My family has just returned from an incredible 7-day Holland America cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park. This trip, which began and ended in Vancouver, Canada, held a lot of firsts for us. For my husband, kids and I, it was our first big-ship cruise ever. It was our first time traveling with just the grandmas in tow (we’ve had big extended family vacations before with assorted cousins and the elder generation, but never four adults on just two kids — and boy did they love the attention). It also marked the first time my mom, my children and I had ever set foot in Alaska. All exciting stuff!
For years I’ve read that cruises make great multi-generational trips because big cruise ships offer so much for all ages to do. Indeed, our group ranging in age from 8 to 67 was entertained thoroughly on board and during shore excursions. For example, on a typical day my mother-in-law went to a fitness class, my mom played trivia with other passengers and I got a massage. Meanwhile, my husband relaxed with a book in a chaise lounge on the Lido Deck while watching my daughter splash around in the pool and while my son entered a Wii tournament at the kids’ club. To say “fun was had by all” is an understatement — our multi-generational family vacation was amazing.
Holland America Line may not necessarily cater to children like some mega cruise ships do (there are no Flowriders or climbing walls to be found on board their mid-sized ships). In fact, the average age of passengers on Holland America cruises to Alaska is 55 (seemed to me the majority of the 2,000 passengers on our ship, the ms Zuiderdam, were 60+). However, there are so many aspects of our Holland America cruise — as well as our Alaska itinerary — that were so appealing to kids. Here are a few highlights:
Club HAL: My family and I are regulars at all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, and we’re quite familiar with the complimentary kids’ clubs found at most oceanfront properties there. However, my kids have never really taken with them that much; they might drop in for arts-and-crafts or other one-off activities, but they’d much prefer to hang out in the pool or on the beach with us. Maybe it was the mix of activities or the many other children their age that appealed to them, but my two children, ages 8 and 10, absolutely loved Club HAL, the kids’ club on board the ms Zuiderdam.
Kids are grouped by age: 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and teens, and each group has its own space and set of activities. When we were at sea, kids could join the fun at Club HAL between 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and in the evening with themed parties from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. My children participated in LEGO-building contests, team Pictionary, dodgeball games, ice-cream-eating contests and keychain making. While we passed through Glacier Bay National Park, a ranger met with them and they filled out Junior Ranger activity books. Evening fun during the week included “casino night” and a “pajama party.”
The best part about Club HAL? While were were at sea, kids ages 8 and up could sign themselves in and out of the club — my kids absolutely loved this independence! They’d leave a note at Club HAL stating where they were going — back to the room, meeting family for lunch — and the system worked out beautifully. Parents do have to sign kids in and out while in port, lest some, er, less responsible youngsters walk off the ship by themselves.
Shore Excursions: The range of shore excursions that Holland America offers in Alaska is vast — from salmon bakes, and trolley tours to floatplane rides and dog-sledding adventures, just to name a few. Some excursions have age or size minimums, due to the strenuousness of the adventures, but there are plenty of options available to young children. I recommend booking shore excursions online before your cruise, since popular activities to sell out; however, friendly and efficient reps on board the Holland America ships are available to answer questions and re-book if you’ve changed your mind about excursions once you’ve set sail. Note that excursions are owned and operated by land-based outfitters. For each excursion you book, you’re given a voucher with a meeting time; typically you find your trip leader at the end of the pier at each port. We found the whole shore excursion process easy, efficient, seamless and… fun!
In our first port Juneau, my mom, mother-in-law and I took the kids on an evening whale-watching cruise from Auke Bay, while my husband spent the day helicopter flightseeing, trekking and ice climbing on Mendenhall Glacier. In Skagway, we took a helicopter ride with nearby Temsco Helicopters (the launch pad is a three-minute drive from the cruise pier) to land on Meade Glacier, which was incredible. In Ketchikan, we had a ball ziplining with the hilariously funny crew at Alaska Canopy Adventures. Cumulatively, the excursions for the six of us cost well over $3,000 (HAL subsidized just some mine and one child’s, as I was traveling as a working family- travel writer). Indeed, shore excursions are expensive, but I’d highly encourage Alaska cruisers to splurge on at least one unusual outdoor activity while you’re amidst some amazing landscapes. These are once-in-a-lifetime adventures!
