My family and I have cruised a handful of times, but living within driving distance of several ports in Central Florida, we've always opted for the warm waters of the Caribbean. An Alaska cruise had been a bucket list item for us, and recently we decided to make the trek out to the West Coast to try our hands at sailing straight into "the last frontier."
For four nights, we were immersed in breathtaking views, chilly temps and Alaskan culture. Our "Alaska Sampler" cruise — a shortened Alaska cruise experience that left from Vancouver, British Columbia, traveled to Ketchikan, Alaska and returned us to Seattle, Wash. — seemed to be the perfect test run at the time of booking, but it wasn't long after sitting on our cabin's ocean-front veranda, taking in the beautiful views that I wished we'd booked a longer cruise.
Cruise ports line the coast of Alaska, from Ketchikan in the south, dubbed "the salmon capital of the world," to more northern cities like Juneau, where glaciers and whale-watching abound. Our sailing, aboard Princess Cruises's newest ship, the Discovery Princess, was designed to give us a taste of Alaska cruising, and it absolutely left us hungry to explore more of this stunning destination.
How does an Alaska cruise stack up to the Caribbean?
How is an Alaska cruise different than a cruise through the Caribbean? All sunshine and warm water aside, the basics of a Caribbean cruise ship and an Alaska cruise ship are the same. On both, families will find pools and hot tubs (although it's often too cold on an Alaska cruise to use them), bars and restaurants, youth clubs and an activities calendar to keep kids busy, excursions, shops and spa treatments. In short: Relaxation and family fun exist no matter where you're sailing to.
What sets an Alaska cruise apart, however, is the experience. Lisa Syme is the vice president of Alaska project management for Princess Cruises — which has six ships that sail to Alaska — and describes the Alaska region as "compelling."
"The vastness of it is hard to communicate," says Syme. "There's a peace and a solace you get from seeing layers and layers of nature," she adds. "Most people don't live in a place where they've got that kind of scale and scope of an ability to see and be in nature."
What do you do on an Alaska cruise?
On our sailing to Ketchikan, we opted for shopping in the adorable port town, checking out historic totems and waving to seals who swam in the cool waters surrounding the port. And then there was our excursion: A trip to the George Inlet Lodge where we went on a boat tour of the area, fed fish to flying eagles and learned about how Dungeness crab are caught. And then, of course, we feasted on the sweet crab meat while waitstaff told us more about the unique little town.
At each port they visit, Princess has a lengthy list of excursions Syme calls, "specific to Alaska," from Puppies in the Piazza, where guests can meet sled dog pups to tours of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
"If you look at how many things there are to do as excursions in these ports?" says Syme. "Literally there are people who go every year because they just want to do it again and experience something different in the ports. People can go up on the ice and ride with the dogs on a glacier, and that's something special where a family can never match that memory."
On days at sea, the ship remains uniquely Alaskan, from the banners in the piazza to the Alaskan seafood served in the dining rooms. "We try to make the whole cruise feel Alaskan," says Syme, "not like you got on a Caribbean ship and went to Alaska."
When should you go on an Alaska cruise?
Alaska cruise season typically runs from May through September. While my family sailed in early May, Syme says the bulk of families with school-aged children book in the months of July and August — when school is out for the summer — so they can embark on a longer cruise and see as much of the area as possible.
"What families hone in on that's really great is that these are summer cruises and most of them are seven days long," she explains. "It's a perfect 'fit it in' trip, and ... it's super-common for families to go together multi-generationally or for siblings go as adults with their families. Alaska seems to be an expanded-family place."
Is an Alaska cruise good for kids?
My tween daughter and teenage son are hard to impress. Alaska blew them both away with its beauty: It was like nothing they've seen in their lives (same for my husband and me, truthfully) and they still talk about seeing pods of whales in the ocean below our room, attempting to get into the hot tubs on board in 40-degree temperatures and what it felt like to wake up in Ketchikan, surrounded by mountains and stunning views.
Were they cold? Yes. Did they sometimes wish the weather was more conducive to using the Discovery Princess's pools? Absolutely. Did either of them try fresh Alaskan salmon? Not even close. But the trip got them out of their comfort zones, showed them incredible new things and changed their worldview, quite literally.
And, while my kids have never been into the youth activities on any cruise ship, there is plenty of Alaska-themed programming for families who enjoy them. "You can put your kids in these kids programs on board that are free and educational," Symes points out. "We have a Glacier Bay junior ranger program where someone comes in and kids learn all about Glacier Bay and the wildlife there. In Ketchikan, we bring in the guys who do lumberjack shows and they tell stories."
"If you meet people from Alaska," Symes explains, "they are so passionate about Alaska, being from Alaska and living in Alaska. No one complains about the weather or the traffic: In Alaska, it seems like the awe and wonder never fades."
After experiencing their state firsthand, I can truthfully say I see why. And, as Alaska cruise converts, we're already looking at taking a seven-day trip next summer to see even more of the state.
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