For most people, a cruise to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For families cruising together, Alaska is an adventure they will always remember.
I'm a strong proponent of bringing history to life through travel for kids. I'm also a huge fan of getting kids out in nature to learn about the natural world. That said, I love taking my children on European cruises as well as Alaskan cruises, since European cruises are all about blowing the dust off history books while Alaskan voyages focus on the wildlife of that pristine state.
However, if I had to choose which destination is the cruise of a lifetime for families, I'd choose Alaska. Why? It has a broader age appeal than Europe; amazing scenery viewed from the ship as well as on land; very family-friendly homeport cities of Seattle and Vancouver; and extremely active options for group excursions as well as more economical independent discoveries while in Alaskan ports-of-call.
Destination for All Generations My family and I have cruised Alaska three times, the latest being last summer aboard Holland America Line's Noordam. At the time of our three visits, my kids were either four, six or 14 years old. Happily, the destination pleased the desires of my then pre-schooler; grammar schooler; and teenager. This is because Alaska has something for all ages, including grandparents who may be traveling with your family.
Europe, on the other hand, is a bit over the heads of young ones. I waited until my well-traveled daughter was 10 years old to take her on a European cruise and she was the perfect age -- old enough to sit through long tours and young enough to be excited by seeing landmarks she had learned about in school. If I had taken her when she was much younger, I think that most of it would have been over her head and "I'm bored" would have been an issue.
In Alaska, while some of the active excursions ashore might be too rigorous for pre-schoolers, there are plenty to keep them interested such as the White Pass & Yukon train ride in Skagway or panning for gold. In addition, the youth programming aboard ship allows little ones to stay aboard ship happily entertained while older siblings, parents and grandparents select other active excursions. For those with children under the age of two or three -- when most youth programs start -- a few lines offer private babysitters, including Holland America Line and Royal Caribbean International.
Grammar school age children are in their element blowing off steam ashore. Don't choose a low key bus tour but instead opt for an active excursion such as dog sledding. For more economical, independent excursions, there are plenty of hiking trails in most port towns. If you have an infant or toddler, purchase a baby backpack so that your little one can enjoy the hike on your or your spouse's back.
While teens are usually a hard-to-impress group, the word "awesome" is bound to slip out when viewing Alaskan glaciers up close and personal. If your ship calls in Glacier Bay, make sure you allow your teens to be in charge of the video and/or digital cameras to catch all the spectacular scenery, especially when glaciers calve (a piece breaks off into the water).
For grandparents and seniors who may be less active, there is plenty of gorgeous scenery to be admired right from the deck of cruise ships. Thus, they won't be missing out if they're not up to a full day active excursion. Each Alaskan itinerary features scenic cruising near glaciers at some point.
As for parents -- the in-between generation -- we always seem to be compressing as much activity into each week as possible. While many European itineraries are still 10 to 12 days, you can see plenty of Alaska in seven days, which fits well into one work week.
|Seattle Space Needle||Alex and Ethan Atop the Space Needle|
Family Friendly Homeports
Seattle: Seattle has fast become one of the major homeports for Alaska-bound cruises. Since maritime law demands that all cruises originating in a domestic homeport must call at a foreign port, Seattle cruises generally call at a Canadian port such as Victoria, British Columbia. On our cruise last summer, we arrived early in Seattle the day prior to our cruise and overnighted at a hotel. The kids felt like we had an extra mini-vacation because we got to see and do so much in that 24 hour period. Some of our family favorites in Seattle are:
- Pike Place Market: Bustling and colorful, make your way down (a very steep hill) to Pike Place Market around lunch or dinner time to pick up a smorgasbord of delicacies as well as kids' favorites.
- Pioneer Square: This, the center of old Seattle, exudes Northwest charm. Pioneer Square is characterized by bakeries/coffee houses with outdoor seating; plazas adorned with huge hanging flowers; unique, kid-friendly book stores; and an "underground tour" of old Seattle. See www.pioneersquare.org
- Chittenden Locks: You'll need a car to reach the locks, located in the city's Ballard area which is just four miles from downtown. This is the best entertainment bargain in town since you can stay for hours -- and not pay a dime -- watching the boats enter the canal and then be raised up in the locks. Also, there is a spot for watching huge salmon jump up stream against a man-made waterfall!
In the heart of the city is Seattle Center, home to many family-friendly attractions including:
- Space Needle: This is a must, weather-permitting. Make sure you get there first thing when it opens to avoid long lines. See www.spaceneedle.com
- Pacific Science Center/IMAX: The hands-on exhibits here are perfect for kids; also check out the educational IMAX movies. See www.pacsci.org
- The Children's Museum: Interactive fun and pretend play is the name of the game at the Children's Museum. See www.thechildrensmuseum.org
- Experience Music Project (EMP): This is a must for teens since they can learn to play with instruments in the Sound Lab or be center stage in a virtual live performance at On Stage www.emplive.org
Vancouver: Vancouver is another family-friendly, very attractive homeport city for ships Alaska bound. What we love about Vancouver is that in about 20 minutes, you can drive from the city center to the mountains. That said, I suggest renting a car in Vancouver so that you can see the city sights as well as drive to Grouse Mountain for a cable car ride to the top for fabulous views. From Grouse Mountain, continue on to Capilano Suspension Bridge, the longest and highest suspension bridge in the world. Not for the faint of heart since it's suspended over a river! See www.grousemountain.com and www.capbridge.com
Back in the city, make sure you visit:
- Stanley Park: This 1,000-acre gem is right in the heart of the city yet boasts diverse areas including a small beach, cricket fields, playground, rose gardens, totem poles, Children's Farmyard Miniature Railway and the small Vancouver Aquarium. Plan to spend a lot of time here.
- Science World British Columbia: Hands-on, techno fun rules here. Permanent exhibits range from BodyWorks, to Illusions and Eureka! Go to www.telusworldofscience.com/vancouver
- Children's Maritime Discovery Centre: This museum is part of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. In addition to hands-on exhibits, visit Heritage Harbour with its working historic ships. Go to www.vancouvermaritimemuseum.com
- Museum of Anthropology: Kids will be in awe of one of the world's best collections of Northwest Native American artifacts, including totem poles and a long house. Go to www.moa.ubc.ca
- Gastown: This is the most touristy part of town, albeit a rather charming one, with plenty of shops, gas lamps with hanging baskets, and restaurants.
- Chinatown: Excellent Chinese cuisine abounds here.
Next Page: Active Alaskan Port Options
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