Parents, adult son, seven days, mega ship, mucho scenery: an Alaska family cruise is transporting — no matter what your age — and summer is the time to take one. Imagine a destination that’s way bigger, bigger than Texas even… Alaska is a wilderness so vast and super sized that you are humbled by your place in it.
This is where the wild things are — whales, sea lions, dolphins, eagles, moose, salmon, bears, rainforests – and life here is lived one day at a time.
Now take a mega-ship and its overwhelming facilities, or any of the Holland America Line seven-day, 2,433-mile cruises up the Pacific Northwest coast, as more Alaska superlatives. Everything at HAL is first-rate, from the accommodations and service to the meals, ship-board activities and shore excursions. If the beauty, depth and grandeur of communing with Mother Nature on her turf doesn’t float your boat, then a family cruise vacation aboard the m.s. Noordam, or one of the other Holland America ships on this route, will. The company boasts of more Alaska cruise itineraries than any other cruise line, with several offering two different glacier viewing experiences and all including extra-long days in port with over 300 options for shore excursions.
This is a journal of our week-long family cruise on the m.s. Noordam with ports of call at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, British Columbia.
Day 1 & 2: Departing Seattle, Meeting the Ship
It’s a warm and sunny Sunday, early September, at Seattle’s giant port complex. Our family unit of three (parents and adult son), plus close to 2,000 other voyagers, are boarding Holland America Line’s m.s. Noordam for a week-long cruise up the Inside Passage, in S.E. Alaska.
The first announcement we hear after boarding is that lunch is being served on the Lido Deck and that we should all rendezvous there. So that’s what we do.
The Lido, Deck # 9, is where the swimming pool, spa and gym are, as well as the central self-service dining area. This is the first (and last) stop onboard. After a tasty welcome lunch we head off to our respective cabins to check out our digs. Our son’s crib is an outside cabin towards the bow on the 5th level, with an exterior “verandah” big enough to accommodate two people sitting and soaking in the sunsets (you can’t imagine them, so don’t even try, you’ll only hurt yourself.)
Our Verandah cabin is similar, the size of a small, comfortable, hotel room, with the usual amenities — queen-size bed, satellite TV with DVD player, phone, workdesk, hairdryer, minibar; tiny cosmetics and cotton bathrobes add luxury to a handsome bathroom. Family cabins are somewhat larger with a king bed and single sofabed, and connecting double cabins are available.
Outside each cabin is a mailbox, where you receive daily updates about ports-of-call, onboard activities and forums, a digest version of the NY Times (with daily crossword) and the weather report. We had been told that autumn weather tends to be wet, with foggy mornings followed by soggy afternoons with pockets of rain. In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that we had seven (count ‘em) consecutive days of sunshine and gorgeous weather. Chances are you’ll have to wait another century for similar conditions to re-occur.
When we retire for the night, we discover that we’re not alone — an origami towel monkey is hanging out in the room. Each night another one of his friends comes to visit. This shipboard art is a feature on many cruise ships, we learn, and the cabin attendants of HAL are especially skilled in creating these towel sculptures.
In the morning, we are cruising northwest at about 22 knots (app. 25 mph) and those of us with starboard accommodations are gazing out at the mountains and forests that are blocking our view of Europe. On the port side there’s nothing but the ocean, stretching all the way to Japan. Surrounding you at all times is the bracing, clean fresh air, lots of it.
We decide to stroll around the ship and get our bearings. The first thing we discover is that an Alaska cruise attracts families (in autumn, mostly adult children) and couples, with very few singles. The second thing we discover is the Terrace Grill, a small hole-in-the-wall serving station on the Lido deck where juicy hamburgers, hot dogs and tacos (with fries and fixins’ galore) are available throughout the afternoon.
Day 3: Inside Passage & Glacier Bay
A morning lecture on Glacier Bay was given onboard by a lovely local Park Ranger (hi, Elise) who moved to Alaska from Brooklyn, where she was an environmental performance artist. We were due to arrive at the head of Glacier Bay by the end of her hour-long presentation, which was a talk-with-slides that was impassioned, informative and altogether quite wonderful. She obviously loves her job.
