Once-in-a-Lifetime Cruising in Alaska
Published: May 2009
By Heather Smith MacIsaac
A once-in-a-lifetime adventure among glaciers, whales, and eagles in Alaska.
You could say our 12-day Alaskan cruise lasted a year. For the six months before we boarded the ship in Vancouver last summer, the trip was the main topic of conversation in our house. We talked about glaciers and fjords, eagles and bears, pipelines and seaplanes, none of which we knew much about, as city-dwellers who had never visited the 49th state. And we discussed the particulars of the ship itself, of which we knew a bit, having either been on one before (the grown-ups) or watched one go down (the kids, via James Cameron's Titanic.)
Ivy, our nine-year-old, pressed us for more information: "How many other kids will be on board?Does the pool stay open all night?Can whales swim faster than the ship?" Our son Cole, aware that we would be cruising past ice floes, worried about the possible consequences of an "iceberg dead ahead." He warmed to being shipbound, however, once he heard about another kind of ice, served in cones all day for free. Well, sort of free. We would be sailing aboard the Crystal Harmony, one of the nicest—and most expensive—ships cruising Alaska's coast.
Six months after disembarking in Anchorage, we're still talking about our trip. And the children are still asking questions, mostly about the mysteries of shipboard life: "How do they feed so many people?When do crew members see their families?Do the performers get to keep their favorite costumes?Why can't we have a Jacuzzi and a bottomless cookie jar at home?" And, most often, "Can we go again?" Spontaneously and repeatedly, Cole declares that our vacation was "the best trip of my life." All six years of it. Our sentiments exactly: in a week and a half we undertook a nature study, a gourmet food tour, and several adventure flights. No wonder the trip was such a success. With relative ease, we got away, far far away, and we only unpacked once.
to get from the east coast to our first alaskan port, ketchikan, took a day of flying and two more of cruising. And by then we had only reached the southern tip of the tail that wags the rest of the giant state. We'd grown so accustomed to seeing Alaska squeezed into a corner of a U.S. map that we'd forgotten how huge it is. How big is big?Far larger than the Lone Star State (sorry, Texans, we have a postcard to prove it). How old is old?From a guidebook, we learned about humans migrating from Asia and establishing hunting camps some 30,000 years ago.
In a shore excursion to the Saxman Totem Park just outside Ketchikan, Cole and I delved into the culture of Native Alaskans who settled the Inside Passage a mere 5,000 years ago. Young Tlingit men acted out tribal stories in the Beaver Tribal House. Afterward, an elder answered questions while sewing pearly buttons onto a ceremonial red felt cape. Clan members danced to the beating of a tambourine-like drum in the longhouse; others chipped away at a massive trunk in the carving house, fashioning a totem to rival the historic ones clustered nearby. Thirsty from concentrating on the unfamiliar and tramping around in the rain (Ketchikan averages 162 inches a year), Cole asked for a drink from my Evian bottle. "You don't need to carry that," I heard over my shoulder. "The purest water you could ever find is right here," admonished the Tlingit. Ivy and her dad were certainly getting their fill, mountain-biking through the steady drizzle in a rain forest on a different shore excursion. In spite of the foul-weather gear they'd been issued, they finished the ride muddy and sodden. Their reward for going the five-mile distance: sport water bottles.
We had expected to be awed by Alaska. We just hadn't expected to be so busy. We signed up for an activity in nearly every port, partly because a trip to Alaska falls into the once-in-a-lifetime category, but mostly because after hearing each description of an excursion, the kids cried, "Let's do that one!"
In the town of Sitka we headed for the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, a short taxi ride from the pier. With a bald eagle at no more than arm's length, we got a powerful demonstration of an eagle eye (capable of spotting a fish from a mile away). It left us feeling patriotic—and grateful not to be a fish. That afternoon we had a chance to see the magnificent birds up close in a natural setting while learning the basics of sea kayaking in Camp Coogan Bay. We set out two to a kayak (one adult, one child). From a mirror-still inlet we moved into the bay, whose gentle ripples belied its status as Pacific Ocean waters. The salmon were just returning to spawn, and their power was astounding. Seemingly jet-propelled, they shot up out of the water and arced in flashes of silver before hitting the surface broadside. Had we been bears, we would have been fat and happy. As for the eagles, we each spotted at least one, except for Cole. Lulled by the rhythm of paddling and the slip-slap of water against the narrow hull, he fell fast asleep, his life vest the perfect pillow, his paddle balanced enough to stay in his grip all the way back to the float-house.
