After cruising with our kids -- now 12 and 8 -- in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, Alaska seemed like the next new frontier to tackle. Its wildlife, vast stretches of ice floes and glaciers, rugged terrain and exotic communities of Native Americans make the cruise experience particularly alluring.
The challenge for us in planning this trip was choosing a ship. In the past, we've loved cruising on big ships as a family. The kids like the well-organized children's programs, not to mention the variety of recreational options and arcades. My husband and I enjoy the balance of spending time together as a couple -- and also as a family.
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Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) is a luxury line, featuring all-suite accommodations, pampering service and upscale amenities. Seven Seas Mariner, which regularly trawls the waters of Alaska and British Columbia, has one other plus that's relatively unique to high-end cruise lines: a dedicated children's program during the summer months. We were particularly intrigued by the ship's Ambassadors of the Environment (AOTE) program, which supplements the basic Club Mariner kid program. AOTE, through a partnership with Jean-Michel Cousteau -- son of the famed oceanographer -- focuses on more in-depth exposure to natural wilderness and wildlife in Alaska.
The trip we chose was a seven-night cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. Ports of call included Ketchikan, Tracy Arm, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Hubbard Glacier. Our 12-year-old son Michael wanted to see a moose and, having learned about the gold rush in school, was intrigued by visiting Skagway. Our 8-year-old daughter Caitlin was excited about seeing whales and polar bears. My husband wanted to relax on the balcony and watch Alaska pass by in all its scenic glory. And me? Having cruised to Alaska once before on a mainstream ship, I looked forward to the kind of intimate experience and pampering you'd expect from a smaller, more upscale line.
Still, I'll admit I was a bit leery about taking the kids on a ship that wasn't as kid-friendly as what they were used to. To me, the lack of constant onboard diversions seemed appropriate, as Alaska cruising's appeal is more about nature than casinos, rock climbing walls and arcades. Would our kids enjoy the overall experience or find it boring and retreat to their Nintendo DS's and iPods?
Starting Out in Vancouver
Vancouver, the urban heart of Canada's British Columbia, is not only a delightful city in its own right; it also is a premier cruise port of embarkation. Its first-rate cruise terminal eliminates boarding (and debarking) hassles, whatever the size of your ship. As well, some cruise lines -- including RSSC -- offer pre- and post-cruise stays at the luxurious Pan Pacific Hotel, located at the facility itself. The Pan Pacific also offers built-in services for cruise passengers -- Holland America and Princess were among the other lines that offer this option -- including bellhops who will deliver your luggage to the ship. The parking garage has elevators that will take you to the cruise ship terminal. RSSC also has a hospitality suite in the hotel with complimentary beverages and snacks; it was a good place to wait for boarding.
We booked a two-room suite with a master bedroom and a sofa bed in the living room; it was an ideal choice for a family of four. (Standard rooms, with two double beds, were also generous in size.) Another plus for the Pan Pacific was its proximity to the vast Stanley Park. You could spend a couple of days alone in the 1,000-acre park, which offers arts events, bicycle rides and kayak trips, horse-drawn carriages, the Vancouver Aquarium, a small zoo, a kids' waterpark and a series of cafes.
So don't make our mistake. We flew in the night before boarding and had only a half-day to explore Vancouver. What we did see -- via a trolley car tour that had a stop right outside the hotel -- was intriguing as the sights flew by. But we would have liked to see more of it.
How Do You Know You're on a Luxury Cruise?
Boarding is blissfully civilized. There's nary a line or a wait. The kids were greeted by a Club Mariner counselor and were given personally addressed invitations to orientation that first night. Nice touch! Our stewardess was waiting for us at the elevator bank and gave us a tour of our suite, a "penthouse," which easily was the most spacious and well-designed that we'd ever experienced. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, an extra large teak balcony, a walk-in closet and a king-size bed -- definitely the most comfortable we've ever slept in onboard a ship. The marble bathroom came with a bathtub and shower combination and a great selection of toiletry products. We also loved the fact that the mini-fridge in our comfortable living room was fully stocked with juices and soda.
The living area -- outfitted with a flat-screen TV, DVD player and comfy L-shaped sofa with a side chair -- gave us plenty of seating room for family games, movie watching and early morning room-service breakfast together before some of our shore excursions.
