A Sunny Alaskan Cruise is the Getaway You Didn’t Know You Needed

By Amanda Desouza

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Photo credit: Amanda Desouza

Beloved by everyone’s grandparents, a Torontonian mid-20s professional experienced a luxury Alaskan cruise — and loved it beyond her belief.

Massive mountains, snow capped or carpeted by lush forestry staggered our surroundings as the ship navigated the fjords of the Alaskan Inside Passage. 

We entered Glacier Bay, the calving of glaciers had caused small pieces of ice to float on the pristine, bright blue water, like ice breadcrumbs, leading us deeper in and giving us clues of what was to come. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen and as we approached the Hubbard Glacier, I wasn’t prepared. A huge body of dense ice building over centuries, the structure constantly moving under its own weight. The jagged bands of ice were various shades of ice blue, from light to pure, blinding white. Calving from the glacier was explosive, loud and smokey it was one of nature’s greatest northern wonders.

The Hubbard Glacier

This was the Last Frontier.

We are going WHERE?

Rewind back to October when my mom asked me if I wanted to go on an Alaskan cruise in the summer. Truth be told, the idea of spending part of my summer in Alaska, was less than appealing. As I envisioned ice fields, icebergs, and having to wear a heavy parka it seemed like a far cry from the sunny vacation I was picturing. Like a true Torontonian, I also hated the idea of missing part of the unofficial fifth season in our beloved city, otherwise known as patio season. 

What did I know about Alaska anyway? The pop culture reel started playing in my mind: Sarah Palin the former Governor of Alaska famously played by Tina Fey on SNL. The Disney hit, Snow Dogs starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and his team of talking sled dogs. Was the purest water really in Alaska? as referenced by Adam Sandler in the movie, The WaterBoy. 

My knowledge of Alaska was superficial at best. It was a place that had never been on my radar as a travel destination. 

The struggle of travelling in your mid 20s is that it starts to become difficult to find travel companions. Everybody is grinding, saving money, working on their career, and have different places that are on their own travel bucket lists.

I went back to my condo and mentioned the potential trip idea to my roommate. Her response, “My grandparents took that cruise, they loved it.” When I asked another friend they said,“An Alaskan river cruise? My grandparents did that cruise.” The more people I asked the more I was surprised, it seemed like everybody’s grandparents had checked this destination off their bucket list.

Was Alaska a destination for seniors? 

Nearly half of visitors (44%) in the same survey reported that they were retired or semi-retired.

There was certainly a reputation floating around that an Alaskan cruise was a popular trip among seniors and statistics seemed to echo this. The 2016 Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, surveyed the age of visitors to Alaska and results showed that in the summer of 2016 visitors averaged 53.7 years of age. The most common age group was 65 and older (29%), followed by 55 to 64 (25%), then 45 to 54 (15%). 

Cruises were also accessibility-friendly and offered seniors with limited mobility the chance to see the sights without having to rely on different modes of transportation. Research has even indicated that cruises are less expensive for seniors than the cost of assisted living facilities. 

I didn’t know anybody who had been to Alaska or on an Alaskan cruise. Yet, I knew plenty of people who had been to Los Angeles, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Chicago, Boston, Nashville, and other popular North American destinations. 

People around my age seemed to keep asking me the same question, “Alaska? why are you going there?” Their responses left me wondering, was there a reason young travellers didn’t seem to consider Alaska as an option for a vacation? Also, would someone in their 20s enjoy an Alaskan cruise and get a lot out of it?

Yet, here I was presented with an opportunity to travel and as little as I knew about where I was going, I knew I had to take it. 

An Alaskan Cruise in the Summer?

The Celebrity Eclipse cruise ship

The rising summer temperatures have contributed to the tourism boom in Alaska. Growing fear about thinning and melting glaciers, means more travellers are determined to see the ice structures in their glory. While, I still wasn’t sure about how I felt about this trip, it was the prospect of seeing the glaciers that I was starting to warm up to.

I had never been on a cruise ship before, the small luxurious world floating on water was surreal to me. Alaska has more coastline than the entire United States mainland combined and the Alaskan Inside Passage was formed of islands, so a cruise ship was the ideal way to explore. 

