Glaciers, Lattés and Some Really Stupid Salmon: A Family Cruise through Alaska
[editor’s note: The Wall Street Journal reported in April, 2009, that cruise lines and resorts, faced with a decline in leisure visitors, are offering discounts of from 25 to 50 percent.]
By Dawn M. Barclay
My family’s recent northbound voyage aboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas (August, 2008) between Vancouver, BC, and Seward, Alaska was proof positive that our 49th state is no longer the geriatric destination it was once thought to be.
Instead, it’s one of great appeal to younger, more active travelers, and thanks to the line’s eclectic program offerings — both onboard and ashore — families with children of all ages can enjoy 7-, 11, and 12-night Inside Passage cruises.
The estimated average age of the 2,500 cruisers aboard was around 50, and we were among the numerous couples in their thirties and forties traveling with one or more children in tow.
This was the first vacation we’ve had together where our kids (Julianne, age 14 and Justin, age 11), armed with charge privileges for arcade games and unlimited soda, felt comfortable abandoning us for their own pursuits.
This is a godsend if you are looking for a family vacation where the adults can actually spend some quality time alone without worrying about the kids getting bored or into mischief.
Our quality time consisted of playing craps in the Casino Royale and working out on the ellipticals in the Fitness Center while staring out at glaciers and other magnificent snow-capped vistas.
Spacious Square Feet
Having had issues with booking adjoining cabins in past years where one child would inevitably lock out the other (oh, the joys of sibling rivalry!), we opted instead for one of the Family Oceanview Staterooms that Royal Caribbean offers aboard the Radiance.
Cabin 7004 measured 319 spacious square feet and consisted of one main room, one smaller bedroom and a private bathroom (shower only). The main room offered two twin beds pushed together to make a queen for my husband and myself, television with cable reception (including shore excursion previews), a vanity area, tons of closet and drawer space (including shelf space in front of the two picture window-sized portholes) and a sofabed that truly was too short to sleep a child over about six years of age.
We ended up propping up the couch cushions at the end of the bed to elongate it to the point where it became long enough for my son could sleep comfortably.
The smaller bedroom had a curtain to separate it from the main quarters and was a perfect little getaway for my daughter. A second bunk can pop down from the ceiling, if you are blessed with two children who would gladly share that little getaway and give their parents some much-deserved privacy.
Activities for Kids
My pre-teen son Justin, who immediately decided he was “too grown up” for the extensive activities offered at the Voyagers Club (ages 9-11), spent most of his time climbing the rock wall, playing basketball, swimming (we actually had a stretch of sunny weather in the high 70’s!) and joining his newfound friend Sklar for soccer matches in the netted outdoor court on Deck 12.
Occasionally, he’d deign to join us at the Colony Club for billiards or chess, or at the Schooner Bar for the twice-daily Trivia Challenge. He walked away with the title of Sports Trivia champ, which my favorite cruise staff director, Matthew Hayes, publicized no end to incite the ire of other onboard sports aficionados.
My 14-year-old daughter Julianne, on the other hand, split her time between indulging in specialty coffee drinks at Café Latté-tudes on Deck 5, where she could check her email via royal caribbean online’s WiFi service (offered at an additional charge of $.37-$.55 per minute), and hanging out with her new friend Gillian, a teenager who lives two blocks from our house but, ironically, my daughter had to travel over 4,000 miles to meet.
When she wasn’t playing at the arcade or taking makeup lessons and body treatments at the Radiance Day Spa, she’d play Rock Band at Optix, the private teen hangout.
For those with children younger than ours, the complimentary Aquababies and Aquatots programs (ages 6-18 months and 18-36 months respectively) offer 45-minute interactive playgroup sessions developed by early childhood experts at Fisher-Price (parents must accompany their children) while the Adventure Ocean Aquanauts program caters to children aged 3-5 (must be potty-trained) and the Explorers program provides ages 6-8 with age-appropriate activities.
