Alaska With Kids
By Luisa Frey Gaynor
For most adults, a cruise to Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Where else in the U.S. will you find such a proliferation of glaciers, wildlife, and totem poles all in one spot? For children, too, cruising to Alaska is an adventure they will always remember. My daughter was only four when we took her on an Alaska cruise five years ago. But she still recalls spotting hawks from the deck of the ship, having a snowball fight on the hiking trails atop Juneau’s Mt. Roberts, and seeing totem poles and Native American dancers at Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan.
Alaska is best for grade school children and teens, since they can participate in the vast array of active shore excursions, but we found that even our pre-schooler got plenty out of our cruise. She has enjoyed hiking from an early age, and we were able to take her on a few hikes right from the port towns. If you’re traveling with an infant or toddler, I strongly suggest purchasing a baby backpack prior to your cruise so you can get off the beaten track a bit with your little ones. Shore excursions in Alaska tend to be expensive, so you’ll want to do some independent exploration while in the main ports of Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway.
Following are some ideas on what to do with your children in Alaskan ports, both independently and via group shore excursions. Since most big ships homeport or turn-around in Vancouver, I have also included suggestions on what to see and do with youngsters in this family-friendly city. I strongly recommend spending a few nights pre- or post-cruise in cosmopolitan Vancouver and renting a car while you are there.
ON YOUR OWN
Since shore excursions for a family of four can get very pricey, I suggest researching independent activities beforehand. An excellent guidebook is “Inside Passage Walking Tours” (by Julianne Chase, published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, available on Amazon.com), which details easy walking and hiking options from the cruise ship docks in Southeast Alaskan ports. Most of the walking tours can be done while pushing a stroller. The book also provides easy-to-read maps for each walking tour. We particularly liked the “Getting Out of Town” sidebars for each port, which describe local hikes. These adventures cost nothing and made us feel as if we were really getting away from it all and seeing Alaska in a very personal way.
* Car Rentals
A number of parents from the CruiseMates.com family message board have had success renting cars for their families in the ports of Skagway and Ketchikan. One parent said that with the car, they were able to travel farther into the Yukon from Skagway than the White Pass and Yukon Route train trip. The scenery was beautiful, and there were lots of places where the kids could get out and stretch their legs. This parent also noted that it was much cheaper to rent a car for his family of four than to pay for the train excursion. Cars and bikes can be rented in Skagway through Sourdough Car Rentals & Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org); PB Cruisers, Car Rental & Tours (email@example.com); and Avis, which has a seasonal operation at 2nd & Spring Streets (800-230-4898). Make sure you reserve your car well ahead of your arrival date.
Although Ketchikan has the dubious reputation of being one of the wettest spots in the U.S., we lucked out on both of our Alaska cruises. Like most southeast Alaskan ports, Ketchikan is compact and great for walking. Get a walking map from the visitors’ bureau near the cruise dock. If you’re looking for low-key independent activity with little ones, take the funicular from town to the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge for a good view of Ketchikan and Tongass Narrows. You may want to treat yourself to lunch at this lovely hotel.
A farther walk from town is the Deer Mt. Hatchery and Eagle Center. (Four-year-old Alexandra was able to walk that far.) There you can tour the salmon and steelhead trout rearing facility, which is located in a park-like stetting. The center is also home to a number of bald eagles for up-close viewing and picture-taking. From there, take the footbridge over Ketchikan Creek to Totem Heritage Center to see a fine collection of 19th-century totem poles that were retrieved from abandoned Native villages.
Our favorite spot in Ketchikan is the Deer Mt. hiking trail, which is not too far from the hatchery. This mostly uphill hike is for those in decent physical shape and features some areas with wooden steps for climbing. While this hike does not offer many scenic overviews, kids will be enthralled by the rain forest vegetation that grows alongside the trail due to the area’s wet climate. I never expected this lush atmosphere in a northerly climate, nor would I have expected to see such oversized vegetation — there were plants whose leaves alone were a few feet in size. You may want to take a cab from the port to the trailhead at Deermont and Fair Streets, in order to save your energy for the hike. After the hike, it’s an easy 15-minute walk back downhill to the town center.
I still cherish the photographs we took atop Mt. Roberts in Juneau. While all cruise lines sell tickets to the Mt. Roberts Tram, you can purchase them yourself pierside for a few dollars less per person. The ticket house/tram departure spot is located near the cruise dock. The views of Juneau, the harbor and Douglas Island from atop Mt. Roberts are truly breathtaking and were a highlight of our cruise. There’s a nature center and a few benches to sit on to enjoy the scenery. We hiked for a while on the paths and much to my daughter’s delight, we came across a huge pile of snow. Alexandra was thrilled to be in her shorts yet having a snowball fight with us!
