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Cruising Alaska -- Now It's a Family Thing

Here's an overview of family-fun programs and kid-things-to-do aboard 44 (of 46) large and small cruiseships sailing to Alaska in 2006. Also covered: Traveling with children aboard the vessels of both the Alaska Marine Highway System of state ferries and connections to Alaska aboard British Columbia's network of BC Ferries. Links are provided to all 16 cruiselines and ferry systems in the Alaska trade.

If you're thinking about a family vacation to Alaska, and you're wondering if your kids would enjoy a cruise to "The Last Frontier, " wonder no more. Young family members from toddlers through teens have a blast on big ships and small as their vessels sail through the protected waters of Alaska's Inside Passage. Aboard ship or ashore, there are lots of kid-friendly, parent-friendly, and grandparent-friendly places to see and fun things to do.

It's true, only a short decade or two ago families with kids aboard Alaska cruiseships were as scarce as Alaskan Dall sheep lambs in a grizzly bear's lair. But the times have changed -- big time. Today you will find, in addition to the traditional hefty contingent of seniors and near-seniors aboard each ship, a growing number of families. Sometimes these groups are multi-generational, with gramps and grandmas, moms and dads, and kids that range from gangly teens to babes literally in arms. The reason? Word is out that Alaska's attractions are sure-fire hits for travelers of any age: attractions like humongous whales breaching full length out of the water, grizzly bears chasing salmon along forest creeks and rivers, icebergs (sometimes as big as a tour bus) crashing, splashing, and thundering off the faces of miles-long glaciers.

Too, there are opportunities to mush in a dog sled behind a team of charging huskies - after helicoptering to a lofty mountain-top glacier no less! Kids and parents can ride bikes through towering forests or down mountain paths and trails. They can also kayak among whales and sea lions. Whole families can fish for lunker king salmon. Or try their luck at gold-panning in creeks and streams. Newest craze for the young and the young-at-heart is riding a zip-line through the upper canopies of towering spruce and hemlock forests in Ketchikan and Juneau -- hanging safe and secure in a harness as they "zip" along a steel cable some 130 feet or more above the forest floor.

Or, less daunting, while visiting museums up and down the coast families can absorb the totemic culture and the history of Alaska's Native peoples. They can learn about the period when Alaska was "Russian America." And they can view mementos of the tumultuous gold stampede to the Klondike during the late 1800s, No question about it, Alaska has something exciting to offer every family member, regardless of age.

But what about life aboard the cruiseships? Will young people find the experience dullsville? Hardly. The mid- to mega-sized ships in particular are literally resorts afloat with swimming pools, spas, snack shops, ice cream parlors, outdoor game courts, video arcades, and movie theaters. Special staff members aboard these vessels -- with one exception -- include trained youth counselors. These crew members arrange age-appropriate social activities, organize games and sports events, supervise arts and crafts, take youngsters on shipwide treasure hunts, and generally see to it that cruisers from tykes through teens enjoy their cruise as much as their parents and grandparents.

Although smallship cruiselines in Alaska do not staff their vessels with special counselors for young cruisers, the ships are no less family-welcoming. These vessels can enter small bays and inlets where guests can view wildlife on close-by forest shores, explore waterways by kayak or in spiffy powered Zodiacs, hike remote island beaches, perhaps even stop for a natural hot springs dip in forested surroundings. One smallship cruiseline even schedules three Alaska cruises each year especially geared for family travel.

Regardless of vessel size, and with only a couple of exceptions, cruiselines in the Alaska trade actively court family cruisers. Few such travelers, young or old, find the experience anything other than "cool." And they're not referring to the weather.

Cruiseline by cruiseline here's a rundown of kid care and family fun on an Alaska cruise. The information was supplied by the cruiselines or taken from company websites.

