Alaska cruises make for great family vacations thanks to fantastic wildlife, ample onboard entertainment and plenty of opportunities for adventure, as Harriet Mallinson found out this summer.
Summer vacation friendships are in full swing as we sail out of Seattle.
Before most adults onboard have so much as looked at their suitcases the kids have donned their swimwear and are hurling themselves into the swimming pools with abandon, leaping, bellyflopping and backflipping alongside new-found buddies.
Parents might well be admiring the skyline: look, there’s Mount Rainier! Oh, the Space Needle! But it’s the children who are really doing this Holland America Line (HAL) Sailaway right as they pile into the jacuzzi and basketball courts or co-opt the ping-pong tables before digging into hot dogs and pizza with gusto.
There’s no need to rush, though, we’re cruising up the Pacific coast to Alaska for the week onboard HAL ship Eurodam and there’s plenty onshore and onboard to keep the whole family well and truly entertained whether you’re after animals, pirate nights or a slice of the great outdoors.
Exploring the wilds of Alaska by cruise
Juneau’s Auk Bay recently celebrated some pretty Big News: flushing toilets were installed for the first time and a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in celebration – but that’s not why the tourists flock to this destination.
The bay is the starting point for whale-watching shore excursions – an absolute must-do when cruising Alaska (top tip – book these promptly via Holland America Line when you purchase your cruise as they sell out quickly).
Generally suitable for kids aged five and up, these trips out into Alaskan waters guarantee whale sightings (or $100 back) – and we’re not disappointed. “Tail!” the children squeal excitedly as we spot first the majestic beasts’ blow, then their shiny backs, before finally, the iconic wide V flips up before disappearing into the deep.
Although wildlife watching requires a fair bit of patience, the excursion proves popular with the youngsters as they try to count how many we’ve sighted or wonder what they might be up to underwater (sleeping, seems to be the general juvenile consensus).
The sea lions we later glimpse come with far less mystery, however. Slumped on a colourful buoy, they loll in the sunshine and scratch themselves like moody teenagers, exuding “You can’t sit with us” vibes – although you might not need to leave the ship to spot this amongst your own older offspring.
Mums and dads, note it’s well worth bringing binoculars with you to admire the animals up close (although our boat does come equipped accordingly for those without).
Kids become Junior Park rangers on Alaska cruises
It’s the day in Glacier Bay National Park that really delivers the goods. Park rangers come on the ship for the morning and afternoon to hold different kid-specific sessions on such topics as barnacles, trees and whales. Did you know, a humpback’s tail is the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom and it can terminate a killer whale with a single thwack?
Children also have the opportunity to become a Junior Ranger. Armed with a special activity and colouring book, they can complete a plethora of fun and educational activities to win their Junior Ranger patch, from learning about glaciers to writing a postcard home.
Adults’ needs are well catered for by the rangers, too, as the pros announce ship-wide over loudspeaker what to look out for. Margerie Glacier is undeniably the highlight: an almighty frozen wall (Game of Thrones springs to mind) that’s one of Alaska’s most photographed features. Keep an eye out for bald eagles, sea otters and humpbacks during your time here as well; you might even see a bear, moose or mountain goat on shore, too.
For more bears during your Icy Strait port of call in Glacier Bay National Park (the spot is home to the densest population of bears in the world, with three to every human!), the Spasski River Valley Wildlife & Bear Search excursion gets rave reviews while anyone after thrills on Alaska cruises will love the zip-lining or ATV tours (although be sure to check the age restrictions).
Admire Alaskan lumberjacks at work
Over in Sitka, your best bet for wildlife opportunities on Alaska cruises is the Sea Otter Quest, Holland America Line’s wildlife expert tells me. But if you’re trying to save money you can independently hop on a bus to visit the Fortress of the Bear (an educational bear rescue centre) and the Raptor Center (the largest bird treatment centre in Alaska).
Meanwhile, for something a bit different, the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan provides an excellent hour of entertainment for all ages just moments away from where the ship is docked.
The spectacle pits an ‘American saw mill’ against a Canadian rival and sees the lumberjacks (complete with plaid shirts and bulging biceps) chop tree trunks, shimmy up poles, run across floating logs and hurl axes as the crowd shouts “Yo ho” to support their allotted team.
You’ll even win a prize if you cheer the most enthusiastically and one kid always walks away with their very own freshly carved little chair (although good luck squeezing that in your carry-on).
Escape the parents at the kids’ club
Back onboard, Club HAL is where the children can shed the parents for the day, with age-specific events held for each programme such as charades, hula hoop contests and Zip Zap Zup.
There are also surprise themed nights every night from spies to pirates when kids can dress up and take part in special activities.
The jewel in Eurodam’s crown when it comes to the kids club, though, is High Score (only available on this ship and sister HAL vessel Oosterdam) – available to eight-year-olds and upwards in the afternoon and all ages in the evening.
It’s packed with so many fun games I’m reluctant to leave drop-off; think giant slide puzzles, wall mazes, table football, pinball machines, video arcades, air hockey, skeeball and more. No really, can I stay and play?
Top tip: head on over to the open house session on day one so you and the family can see how the kids’ club works and the staff can meet their future charges. However, only do so if your child has the energy for it, a crew member warns – embarkation day is long and a tired little traveller might get a negative first impression.
Additionally, be sure to alert staff to any special needs and don’t be late picking them up – Club HAL has a two-strike policy before kids aren’t allowed to return (and you don’t want to spoil daily happy hour from 4pm-5pm!).
Alaska cruises let you enjoy time together as a family
To enjoy fun and games altogether on Eurodam, swing by the vast lounge area in the Crow’s Nest – there are oodles of board games and jigsaws here plus plenty of comfortable seating for whiling away a relaxed sea day (yes, there’s a bar too). Plus, its vantage point means you can keep an eye out for that spectacular Alaskan scenery and maybe even some wildlife!
Elsewhere there are regular pickleball tournaments, art classes, wildlife talks, trivia sessions, line dancing opportunities and more to keep everyone entertained.
Want a bit of quiet? The library offers a more secluded sanctuary and is teaming with fiction and non-fiction books plus a whole section of Young Adult options for budding bookworms.
Come evening Eurodam is awash with music, from piano duets to upbeat bands. If you and the gang enjoy a boogie, get on down to BB Kings’ dancefloor, while you’ll want the World Stage for full-blown performances, from comedy nights to breathtaking dance shows.
One night the ship even hosts a “Chocolate Surprise” event which sees waiters serving up a smorgasbord of choccy treats which attracts cruisers from all age groups.
And, before you know it, that Seattle skyline will be looming back into view as one of the most thrilling Alaska cruises comes to an end. You may never want to see a hot dog again, but those friendships you forged could well last a lifetime.
7-Day Alaskan Explorer with Holland America Line
Seattle, USA; Puget Sound, USA; Stephens Passage, USA; Juneau, USA; Glacier Bay, USA; Icy Strait Point, USA; Sitka, USA; Ketchikan, USA; Victoria, Canada