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Fighting eagles in Seward
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View bears at Katmai.

Cruising Alaska with Kids

Aboard a seven-day cruise from Ketchikan to Juneau this summer, we felt as if we’d stepped onto a floating summer camp, with kids and parents mixing and mingling every night to swap stories, play a rousing game of cards or swish about in the hot tub.

alaskan-discovery-sm Passengers from Inner Sea Discoveries Wilderness Discoverer take advantage of skiffs to explore southeast Alaska.
ERIN KIRKLAND

How to ensure smooth sailing in the 49th state

Struggling with three rolling suitcases, two backpacks, and an overstimulated 4-year-old, my Carhartt-clad husband and I clumped across a potholed parking lot at the Port of Seward to catch our boat. Er, ship. A cruise ship, actually, bound for Vancouver, British Columbia, and seven days, six nights of promised paradise.

“Look how fancy it is!” breathed my son, staring at the sleek design of the vessel, which waited patiently for our grand entrance after passenger processing with a thousand other wannabe cruising aficionados. 

Were we really doing this; an Alaska family actually stepping aboard a cruise ship, the monolithic goodies-baddies of 49th-state tourism? 

I had spent more time on rusty ferries than aboard such a glitzy boat, and I fretted days upon end about dress codes, tango lessons and overbearing buffet lines. Was I crazy to immerse my boisterous preschooler in such an environment, where other kids might laugh at his obvious lack of table manners or shun his underexposure to the finer things of life, living way up here in Alaska? 

Clearly, I had some catching up to do. As we sailed between crags and around popular ports of Southeast Alaska, I discovered something rather significant about cruising: it’s great for kids, and was rather enjoyable for me, too.

More moms and dads are giving Alaska high marks as a vacation destination, and cruise lines work hard to create family-friendly experiences, blending scenery with diverse preferences of a multi-age passenger list. Take Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, for example, sailing the Inside Passage since 2011 with a proven child-centered approach to Alaska-themed activities.

alaska-kayak-smKayaking is a popular family activity during Inner Sea Discoveries cruises. A floating dock makes launch and recovery easy for young passengers, and crew members provide support.
ERIN KIRKLAND
“A very popular aspect of Disney cruising is our attention to the state’s history and wilderness,” Lauren Falcone, Disney Cruise Line media relations manager, said. “The entire seven-night voyage is themed toward the Alaska outdoors, including a U.S. Forest Service ranger who sails with us as part of the activities crew.” 

A discerning Alaska-based parent, I did find on-board and land-based activities to be chock-full of history, culture and recreation—from ziplining to Native dancing and drumming. In fact, there were so many choices I began to wish I had done a little more homework before embarking on this journey. The key to family cruising bliss, I discovered, is careful research, beginning with the very boat upon which one sails.

Selecting a cruise line isn’t so simple these days. Some ships are so enormous they feel like floating cities. Others provide an intimate cruising experience, with fewer passengers and many personal touches. Costs are diverse, too, ranging from $500 per person to $2,500 per person for a seven-day cruise, depending upon the company, cabin style and activities. 

Our family has cruised the big ships to popular ports of call, and quietly sailed Alaska’s nooks and crannies aboard smaller boats. Both are exceptional opportunities to suit a particular vacationing style, and parents should be completely honest with themselves, and their offspring, before hitting the “book now” tab on a cruise line website. 

An advantage of larger vessels carrying thousands of passengers is the opportunity for kids to connect with others their own age. Our son reveled in daily kids’ club activities on the “big boat,” engaging with lots of new buddies and begging to return each evening for theme parties. Large ships have the resources for exceptional kid-friendly fun, ranging from character visits to basketball tournaments and talent shows. For some children—the more, the better. 

Small-ship cruises, though, are becoming increasingly popular among Alaska visitors, typically topping out at 80-100 passengers. Activities focus on 49th-state adventure, kayaking, hiking—even snorkeling—during a journey through Alaska’s more remote areas. Seattle-based Inner Sea Discoveries is one such company offering the small-ship experience, and Sarah Scoltock, the company’s director of communications, said it’s a decidedly different vacation experience from the typical Alaska cruise.

child-water-smA young glacier enthusiast on a sightseeing cruise.
COPYRIGHT © MICHAEL DEYOUNG / ALASKASTOCK
“Our ‘Kids in Nature’ cruises are designed for families with children under 12, and offer specific activities tailored to a younger age group during the entire trip, not just part of each day,” she said. 