Primarily intended as an adult ship, most of the cabins on Seven Seas Mariner are not designed with families in mind and generally sleep only two. Suites ending in "7," such as 847, do have sofa beds, but most of those will only sleep one. You can request a cot, but it can get quite crowded unless you are traveling with small children under the age of seven.
If you are like us and have two older children, there really isn't enough room in a deluxe suite -- standard accommodations -- for a family of four. We booked a penthouse suite as our "family" center and then a deluxe suite -- basically what would be considered a mini-suite on larger ship lines -- for the kids. There are about a dozen combinations of staterooms like this that are adjoining -- and you can open your balcony door to connect the two suites. Alternatively, you can just book two deluxe suites next to one another, but then you won't really have a family room. The deluxe suites are a bit too cramped for four to lounge comfortably. Seven Seas Mariner also offers several larger suites that could work well for families.
One other curiosity for me as we embarked was that cabins weren't available until 2:30 p.m. That seemed rather late for a luxury ship. I later learned, however, that passengers -- unlike on so many other cruise lines -- aren't herded out of staterooms at dawn on debarkation day. They can stay through the morning, which is quite civilized. As such, the stewardesses do need a bit of extra time in the early afternoon to get suites ready. We really weren't bothered by this, as there was time to eat lunch, explore the ship and make spa appointments.
Testing Out Club Mariner
Our first full day onboard was a day at sea. Cruising through Alaska's Inside Passage, my husband and I relaxed on our balcony, enjoying nature's display of waterfalls, mountains, fjords and occasional sightings of bald eagles, while the kids attended Club Mariner.
We hoped the kids' programs would be so compelling that we'd have some quality time alone to relax amid Alaska's incredible beauty. So far, so good!
The Club Mariner kids' program divides kids into three age groups: 5 - 8, 9 - 12, and 13 - 17. Activities, of course, depend on the age; Caitlin, part of the 5 - 8s, made crafts (such as a traditional Alaska Native dream catcher), played board games, competed in an onboard scavenger hunt and participated in an Alaskan Olympics. She also got to bake cookies with the pastry chef (a big hit!) and took hip-hop dance lessons with one of the professional dancers onboard. Michael, on the cusp of 13, was a bit too old for the 9 - 12s, so joined the teen group; for him, highlights were playing Nintendo Wii and receiving navigation lessons on the bridge tour.
The ship's teen program faced some of the same problems we have seen on many other, bigger vessels. Trying to organize teenagers is a bit like herding cats. They sometimes simply don't want to participate in organized group activities. So, midway through the cruise, the teen program basically fell apart. This was a downside on the Seven Seas Mariner, which is only marketed as a family ship on a handful of voyages and, as such, doesn't otherwise have the kind of activity-oriented facilities that these kids crave.
As a result, while at sea, Michael spent a bit more time hanging out with us in the cabin --watching movies and occasionally sighing "I'm bored" -- than we'd have liked.
Speaking of facilities, there is no actual kids' center. Activities usually take place in the Stars Lounge during the day, the paddle tennis court for outdoor games -- such as tag and dodge ball -- and in the conference room at night. Activities were limited to those held onboard (with the exception of the Sitka shore excursion offered by AOTE); this was no big deal, as we planned our shore tours to be family events. There's no fee for kids to participate in Club Mariner, but there is a fee for AOTE.
However, the ship's ample offerings of fun, action-packed shore excursions were a huge success -- even more so than I'd anticipated.
Go-Karts in Ketchikan
One major difference between my first cruise to Alaska -- about a decade ago -- and this one was that shore excursions were more rugged and much more fun! In Ketchikan, our first port of call, we opted for the go-kart expedition through a privately owned rainforest preserve, at Michael's request. After a 40-minute bumpy bus ride, we arrived in the middle of the forest, where we suited up in raingear and helmets for an hour-long go-kart trek through the forest.
While it was a bit challenging to get an up-close-and-personal experience of Alaska's nature while racing go-karts along a bumpy and windy dirt road, it was a blast! Caitlin and I teamed up (Mom drove), and Michael and Dad teamed up (of course Dad took the wheel), and I must brag here that the girls raced past the boys. When they slowed down to go around a large puddle, we sped through it, splashing them with muddy water. Glad we wore our rain gear! During the whole trip, everyone wore a big smile, and we were rewarded with a “that was awesome” from our son and two thumbs up from both kids. Drivers must be 16 or older with valid driver's licenses. It's not recommended for timid drivers or passengers.