Another option is to take a 20-minute cab ride from town to Mendenhall Glacier, rather than pay for the shore excursion for your entire family. While you will not be walking on the glacier, you will have great views of it. There are a number of short, easy hiking trails that offer glimpses of the glacier. Some of these can be navigated with a stroller; inquire at the glacier’s visitors’ center.
Skagway is proud of the role it played as the jumping-off point for the Klondike Gold Rush, and there is plenty of memorabilia from this period at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Located in town, this is a good spot for kids. In addition to the displays of artifacts, there is a 30-minute movie. The scenes of long lines of gold seekers trying to make their way through steep, narrow, muddy passes were memorable. The park rangers at the visitors’ center offer a Klondike Kids Junior Ranger program, which includes an activity booklet and a list of things to do in order to earn a Junior Ranger badge. (My daughter’s is still in her memory box.
If your family likes to hike, check out Lower and Upper Dewey Lakes trail. The trailhead is located at the end of 2nd Avenue along the railroad tracks, not far from the visitors’ center. This hike is mostly uphill; however, my daughter made it all the way to Lower Dewey Lake. While she and I headed back down the trail to town, my husband continued on to Upper Dewey Lake. He said that while the hike was very challenging, the spectacular mountain and lake views were much more rewarding than at Lower Dewey Lake. The visitors’ center should have a map of local trails.
If hiking is not your style, your children might enjoy Jewell Gardens, which includes a variety of lush plants and flowers as well as a miniature town and train.
GROUP SHORE EXCURSIONS
Although I am an advocate of independent port exploration, I do feel that many shore excursions in Alaska offer some very unique experiences. Thus, you may want to splurge and book a few activities that would be hard to do on your own. If your children are older, you should consider one of the float plane or helicopter rides over the glaciers, since the scenery is incomparable. (Note, however, that these rides are very expensive.
There are several other shore excursions that children will particularly enjoy. These are not typical bus sightseeing tours; instead, they get kids involved in hands-on activities. Following are some of the highlights that most major cruise lines offer. Prices vary depending on the cruise line, so I have not included rates.
- Alaskan Lumberjack Show: Kids can cheer on their favorite competitor as modern frontiersmen saw and chop wood and engage in other typical Northwest activities.
- Saxman Native Village Tour: This tour, which my daughter loved, included a tribal dance in a long house along with a tour of the totem park.
- Glacier Helicopter Ride and Dogsled Adventure: This once-in-a-lifetime experience is available May through mid-August. Check with the shore excursion desk for the minimum weight requirement for kids.
- Taku Wilderness Lodge: A floatplane will take you over the glaciers to isolated Taku Lodge. When we visited there, we were greeted by a black bear who likes to hang around and get some scraps of the grilled salmon that is served!
- White Pass & Yukon Railroad: If your children are train fans, you will all enjoy this experience, with its panoramic views. Since the excursion is about three hours, it may be too long for younger kids.
- Klondike Gold Panning: A costumed prospector will teach your family how to pan for gold — if you find it, you get to keep it!
PRE- OR POST-CRUISE VANCOUVERVancouver is one of those rare cities that offers the best of both worlds — it is very clean and cosmopolitan yet boasts breathtaking sea and mountain vistas. This fine mix of town and country means that there are plenty of green spaces for children to blow off some steam after a long day of sightseeing.Adults and children alike can spend hours in world-renowned Stanley Park. This 1,000-acre gem is right in the city, yet boasts small beach areas, hiking trails, rose gardens, playgrounds and cricket fields. Children will be fascinated by the cluster of totem poles in the park and will have fun at the Children’s Farmyard, Miniature Railway and small Vancouver Aquarium. From May through September, there is a free shuttle bus between major points of interest in the park. Better yet, treat your family to a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park.If your family prefers indoor pursuits, there are several kid-friendly museums. These include the hands-on Science World British Columbia, with its IMAX movie theater; Pacific Space Centre; Children’s Maritime Discovery Centre, which is part of the Vancouver Maritime Museum; and the UBS Museum of Anthropology, with its rich collection of Northwest Indian totem poles and long houses.
For mealtime, explore historic Gastown and colorful Chinatown, with their proliferation of shops and restaurants. Kids will enjoy Gastown’s steam clock with its musical salute every 15 minutes. While these two areas are in walking distance, I found the blocks between both tourist areas to be a bit shabby; thus you may want to drive or take a taxi between Gastown and Chinatown.
Reserve a rental car ahead of time, since there are many must-see spots within a short driving distance of downtown. Head to Grouse Mountain Tramway for a bird’s-eye view of Vancouver and lots of outdoor fun. In addition to some easy hiking trails, you can enjoy logging shows for some good, clean lumberjack fun. Continue on to nearby Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is the longest and highest suspension bridge in the world. Kids will find crossing the swaying bridge by foot to be very exciting, especially since there is a river beneath it!
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