Large and Mega Size Cruiseships

CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE's 2006 Alaska voyages aboard the 2, 124-passenger Carnival Spirit offer youngsters age 2 through 17 a variety of continuous supervised activities as part of the line's "Camp Carnival" program. Included in the line's Alaska sailings are a number of "just for Alaska" projects where kids can make their own dream catchers and totem poles and learn about the region's fascinating Native Alaskan cultures. The Carnival Spirit offers other kid- and family-friendly amenities as well, including a spacious indoor play room featuring an arts and crafts center, a 16-monitor video wall, climbing mazes, an outdoor play area, and a computer lab. When it comes to dining, says Carnival, "Youngsters get the full 'Fun Ship' treatment with expanded children's menus offering a variety of kids' favorites as well as a daily junior special." The menus are included on the back of a coloring and activity book featuring word finds, mazes, tic-tac-toe, crossword puzzles, connect-the-dots, and other games. Young cruiser age groups include 2- through 5-year-olds, 6 through 8, 9 through 11, and for teens 15 through 17 a program called "Club 02." (http://www.carnival.com)

CELEBRITY CRUISES' "Family Cruising Program" offers young peoples' activities in four age groups: On any given day Ship Mates (for 3- through 6-year-olds) may enjoy a clown party, treasure hunt, T-shirt painting, Legos, talent time, finger painting, dancing games, summer stock theater, cartoon time, computers, play stations, musical games, movies, ship tours, and ice cream sundae making. Many of these same activities are on the agenda for older children as well, but are undertaken on an older-age level. Celebrity Cadets (for youngsters 7-9) might also include pool olympics, scavenger hunts, charades, a fitness program, board games, relays, and team trivia. Ensigns (for pre-teens 10-12) additionally enjoy karaoke, relay races, ship tours, and pizza parties. Admiral T's takes in two classes of teenagers, 13-15 and 16-17. Members can frequent the Teen Club, engage in basketball tournaments, enjoy pool parties, and help put on talent shows. Celebrity vessels also offer a "Parents Night Out" program. On the two formal nights of a seven-night voyage, Celebrity treats parents to free babysitting when counselors take the children to a pizza party for dinner. (http://www.celebrity.com)

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE's "Club HAL" provides a variety of kid-friendly facilities and age-appropriate activities. Programs for children ages 3-12 may be found aboard 2006 Alaska-bound ships Ryndam, Statendam, Zaandam, Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, and Westerdam and for ages 5-12 aboard Volendam and Veendam. All eight ships have a teen program for ages 13-17.

Club HAL activities are designed to be age appropriate. For example, daily activities planned for children ages 3 to 7 may include arts and crafts, face-painting, camp-out night, candy bar Bingo, outdoor fun, and a pajama party. "Tweens, " the in-between travelers 8 through 12, may learn golf putting, attend dance parties and theme nights, compete in on-deck sports events and scavenger hunts, play arcade games, tie-dye t-shirts, or simply play ping-pong with a friend. Teens 13-17 enjoy The Loft designed to resemble a New York artist's loft; there's also The Oasis, a private deck where teens can soak up the rays then cool off in a one-of-a-kind waterfall. The Loft and Oasis are currently available on 2006 Alaska-bound vessels Ryndam, Statendam, Veendam, Volendam, and Zaandam. Teens will especially enjoy the teen disco, dance lessons, arcade games, teen sports tournaments, karaoke, trivia contests, bingo, play stations, movies and hot tub parties.

