More than any other state in the US, Alaska holds on to a pioneering can-do spirit. It’s largely undeveloped and appealingly gritty, with nature and wildlife taking centre stage, and the locals a hearty lot of fisherman, park rangers and others drawn to America’s Last Frontier.
A million-plus tourists flock there every summer – mostly by cruise ship, as this is the best kid-friendly way to see Southeast Alaska’s scenic network of fjords and inter-coastal waterways. The road system is limited, and in some cases the only way to get from point A to point B is by sea or air.
The average cruise to Alaska is a week long and sails round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver, visiting three or four ports, plus spending two days at sea ogling the massive mountains of ice in Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm. From the decks of the ship you can easily spot the forked tails and gusts of air shooting out of the blowholes of enormous breaching humpback whales.
On the handful of smaller cruise ships in Alaska that carry fewer than 100 passengers, you can get into narrow waterways and much closer to the shore than on the biggies, so there’s a much greater chance of seeing brown bears, seals, bald eagles and those mighty whales, up close. While small ships are intimate and adventurous, there’s not much to do on board. Giant ships carrying thousands of passengers, on the other hand, are a destination as much as the ports.
Aboard the Grand Princess
My family and I did a 10-night Alaska cruise aboard the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess last summer, round-trip from San Francisco, and my 10-year-old twin sons, I’m loath to admit, enjoyed being on the ship more than in port.
When we boarded the 17-deck-high mega-ship, we checked into our compact windowed cabin with two bunk beds that pulled down from the ceiling for our boys. We had a mini-fridge, a bathroom with a shower, and a TV with news and first-run movies. Our kids didn’t spend much time in the room as they quickly befriended two brothers from Chicago and spent inordinate amounts of time happily playing table tennis. Luckily the pizza counter, with delicious made-from-scratch pies, was nearby for re-fuelling. The playroom was another pit stop for video games and supervised sports contests. They were happy campers. Which meant Mum and Dad had a lot of time on their hands: five full days at sea.
My husband and I found ourselves doing things we used to think were for old people – trivia contests, dance lessons and port lectures – and liking them. We also hit the gym, and I did laps-with-a-view on the outdoor wraparound promenade deck, a wonderful feature many newer ships don’t have.
We lingered over breakfast from the generous buffet spread and at lunch, did the same thing with the heaping salads we built from dozens of ingredients, from pistachio nuts to smoked salmon. We each had a yummy personal pizza in the atrium pizzeria one afternoon, despite not being hungry. Welcome to the world of cruising. At dinner we ate mostly in the main restaurant where the service was doting (sometimes cloying; “Leave us alone,” I longed to say) and most of the food quite good, especially the grilled barramundi with leeks, broiled lobster tail and a diet-busting soufflé. One evening we paid US$25 per person to dine in the Italian specialty restaurant Sabatini’s, where portions were huge and tasty, but not that much better than in the main restaurant to justify the cost.
After dinner, with the kids back in the playroom for an hour or two, my husband and I enjoyed mini date nights in the Crooners piano bar listening to Motown classics sung by a cool dude called Funch. An excellent classical trio from Eastern Europe drew us to the atrium whenever we caught them playing. Song and dance medleys in the main theatre were appealingly retro, with flamboyant costumes, synchronised dance moves and classic evergreens belted out by the young troupe of performers.
The real entertainment, of course, should be Alaska itself. All of Southeast Alaska gets a fair amount of rain, but the most falls on Ketchikan, a port known for salmon and totem poles. Excursions are rarely cancelled due to the weather, so a raincoat is vital. Before or after a tour, definitely have a walk about town. To see the thick, meaty salmon swimming upstream to spawn, just look down under the Creek Street boardwalk, the town’s former Red Light district and now a family-friendly cluster of souvenir shops. Totem poles poke up in parks around town and groups of them can be seen at the nearby Tlingit village of Saxman – go there on a bus tour or pedal yourself along a pretty 2.5-mile coastal bike-path (rent from southeastexposure.com).
