Monday, August 14, 2017

Alaska Cruise: Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria

Alaska’s been on my bucket list since forever, and I was fortunately finally able to check it off this August after taking a cruise through the Inner Passage with family and friends. We sailed on the Ruby Princess, which we chose for its route through Glacier Bay National Park. The boat is on the smaller side, which is how it can sail through the narrow waters of the park, but I did wish that it offered some of the kid-friendly amenities that larger boats have, such as rock walls and ice rinks. All in all, however, we were happy with the service.

For the excursions, we did a lot of research and booked most of our tours with independent companies that don’t have a contract with the cruise lines. I hate crowds, and didn’t want us to be herded off the ship and onto an enormous bus at every port. There are many well reviewed small companies that do the same thing as those larger ones, for less money and with a more personal touch. This way, it was also easier for us customize our itinerary each day, instead of being compelled to accept the set packages that the cruise offers. Here are the excursions we did, and who we went with.

What to Do in Juneau

After a day at sea, our first stop was Juneau, the capital of Alaska. One of its greatest claims to fame is the Mendenhall Glacier, which you can experience in various ways: hiking, rafting, by helicopter. We chose to kayak up to it with a company called Above and Beyond Alaska. The first thing we did after being picked up at the dock was get outfitted in some serious gear. Everything from rain jackets to waterproof pants to rain boots were provided, and even the paddles came with waterproof mitts. We were lucky to have fantastic weather, but I’d imagine that even if it were raining, we’d have been pretty snug in our kayaking armor.

My husband and I each took one of our children in a two-person kayak, and we paddled across Mendenhall Lake, by Nugget Falls, and up to the glacier. The views are breathtaking, but I’ll admit: Kayaking was hard. Maybe because I was paddling for two people (my son got to relax and eat snacks in the front seat), but mostly, I think, because the lake is huge. It took forever to cross it and reach the glacier — and then we had to paddle back. In retrospect, I may have chosen a different way to experience Mendenhall, although everyone else in the my group didn’t have as difficult time as I did and felt quite accomplished by the experience.

After the kayaking, we went straight to our next excursion: whale watching. The company we booked, Juneau Whale Watch, guarantees that you’ll see a humpback whale or you get your money back, and I’m happy to say that we didn’t need to be refunded. We saw three whales at a couple of different locations, and each viewing was absolutely thrilling. I also loved just motoring across the open water in search of the whales. Our captain, Ed, and the marine biologist we had on board, Jill, were a dynamic and knowledgeable team that kept us entertained and pumped to be on their boat for over an hour.

One caveat: It might be a good idea to give your kids an idea of what to expect when whale watching. My son was disappointed that none of the whales leaped out of the water and did a twist in the air for our viewing pleasure. Instead, what you see is the spray of water coming out of their blowhole as they submerge themselves, and their tail popping out when they dive down. Don’t get me wrong — it’s extremely exciting to be able to view this in person and know that an enormous creature is under water just a few feet away from you — but this isn’t Sea World. The whales aren’t going to perform for your family. Nor should they!

What to Do in Skagway

Skagway was my absolute favorite port on this trip. It was what I imagined Alaska to look like — pristine lakes, mountains and glaciers at every turn, miles of untouched forest. To see it all, we hired a company called Beyond Skagway Tours to take us to all the sights. Our easygoing guide, Sam, was absolutely fantastic, getting us to each location just ahead of the crowds; we’d depart each area just as the tour buses rolled in. The company also devised a few games to keep the kids busy and alert through the trip, including a themed I-Spy game and scavenger hunt that produced prizes and were lots of fun for everyone. Sam even set up a telescope by the side of a road for us to spot mountain goats, and once he stopped the van to view a brown bear on the side of the road.

Some of the scenic stops we made for pictures were Bridal Veil Falls, Tutshi Lake, Bove Island and Emerald Lake (most of these places are located in Yukon territory, over the Canadian border). I can’t describe how gorgeous each of these places were, so here are just some pictures of each location, in the order mentioned above.

We also visited Tagish Lake Kennel for some dog cuddling and sledding — hands down the highlight of everyone’s day. Adolescent dogs run free in several gated areas, happy to have the kids chasing after them. We all got to hold two-week old puppies in our laps.

Then one of the handlers gave a short presentation about the Iditarod and all that’s involved with dog sledding, before we climbed into vehicles used for off-season training that are hooked up to the dogs. It’s amazing how eager the dogs are to be picked for the run; they were absolutely desperate to be chosen. Once our team was assembled, off we went into the scenic woods for the most thrilling ride I’ve ever been on. The kids squealed the entire time, down every hill and through every mud puddle. It was really so much fun.