On most itineraries, Holland America provides at least one full-time Youth Program Director and one or more youth staff members. The ratio of Club HAL staff to children on board is 1:30. Additionally there's a wide variety of kid-pleasing food, including special sandwiches, tacos, burgers, hot dogs and pizza. For the very young baby food, high chairs and booster seats may be requested in advance of boarding. Baby-sitting services are available for a small surcharge and special birthday parties can also be arranged. (http://www.hollandamerica.com)

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE notes on its web pages that the line's Kid's Crew and Teen's Crew programs are filled with age-appropriate activities for youngsters 2 through 17. For Kid's Crew members aged 2-12, NCL offers everything from arts and crafts to pajama parties. Teens Crew, for cruisers 13-17 provides options like pool parties, a teen disco, a video arcade, and more. But don't, says NCL, think of these programs as "babysitting." There's very little "sitting" involved, notes the cruiseline. The programs are active, energetic, educational and, most importantly, fun. (http://www.ncl.com)

PRINCESS CRUISES' junior cruisers (ages 3 to 17) can enjoy a boatload of exciting onboard activities. All of the line's Alaska-bound ships have special kids and youth centers staffed by counselors who put on a program of age-specific activities each day. Group babysitting is available in the late evenings. Among a number of programs for youngsters is one specific to Alaska. Produced with the National Park Service, Princess' sub-teen "Junior Ranger" program is designed to bring Glacier Bay and the Alaska wilderness to life for thousands of children each summer. The program features interactive games, activity books, and presentation by rangers. The corresponding "Teen Explorer" program features similar learning activities geared for older youngsters.

In a cruise industry exclusive, the Los Angeles-based California Science Center provides entertaining interactive activities. Princess youth staff have undergone extensive training at the center, designed to enthrall young passengers with award-winning science projects. Whale watching, building and racing sailboats, marine biology studies and squid dissection are a few of the activities available. The line's website notes that preteens are divided into two groups: Princess Pelicans ages 3-7 and Princess Pirateers, 8-12. Both groups are entertained with age-rated arts and crafts, discos, movies and cartoons, exclusive kids-only dining, hunts, karaoke and lip-sync shows, afternoon ice cream parties, pizza parties, backstage and galley tours, pajama parties, and T-shirt coloring. Says Princess' website: "Our astounding teen centers are packed with Nintendo, movies, karaoke, giant screen TVs, card and board games, ping-pong and juke boxes." The site also notes that the Alaska-bound Sun, Dawn, Coral, Island, and Diamond Princess ships also offer a toddler's play area. (http://www.princess.com)

ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL provides a young peoples' program called "Adventure Ocean" serving and entertaining travelers 3 to 17 in five different categories. Youngest group (ages 3 through 5) are called Aquanauts and do finger painting, building blocks, play dough, music activities, dot dancing, and "shape Bingo." Explorers (6-8) have a Pirate Night, go on a backstage tour, enjoy nutty nicknames, and engage in autograph hunts. Nine to 11-year-old Voyagers do karaoke singing, have a Ga-Ga Ball, enjoy H20 Thunder Races, and do an art walk. Navigators (12-14) play in sports tournaments, have pool parties, enjoy a college night, engage in video games, and attend disco dancing sessions as well as a formal night. Older teens, 15-17 and called Guests, also enjoy dancing, pool parties, DJ training, Battle of the Sexes, plus a formal night and a Survivor Series. RCI's Edu-tainment programming offers: Adventure Science, a blend of hands-on experiments and wacky entertainment (example: Staggering Through the Stars, and a Wacky Water Workshop); Adventure Art, the opportunity to exercise creativity with crafts; Sail Into Story Time and Adventure Family. The latter is a free, onboard program that allows children 3-11 and their parents to spend quality time together doing projects that range from shipbuilding regattas to talent shows and scavenger hunts. (http://www.royalcaribbean.com)

Mid-Size Vessels

RADISSON SEVEN SEAS CRUISES' youth program, "Club Mariner, " provides adults who want to share Alaska's wonders with their children or grandchildren a complimentary children's program. "The program, " says the company, "offers the opportunity for every member of the family to experience Alaska in a meaningful, enriching way." The cruiseline's youth program is designed for three age groups: 5-9, 10-13 and 14-17. Throughout each voyage, trained counselors offer young cruisers the opportunity to participate in a variety of interactive adventures focusing on Alaska. Children will exercise their creativity with crafts while gaining knowledge about Alaska's diverse wildlife, its unique geography, its indigenous crafts, and its rich artistic heritage. Kids will learn about whales, salmon, glaciers and totem poles. They might draw and write about their adventures in their special Club Mariner scrapbook, bake chocolate "moose" cookies, go whale watching out on deck or learn all about eagles, dolphins, bears and sea lions. Notes RSSC: "Club Mariner not only makes it easier for families to travel together, it helps kids broaden their cultural and educational horizons. And they'll return home knowing more about Alaska than all the other 49 states combined!" (http://www.rssc.com)

