If you’ve never seen a whale breech or watched a glacier “calf,” then it’s time to set your sights on an Alaskan cruise.
TIP ONE: SHORE EXCURSIONS
Just a decade ago, Alaska cruisers were predominately seniors seeking a sedentary sightseeing experience. Today, Alaska has become one of the hottest cruising destinations for families. All of the cruise lines offer shore excursions designed to ensure an Alaskan wilderness experience that’s both “up close and very personal” as well as incredibly exciting.
Princess Cruises, for example, offers a new “Tracy Arm Fjord & Glacier Explorer” excursion whenever Sapphire Princess stops in Juneau. Guests can board a high-speed catamaran for an in-depth exploration of the twin-peaked Sawyer Glacier – a much closer exploration than anything that’s possible aboard a cruise ship. Another new Princess excursion (the “Adventure Park & Zip Lines” option, available in Skagway) allows cruisers to soar through Alaska’s lush canopy via a series of six aerial zip lines.
Holland America Line, meanwhile, says one of its most popular family outings on Alaska cruises is the “Fortress Of The Bear & Sea Otter” excursion (available in Sitka). Guests visit a bear rescue facility and search for maritime animals along the Alaskan coast. You’re guaranteed to see a bear, an otter, or a whale – you’ll get a refund, in fact, if you don’t!
TIP TWO: PICKING THE PERFECT SHIP
No other cruise destination on earth offers travelers a greater diversity of cruise ships to choose from, and each ship delivers a different Alaska experience. If you opt for a “conventional” cruise ship (i.e. a Carnival, Holland America, NCL, Princess, or Royal Caribbean cruise ship), you’ll find a long list of organized excursions to select from (each scheduled and conducted with clock-like precision). Most likely, you’ll book these excursions prior to sailing and simply walk off the gangway to join your group once it’s time to tour.
Very small ships, such as one of Cruise West’s 78- to 138-passenger expedition vessels, are an alternative. The company, which has been operating in Alaska for 60 years, focuses on flexibility (allowing guests to linger wherever nature is putting on a show). Excursions visit remote coves or inlets, and there’s plenty of opportunity for small-town exploration. Cruise West also guarantees at least one whale sighting on every sailing (if for some reason a whale fails to appear, you’ll get a $250 refund redeemable towards the purchase of a future cruise).
Discuss all of the options with your cruise expert when it’s time to determine which kind of ship best suits your family’s interests and lifestyle.
TIP THREE: WHICH ITINERARY IS BEST?
Families planning an Alaskan cruise essentially have three itineraries to choose from. On an “Inside Passage Cruise,” your ship typically sails roundtrip from either Seattle or Vancouver. These two choices help keep airfare costs low, because you’ll be starting and ending your trip in the same port. Ships on a “Gulf Of Alaska Cruise” sail from Seattle or Vancouver to Seward, Anchorage, or (in instances where a land tour is the starting point for your travels) Denali/Fairbanks. Your airfare will be more expensive in this instance, but this itinerary offers you the chance to see more of Alaska (including the beautiful Hubbard Glacier).
TIP FOUR: THE WEATHER
The weather in Alaska can fluctuate wildly, so be prepared. Ketchikan, for example, receives an average of 333 inches of rain annually, so you should probably expect at least some inclement weather. Though I’ve also sailed through an entire week with nothing but sunshine – since Alaska is so far north, the sun rises much earlier and sets much later than you’d ever imagine, and travelers cruising the region from mid-June through July will experience extremely long hours of daylight (June 21st is the “summer solstice,” the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere). Nonetheless, days may be chilly and rainy or warm and sunny.
TIP FIVE: WHAT TO WEAR & WHAT TO PACK
Take along clothes that you and your family can layer, including cotton sweaters or sweatshirts. I consider a waterproof poncho with a hood a necessity (it folds up into almost nothing and won’t consume much luggage space). My standard packing list for a 7-night Alaska cruise? Four pairs of cotton pants, two pairs of shorts, five t-shirts, a cotton sweater, a baseball hat, and a poncho. At night, I suggest keeping it simple (Alaska is one of cruising’s most casual destinations). If your itinerary does include formal evenings, women can usually make do with one long black skirt (or evening pants) and a tunic (plus scarves and/or jewelry for accents).
My other must-have items? Binoculars, a camcorder and/or a camera (with tripod), and suntan lotion. Avon’s “Skin So Soft,” available in most drugstores, doubles as a terrific insect repellent (often necessary during July and August). Athletic shoes or good walking boots are also essential.
TIP SIX: PRE-CRUISE & POST-CRUISE STAYS
In my opinion, Vancouver and Seattle are two of the most beautiful cities in North America and worth at least one night’s stay. Consider looking into your cruise line’s pre- or post-cruise land packages, or book your own hotel rooms online. Another advantage to arriving in Vancouver or Seattle a day or two early is that you’ll have an opportunity to catch up on rest after what will almost certainly have been a very long flight. You’ll want to be completely refreshed in time for that first day at sea!
© Anne Campbell, 2010