While I went on the ship’s guided walking tour of the town, my husband and sons took a “flightseeing” tour in a small DeHavilland seaplane ($289 for adults, $229 for kids). When the weather is clear, the aerial views of the fjords, waterfalls and forests are stunning; and for my sons, flying in a seaplane was a thrill in itself, despite the view being obscured by rain clouds and mist. It’s a better bet to book a flightseeing tour from Juneau, where it rains less.
Other worthwhile excursions from Ketchikan include zip-lining over the rainforest canopy and, oddly enough, snorkelling – in a full wetsuit, of course, to float above starfish, sea urchins and kelp forests. Kayaking tours are a good way to spot bald eagles and seals; you can fish for halibut and salmon with local fishermen, who will arrange for your catch to be cleaned, packed and shipped to your home. To see bears in the wild, from the safety of a viewing platform, the best bet is a pricey excursion by seaplane to Neet’s Bay in Tongass National Forest, which has the area’s largest concentration of black bears.
In Alaska’s state capital of Juneau, a bustling little city built at the foot of Mount Roberts, the big draw is glaciers; for awesome aerial views, seaplane tours take off from Juneau harbour, adjacent to the cruise ship docks.
Even if you don’t take a flight, you can take a lot of great pictures; Juneau gets less rain than other Southeast Alaskan ports. Try to make time for the short ride up the Mount Roberts Tramway steps from the ship docks for the stunning views from the top and a chance to trek on a series of family-friendly Alpine trails.
Before we took the tram, we did the ship’s guided four-mile-long trek through the temperate Narnia-like rainforest of Glacier Bay National Park ($89 for adults, $63 for kids). We hiked up and down the mossy trail and at one point reached a clearing that gave excellent views of Mendenhall Glacier, about a mile away. (Eighty years ago, the receding ice-sheet would have been just feet from where we were standing.) We spotted bear scat and pugmarks, but no bears, though we did see huge porcupines frolicking in the trees. Another popular tour in Juneau is a visit via helicopter to a remote dog-sled camp to meet the sled dogs and have a go at mushing (US$550 to $600 per person).
The port of Skagway has its own special allure: gold. Set at the head of the deep-water Lynn Canal and surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains, Skagway (and neighbouring Dyea) was the best point for fortune seekers to start their arduous 45-mile hike up and over the mountains, in the snow, to the gold fields of Canada’s Yukon Territory more than a century ago. Eager prospectors came from all over the world and fewer than half made it.
These days, you won’t find any gold, but you can have a lot more fun trying. Most ships offer gold-panning tours, popular with families, that demonstrate what it took to strike it rich back in the day; many also include meeting sled-dog puppies and spending a few minutes inside a freezing cold chamber to feel what it must have felt like for those hearty prospectors a century ago.
We signed up for a guided two-mile hike along the rugged, forested Chilkoot Trail, following in the footsteps of the gold stampeders ($139 adults, $109 kids). Our return trip was by raft down a slowly meandering mountain river. On past trips to Alaska, I enjoyed a 15-mile bicycle tour downhill from the White Pass summit with breathtaking views flanking the route. Less strenuous but visually thrilling is a ride on the White Pass & Yukon railway in vintage rail cars that rattle up jagged mountains and through dramatic zigzag turns, also near the trail the stampeders took on foot (the railway was only completed as the Gold Rush was ending).
Before heading back to the ship, stroll the streets of tiny Skagway to have a look at its century-old Wild West-style buildings and saloons staffed by barmaids in working girl outfits.
In every port, we ate lunch on shore, feasting on thick slabs of locally caught halibut fried up with chips (ironically, none of the fish on board ship comes from Alaska – it’s too expensive) and washed down with a bottle of Alaskan craft beer.
At the start of our cruise, we arrived a day early, as you should (or stay on a few days after your cruise), to spend time exploring lovely San Francisco. We stayed at the boutique Clift hotel, within walking distance of the historic tram-lines and the many seafood restaurants of Fisherman’s Wharf. We warmed up with bowls of thick clam chowder after an impromptu sightseeing excursion to the famed Alcatraz prison in an open-air fishing boat, astonished at just how cold and windy San Francisco is in July.
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