If ever you’re in search of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, this trip to Alaska is the one to book, writes Kate Armstrong.
“I feel so small,” says 12-year-old Katy. She’s not talking about her size, nor her age among the 10 or so children on the trip. Rather, she is in awe of the Alaskan wilderness that lies before her: vast mountains with jagged snow caps, glaciers and waterfalls, forests covered in evergreen Sitka spruce, yellow-cedar and western hemlock.
I’m on a cruise with UnCruise Adventures, heading from Sitka to Juneau through a network of channels and forested islands along Alaska’s 1600km-long Inside Passage. And, thanks to the friendly kids on board who bonded early in the trip, I’ve become an honorary (adult) kid.
Our home for eight days is the SS Legacy, a replica of an historic steamer that’s comfortable and easy for children to navigate. The public areas have a spacious lounge-cum-bar and a saloon, plus two hot tubs and gym equipment. Cabins are simple yet pleasant, with a small bathroom and beds for two. Sleep comes easily – the constant activities (mainly off board) assure solid slumbers.
My trip is not one of UnCruise Adventures’ special ‘kids and family’ itineraries (one or two of which are offered each season), but, thanks to careful – though flexible – orchestration and a fabulous kid-friendly routine, the regular cruise suits children from age eight upwards. The ship moves overnight, so every day we wake up to new scenery. Two daily activities take place off the boat; these range from easy to difficult and focus on wilderness and wildlife.
Erin Kirkland, the company’s guest Youth Adventurist who participates in the special ‘kids and family’ trips, explains the itinerary’s appeal: “Families who want to bring kids to Alaska want them to experience another nature, want them to experience the grandeur of what they have heard about. But there’s more to the experience than seeing it – they become part of where they are.”
We – kids and adults – become more curious than Alice in Wonderland herself. We taste and touch, listen and marvel, ogle and cry at everything from chunks of ice breaking off the edge of the extraordinary Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay to pods of killer whales that swim past the ship.
It doesn’t stop there. From the sturdy watersports platform attached to the ship’s stern, we climb aboard skiffs and race off in search of eagles, otters and even bears that sometimes forage on the shoreline. We paddle along the Alaskan waters in kayaks, exclaiming excitedly when a sea lion pops up unexpectedly. We head off on shore walks to explore life beneath the beach rocks: sea snails, baby barnacles, sea cucumbers and anemones.
By the second day, the kids have settled into a routine – they are unstoppable. They drop into icy waters during the celebratory ‘polar plunge’ activity, and on one of the walks they even kiss a banana slug. (This rite of passage of UnCruise Adventurers is among the kids’ favourite activities; they are the first of SS Legacy’s slug club inductees).
Each afternoon, back on board, they race to the hot tub on the compact top deck before gathering in the lounge room to play word games, watch kid-friendly movies or curl up with a nature book from the ship’s small library.
While the wildlife and activities are wonderful, the captain and guides are exemplary. Their connection is real, their friendships genuine. They remind us that no question is silly and the kids fire away enthusiastically.
But by far the younger passengers’ favourite activity is the bushwhacking adventure – an open-ended journey into the unknown. In reality, the guides have plugged coordinates into a GPS, carry bear spray and two-way radios, and are fully versed on emergency procedures. When guide Hannah announces “We’re going where no one has been before”, the kids respond “Wow!” and “Really cool!”.
The kids invite me to join them, and together we follow the guides in Pied Piper fashion. We slowly make our way through thick forest on Chichagof Island, part of the Tongass National Forest. Hannah asks “What is Chichagof Island’s claim to fame?”. Eleven-year-old Owen nails it: “It has the highest number of brown bears in the world.”
“Right on!” we cry, and whoop with excitement.
To ward off any potentially inquisitive bears, the guides chat loudly while the kids join in the chorus of “He-ey, bear!” before falling into moments of contented silence.
For the next three hours, we crawl under logs, slide down small embankments and sniff flowers, identifying their aromas; “The chocolate lily smells like damp laundry!” Katy says.
The next day, I join the kids on a trek through muskeg bog. Guide Meg points out a large cushion-like mass of tiny and exquisite mosses and lichens. When 15-year-old Gabby announces “I kind of want to do a belly flop on this!”, Meg enthusiastically responds “You can totally do a belly flop!” Giggling madly, we throw ourselves on nature’s delightful squishy pillow. The mosses are not the only sponges – by now, the kids can identify many plants: bog cranberry, crowberry and bog rosemary, to name a few. On making our way back to the skiff, we laugh at the squelching sounds; we’re all victims to BSM (boot-sucking mud).
Back onboard, we head to the attractive dining room where meals are served. Most kids choose from the daily gourmet menu, though kids’ options are available, and the chef caters to all preferences and allergies. By now the young group is sitting together for at least one meal per day.
After lunch there are more activities. My favourite is the hike along the ridge of Lamplugh Glacier; light refractions render it an amazing turquoise blue. Along the way, the kids hang off Hannah’s every word.
“Alaska is made out of big chunks of land called terrains. These have been carried in by plate tectonics real slowly and have rubbed off along the coast of Alaska, kind of like when you take an Oreo cookie and rub the cream off. A lot of people call Alaska a… terrain wreck.” The kids groan with delight at the pun.
She continues. “We’re walking over raw earth – inorganic in nature with crazy rock and ice. But the beautiful thing is that it is a living laboratory for the return of life after ice because of the plants and animals that return when the ice leaves. It’s exciting to think about the power of life.”
It’s the kids who are nodding. Wisely. Knowingly. Like the future caretakers they will indeed become.
Erin sums it up perfectly: “There is no place like this place left on Earth. When we expose kids to a sensory explosion such as this, they leave different people to when they got here.”
But for now they’re just kids having fun. Back at the bottom of the glacier, they race off, their rubber boots kicking up small pebbles as they jostle each other. Their objective? To lick a massive iceberg that is propped up on the beach, and to paint stripes on their faces with glacial mud.
Best time to visit
UnCruise Adventures’ season in Alaska runs from April to September with departure ports from Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan and Petersburg. It offers cruises to other locations (including Hawai‘i and Mexico) throughout the year. uncruise.com
Best for kids aged
Kids aged eight-plus can travel on any UnCruise Adventures trip. If you travel during US school holidays, you’ll usually find families onboard. The Family Discoveries program, for kids eight to 13 years, offers a reduced cruise fare. Each year (specific dates only), there are ‘kids and family’ cruises where an UnCruise Youth Adventurist leads kids’ groups in activities and adventures.
Qantas flies to Seattle, where you can connect with Alaska Airlines to either Juneau or Sitka (depending on where the cruise starts).
13-year-old Madeline’s tips for kids who cruise
1. Form a kids’ table early on – don’t leave it until the last day.
2. Don’t miss the polar plunge.
3. BYO rubber boots – you definitely need them and the vessels don’t carry kid-size boots or rain gear.
4. Pack an extra pair of gloves.
5. Take naps when you can between activities.