we are more used to travel, but the kids on board were all just so excited to be on a big boat! Add in the included entertainment both ways, and it's something they'll always remember. Michael first went on their day cruises when he was about five or six, and now sailing again aged nine he was actually more excited about the whole prospect this time, despite being a little too old and cool to dress up! Thanks, Stena Line for the fun day at sea.