SILVERSEA CRUISES advises that, due to the sophisticated nature of its cruises and programs, the company does not encourage travel with young children. (http://www.silverseacruises.com)

Smaller Ships

AMERICAN SAFARI CRUISES' Kids in Nature (KIN) cruises, include a luxury yacht as the schoolhouse, an Expedition Leader/Naturalist as the teacher, and the wildlife-rich waters of Alaska's Inside Passage as the laboratory. KIN convenes in Alaska aboard the upscale 22-passenger yacht Safari Quest with the first of two seven-night cruises from Sitka June 17. The voyage takes in various wilderness sites and communities throughout Southeast Alaska. and ends in Juneau June 17. Another seven-night Safari Quest sailing commences July 29 while an eight-night voyage from Prince Rupert, B.C. to Juneau embarks June 26 aboard the equally luxurious 12-guest Safari Escape.

Activities abound for all ages: kayaking, hiking on a remote island followed by a full-scale picnic, hopping shore-to-shore by Zodiac, viewing whales directly off the bow or dolphins right below, collecting shells to study, and more. Kids and adults alike are accompanied on a variety of personal-choice excursions while their yacht is at anchor. At the end of a cruise each child receives a Kids in Nature backpack filled with mementos of their various explorations: a certificate of achievement signed by the Captain and Expedition Leader, a tee shirt and cap, a pair of binoculars, disposable camera and a typed list of all of the flora and fauna observed during the cruise. The program offers kid-size pricing -- two kids under 12 for one adult fare.

Aboard other sailings during the season American Safaris Cruises' three yachts offer very upscale amenities and cuisine best appreciated by sophisticated adults. For these cruises the line normally discourages guests from bringing young children and does not offer specifically child-oriented services. (http://www.americansafaricruises.com)

AMERICAN WEST STEAMBOAT COMPANY advises, "We tend to cater to mature adults and therefore offer no special programs to kids and teens." (http://www.americanweststeamboat.com)

THE BOAT COMPANY offers special rates for young cruisers traveling with parents: 50 percent off the usual fare if occupying a stateroom with a parent, 20 percent off if occupying a separate cabin. The company's two vessels do not have separate personnel specifically assigned to youngsters on board, but the line does try to accommodate the desires of each passenger including kayaking, fishing, beach hikes, and other kid-friendly activities. (http://www.theboatcompany.com)

CLIPPER CRUISELINE has no specific children's programs or staff for younger travelers, but the nature of the company's routes and cruising areas (including whale sightings, bears other wildlife, and shore excursions) make it appropriate for family groups. Cabins can accommodate as many as three guests; for larger groups two cabins would be necessary. (http://www.clippercruise.com)

CRUISE WEST offers a children's travel special aboard the Sheltered Seas Daylight Yacht Tours. Travelers 12 and under sharing a cabin with an adult save 50 percent on Family Adventure cruise fares. Youths 13 through 21 save 25 percent. While many of the company's other cruises are of considerable interest for families with children, activities aboard ship are not specifically geared for young travelers. Cruise West is the largest of the smallship cruiselines serving Alaska and offers cruising options of family interest from Southeast Alaska with its totems, glaciers, national park lands and goldrush historical points of interest to Southcentral's Prince William Sound and beyond to Arctic waters and even Russia. (http://www.cruisewest.com)