After our adventure on the go-karts, we happily returned to Ketchikan by boat, rather than bus, and explored the town on foot, enjoying its many totem poles and Creek Street before going back to the ship.
The Unique Ambassadors of the Environment
This kid-oriented program -- which was not part of Club Mariner but a separate program -- was one of the offerings onboard Seven Seas Mariner that appealed to us. Organized by Jean-Michel Cousteau's non-profit Ocean Futures Society and aimed at kids from 9 - 17 (Caitlin was allowed to participate, despite being a few months too young), AOTE was centered on a series of educational activities about the Alaskan environment and marine wildlife.
There's a $165 per-child fee to participate in the program, though it must be noted that it includes a shore excursion to a raptor center and a wildlife boat tour in Sitka.
The goal of AOTE is to inspire kids to treasure and protect our environment, as Cousteau believed, “We protect only what we love, and we love only what we know.” The program is organized around four principles of nature: Everything runs on energy, nothing in nature is wasted, biodiversity is key and everything is connected.
Our overall impression was that it's a worthwhile program, and the naturalists seemed to enjoy working with the kids and teaching them about the marine life in Alaska. We also liked the philosophy they were teaching. At times, logistics and scheduling were a bit confusing, as it was operating separately from Club Mariner instead of being fully integrated.
In addition to learning about Alaska's wildlife, other activities ranged from making totem poles to nature watches and an opportunity to use a microscope to learn about plankton. A navigation lesson on the bridge was a huge hit for Michael.
Tracy Arm Cruising Through an Ice Sculpture Garden
Thick fog and rain greeted us early in the morning when we awoke for our catamaran boat trip through Tracy Arm fjord, and initially we couldn't see much. But luck was with us. The fog and rain cleared up just as we entered the spectacular Tracy Arm, and we delighted in the blue ice sculptures floating by us -- numerous small icebergs, intricately carved out by seawater. We glided past dozens of waterfalls, surrounded by a misty mountain panorama. Our nimble jet boat captain navigated adroitly around the increasing flow of icebergs to give us up-close views of the north and south Sawyer glaciers, surrounding mountain peaks and waterfalls, and several seals floating on icebergs.
At one point, we navigated so close that we were able to touch the walls of the canyon and run our hands through one of the waterfalls, much to the delight of our children and all of the passengers onboard.
An excellent naturalist onboard educated us about the primal and pristine wilderness surrounding us and kept us entertained with stories of the survivor skills programs taught in Alaska public schools. Did you know that seventh graders in Alaska schools have to pass a survival course? They learn lessons like what to do when you see a bear (keep your distance and avoid it if you can) or get lost in the woods and how to survive in snow. Then there's a real-life survival exam. The kids are taken out to the wilderness for three days to learn how to fend for themselves. They wear only what's on their backs, and are allowed to bring a coffee can full of supplies of their choosing. Otherwise, they have to catch their food, build shelter, make fire and, of course, avoid bears and survive in the snow (should there be any). Funny thing -- the guide told us that the kids in Alaska are quite amused that television's "Survivor" makes such a big deal out of skills that they have to learn at quite a young age.
How Do You Know You're on a Luxury Cruise -- Part 2
Beyond the fabulous accommodations, the service on Seven Seas Mariner was also outstanding; while we've enjoyed fine cabin stewards and waiters on other cruises, on this trip it reached a whole new level for us. Fancy treats -- crab, caviar, shrimp -- were brought to our stateroom each afternoon. Caitlin, the family's choosy eater, sometimes didn't like what was featured in the buffet at the Verandah, and our waiter was always willing to fetch her a special order from the grill or the Compass Rose.
Occasionally the service was so good it backfired on us. On our first night onboard, we allowed Michael to have a soda with dinner, and Caitlin got a smoothie with the understanding that it was a special treat (and they'd be back to milk the next night). However, the waiter remembered their choices and would proactively bring the same drinks each night. They were delighted, of course. Me? Not so much. But I appreciated the gesture.
Canoeing at Glacier Point
In Skagway, we decided to take the Glacier Point Canoe Adventure; this tour promised an intimate visit to the Davidson Glacier. For the first part of the journey, we boarded a Speed Cat, the fastest boat in southeast Alaska. It took us to Glacier Point (population 11). Glacier Point was essentially a camp that housed the guides who worked for the company during the summer months. Incredibly remote, it basically consisted of a few very rustic cabins. There's no electricity, and everything -- from foodstuffs to supplies -- has to be brought in by boat.
