An Alaska family vacation is on many parent’s bucket list. While planning a trip to Alaska, most visitors arrive via cruise ship (almost 2 million in 2017) and spend time in Southeast Alaska (Juneau, Ketchikan, Skaway and Glacier Bay), which is itself an awe-inspiring experience. But to really experience The Last Frontier, we embarked on a two-week trip on a Princess Land and Sea excursion which included exploring the Alaska Interior (including Anchorage, Denali and Fairbanks) as well as the southeast, to see just how kid-friendly Alaska is by boat, train and, yes, helicopter!
Why Land and Sea?
For many families, Alaska is a one-and-done bucket list item, so if you are planning a “big ticket excursion” you should definitely consider The Interior of Alaska (i.e. the “land” portion of Land and Sea). The Alaska landscape is dramatically changing. The shrinking glaciers and thawing tundra not only affect the panorama, but it also affects the plant and wildlife that calls that ecosystem home.
When kids can experience first-hand the effects of environmental changes, they become better stewards for the planet. While you can certainly catch glimpses of Alaska from a cruise ship, viewing a grizzly in its natural habitat or seeing moose, wold, elk and caribou and as you travel through their habitat on a train car offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can have a lasting, lifetime impact on little humans.
How to Do It?
Princess Cruise Line has been in Alaska since the 1970s (they are celebrating 50 years in 2019), so they have deep relationships in most Alaska communities. Princess is the only cruise line that owns lodges, as well as train cars, which makes for seamless travel (music to our ears when traveling with kids), so they are the go-to partner for many travelers for Alaska Land and Sea packages. If you can, book a MedallionClass ship, Princesses newest technology that make on boarding, managing services and keeping track of kids much easier. For more detail about how the Ocean Medallion systems works, click here.
You can bundle anywhere from 3-10 nights on land into your 7-day cruise, and opt to do it “On Your Own” (no prescheduled activities), Connoisseur (includes planned excursions and a Tour Director) or pick a few options in between.
We did the Connoisseur level, and if you’re traveling with a few other families, this is a splurge-worthy option, as the tour director handles every last detail for you, plus offers fascinating, detailed knowledge about each section of Alaska, and can tailor the content for a younger audience. The Princess tour director’s personalities and enthusiasm are well documented on sites like TripAdvisor.
Photo: Jacqui Boland
It’s Easy Than It Sounds
When you arrive at your first destination, you will receive a set of vouchers for hotels, food and transportation for the remainder of your land excursion, so everything is organized and easy to access.
TIP: If you’re doing a Land and Seas excursion, we definitely recommend scheduling the land portion FIRST. While Princess makes moving around Alaska interior pretty easy, after 4 or 5 nights in different lodges, it was a treat to unpack our suitcase in our cabin on the cruise ship and have our cabin and personal items safely stored for the rest of the trip.
What to pack
Sorry to report that the weather across Alaska can be un predictable and you need to bring a bit of everything. For each family member. we followed this blog post faithfully and felt well prepared. Layers are key. Bring fewer, hard-working items. Laundry rooms are accessible both on the ship as well as the lodges.
Following is a sample itinerary, based on our 14-day trip. Again, you can customize that land portion for 3-10 nights.
Day 1: Anchorage, AK
For most Land and Sea packages, you have a choice to fly into Fairbanks or Anchorage. Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and a good place to get organized and pick up any last minute items. Assess the weather and if you need to stock up on any last-minute gear (North Face, REI and local outfitters you can find on Sixth Street, Rays).
TIP: We spoke to other travelers who flew into Fairbanks, and think that city might be a better option for arrival with kids, as you can kick off your Alaska adventure with a visit to the “North Pole” where you take a photo with Santa year round and pet reindeer.
Where to Stay in Anchorage: Captain Cooke Hotel
What to Do: After a long day traveling, get some exercise and bike the Coastal Trail, 22 miles. We used Downtown Bike Rentals which is walking distance from the hotel but there are some e-bike rentals available as well. (TIP: spend the extra $2 for bike that has extra gears).
Where to Eat: 49th State Brewing Psst…Alaska is full of great breweries with casual, kid-friendly fare.
Day 2: Trapper Creek / Talkeetna, AK
This area is known as “South Denali” After the (relative) hustle and bustle of Anchorage, Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge in Trapper Creek is where we felt like we finally left the lower 48 behind and immersed our had arrived at the picture-postcard Alaska.