Inside Glacier Bay the morning fog lifted to reveal a gorgeous landscape: the Lamplugh Glacier at the entrance to the Johns Hopkins Inlet, and the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers at the head of the long Tarr Inlet. Hundreds of sea lions are sunning themselves on nearby ice floes. Pioneering naturalist John Muir first discovered Glacier Bay in 1879 and wrote: “the first of the great glaciers… its lofty blue cliffs, looming through the draggled skirts of the clouds, gave a tremendous impression of savage power.” As we gazed at these spectacular formations, chunks of the glaciers broke off (called ‘calving’), falling with a thunderous plop, fizzing as air bubbles frozen in the ice escaped into the bay. This was Mother Nature grandstanding, and she was greeted with hundreds of oohs, aahs and applause from the ship’s observation decks.
We leave Glacier Bay at 8:30pm, by which time we are ready to check out the Vista Dining Room. This is a big step up from the Lido in that it has the choice of (pre-reserved) assigned or open seating, waiter service, an impressive wine list and a more adventurous world-class menu which, each evening, features Filipino, Dutch and Indonesian dishes alongside excellent meat and fresh fish fare. The food was terrific and all-inclusive except for some special items such as extra-fancy desserts, “designer” waters, bar drinks and wines.
After dinner we adjourn to the Explorer’s Café, amidships on the same deck, which is the “quiet” reading room and computer lounge. Styled like an old English library, the room is furnished with big, tufted red leather chairs and lined with History, Fiction, Crime and other shelves bulging with bestseller titles. The Internet service is high-speed wireless, and it works beautifully as it should for that price.
Day 4: Juneau
We reach Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, at dawn, with 12 hours in which to explore. One of the original Gold Rush towns, it has a population of approximately 31,000 people and covers about 3,255 square miles, making it roughly three times the size of Rhode Island. (That’s what passes for a state capital city in Alaska.) A deep-water port, it allows enormous cruise ships to dock alongside so that going ashore means just that; walking down the gangway onto the dock. Around the port, it’s 100% souvenir and jewelry shops, but just 5-minute’s walk away are local shops, bars dating back to the 1800s, bookshops and art galleries featuring Native and local writers and artists, and various other local landmarks. No Starbucks, McDonalds, Barnes & Noble or any other chain stores. Ah, wilderness!
Perhaps a majority of Alaska passengers are pre-booked on one of the large number of shore excursions offered by HAL. These range from local sightseeing to adventure trips, from bus tours to energetic hikes, and we had pre-booked two.
Our son and 14 other passengers were signed up for a three-hour Rainforest & Sea Coast Nature Walk (pre-booked) shore excursion. A small shuttle bus took them 20 minutes out to a 1½-mile loop trail through forest, wetland, meadow and beach. The passionate, well trained guide and driver, a high school student and professor respectively, each took half the group on paths that crossed and shadowed each other. The walk led to the water’s edge where they should have seen a glacier, but the morning fog had descended, defeating the guides’ best intentions. On the trail they discovered what looked like a giant yellow Ginkgo leaf, which the guides identified as a Devil’s Club leaf. The local Tlingit (pronounced KLIN-kit) Indians harvest and cultivate this leaf as a salve for arthritis and other muscle aches, and one store in Sitka sells the balm.
We elders, meanwhile, had signed up for a whale-watching excursion aboard an 80-foot catamaran. The waters surrounding Juneau are rich in many fish — Alaska King, Chinook, Silver and Coho salmon, Pacific halibut and Dolly Varden. We were lucky to be in Alaska during salmon spawning season, and saw seemingly millions of salmon battling nature and the tides to give back to their community. The whale-watching was both successful, even in the fog, and was followed by an overland visit to the mouth of the awesome and, now in bright sunshine, very picturesque Mendenhall Glacier.
The end of this day of infinite variety was the “mandatory” Salmon Bake — a must shore excursion for every Alaska-goer. This one was at Cold Creek, complete with local musicians (strings in quick tempo, Irish style), and Alaska blueberry pie. At 8pm the ship undocked (yes, that’s what they call it) and headed towards our next port of call, Sitka, where our son had a high school friend who offered to show off his hometown.
Day 5: Sitka 360 Degrees
Sitka harbor is relatively shallow so our ship had to anchor offshore, and we disembarked in small boats called tenders. Sitka is the largest U.S. city by area (1,811.5-square-miles) but the first impression is a small town with a rich history, where everyone knows everyone else’s ancestors. It turned out everyone did know the high school friend, a celebrated local author, John Straley. It also turns out that Sitka is referred to as Alaska’s `Little Russia’ and was the state capital until 1913, when it ceded the title to Juneau. It has an actual Swan Lake a few blocks north of town, and is the first place where the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn looked for a home after being exiled from Russia. Sitka was also America’s first line of defense in the battle for the Aleutian Islands during WWII. Today there is a local college where the military airstrip used to be.