One guide told us that he only checks into the "real world" on occasional trips to Skagway to get supplies and admitted it did get lonely for the 11 who lived there -- so much so that the guides actually give names and personalities to inanimate objects (the bus that took us from Skagway to the camp was called Sherman), but it must be said that Glacier Point is incredibly beautiful.
Wildflowers, such as magenta fireweed, grew in abundance, as did wild roses, cowslip and the giant cattails that lined the beach where we boarded 11-passenger canoes. Then, we paddled them out into Davidson Lake and glided quietly over to the glacier.
You can't believe the stillness and peacefulness this far from civilization. Everyone in our canoe silently soaked in the majestic beauty surrounding us. As our four canoes neared the glacier, its sheer size made us feel very small and insignificant.
Our guide was so enthusiastic. It was easy to understand why someone would make the sacrifices he and the other 10 have made, living in such rustic conditions, and he helped us see Alaska through his eyes.
The ride back to Sitka on the Speed Cat was equally rewarding, as we spotted several humpback whales – including a mother with her calf -- lunge feeding. We also saw several bald eagles, one of which was almost eaten by a whale when the two went after the same fish.
Romantic Dinner for Two at Latitudes
After such a powerful immersion into Alaska's wildlife, our dinner at Pan-Asian Latitudes, one of Seven Seas Mariner's two alternative restaurants, was otherworldly. The kids joined Club Mariner's youth dinner, so we settled in to one of the most delightful dinners out we've ever experienced -- onboard or off. At the intimate Latitudes, where dinner lasts for more than two hours, the decor, atmosphere and fantastic menu -- which emphasizes small tastes of several dishes for each course -- was superb, creating a great date night for us. Our meal started with pre-dinner cocktails and was followed by wine, served with the meal. And, after dessert, liqueurs are offered.
Frankly, just about every meal we had onboard Seven Seas Mariner was excellent. We loved how the Verandah, a hybrid buffet venue, was transformed at night into a casual eatery called the Alaska Grill. Appetizers and desserts were laid out, buffet style, while waiters brought main courses of grilled meat and seafood -- mostly regional fare, such as salmon; exotic meats like moose were not on the menu.
In-cabin meal service was also terrific; you could order room service-style fare or choose, during meal times, from the Compass Rose menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This came in handy for early morning shore excursions.
We loved the ship's open-seating policy in the Compass Rose, Verandah and Alaska Grill, all of which have plenty of tables for four, which makes dining more flexible and convenient when you're traveling with kids. The ship's chefs did a good job of catering to the less sophisticated palates of most kids in both Compass Rose and at the Alaskan Grill Lodge, offering simple pastas and chicken dishes, along with more elaborate fare. The Compass Rose also has a children's menu with the usual kid-friendly chicken nuggets and burgers. On the other hand, no concession is made to junior taste buds in either Latitudes or the French-influenced Signatures, so you'll want to try those on a night when the kids can go to the youth dinner.
One caveat: our kids didn't take better advantage of Club Mariner youth dinners because we didn't find out they existed until our fourth day onboard. Oddly, the counselors never mentioned them during orientation, nor were they listed in the Club Mariner daily program. Instead, counselors made the point, more than once, that feeding the kids was the parents' responsibility (due to allergies, we were told) and that we should make sure they were well-fed before taking part in morning, afternoon and evening activities.
But, it turns out that there were youth dinners every night, except the first one and the evening we docked in Juneau.
Sitka Raptor Center and Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest
Formerly the Alaska capital of a Russian empire, Sitka is also home to the Tlingit Indians. You can't miss the onion-shaped domed architecture of the Russian Orthodox St. Michael's Cathedral or the folk dancers performing native routines.
On this trip, we opted to delve into Sitka's wildlife. Part of the AOTE program, as mentioned earlier, is a shore excursion for the kids. The tour begins with a bus ride to the Sitka Raptor Center, which is an avian hospital and educational facility -- a refuge for healing wild birds of prey, who are suffering from injuries like gunshot wounds.
This tour, more than any of the others, felt more like accompanying a school field trip than a vacation expedition. It's not that we didn't find the center interesting, but the presence of all the kids, which I estimated to number about 60, overwhelmed the program's two naturalists. Any advantage to coming with such a large group was quickly erased when the teens got antsy (doing teen things like cracking dirty jokes and acting generally disruptive), and you simply couldn't hear the naturalists over the din.