DISCOVERY VOYAGES advises that cruises aboard the 12-passenger vessel Discovery are "definitely family friendly" and, in fact, the company offers a 25 percent discount for children 12 and under. Notes a company spokeswoman: "Due to the intimate size of our vessel we do not have specific youth directors but our staff (including Captain Dean Rand's daughters Hannah and Heather, who grew up on board the Discovery) is diverse in working with both adults and children as well as being naturalists and kayaking guides." The company often works with agencies and outfitters who specialize in family trips. (http://www.discoveryvoyages.com)

LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS welcomes voyagers young and old. And come September, Archie Comics illustrator Stan Goldberg will join a shipload of other Lindblad Expeditions travelers through the Inside Passage from Southeast Alaska to British Columbia. His mission: to create the second in his "Little Lin" cartoon book series of educational adventures for young people. (In his first book, Fun and Games With Little Lin, released in 2005, child explorer Little Lin discovers Peru's Galapagos Islands.) In his second work Goldberg's young adventurer will sail to Alaska and will encounter glaciers, humpback whales, bald eagles, and all manner of other creatures and their habitats along Alaska's and British Columbia's Inside Passage. In future years, the Alaska-inspired Little Lin books will be distributed to all families traveling aboard Lindblad Inside Passage cruises. (http://www.expeditions.com)

MAPLE LEAF ADVENTURES offers families the opportunity to view Alaska's glaciers, whales, islands, bear hot spots, beaches, hot springs and towns aboard the classic tall-ship sailing vessel Maple Leaf, a beautifully restored 92-foot sailing schooner built in 1904. The ship takes 9 or 10 guests. The vessel's on-board naturalist, chef and experienced crew can customize the trip's itinerary, menu and activities to suit family interests. Typical highlights include unparalleled proximity to ice bergs, glaciers and wildlife, sailing a tall ship, and great camaraderie between guests and crew. Special activities for kids include sail training, fishing (with purchase of a fishing license), hikes, and a customizable itinerary. Accommodations are comfortable but not luxurious. Because berths are limited to nine or ten passengers, it is possible for one or more families (two families of five, for instance) to jointly reserve all the berths for one of the company's 11-night Alaska voyages. Parents with teen-age children may reserve berths that are not otherwise reserved with the concurrence of prior-booked adult passengers. (http://www.mapleleafadventures.com)

State and Provincial Ferries

ALASKA MARINE HIGHWAY SYSTEM (Alaska ferries) is made-to-order for family travel along Alaska's coast. Depending on vessel youngsters will find onboard play areas for the very young, casual meals and snack bars for any age, movies, and nature talks plus expansive glass-enclosed solariums. These are ideal for spotting orcas (killer whales), humpback whales, playful porpoises and sea lions in the water plus mountain goats on towering cliffsides, and (for the fortunate observer) the sight of black and brown (grizzly) bears on passing beaches. Families with or without vehicles may embark as far south as Bellingham, Washington or Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Larger stateroom-equipped vessels of the fleet are the Columbia (931 passengers), Matanuska (745), Malaspina (701), Taku (370), and Kennicott (748). Depending on the season, one or two ships sail on weekly schedules all the way to/from Bellingham while others turn around at Prince Rupert. (http://www.FerryAlaska.com)

BC FERRIES demonstrates its kid-friendliness even before a family boards ship. Computer-savvy children or their parents have only to surf the web to http://www.bcferries.bc.ca/kidzone/establishing_shot.html and they will meet cartoon characters Samantha ("Call me Sam") and Cal, two seagoing doggy characters who introduce young viewers to three online activities - an electronic coloring book, a "Match the Ferries" memory game, and a virtual bridge tour. The 700-passenger provincial ferry vessel Queen of the North connects with Alaska state ferries at Prince Rupert for frequent access to Southeast Alaska ports. (http://www.bcferries.com)

Article Tags: Inside Passage, Learn About, Pool Parties, , Southeast Alaska

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