Caribbean cruise: Double the fun in the sun

The dolphin's kiss gently brushed my cheek as my new best friend rose effortlessly out of crystal-clear Caribbean waters.

It's not every day you feel the lightweight, smooth and velvety touch of a dolphin and this extraordinary encounter, at a breeding and research centre on the island of Cozumel, Mexico, was the highlight of our Stay and Cruise US holiday.

Having spent a week enjoying the theme park thrills of Orlando, my family and I were now experiencing an entirely different form of exhilaration as we visited the shores of the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Honduras and Belize during the second part of our trip.

Like most British visitors, we picked the "two centre" Florida holiday option. But instead of crashing out on one of the Gulf beaches, as is traditional after a week's traipsing round the parks, we dared to be different and went for a cruise.

We boarded the Carnival Legend in Tampa, Florida, less than two hours away from the Brit-magnet resort of Orlando, looking for adventure.

There were initial family doubts. Our 12 and 13-year-olds feared there would be "nothing exciting to do". But as we boarded the Carnival "fun ship", any doubts vanished.

The entire decor of the ship has a slightly faded old movie/Art Deco feel. Public rooms are named after real and mythical figures, some with outlandishly lavish decoration, such as Medusa's Lair dance club.

At the centre of the ship is a nine-deck Colossus Atrium lavishly fashioned on the classical Grecian city of Rhodes, complete with urns and gold leaf.

With 12 passenger decks, and just over a thousand cabins carrying 2,100 passengers, the Carnival Legend is a regular floating resort boasting four pools, indoor and outdoor promenades, a golf programme, wedding chapel, shopping arcade, spa, gym, casino, children's clubs, themed lounges and bars.

The top-class restaurant experiences firmly put paid to all our pre-conceived fears of "eat as much as you like" buffet-style dining.

While it's true that you can gorge all day if you wish (we spotted some hungry souls guzzling hot-dogs for breakfast – with a beer), the evening meals are more dignified.

Truffles Restaurant has a superb la carte menu and calls

for "elegant dining" – that's American speak for "no shorts".

For a more intimate affair, we ate – at extra cost – in the Golden Fleece restaurant on Deck 10, with stunning 360-degree views to sea.

Overseeing the dining room is another Carnival "legend", singing maitre d' Ken Byrne, a Frank Sinatra-style crooner from Dublin.

While the scenery changes daily, Carnival really does deliver outstanding personal service in luxury surroundings – the equivalent of a floating five-star hotel.

Entertainment for children is non-stop too: in the Circle C kids' clubs our two were won over by the gaming stations and endless activities from water wars to freaky food challenge and crazy hair party that they could dip in and out of at will.

There are separate clubs for toddlers (2-5), juniors (6-8) and 9-11s. Last year Carnival carried more than 625,000 children – up 350 per cent in a decade as families got the cruise bug.

On our western Caribbean schedule our first stop was Grand Cayman, the best known of the Cayman Islands, then Cozumel (Mexico), Isla Roatan, just off Honduras, and finally Belize, formerly British Honduras.

Shore excursions are a great chance to taste places you might otherwise not visit. We pondered the mind-boggling choice of excursions to find the best snorkelling – plumping for stunning Roatan, with the second largest reef outside Australia – and weren't disappointed.

We pondered whether to see ancient Mayan ruins on Belize, zip-wire through the rainforest or travel on horseback through the jungle – and opted for "tubing" in cavernous underground pools.

On Grand Cayman, the choice was underwater sightseeing in a submarine, a guided tour of a turtle farm – one of only a few turtle conservation centres in the world – or a day of quietly chilling on Seven Mile Beach. The beach won the day. Next stop was Cozumel, for our date with the dolphins.

Excursions excite and thrill, inform and educate or simply allow you to relax on a beach. By the end, we felt we'd rolled several holidays into one.

And in truth we had, because we'd spent our first week exploring the thrills of Orlando's theme parks.

Our base – the Wyndham Hotel, in the middle of International Drive – was perfectly placed to see the best Orlando can offer: Disney World, Epcot, Sea World, water parks, shopping malls and Universal Resort.

Whilst Disney and Sea World aren't "cool" for 12 and 13-year-

olds any more, Universal never loses its sparkle.

The magic of Florida casts its spell on thousands of Britons

year after year. Now JK Rowling's Harry Potter weaves a wizard

spell as the new attraction at Universal's Islands of Adventure.

This amazing recreation of life at Hogwarts enables you to step straight into the pages of the books. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a 20-acre theme park within a theme park.

You can wander through the village of Hogsmeade, pop into Zonko's Joke Shop to buy Extendable Ears, Boxing Telescopes and Sneakoscopes. Honeydukes, next door, sells treats like Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans.

At The Three Broomsticks and adjoining Hog's Head pub, there's traditional British fare, plus drinks including Butterbeer and pumpkin juice.

Also in Hogsmeade village is a calm resting area called The Owlery where roosting owls await their next delivery. You can also get letters stamped with a certified Hogsmeade postmark.

Such is the phenomenal dedication of Potter fans that hordes of disciples wander around in stiflingly hot temperatures cloaked head to toe in Potter garb.

Unfortunately, fast-track tickets don't include the main Potter rides where queue times can stretch to five hours.

In sweltering heat, we retreated to Sea World's new water

park, Aquatica, to plummet through water pipes as dolphins swam overhead.

Then we rested by the pool at the Wyndham, to get ready to hit the high seas with Carnival.

TRAVEL FACTS

Diane Rose was a guest of Carnival Cruises and Virgin Holiday Cruises, which offers 14-night Orlando Stay & Caribbean Cruise packages in 2011 from 1,169, including a seven-night Carnival Legend cruise ex-Tampa to Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Roatan Island, Belize City, and seven nights' room-only at the Wyndham Hotel in Orlando.

Prices per person (two sharing inside cabin) include Virgin Atlantic flights.

Connecting flights from Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow start at 99 return, and from Dublin from 109.

Reservations: 0871 781 9893 and www.virginholidayscruises.co.uk

Carnival Cruise reservations: 0845 351 0556 and

www.carnivalcruise.co.uk