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.
Active Alaskan Port Options Alaskan port towns are small and full of shopping opportunities. However, your kids will be bored just by shopping and wandering around town so make sure you do your homework ahead of time and plan a memorable day. In Alaska, it's not hard to have a day for the memory books!
|Bears Invade the Noordam!||HAL's Junior Rangers Program|
Cruise lines offer one-of-a-kind excursions ranging from walking on a glacier, to amazing whale watches and float plane rides over the mountains, sea, and glaciers. However, these excursions are pricey especially for a family of four or more. I suggest choosing a "must see" excursion in one or two ports and then exploring independently in others. Before your trip, go to Amazon.com and order the "Inside Passage Walking Tours" guidebook by Julianne Chase. There are lots of easy walks and hikes from your ship�s back door in all the main cruise ports. We followed a few of them and were very pleased since they took us off the beaten path at no cost.
Remember that the ports are all small towns -- even the state capital of Juneau is not big -- so that most of the below independent exploration ideas can be reached by foot.
And for seniors and tots with less mobility, there is plenty to see just from the deck of your ship, especially on the day that your ship cruises near glaciers. While my six year old was more interested in participating in the Jr. Ranger program in the kids' room on the day we were in Glacier Bay, my teen loved hanging out on deck and snapping pictures of the gleaming glaciers and mountains.
The following are some highlights of memorable, family friendly activities in port towns:
Saxman Native Village: If your children are fascinated by totem poles, this is the best spot in Alaska to see them. At Saxman, there is a short documentary film about the Tlingit tribe and preservation of their ways since it is a designated Tlingit heritage site. The kids will enjoy the dance performed in the long house by Tlingits wearing red and black capes. They'll also have a chance to hear the lore behind the sky high totems from a tour guide. My daughter went to Saxman a second time last summer and still recalled the Tlingit dance from when she was four years old. My six-year-old son Ethan recently recited the tale behind one of the totem poles to me much to my surprise since it's been months since we heard the tale at Saxman.
The Great Lumberjack Show: Touristy and a bit pricey, but entertaining. The show is a block from the cruise pier and is a good way to introduce youngsters to the rough frontier spirit of the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and 1900s. (Compare cruise line prices to buying the tickets on your own; the latter being $34 for adults and $17 for children. We bought a cruise line package that included both Saxman and the lumberjack show.) Go to www.lumberjacksports.com
Indpendent Exploration of Ketchikan: Ketchikan has a number of attractions you can see on your own by foot. (Grab a map at the visitor's booth near the dock.) First, watch the salmon jumping (seasonally) from a footbridge right in the center of the tourist area. Then, walk away from the harbor and through town to the Westmark Lodge for a short funicular ride to the top. You'll have lovely views of the town and Tongass Narrows. Once back on street level, continue heading slightly out of town to Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center (See www.kictribe.org/hatchery.htm) where kids can see salmon and trout being hatched as well as eagles being rehabilitated. Right by the facility is Totem Heritage Center. (See www.city.ketchikan.ak.us/departments/museum). While it does not compare to Saxman Native Village in the number and quality of totem poles, it does not have the price tag of the Saxman excursion either.
Hiking: Catch a cab from the pier to Deermont and Fair Streets which is the trailhead of Deer Mountain trail. You'll feel like you're hiking in a rainforest because of the huge foliage present during your mostly uphill climb. After the hike, it's an easy 15 minute downhill walk from the trailhead through town to the port.
Mt. Roberts Tramway: On each of our three visits, we have taken the tramway atop Mt. Roberts. Walk a bit up the path once atop for amazing views; don't forget your camera. (Located right by the pier; I suggest you purchase your tickets independently rather than through the cruise line since they'll add a few extra dollars.) Call them toll free at 888-461-TRAM.
Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest: This shore excursion, purchased through your cruise line, guarantees you'll see a whale. If not, a fair amount of your fee is refunded. We have been on whale watches in New England many times, but this one was absolutely incredible! We saw a pod of about a dozen whales circling and breeching near us for about an hour. The very knowledgeable guide submerged a microphone underwater so we could even hear the whales "singing." My kids will never forget it. See www.allenmarinetours.com
Mendenhall Glacier: Mendenhall is unique because it's the only glacier in city borders. If you're cruising to Glacier Bay on your itinerary, though, I suggest foregoing Mendenhall and opting for one of the above since you'll see plenty of glaciers from the ship.
|Shore to Summit Hike in Sitka||Kids Love those Big Totems|
New Archangel Dancers: Performed at Harrigan Hall Centennial Hall, this 45-minute dance show is the epitome of Sitka's Russian heritage. A dance troupe in colorful Russian costumes performs to lively recorded music. I loved it; my teen thought it was "okay." You can purchase $7 tickets right at the door. Go to www.newarchangeldancers.com
Alaska Raptor Center: My son Ethan loves animals so while my daughter and I went to the Russian dance show, Ethan and my husband visited the Alaska Raptor Center and learned a lot of details about bird rehabilitation. See www.alaskaraptor.org
Shore to Summit Private Hikes: We enjoy hiking, so we pre-arranged a family hike through Shore to Summit. Since hikes are booked directly through this group, it only cost $40 per person. While the group size can be as large as a dozen people, the four of us had the guide all to ourselves when we went. Our guide met us by the ship tendering pier and drove us in a van through pretty scenery to the trail head of Blue Mountain Lake. We hiked about half an hour uphill and then the trail leveled off for about 30 minutes, leading to views of mountains and the lake. My six year old was a great hiker and we all loved the quiet, true Alaska scenery. Most hikes end with a reward: A stop at a Sitka chocolate factory for sampling and purchases, for example. See www.shoretosummit.org
White Pass and Yukon Railroad: This three hour excursion is great for train lovers. Make sure you bring your camera for pictures of the mountain vistas. All cruise lines sell this excursion. See www.whitepassrailroad.com
Independent Exploration of Skagway: Grammar school children and older will find the displays and short movie at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park interesting. Located within walking distance of the pier, this building documents the Klondike Gold Rush since Skagway was the jumping off spot. The park rangers offer a Klondike Kids' Junior Ranger program and activity booklet.
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