In 2017, Alaska welcomed 2.2 million tourists with 49% exploring the state on cruise ships, 47% by air, and 4% by highway/ferry. 

I boarded the Celebrity Eclipse luxury cruise ship from Vancouver to embark on a seven day Alaskan journey. Included on the ship were accommodations, entertainment, and five-star dining. 

The ship would travel along the coastline of British Columbia and would dock at ports along the Inside Passage of Alaska including: Juneau (the capital city of Alaska), Ketchikan, Sitka, and enter Glacier Bay to get views of the Hubbard Glacier. 

Amanda onboard the Celebrity Eclipse

A whopping 89% of tourists opt to travel to Alaska in the summertime. The frigid temperatures and short daylight hours keep most tourists away in the wintertime. While the average temperature of the Inside Passage was around 16 degrees, uncharacteristically during my own trip it was 30 degrees in many of the ports the ship stopped in. Where were the ice fields? I hadn’t packed proper attire for this trip at all. I was wearing a sweater and toque causing beads of sweat to trickle down my forehead. The recommended clothing for that time of year were shorts, tees, and a light windbreaker for the cooler nights.

Summer in Alaska also involved long daylight hours. In June there were about 18 hours of daylight in the Inside Passage. This meant that drawing the curtains when it was time to sleep in order to ward off the bright sun was a necessity.

Spectacular Views and Adventure

An Alaskan vacation encompasses many activities to help travellers connect with the great outdoors and experience one of the most staggeringly beautiful places in North America. I highlight just some of my adventure and the incredible sights observed. 

A hike in the Tongass National Forest, North America’s northernmost temperate rainforest with its spongy forest floor revealed the centuries of forest debri layered under our feet. It felt old, older than any forest I had ever been in. The naturalist explained that the air quality was 98% pure in this region.

High in these ancient trees were thick nests, home to the many raptors such as the American bald eagle. Forward facing eyes, talons, and a curved beak were the three distinguishing characteristics of a raptor. Alaska has the highest percentage of raptors (not our beloved champion team) in North America. Once endangered, a visit to the Alaska Raptor Centre revealed their work in rehabilitating and increasing the population of raptors through providing medical treatment to 100-200 injured birds each year and then releasing them back into the wild.

Famous for dog sled racing, high up in the mountains and down into a valley was where mushers dropped off their racing dogs for training in a summer camp. We learned about the sport and its historical significance to the state. The sled dogs pulled us on an exhilarating ride along the mountain roads.

On clear days, orca whales majestically dipped in and out of the water, if you squinted you could see their black tails barely visible against the dark water’s surface. Another example of Alaskan wildlife, a quick look into a pair of binoculars could spot sea otters lounging lazily on rock beds. 

The Alaskan Inside Passage is home to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Natives. Their stories were brought to life as they told them while we crowded around a beach bonfire, roasting reindeer dogs. The history of the Indigenous Americans was also expressed in towering, colourful, wooden totem poles. We ventured to the Sitka National Historic Park to see these totems lining the trails as we hiked. 

Cost Considerations

The price tag for an Alaskan cruise can be prohibitive for many but a premium balcony room is a is well-worth in order to experience the scenic views throughout the trip. I enjoyed a glass of wine on the balcony of my cabin more than once to take in the breathtaking views, and it was well-worth the upgrade.

(Tip: if you have your heart set on seeing the Aurora Borealis, make sure to plan your trip between August and April.) 

Most travellers will need to also take into consideration the cost of a flight to the port where the ship boards, along with the shore excursions that they may want to participate in while on land. 

However, depending on your travel style and preferences, young travellers can opt out of cruising. This route helps to minimize costs and still explore Alaska. According to Travel Alaska, the city of Anchorage is less expensive than many other American cities like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Honolulu. As a destination, Alaska is about 22% less expensive than one-fifth of the other states in the US.

While, research showed that many seniors vacation in Alaska, what awaited me on this trip was not what I expected at all. The cruise certainly had many older people on it, but there were also young people and even children on board. The realization set in early that regardless of age, this was the trip of a lifetime.

For those who enjoy pure scenic beauty, wildlife, and outdoor activities, they will be mesmerized by Alaska at any age. And now that I know more about this young state, another thing I know for sure: I’ll be returning (before I go grey).

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