Cole's dozing became a hallmark of our trip: we could be sure that whenever he was napping, we were in the midst of spectacular scenery. Flying over the Juneau Icefield in a de Havilland Beaver five-seater, high enough to take in the broad river of ice, low enough to count hundreds of jagged folds from the crush of centuries, he slept, waking only after the engine had shut down at the dock of Taku Lodge, a 1923 log building. A meal of salmon cooked over an outdoor fire, then a short hike through bear-occupied grounds ("We didn't see him but we saw his poop," the kids declared to anyone who asked), guaranteed both children a nap for the return in the plane, our Alaskan "taxi."
On an excursion from Skagway, stretched out on a vintage parlor car's bench seat aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route train, Cole slept through the CanadianU.S. border, near the foggy summit of the 3,500-foot-high Chilkoot Pass. But he woke to see Gold Rush Cemetery, Inspiration Point, and Dead Horse Gulch—Jack London's Call of the Wild brought vividly to life. Even on a helicopter ride from Skagway that Cole had been anticipating for months, he nodded off, weighed down by earmuff-style headphones that made him resemble a character from Antz. But by the time our bubble craft set down in the Chilkat Glacier System and we stepped out onto the hard ice, he was on high alert. Guides equipped with crampons strode confidently to the edge of perilous crevasses. Gripping their arms, we peered down into deep-blue breaks in the ice.
No matter how engrossing or exciting the excursions, none could compete with the thrill of the ship itself. Just passing through Harmony's security each time we embarked was a charge for the kids. They would proudly remove their personal credit-card-like ID's from the protective blue vinyl wallet issued by Crystal, pass inspection, then make a show of tucking them neatly away, only to grandly draw them out again to open our stateroom door.
Both Cole and Ivy lapped up the breakfast buffet—bagels and French toast and doughnuts and Frosted Flakes. They learned the lingo of bingo, the color of the captain's eyes (part of a shipwide scavenger hunt), where to find the best treats (mints at the concierge desk, potato chips at the snack bar, pastries at tea time in the Palm Court), and how to navigate (not the ship but themselves through it). Ivy and her fast-friends-of-a-few-days were forever circling the decks: "Mom, Janie's gone to find Lauren and then we're going to meet in Lily's room, okay?" Fine, except that of course whenever we needed to summon Ivy, her gang had moved on. When all else failed, we checked the two Jacuzzis, unofficial "lost and found" for the older children. Every morning our Norwegian captain finished his gloomy weather report with the optimistic, "As usual the warmest spot on the ship is the Yacuzzi at 104 degrees."
Occasionally, Cole would set out on his own, to find his new friend Max or to tail Ivy. But he would invariably return after a short spell, defeated by the three identical elevator banks, located forward, midship, and aft. He took small comfort in the fact that many a grown-up fell victim to the same disorientation; we told him we'd recommend that the Harmony install color-coded carpeting. More often he and his young peers could be found in Fantasia, a playroom equipped with games, a carpeted pit filled with foam balls, and, best of all, Corie and Paula, two teachers who have spent their past five summers running the Harmony children's program.
Evenings began with preparing for dinner. Ivy assiduously checked the ship's daily newsletter for that night's dress code and tailored an outfit from her limited wardrobe. Cole, for a change, willingly donned a button-down shirt and tie, and for the first time ever asked to have his shoes shined. In spite of the many restaurant options, our little troop remained devoted to our assigned table in the main dining room, so fond had we grown of our wine steward, Victoria, and waiters Peter, Alexander, and Ernest. By day two they knew our every like and dislike, bringing salad with oil and vinegar for Ivy, sliced tomatoes plain for Cole, and custom-cooked chicken nuggets, the entrée of choice. The long days this far north meant that we ate accompanied by a diorama of waves and waterfalls, and whales spotted by Cole (or at least by his mind's eye).