While we went on a water-borne excursion in search of sea otters, eagles, brown bears and more hump-back whales, all seen and enjoyed. John Straley led our son to visit St. Michael’s Cathedral in the heart of town. The Russian Orthodox faith captured the attention of the native Tlingit Indians by incorporating their customs and nomenclature in its liturgy. To this day many Tlingits have Slavic nicknames such as Sacha or Vladi. The day we visited there was a funeral service in progress for a revered Tlingit elder, and it seemed as if the entire population of Sitka was in the procession of mourners accompanying the body to its final resting place, sacred Tlingit ground atop a nearby hill.
In the Sitka National Historical Park, which runs along the coastline, the walking trails are marked by towering totem poles recalling the history of Alaska’s peoples and wildlife. Each pole is carved for a specific reason: to depict iconic figures; to honor a deceased family member; or to pay homage to a historic event. Various Native Indians, such as the Tlingit and Haida tribes, have their histories represented by these poles positioned throughout the park. This was a great walk, highly recommended as a trail off the beaten path.
Expeditions like this are guaranteed to work up a thirst for an Alaska Ale. The Pioneer Bar across from A.N.B. Harbor is a diner whose walls document the history of Sitka in old photographs of its fishermen and boats. Downtown, the artist studios and local crafts stores beckoned. Best of the best were The Devilfish (315 Lincoln St.), where local artisans craft silver jewelry based on indigenous Indian techniques and designs, and Real Local Artists (239 Lincoln St., next to the Russian church), a casual gallery where real local artisans produce exceptional paintings, blown glass sculptures, jewelry, you name it. Finally, at the Harry Race drugstore, we found the coveted Devil’s Club salve.
An interesting excursion for families with children is a visit to the Raptor Center, where injured birds of prey are taken in from all over the State for “repair” and rehabilitation. Broken wings and legs are common and a dedicated team of skilled young people attempt to get these creatures mended in every sense; teaching them to fly again and hunt their prey, before returning them, mostly but not always successfully, to the wild. An impressive undertaking; well worth the visit.
Returning to the ship, we found there was a feature film showing. We had a truly first class dinner that night at the Pinnacle Restaurant, the premier (and premium) dining room on board – reservations essential.
Day 6: Ketchikan for Native Indian Art
We are alongside Ketchikan by 7am, and have just six hours to catch as much of Ketchikan as we can. Just 500 miles north of Seattle, this port is nestled between ocean and mountains, much of it atop steep hills. Many wooden buildings date from the Gold Rush days, built along the creek on wooden pilings to be above the seasonal floodwater level. There are numerous boardwalks, wooden staircases and totem poles. It looks just like a set from “Men in Trees.” Dozens of canneries have made it the “salmon capital of the world” and the Misty Fjords National Monument is one of the area’s must-see attractions.
If indigenous art wins your heart then you’ll dig the Tongass Heritage Center (601 Deermount Street.) The Heritage Center’s collection of totem poles ranges from those rescued from abandoned Indian villages outside Ketchikan to those donated so that they can be preserved. The collection is impressive and conveys a very strong sense of the veneration indigenous people have for their natural surroundings.
For shoppers and you creative types, a major attraction will be the Soho Coho Art Gallery (5 Creek Street), a 5-minute stroll from the dock and across the creek which runs through the town. Its elevated status is due to its proprietor, legendary local painter/musician Ray Troll, whose work is funny, vibrant and informed. Troll conceives and makes his own T-shirts, cards and artifacts, all of which are brilliant, and his wife Michelle handles the store together with an amiable and attractive staff. This is where you are going to find your great non-souvenir gifts/art for friends back home, and it quickly became our favorite store. Above the gallery is the Parnassus bookstore, an excellent place for books and cards about Alaska and by local writers.
On the walk back to the ship we discovered an old-school diner, the Pioneer Café (619 Mission Street). What seduced us were the old tufted leather booths, the senior citizen waitresses, the black-and-white checkerboard linoleum floor and the fact that they had reindeer sausage on the menu. Needless to say, we had a second breakfast and it was great!