The Lodge sits on the banks of the Chulitina River, in Denali State Park (which is different from the best-known Denali National Park) and is the perfect place to do nothing but sit out on the big deck, waiting to catch a glimpse of The Mountain, as Denali is colloquially known. When the kids get restless, you can take an easy half-mile hike to Animal Planet-created treehouse.
What to Do: Spend the day in Talkeetna (it’s $10 round trip on a bus from the lodge). The cute trading post downtown was the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure. There is a small museum in town well-worth the visit, as well as the local artisan shops. If you’re feeling adventurous, the zipline tour is a blast.
Where to eat: Mountain High Pizza Pie, Talkeetna
TIP: Denali State Park differs from Denali National Park in that you can use motorized vehicles in the state park. A variety of ATV excursions are available and kid-friendly.
Day 3: Denali National Park and Preserve, AK
While the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge offered tranquility and mountain views, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is a bustling activity-filled resort similar to the Resort at Squaw Creek in Lake Tahoe, CA, or the Sundance Lodge in Provo, UT. With six restaurants and cafes, dozens of shops in the village and a river trail to explore, the Denali Princess Lodge is the ideal spot to camp out with kids. Additionally, all the the excursions you’ll want to partake in, including the Tundra Wilderness Tour in the Park, as well as other excursions, are easily accessed from the Lodge.
What to Do: You have the best chance of seeing animals like grizzly bears and moose on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (though not for the faint of heart, as it is eight hours on a bus through the park, out and back, with many stops along the way). Another splurge-worthy excursion is a helicopter tour with glacier landing. Consider this the BIG DAY of Adventure with your kids and some of your most memorable adventures.
Where to Eat: We we thrilled to find some yummy vegetables on the menu at Fannie Q restaurant with live music. Outside the restaurant, you’ll find a campfire and a chance to make your own s’mores.
Where to Stay: Denali Princess Wilderness lodge
TIP: We debated on doing a sled-dog puppy excursion, but we’re glad we didn’t when we found out Denali National Park does free puppy tours daily. The resort also has many kid-friendly activities, from card and board games to park ranger programs and walking trails.
Day 4: Train to from Denali to Whittier
There are various train rides through Alaska’s Interior, but when you book with Princess, your seats are “dome” seats (i.e. a spectacular 180 view) because Princess owns their own rail car. Additionally, all the seats are like coach-bus seats, all facing forwards and with pull down tray-tables (like on airplanes). Click here to get an idea of the train experience. Princess is also one of the few railcars that has an outside viewing platform which is a fun activity when kids get restless.
TIP: Don’t miss the dining car. The food was some of the best on our land portion of the trip.
Day 5: Arrival at Your Cruise Ship Cruise
This is where the Princess OceanMedallion system makes boarding the ship seamless. First, if you booked via Princess, your luggage will be picked up from the Denali Lodge and delivered to your stateroom. Second, with your OceanMedallion wearable device, your on-boarding time is less than 30 minutes from disembarking to arrival in cabin with a quick scan a select entry point.
Note: You’ll spend two to three days on the ship with no ports or disembarking. First, at the beginning of the trip when traveling to and around Glacier Bay, and at the end of the trip, when heading to Vancouver or you port of de-embarkation. After a busy few days of buses, trains and other transportation, this hiatus is a heavenly break.
It’s a Big Kid-Friendly Ship
Cruise ships are a combination theme park/resort/shopping mall. With a 3,500 person capacity (including about 900 kids in the summer), it’s helpful to get a lay of the land and identify not only your cabin, but also spots where your kids are likely to hang out, including the kid’s club (Camp Discovery), the pool and their favorite restaurants.
Camp Discovery (as in Discovery Channel) features three spaces designed for kids of three different age groups. The Treehouse, which is a bright, whimsical forest and animal-themed space, is designed for children ages three to seven and features lots of hands-on activities, including an outdoor destination-themed water table. The Lodge, for ages eight to 12, is a cozy center inspired by the great outdoors that offers sports activities, games and a place for kids to hang out and lounge. For teens, ages 13-17, The Beach House offers a contemporary surf-themed lounge for hanging and socializing.
While participation in the kids clubs is free during the day, childcare is available in the evenings at Camp Discovery for $5 per child per hour.
