DISENCHANTMENT BAY, Alaska - "The clientele is definitely getting younger," says Captain Jonathan Mercer, discussing the changing demographic aboard his ship, Holland America's ms Oosterdam. Mercer has been at the helm of the Oosterdam since its inaugural voyage in 2003, and his experience is evident as we effortlessly cruise past large chunks of blue ice toward the behemoth that defines a journey into Alaska's storied Inside Passage, the Hubbard Glacier. Standing 75 miles long and 7 miles wide (and still advancing), the massive sheet of ice and snow easily takes up our panorama.
"We're still 3 miles away," says Mercer. "I plan on going as close as one-third of a mile."
Soon, my two children are staring in awe at the trellises of white and blue ice that make up the largest snowfield they most likely will ever see. Mercer slides the ship to the port side so we can see the glacier calve. Huge chunks of ice slide off the face and splash into the waters of Disenchantment Bay as Jake, 11, grabs the camera and tries to capture the moment.
Alaska was my family's first cruise. We had bypassed the Disney cruises when the children were younger, not having the patience to deal with hundreds of toddlers in a confined space. I wanted a real cruise, one that would appeal to my daughter, Melanie, 9, and to my 77-year-old father. Alaska and the weeklong jaunt aboard the Oosterdam fit the bill handsomely. We liked the fact that Holland America has been taking passengers through the Inside Passage since 1947. And unlike a Mediterranean cruise where you must try to see Barcelona or Rome in a day, six hours is the perfect amount of time to see Juneau, Sitka, or Ketchikan.
We enjoyed two days at sea, traveling close to 900 nautical miles from Seattle to Juneau. Binoculars in hand, we would stroll the outside promenade in the early morning, finding porpoises and some of the humpback whales that make their way to the Inside Passage each summer from Hawaii.
To my landlubber wife, arguably the best part of the trip is that you're sheltered on both sides of the Inside Passage by islands, so there were no powerful swells.
The following might help you decide whether an Alaskan cruise is right for your family.
The berth: We decided on one cabin with a queen-size bed and two wall-mounted beds. It was a tight space with little or no privacy. Parents with older children should opt for two cabins. The room steward folded back the wall-beds in the morning and set them back up in the evening to maximize space.
Food: We've stayed at many all-inclusive resorts, so I expected the same quality. I was happily surprised that the food on the cruise was vastly superior. Holland America offers specialties of the Pacific Northwest, such as fresh Alaskan king crab legs, coho salmon, halibut, tuna, and tender sablefish. The kids were especially pleased with the service. Our waiter, Paul, would say in his sweetest Indonesian accent, "Hello, Melanie, are we having the Baked Alaska for dessert tonight?" No wonder she said "I miss Paul" the first night back home.
Amenities: The Oosterdam is 11 decks high with a capacity of 1,848 passengers and a crew of 800, so it's a large boat with loads of things to do. The kids enjoyed swimming in the ninth-floor pool (where the glass roof opens to the sky on sunny days), playing ping-pong, going to the library on the third floor for games of Rummikub and Scrabble, and heading to Club HAL, a kids-only room with activity counselors. Mom and Dad liked the workout facility with yoga and aerobics classes, listening to an onboard naturalist speak about local wildlife, and lounging in the comfy leather recliners in the 10th-floor Crow's Nest. Grandma and Grandpa danced to swing music in the Ocean Bar before dinner and listened to live classical music at the Explorer's Lounge afterwards.
Entertainment: Nightly entertainment in the three-story-high Vista Show Lounge included a ventriloquist named Mike Robinson that had the crowd roaring, a song-and-dance revue choreographed by Tommy Tune, and a Las Vegas-style magic show. Our favorite entertainers, however, were the amateurs who appeared at the Oosterdam Superstar competition. Much like "American Idol," passengers had to sing a song karaoke-style and then be subjected to the judges, including a mean Simon Cowell wannabe. (We were fortunate that there were some incredibly talented singers in the mix.) The ship also has a casino, piano bar, and dance club.
The cruise started in Seattle and made stops at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria, British Columbia, before disembarking back in Seattle. Numerous activities were offered at each locale including:
Juneau: For $12 round-trip, you can grab one of the blue Mendenhall Glacier Express buses and 20 minutes later be staring at Juneau's best-known landmark. On the drive over, look for bald eagles perched on the shores of Gastineau Channel. Impressed as we were with this massive glacier, we spent most of our time on the Steep Creek Salmon Trail watching hundreds of large coho salmon make their way upstream. We also spotted one brown bear dining along the banks.
My daughter's favorite part of the cruise was a dogsledding excursion we took with Iditarod musher Hugh Neff. Neff competed in this year's 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. In the summer months, he trains his huskies in Juneau and takes guests on a spin with the dogs through an old-growth forest just outside of town. When there is no snow on the ground, he uses wheels, but the dogs are the same ones he uses on the Iditarod.
Sitka: Unlike Juneau and Ketchikan, where cruise ship passengers are quickly immersed in streets filled with souvenir shops, Sitka has more of an authentic feel. Walk along the harbor to the Sheldon Jackson College Aquarium, where three large touch-tanks hold indigenous sea cucumbers and starfish. Then go through the totem poles at Sitka National Historic Park to the Alaska Raptor Center. Every year, up to 200 birds of prey, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, and owls are brought to this avian hospital to rehabilitate. While there, we saw a 10-week-old bald eagle that fell out of its nest and an adult eagle that flew into a high-voltage line.
A price of $115 for adults and $85 for children might seem steep for the three-hour Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest in the waters surrounding Sitka, but don't hesitate to splurge. Not only did we see exquisite scenery, like volcanic Mount Edgecomb and the snowcapped peaks that rise dramatically from the shores of Redoubt Bay, but the abundance of marine life was incredible. Within moments of leaving the docks at Sitka, we spotted humpbacks raising their tails, harbor seals, bald eagles, a colony of more than 50 sea otters lounging in the kelp, puffins, sea lions, and another whale's tail, this time a gray whale. As our captain, Steve Ramp, said, "Sitka is nature in the raw."
Ketchikan: The long inlet of its harbor is ideal for sea kayaking. One outfitter brings you past the fishing boats and canneries of town, while another takes you to more remote waters to see harbor seals.
Victoria: The resplendent Butchart Gardens, a 20-minute drive outside of town, stays open until 10 p.m. in the summer. By all means, take time to smell some of the 250 varieties blooming in the Rose Garden, see the array of dazzling colors in the Sunken Garden, the large, prehistoric-looking gunnera leaves found near the Ross Fountain, and the soothing waters and bamboo trees of the Japanese Garden.
Stephen Jermanok, a Newton- based freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.