Day 7: Exploring the HAL Kids Club & Spa En Route from Alaska
A day of relaxation at sea heralded our final port of call, Victoria B.C. We took the opportunity to do some final exploration aboard our ship. HAL prides itself in catering to families, although there were not many young children on this particular cruise. Multi-generational groups are welcomed, sometimes for organized reunions; as are gay and lesbian passengers (occasionally on special cruises). The disabled, including those in wheel-chairs, are made to feel right at home with special arrangements, events and facilities provided throughout the ship. Corporate meetings and small conventions are accommodated with equal ease and HAL makes sure these people fit right in to daily life aboard, quite unobtrusively.
Children get very special consideration aboard HAL’s ships with day-care and evening-care facilities, baby sitting services and a full daily program, broken into three age groups. While teens have their own retreat, complete with video arcade, those in the pre-teen and the 3 to 7 age groups are in the full-time care of qualified Counselors; each trained in education, child development, tourism, CPR and 1st Aid. The joy of caring for these youngest kids is expressed in their own special, brightly colored room high above the ocean. Here they start the cruise by making their own rules, recorded on the wall for each and all to live by. On this cruise the kid’s rules read:
1. No puking on each other.
2. No harming equipment/toys.
3. No breaking crayons.
4. No running.
5. Pay attention to Jenn (counselor)
6. No hurting each other.
7. No throwing things.
8. No sitting on the top ledge (the back of the auditorium-style seating modules).
9. Do not leave this room without Jenn or parents.
The Greenhouse Spa offers a comprehensive variety of treatments in luxurious surroundings and a highly skilled staff is on tap there every day. Book early! Close by the spa is a state-of-the-art fitness center with trainers to suit every need and equipment to satisfy the most fastidious exercise regimen. Both of these facilities were clearly very popular and well used by all age groups throughout the trip.
HAL is ahead of the curve in its attention to the environment and its responsibilities in sharing these pristine waters of the Alaska coastline. A permanent appointment on board is the Environmental Officer, a senior staff officer reporting directly to the Captain, whose job it is to be certain that every aspect of environmental concern is addressed and properly taken care of in port and at sea. No small task when you consider the ship as a small town, in population and function, with all of its attendant requirements for fuel, food and water consumption, waste disposal, laundry and myriad similar public facilities.
Exploring Victoria, BC
Noordam docked at one of three giant slips at Ogden Point Terminal, Victoria, with six hours (including three hours of daylight) accorded us to roam around the city and its famous harbor before sailing at midnight for Seattle. Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island at a deep water harbor, Victoria is a global tourism destination with nearly 4 million visitors a year. An historically popular cliché about Victoria B.C. is that it is for “the newly wed and nearly dead” due to its large retiree population (6½ % of the population is over 80 years of age.) But this night, British Columbia’s beautiful capital was teeming with activity. There were street performers all over the place, including folksingers and a mad violinist dressed as Darth Vader playing Paganini solos.
There is a walking path, the Government Street Causeway that stretches around the contours of the Inner Harbor. Getting on it at the Ogden Point Terminal, we walked along the waterfront about 25 minutes, past a cove of houseboats, to downtown Victoria. Victoria has the feel of an artist’s colony, very relaxed, a come-as-you-are atmosphere.
A pleasant way to get an overview of the city and its very pleasant residential areas, is to take a brief City Tour ($34, pre-booked on board). The well informed driver/guide is full of interesting details and leaves you feeling you really know this delightful city very well indeed. We paused at the grand Empress Hotel, guarding the harbor like some sort of medieval castle, one of those places that you silently promise yourself you’ll come back to someday. There were plenty of places to shop for gifts and souvenirs, among them an Irish linen shop, a Scottish Tartan shop and a sensational gift shop called Seeing is Believing (1020 Government Street) where you can even buy a screaming flying monkey.
Walking back to the ship after dark, ready for the “last supper” of the cruise we were, perhaps unspoken, a trifle sad since we were due to arrive back in Seattle early next morning.
We met in the Explorers Lounge to check our respective emails for the last time and made a date for breakfast on the Lido deck, where it all began. And so, back to Seattle, where one of the many impressive experiences of this HAL cruise was yet to unfold.
The ship’s own staff and the HAL shore staff have fine-tuned the massive disembarkation process to the point that it is totally seamless. They managed to get everyone organized and ashore, through the baggage claim area and out into their respective transportation areas (airport transfer buses, local taxis, rental cars, etc.) all in about an hour and a half. Painless, and very efficiently done.
What is there left to say? The cruise may be over but the memories will linger on.
Photos courtesy totsie14, kimberlykv, mathplourde, zhengxu, and amerune via Flickr Creative Commons License
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