Aside from the kids clubs, Princess also has a ton of kids programs throughout the ship, from Movies Under the Stars, to dance parties, arts and crafts, and sports. You can use the Medallion app to get a daily calendar of events.
The Discovery experience extends beyond the kids club to activities the whole-family can participate in, including Shark Week at Sea and a search for Big Foot or participate in a crab-sorting challenge (inspired by “Deadliest Catch”).
NOTE: Princess has a variety of cabin layouts available, including family suites, depending on the size of your family.
Day 6: Hubbard Glacier / Glacier Bay National Park
Bring your layers and binoculars because this is a full-day cruising event around the spectacular Glacier Bay National Park. You’ll experience jaw-dropping views from every window. Additionally, a local naturalist on board boat will present a moving talk over the intercom system about growing up in the area and the importance of protecting environment with helpful tips like the small things we can do today.
TIP: Scope out the decks well in advance. There are some—like the top floor—that will be crowded, while others are quiet with few passengers. Move around from deck to deck to enjoy the views and make sure to dine at a restaurant with views to get the most of the day. The Horizon Court was our go-to for the sheer variety of self-serve food options.
Day 7: Skagway, Alaska
Skagway will offer your longest day in port, so make the most of it with shopping and dining in town. There are no shortage of t-shirt shops and scenic historical building and statues around town.
What to Do: With kids, we definitely recommend a visit to Kroschel Wildlife Park, which is a 45 minute ferry ride to the picturesque town of Haines, followed by a one hour bus ride to reserve. The proprietor Steve Kroschel is kooky but entertaining, and the grounds are straight out of Swiss Family Robinson. All guests have an opportunity to see orphaned wildlife, including bear, baby moose, adult moose, reindeer, mink, porcupine, weasel, wolverine, fox, grey wolf, up close and personal, and can often touch (and kiss) the animals.
Where to Eat: Skagway Fish Company for crab claws and fish and chips
Day 8: Juneau, Alaska
The capital of Alaska has much to offer in the way of shopping and dining. The Juneau downtown street tour is worth your time to give you a historical perspective on the churches, saloons and merchants that comprise the area.
What to Do: Take a bear tour to Admirality Island. The Floatplane ride to the Island is half the fun. The guides on all Alaska excursions are knowledgeable and personable and will instill confidence even if you are petrified of bears.
Where to Eat: Take a Juneau Food Tour to experience all the best local foods, including crab bisque, hot wings and salmon.
Day 9: Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan is the shortest port stop for cruise ships, so if you are doing an excursion, you might not have time to explore the town. If you skip the excursion, you can visit some of Ketchikan’s art galleries where quilts, paintings, knitting carving and weaving are on display.
What to Do: Sport fishing is a big part of Alaskan culture and Ketchikan has a sizable marina where you can hop on a charter fishing tour or embark on a fly-out fishing trip to a “secret” fishing destination. All charters will supply all the gear, including wet-weather attire. We enjoyed Baranoff Fishing Excursion as the team cooked the fish we caught at an incredible private campsite that also served hot chocolate and other treats.
Where to Eat: Alaska Crepes. Whether it’s strawberry shortcake or Nutella & banana, a sweet or savory crepe is a great way to start or end your day when you’ve had your fill of fish and chips.
Overall, traveling with your family in Alaska in relatively easy, especially if you book through Princess Cruises. The hardest part about the trip is planning each leg and deciding which excursions to do at each destination and port. Fortunately, Princess has a recommended list of excursions and many are also vetted by Discovery Animal Planet or National Geographic.
The excursions chosen above were all Animal Planet or Nat Geo selections and we were thrilled with our picks. Look for the shore excursions marked as Discovery Family Tours, which are targeted at families with kids ages 3 to 12 and involve hands-on activities that connect kids to the destination. Animal Planet tours are ideal for parents and kids who want to see whales, sharks, sloths and other critters up close.
Come Back New. That is the tagline for Princess Cruises 50th Anniversary, which is pretty spot on, since science says spending time on nature boosts your immune system, improves your sleep, lowers your blood pressure plus a zillion other health benefits. So don’t be surprised when, after spending two weeks in Alaska, your whole family comes back new. Maybe they’ll even pick up their laundry?
Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Princess Cruises but all opinions belong to the author.