We paid $145 apiece to accompany our kids on this tour and, frankly, could have arranged for a quieter and more satisfying visit on our own. It is a good option, however, if you want to enjoy an excursion apart from your kids in Sitka, which is apparently what most of the other parents chose to do!
After the raptor center, we walked quickly through the small, adjacent rainforest and visited a very small aquarium with touch tanks. Then, we headed down to the water for the Sea Otter and Wildlife Boat Tour, which was included in our excursion. The cruise along the Sitka sound, darting in between islands, was quite rewarding for our young wildlife spotters. Caitlin, especially, was energized by seeing bald eagles, humpback whales, sea otters, seals, sea lions and even two brown bears and delighted in scampering around the boat with her binoculars every time a new whale was spotted.
Hubbard Glacier and Our Last Day at Sea
Making our way north, on our last day of the cruise, we were up early so we wouldn't miss Hubbard Glacier -- one of the largest glaciers in Alaska and an anticipated highlight of our cruise. It is massive! The ice field flows for something like 76 miles and has a 400-foot snout. But unlike our canoe experience at Davidson Glacier, cruise ships can't get too close to this one because it's constantly calving (the term describes how the surface ice shears off from the glacier and lands, with a profoundly powerful thrump, into the water).
Unfortunately heavy ice flows prevented us from getting closer than seven miles -- a bit disappointing, as it's truly spectacular closer up, when you can see and hear the calving. The approach into Glacier Bay and the view from our balcony was still breathtaking. For this glacier, we confined our interaction to taking photos from the balcony and up on deck.
Once we'd departed the bay and headed on to Anchorage, we made plans to relax and indulge in some pampering at sea. This was our last chance to visit La Carita, the ship's French-influenced spa. The kids headed off to "camp," and I headed down to the spa. You could choose from traditional offerings like Swedish massages, facials, nail treatments and the like, but the more exotic treatments intrigued. There was "risotto" (rice and fennel buff the skin; it's supposed to help digestion), "just desserts" (you're rubbed all over in Egyptian chocolate in an effort to firm the skin) and a "tropical hydration body cocoon" (you're wrapped in essences of coconut, vanilla and frangipani).
There was also time, on this last day, to reflect on our trip.
Did the Kids Have a Good Time?
Did Club Mariner and AOTE measure up to our expectations and also to those of our kids? Did our kids have fun and want to go back to Club Mariner? For 8-year old Caitlin, the answer was a resounding yes. While I'd say that Club Mariner is not quite as good as the kids' programs found on some other lines that cater to families year-round, it was good enough for what we were looking for, particularly for 5 - 10 year olds, and our daughter had a great time.
Tweens and teens are a bit more difficult to please; unfortunately the teen program started to fall apart midweek for lack of interest and attendance, so there were a few times when our son was at loose ends.
I loved that our daughter would pipe up with some nuggets of new-found knowledge, which she learned in the AOTE program, on all of our shore excursions. When we saw totem poles, she knew they were made to tell a story, and she'd try to figure out the story. When we went whale watching, she knew what kinds of whales we were seeing and explained the differences to me. I also appreciated that every time we ran into one of the camp counselors or AOTE naturalists on shore, they were very solicitous of our kids and would talk to them about what they were seeing, even when they were officially off-duty.
As a parent, I'd prefer to see AOTE more fully integrated into Club Mariner, rather than being run as a separate, adjunct program. It became confusing at times, as we had a different daily schedule for each of the two programs -- many times with overlapping or competing activities -- and sometimes missed out on activities the kids wanted to attend. Even just having everything on one schedule with one activity at any given time would be helpful, as would listing youth dinners on the Club Mariner daily program.
Overall, we had a terrific cruise and a great time experiencing the natural wonders of Alaska. The cabins, service and food on Seven Seas Mariner are truly a treat, and the low-key atmosphere onboard and superb shore excursions were just what we were hoping to find for our Alaska adventure.
A final tip: When cruise ships debark, they don't actually pull up to a dock in Anchorage. In our case, our final port was Seward, about four hours from Anchorage and the nearest major airport. Most times, passengers simply transfer via a motorcoach. But, if you get the chance to add on the Grand Circle Train ride, do so. We enjoyed a very scenic ride back to Anchorage and were glad to extend our vacation a bit longer once we left the ship.