Stunning natural beauty, adventure, ease and a thirst for knowledge about the region await travelers on a fully equipped vessel cruising Alaska.
Stepping out on the deck an hour or so after departing from Seward, twilight disappearing in the summer sky, we heard a small commotion. Approaching a group of people looking over the railing, we saw what they saw: first one, then two, then five or six flashes appeared in the water, and we observed what looked like a school of small killer whales darting about, right below the surface! Not to be alarmed, a fellow passenger explained that they were probably Dall Porpoises, often confused with their larger cousins due to their similar black and white coloring. They performed in the bow wave of the ship for quite a while before disappearing into the vast ocean.
What a thrilling beginning to our Holland America cruise! This was surely one of the many reasons we came to Alaska and we soon discovered that more wildlife sightings and other adventures were awaiting us.
Alaska is vast, about 3½ times the size of California, and most of it is inaccessible by road. For us, the challenge was how to experience as much as possible of the state’s beauty while enjoying some well-deserved relaxation and family time.
My husband and I and our 14-year-old son, none of whom had cruised before, decided to join Holland America’s (877/SAIL-HAL) seven-day “Glacier Discovery Cruise” departing from Seward, Alaska and sailing through Prince William Sound, Glacier Bay National Park, and the Inside Passage to Vancouver. Because we were anxious to see wildlife, explore Alaska’s waterways by kayak and canoe, and learn about the native people of the area, we also planned several shore excursions. Catching a glimpse of The Northern Lights from the deck would be the extra bonus that we were hoping for.
Relaxation for the Whole Family
The navy blue and white ms Statendam is a stately vessel which hosts 1,258 passengers very comfortably. The Veendam and Ryndam, also used for Glacier Discovery Cruises, offer similar space and comfort. On-board activities are focused around the two swimming pools and jacuzzis, health spa, casino, movie theatre, disco, library/gameroom, upper decks and spacious indoor sightseeing lounges. Club HAL is the children’s program, entertaining kids in groups from ages 5-8, 9-12 and 13-17 years in the mornings, after lunch, and after dinner when sailing, giving families time apart and together. (Private babysitting for the under 5s can be arranged.)
All meals were available in the Rotterdam Dining Room where formal dress was required on two evenings. The food, mostly traditional meat and fish entrees, was delicious and plentiful. We were especially impressed with the four course vegetarian menu that was presented to our son each evening!
Round-the-clock casual dining was also available at buffets. Especially for parents, cruising allows for relaxation– no car battles, airport stress or packing and unpacking every few days, and the entire HAL staff seemed truly interested in making sure everyone was having a great time. All passengers seemed to have left their cares behind, and settled in to relax and enjoy the journey.
Late August is a slower travel time for families, but I was told by son Jesse’s counselor that in June and July, Club Hal hosts up to 150 children a week. Jesse did meet a few kids to hang with, in and out of the planned activities, and we all felt totally comfortable with his coming and going on his own.
HAL’s ships offer many costly distractions, but thankfully, he didn’t want to spend too much time in the video arcade and, somehow, we avoided the pricey Internet area completely. Jesse and his dad were fascinated by a guided tour of the bridge (the ship’s control tower), where they observed the Statendam’s navigation, operation and propulsion systems.
I particularly liked the on-board naturalist’s talk about whales we might sight during the Park Ranger-narrated cruise through Glacier Bay. Viewing even a small part of this 3.5 million-acre National Park and Preserve, brimming with snow, glacier ice, mountains, fresh and sea water was a definite highlight of the time spent onboard. Observing the glittering blue Grand Pacific Glacier, two miles wide from side to side with peaks of up to 200 feet, and watching and listening as pieces of ice broke off, or “calved,” something we could only see by ship, was a very moving experience.
As much as a ship has to offer, to really experience Alaska you should definitely go ashore while in port to explore more closely. Due to their remote location, it is unlikely that we would have ever visited the three ports of call (Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan), but the shore excursions allowed us this opportunity, and as the trips range in activity level, there is something for everyone.
You need an adventurous spirit (and a generous budget), but do not need to be an experienced outdoorsman, to participate in most of the programs. When will you have a chance to fly over a glacier, ride in a dogsled or see a school of Orcas breaching again? If sport fishing is your passion, try your hand in Ketchikan, “the Salmon Capital of the World,” where your catch can be frozen or smoked and shipped home. You can also bike through a rain forest, kayak in protected bays and inlets or watch a totem pole being carved.
HAL’s onboard Shore Excursion Department presents lectures, and there are informative videos on the stateroom TVs, however, we highly recommend that families request excursions before boarding as many trips do sell out.
One of the unique features offered by Holland America is the “Just for Kids and Teens Shore Excursions” offering younger cruisers a chance to explore with their friends in guided tours tailored to their interests. We were very disappointed that, due to minimum requirements to operate these tours, the two teen adventures that Jesse had booked did not take place. However, the Shore Excursion staff was able to arrange alternate tours for him either with us, or on other adult trips.
Alaska is a land of splendor and great diversity and we are delighted that we were able to experience it with our son. On this cruise, our family barely scratched the surface, but Jesse was surely inspired to go back. In the meantime, we will all dream of seeing The Northern Lights over Alaska the next time.
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