Older children also have their own programs, divided into age ranges 9-11, 12-14 and 15-17.
All of the counselors hold a college degree in education, recreation or a related field, and are CPR-certified. Programs of the upcoming day’s activities are left each night in the cabin so the children can preplan their days.
Time to Regroup
Meals proved to be a prime time for the entire family to regroup. We’d visit the casual Windjammer Café for breakfast and lunch since we appreciated the more flexible hours and huge selection, including the hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizzas and other staples that our gourmet children required.
We’d enjoy a slightly more formal dinner at the earlier of the two seatings at Cascades, where my diet fears were assuaged by the multiple vegetarian and health-conscious entrées and sugar-free desserts that co-existed with more traditional fare.
Specialty restaurants (available at $20-$25 per person) included the Chops Grille steakhouse, Portofino’s intimate Italian dining, and a Mystery Dinner Theater for ages 14 and over ($49.50 pp) held one night during the week.
After the evening’s entertainment, my late-night snacking husband would head up to the Seaview Café (open until 1:00 am) for a quick burger before bed.
Diversity of RCCL’s offerings was even more apparent in the 160+ shore excursions, ranging from tame to challenging. Our selections were decidedly kid-friendly, filled with potential animal sightings and unusual forms of transport.
We started with the Rainforest Wildlife Sanctuary tour in Ketchikan where, while the black bears managed to elude our gaze, we got up-close views of the resident reindeer, bald eagle, great horned owl, and the sometimes unsuccessful spawning salmon (the ones that kept fighting in vain against the current and were repeatedly thrown backwards sent my kids into riotous laughter).
In Juneau, we took a whale-watching and wildlife cruise where the humpback population is so populous, there’s a partial money-back guarantee if they’re not seen (we found several, including some calves).
Afterward, my husband and son took an unforgettable helicopter trip to explore the Mendenhall Glacier, where they dipped their plastic bottles into the pure waters to drink melted ice from centuries past.
In Skagway, our multi-stop excursion included a historic and scenic journey on the White Pass and Yukon Railway up to Frasier, British Columbia where we enjoyed a salmon-bake luncheon with entertainment at a recreated mining village of Liarsville.
Finally, in RCCL’s private port of Icy Strait Point, our thrill-seeking men-folk took a ride on the world’s longest zip line, which plunges 1,600 feet to the beach at a speed of up to 60 miles per hour.
A Glacial Calving
We spent the early morning of our final day at sea sailing through the magnificent Hubbard Glacier where we saw (and heard!) the largest glacier calving of the summer.
For a vessel whose maiden voyage was in 2001, the Radiance is remarkable for its meticulous condition, the variety of décor in its public areas (including the elaborate nine-story atrium area with its glass elevators for which the RCCL liners are known and which kids adore) and the multitude of hip artwork adorning the staircase landings.
Between May and October of 2009 (the year which, coincidently, will mark Alaska’s 50th anniversary of U.S. statehood) the liner will offer sixteen northbound and southbound 7-night Alaska cruises between Vancouver and Seward, along with a one 11-night and one 14-night cruise between San Diego and Vancouver.
Published rates for the 7-day Alaska cruises start at $749 per person, double occupancy; our particular stateroom, without air, ran $1909 per adult and $649 per child, plus taxes, fuel surcharges, gratuities and shore excursions. Of course, we took our trip when the economy was in better shape; be sure to check for fare incentives inspired by the recent booking lull.
Call 1-866-562-7625 between 9:00am-11:00pm EST seven days a week or visit royalcaribbean.com for further information and reservations.
Dawn M. Barclay grew up in the travel business and started trekking around the world at age two (her family owned Barclay Travel Ltd. and later, Barclay International Group). She has worked in all facets of the industry, including a three-year stint as one of the editors of a leading travel trade magazine, and has visited all the continents of the world except Antarctica (it’s on her to-do list). Her greatest dream is to visit Nepal so she can come home and say that she’s just flown in from Kathmandu and boy, are her arms tired.
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