Dining Options: Cruises are known for their endless supply of food, available 24 hours a day. On this Holland America ship to Alaska, it definitely didn’t have that “party, booze cruise” atmosphere, and dining times and offerings were quite civilized. Of course, I still managed to put away plenty of pasta, seafood, desserts and wine! For kids, the buffet Lido restaurant, was great for breakfast and lunch, as there were plenty of kid-friendly offerings, from waffles, French toast, eggs and cereal in the morning to pizza and sandwiches in the afternoon. My children actually ordered steak, ribs and burgers off of the a la carte menus in the more formal dining room in the evening, where a children’s menu featuring fruit, a vegetable plate, spaghetti, chicken tenders and more was offered, as well. No one went hungry, that’s for sure.
Wildlife Spotting: While Caribbean cruises may have their merits, you can’t beat an Alaska itinerary for wildlife spotting opportunities among it’s stunning natural landscapes. From on board our cruise ships, we saw a whopping five black bears on the shoreline (this was an unusually high number, and rather uncommon, according to wonderfully amiable Captain Werner Timmers, who has been at the helm of Alaska cruise ships for 26 years). We also spotted whales, dolphin and jellyfish; hanging over our verandah railing and spotting the bulbous creatures and their long tentacles in calm, clear water was a highlight of the trip. While on shore, in a bus en route to our ziplining location in Ketchikan, we saw a few bald eagles; we also watched salmon running in the downtown creek there. At home in Colorado, we actually see bears, bobcats, deer and elk at home fairly regularly; still my kids were pretty happy to spot an array of Alaska animals, too. (I can’t imagine what might go through the minds of city-dwelling children; I’m thinking they are blown away by all of the wildlife!)
Activities, Amenities & Entertainment: As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard to be bored on a Holland America cruise to Alaska. Literally every hour of the day, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., there is something to do — from Tai Chi, wine tastings and salsa lessons, to trivia contests, Digital Workshop instruction and cooking school, the options are vast. I was skeptical about that after dinner, stage-show entertainment, but the singers and dancers aboard the ms Zuiderdam would be perfectly at home on any New York City stage; their talent is astounding. My 10-year-old was mesmerized by the brilliant choreography and multiple costume changes. Kids especially dig the weekly comedy/magic show, which features Indy, the magic dog.
Besides going to Club HAL and making new friends on board, my children were entertained at bingo (where my son was convinced we were going to walk away with the $90,000 Jackpot Bingo prize) and swimming daily (especially when we cruised back to Vancouver; the rocking of the boat created massive waves in the pool). Nice touches for kids: towel animals and pillow chocolates on our bed every night.
Of course, no vacation is sunshine and rainbows all the time. Our deluxe verandah stateroom was tight, not overly spacious, for our family of four. It had a surprising amount of clothing/luggage storage under the bed, and in closets and cupboards, but the sofa-bed mattress was quite uncomfortable. My daughter went to sleep with in her Grammie’s stateroom after complaining bitterly about the mattress through our first night on board. The bed-from-the-ceiling was perfectly acceptable to my son, though I banged my head and arm on it a couple times, forgetting the metal platform was there above my bed — two twins pushed together to make a king.
Our cruise was full, with just over 2,000 guests on board (passenger capacity on the ms Zuiderdam is officially 1,916, but with extra berths filled — like in our room — it can be a bit over capacity and still sail safely). Generally, I couldn’t tell that it was a packed ship, since there are so many public spaces on board. The only time I really felt the crowds was around 9 a.m. and noon at the buffet Lido Restaurant. A couple of times my group of 4 or 6 had trouble finding seats together, and we waited in the buffet line for a while for items like made-to-order omelets, pasta and sandwiches.
But don’t let these couple of caveats stop you from planning a family trip aboard a Holland America ship to Alaska. My family certainly had an incredible time on board and in the Alaskan ports; we made plenty of memories while having a grand time experiencing new things, and to me, that’s those are the marks of a successful family vacation.
A huge thank you to Holland America Line for inviting me to travel with a cadre of other fabulous travel writers and for subsidizing part of my family’s trip.