Another great experience was panning for gold by the side of a lake in Carcross. The kids were each given a pan of dirt and our guide taught them the technique to search for the tiny gold flecks. This kept us busy for half an hour, and the kids got to keep the gold they found in little containers. The visitors’ center at Carcross is also where we got our passports stamped with Yukon Territory marks.

A few minutes from the visitor's center is Carcross Desert, a complete oddity of the area. It's a square mile of dunes and trees springing out of the sand, naturally formed by ancient lakes and the nearby mountain. The kids had a grand time running up and down the dunes, but I was ready to leave after just 20 minutes of baking under the hot sun. Good thing we were in the middle of Alaska and not a larger desert!

One of our last stops was Caribou Crossing to visit the Wildlife Museum, which is basically three large rooms of really impressive taxidermy examples of native animals. It was fun to see some of these animals up close. There are also some live animals to pet, like donkeys, dogs and alpaca, at this location.

At the end of the day, we were dropped off at the Fraser train station to catch the White Rail Pass Railroad back down to Skagway. Riding this train is absolutely thrilling, the old-fashioned cars bumping along down the side of the mountain, over rushing rivers and steep, breathtaking drops. Twice we went though pitch-black tunnels carved into the mountain. At times I worried that the beautiful old bridges and trestles we were crossing wouldn’t hold our weight and we’d go plunging into the ravine, but fortunately those fears proved unfounded. What an experience.

And finally, back in town we pulled up right alongside Dewey Creek, where we observed thousands of salmon doing their best to migrate in the shallow water. It was the perfect end to an amazing day.

What to Do in Ketchikan

We were in Ketchikan for just a few hours, so we spent our time walking around the cute, historic town, grabbing a bite to eat, and then taking a seaplane ride. We wanted to visit Totem Bight State Park, but unfortunately ran out of time. Right off the boat, we followed the scenic trail from this map across Stedman's Bridge, up Creek Street, and along Married Men's Trail, then took a left on Park Avenue to view the salmon trying to make it upstream. It was a fun little walk that took less than an hour to complete with small children.

After our small hike, we were picked up by Island Wings Air Service and transported to the dock where our eight-seater seaplane was waiting. Our pilot, Michelle, informed us that it was too foggy to attempt the Misty Fjords tour that we'd booked, but offered us a trip farther north, where the air was clear, to view some fjords there instead. I'll never know just how spectacular the Misty Fjords are, but the scenery we took in from our tiny plane as we traveled north was pretty awesome. It's amazing how many tiny islands (thousands) populate this area of the world.

Midway through the trip, we touched down on a pristine lake, hung out on a floating pier for a short break, and then flew back to Ketchikan.

What to Do in Victoria

Our final stop on the cruise was in Victoria, British Columbia, and it was at night, from 7pm to 11:30pm, which was kind of an odd time to be sightseeing. Since our time was so short, I booked an excursion through Princess that would take us to the Victoria Butterfly Gardens and Butchart Gardens for the whole time we were docked. 

The butterflies at the Butterfly Gardens were lovely, but it was the newly opened insectarium that really caught our kids' attention. From the panoramic ant farm to the impressive display of camouflaged stick bugs, the exhibit was really fun for everyone. In the butterfly area, we were treated to not just the most enormous butterflies I've ever seen, but also a couple of flamingos, some parrots, a pair of ducks and a pond full of koi. It's a really interesting and well maintained place.

Butchart Gardens totally blew us away, but by the time we arrived it was dusk and we had to enjoy the night-time, lit-up version of it. Still, the beautiful flower displays, towering trees and colorful fountains were a sight to behold (what I could make of it, anyway), and the kids loved the old-fashioned carousel on the premises. If I lived in Victoria, I'd definitely get a season pass to this place. It's just so vast and tranquil — a fabulous place to let your kids loose and just take in the sights and scents of the flora.

Where to Eat 

Right by the port in Juneau is a crab shack called Tracy’s King Crab, and it was exactly what we were looking for — fresh king crab legs. The prices are quite steep and the restaurant was way too divey for my thin packet of travel wet wipes to handle, but those enormous crab legs didn’t disappoint.

In Yukon (Skagway port), we stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant in Carcross called Caribou Coffee Cafe. My fish and chips were yummy enough, but what I really loved was the poutine. I could eat a bucket of those tasty little cheese curds. There’s also a great playground right by the outdoor seating area. 

While in Ketchikan, we had to taste the salmon, and were directed to Annabelle's by the locals. The grilled salmon plate was good, but what ended up being the draw were the chowders. We tried the sampler of three chowders, and I loved the smoked salmon one best.

What's Nearby

Our trip started and ended in Seattle, a city I've been to a couple of times with kids. Here is my full itinerary of what to do there, including some fun stops at Pike Place Market and some off-the-beaten-track attractions as well.