Whenever we were out at sea, which happened more during the latter half of our itinerary, Corie and Paula were available for Ping-Pong and Pictionary, stories and puzzles, crafts and snacks. None of the activities pertained much to Alaska, but most seemed to please the few dozen children on board, who enthusiastically (little ones) or grudgingly (preteens) joined in. For our day in Glacier Bay National Park, though, all funny business other than eating was officially suspended. We had to focus on the greatest concentration of tidewater glaciers in the world. At dawn, two park rangers had come on board for the day to narrate the sights and answer questions as we slowly cruised the bay. Typical Alaskan weather, gray and rainy, gave way to more unfortunate conditions, with fog obscuring all but the shoreline beneath the aptly named Fairweather Range.
Four days later in Yakutat Bay (in the Gulf of Alaska), our luck improved. We spotted humpbacks and orcas. Announcements from the bridge sent a stadium-style wave through the throngs of passengers on deck. At the sighting of spray from a blowhole, fellow cruisers in bright parkas—binoculars at the ready—rose to their feet, leaning this way, then that, for a glimpse of flippering or the big number, breaching.
At the top of the bay itself, the cloud cover lifted like a stage curtain for the spectacle that is Hubbard Glacier. While we seemingly drifted for a few hours near its six-mile-wide face, massive chunks broke away from the cliff. Each time the glacier calved, a crack like a shotgun blast echoed across the water, followed by a cry from the passengers, a crashing splash, a cheer, then the mellow rocking of our giant ship as the shock waves reached its hull. It was nature's finest show of the trip, unrivaled, at least in adult eyes. Cole and Ivy would have been hard-pressed to choose which was more dazzling: the Hubbard extravaganza or Crystal's Broadway-style shows. They sat front and center in the Galaxy Lounge, at their own table with their own "cocktails," sizing up their favorite performers, costumes, and numbers.
Anchorage, our final port, was a sight for sore eyes, red and swollen from staying up too late and rounding the ship again and again to make sure no good-byes had been overlooked. Our bags, filled with precious paraphernalia (the kids' winnings from various games), had disembarked the night before, giving us time to say good-bye to our beloved crew members. Back home, Cole dedicated a box to finance our next trip, filling it with whatever change he can scrounge. On her violin, Ivy learned to play the tune that, with or without Celine Dion, haunts all ships these days: "Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you…near, far, wherever you are…"
We forgive her.
Heather Smith Macisaac is the home editor at Martha Stewart Living.
Crystal Harmony's rates for a 12-day cruise start at $4,455 a person, including all meals (ask about discounts for advance bookings and children). Alcoholic beverages are extra, as are excursions, which are booked on the ship. Hint: Head to the purser's desk immediately after boarding, since some popular excursions have limited availability. 800/820-6663.
Other Alaskan Cruises
Carnival's Jubilee makes seven-day cruises, starting at $879 a person, through the Inside Passage. Kids can keep an eye out for glaciers and sea lions while following their Camp Carnival counselors around the bridge or vying for first place in the kite-flying contest. 800/327-9501.
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Wind sails round-trip from Vancouver to the Inside Passage, starting at $899 a person for seven days. Norwegian Dynasty's seven-day cruise along the British Columbia coast to Seward starts at $759 a person. Their Kid's Crew program is good for preteens; if the Sega video games, basketball court, and tent camp-outs don't appeal to them, the movies and parties certainly will. 800/327-7030.
Holland America Westours offers families-only packages combining seven days of cruising with overnights at the McKinley Chalet Resort in Denali National Park and the Talkeetna Lodge. The package starts at $2,758 a person; rates drop depending on the size of your family. 877/724-5425.
What to Bring
You'll want a variety of clothing; evening dress codes range from casual to informal to formal. Pack warm jackets, even for a summer cruise. Comfortable shoes or hiking boots are necessary for some excursions. Don't forget bathing suits. Daypacks come in handy on excursions; on deck, they are useful for toting wildlife guides, toys, passenger ID, and binoculars (almost as important as a camera).
Alaska's Inside Passage Traveler by Ellen Searby (Windham Bay Press)—Comprehensive guide by a former U.S. Forest Service shipboard naturalist.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London (Signet)—You'll be crossing paths with the characters.
Eyewitness Books' Arctic & Antarctic by Barbara Taylor (Knopf)—Animals and icebergs, flora and terrain.
On the Web
360 Alaska in Panorama (www.360alaska.com)—Click on any area of the state and you'll see a 360-degree panoramic photo that you can move with your browser.
Alaska Information Cache (akcache.com/akhome.html)—A site maintained by Alaska mountain man Bob Southwick. Info on camping, hunting, and fishing.