Kristi received media rates including accommodations, activities and the cruise. As always, her thoughts and opinions are her own.
An Alaska family vacation has become synonymous with an Alaska cruise vacation. In 2012, one million visitors, almost two-thirds of all summer visitors, arrived in Alaska on a cruise ship. Like the majority of Alaska cruise ship passengers, I disembarked the ship completely smitten with Alaska — that was ten years ago. This summer I returned to Alaska — this time with kids — and spent two weeks exploring Southeast Alaska by ferry, small plane and small ship cruise; I’m smitten all over again.
Most Alaska cruises leave out of Vancouver or Seattle, however, the small ships which carry less than 100 passengers, generally depart from a port within Southeast Alaska. Our seven day Un-Cruise Adventures trip was round trip from Juneau, making it convenient to explore the nearby towns via the well-developed ferry and small plane network.
We spent three days in Juneau pre-cruise, one night in Skagway, and three nights in Haines post-cruise. In hindsight, I would schedule any additional travel before the cruise departure as we found ourselves exhausted after seven days of activity and the unending Alaska daylight that makes bedtime come later and later.
If you have 10 days: I’d recommend spending your extra pre-cruise time in Juneau or take a one-hour, small plane Wings of Alaska flight to Skagway or Haines for one or two nights.
Weather Note: Weather is always a travel factor in Southeast Alaska which is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in world. The region receives more than 100 inches of rain per year and flights and ferries schedules are weather dependent.
The quick, two-hour flight from Seattle belies the fact that Alaska’ state capital is inaccessible by road. Juneau is surrounded by the snow-capped mountains of the Juneau Icefield and the glacier carved Gastineau Channel.
It’s a top port for cruise ships and the town of 30,000 residents swells in the summer when multiple cruise ships call this home for a day. We spent three days in Juneau but you can get a good feel for the city in two days.
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Juneau is well known for its glacier activities, whale watching, and sport fishing. With kids, the drive-up Mendenhall Glacier is a must-see with an exceptional visitor’s center, hiking trails and wildlife including black bears. For a more personal visit with a glacier, glacier trekking and dog sledding excursions are available but at $300-600 per person it’s an expensive excursion for a family.
If you’re thinking about whale watching, Juneau is the place to take a cruise. Humpback whales summer in Alaska’s rich feeding grounds and in their sated state, they put on tremendous shows with breaching and group bubble net feeding.
Un-Cruise Adventures is a small ship cruise line that caters to passengers looking for personalized experiences and adventures in nature. They offer several Alaska cruise itineraries including designated Kids in Nature cruises with special activities and discounted rates for kids under 12.
The luxury seven night Discoverers’ Glacier Country cruise does not stop in ports; it weaves its way through the fjords, inlets and bays of the Inside Passage with glacier and waterfall views at every turn. While the ship has a set course if a group of whales or Orcas or a bear is spotted, there’s flexibility to stop or follow them at a safe distance.
Our first night out we spent three hours with a group of humpback whales until we could only see their flukes (tails) in the moonlight.
The atmosphere onboard is casual and relaxing. During the nightly cocktail hour in the lounge, passengers talk about their day while the kids play board and card games – there are no video games. Meals are sit-down and several nights there are wildlife presentations.
The service, the food, the immersive excursions and the small group atmosphere combine to create an unparalleled experience for each passenger.
Three hours after we disembarked from the cruise, we landed in Skagway. Our one-hour, nine-seat plane ride with Wings of Alaska doubled as a flight seeing excursion. We saw many glaciers on our cruise, but seeing them from the air reinforced their magnificence.
Skagway is another stop on the cruise ship route and the town is overrun during the day with visitors and a virtual ghost town at night when the cruise ships leave. It’s a well preserved gold rush town that served as a starting point for gold rush seekers journeying to the Klondike gold fields in Canada.
The most popular excursion is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad narrow gauge train which takes passengers through the same arduous terrain that gold rush seekers traveled in 1898. The National Park Service has excellent educational gold rush exhibits throughout town.
Skagway is also one of few places where kids under eight can zipline – the three hour excursion was a huge hit with the kids.
After a night in Skagway, we traveled 45 minutes by fast ferry to Haines, which bills itself as the adventure capital of Alaska. Haines sees only a few cruise ships a week and has a stable year round population of 2,500 residents so the town never feels like a cruise ship port.
If you’ve ever seen the 1990’s TV show Northern Exposure, it feels a bit like that – quirky, outdoorsy and friendly – a place where we felt comfortable letting our kids, eight and ten, explore the downtown on their own.
Arriving in Haines is a gorgeous sight as your eyes travel up the hill to the early 1900’s era military buildings of Ft. Seward. This is a good place to rent a car because there are areas to explore especially if you are searching for the elusive brown bears which populate the area.
Later in July, when the salmon are running, you can see them catching dinner in the river.
Haines also has four wheeled vehicle excursions into the mountains, lake and river fishing and float and flat bottom jet boat tours into the bald eagle preserve. We found surprises at every turn in Haines: the miniscule Haines Brewing Company, which also brews spectacular root beer is located on the old movie set of White Fang, there’s a museum dedicated solely to hammers and the Discovery Channel’s Gold Rush series also films here. If you want to experience small town Alaska, visit Haines.
Whether your cruise leaves out of Southeast Alaska or another city, a visit to Denali National Park, north of Anchorage, is a popular pre- and post-cruise destination. To fully appreciate the park you need to take a six to eight hour bus ride into the heart of the park and stay a few nights. We decided to leave this for our next trip to Alaska but if you go, plan at least a two night stay inside the park.
All photos by Kristi Marcelle
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