Aboard a seven-day cruise from Ketchikan to Juneau this summer, we felt as if we’d stepped onto a floating summer camp, with kids and parents mixing and mingling every night to swap stories, play a rousing game of cards or swish about in the hot tub. All that was missing was a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya.”

 Before enrolling youngsters in any program, ask about hours, staff ratios and policies. All children’s clubs are not created equal, but ships sailing Alaska waters are required to offer a certain number of Alaska-themed activities in an age-appropriate manner, especially in Glacier Bay National Park. 

Some companies, like Disney, do it bigger and flashier than others, but parents should select the program that meshes with their own kids’ preferences, and family vacation values. “Know thy child” is an excellent mantra to follow. 

Smaller ships deliver a plethora of activities for kids, with the caveat that parents will experience the same fun. No formal children’s program, translated, means everybody plays together— creating a lasting bond of teachable moments in a relaxed, informal setting. 

We found this to be a delightful combination of family time and independent learning for our son, who is now 7. He hiked on a beach, learned to kayak and saw humpback whales feeding, all within a comfortable boundary of togetherness—a nice feeling, and decidedly different from our larger-ship experience.

Will this Alaska family sail again? Of course. Cruising offers everybody, even those of us lucky enough to live here, an opportunity to see the state from a completely different perspective. 

For children, the value comes through experiences that aren’t ship-specific—gold panning, rugged landscape, fishing boats, wild critters. It’s how we parents approach such moments that matters, and ultimately, it’s what our kids will remember. 

Erin Kirkland is a freelance travel writer and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. 

Confessions of an Alaska Cruiser: I wish I had....

  • • Researched more. While we had a fantastic experience on our large-ship cruise a few years ago and returned home raving about the scenery, staff and atmosphere, it was a small ship last summer that truly stole my heart. Cruises, like any vacation, should jibe with each family member’s sense of adventure and level of ability. Consider everything from meal preferences to love of the outdoors, and plan accordingly. There is a cruise to fit every lifestyle. 
  • • Pay attention to the “included” clause. I wish I had asked more questions. Turns out I should have allotted more money for unexpected shore-excursion opportunities and the kids’ cooking class. Read the fine print, and don’t be afraid to visit with expedition staff or the shore-excursion desk to adapt or change adventures. It’s your trip, after all. On the food and beverage side of things, check in advance to see what’s considered “extra.” Soda, juice and that hot chocolate from the coffee bar is usually no-host on larger ships, but might be included on a smaller boat. Ask before you ring up a huge tab. Also plan to tip at least 15 percent for any and all staff who are at your beck and call, including stewards, kids’ club staff, waiters and the guy who opened the door for you yesterday.
  • • Explored independently. Alaska’s port cities offer unique insight into the daily life of 49th-state residents, far beyond the typical shore-excursion experience. Although time in port will vary by itinerary, making the most of a destination is critical toward deeper understanding of life in Alaska. Hit up the local visitors bureau; make stops at playgrounds, restaurants and museums; take advantage of public transportation, bicycle rentals or taxis for attractions farther from town. 
  • • Found the resources. Visit AKontheGO (www.AKontheGO.com/blog) for a roundup of kid-pleasing activities in Southeast Alaska, including reviews of both aforementioned cruises. The only website dedicated to Alaska family travel, AKontheGO offers practical tips for parents considering a trip to the 49th state with kids in tow. 

Disney Wonder is planning its 2013 season of family adventure in Southeast Alaska right now, with a full land-tour list for Interior Alaska exploration, too. www.disneycruise.disney.go.com, (800) 951-3532

Inner Sea Discoveries is rolling out an exciting itinerary for its 2013 and 2014 sailings between Seattle, Ketchikan and Juneau, including paddleboarding and on-beach campouts. www.innerseadiscoveries.com, (800) 862-8881.

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