When I was ten, my family and I spent a week traversing the American Southwest in a rented motorhome. We rode mules into the Grand Canyon, saw the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, and drove down Route 66. In some ways, it was akin to National Lampoon’s Vacation, save for my father getting lost in the desert or Wally World being closed for construction. The weather was perfect and our trusty vehicle did not break down, and yet this was the last vacation we took as a family.
Seven days. Five people. Two national parks. One not-so-palatial motorhome. Zero minutes of time alone.
Upon further consideration, most of the aforementioned characteristics of my own family’s road trip do not differ too much from a cruise. A cruise has a similar duration, a myriad of offered attractions, and “quaint” living quarters, but what separates it from a Griswold vacation is that cruises offer plenty of opportunities for everyone to pursue what they want. Onboard, most cruise lines offer programs for children and teens while the parents are free to frequent the casino, spa, or pool. Family vacation purists may argue that such activities might compromise the “family” part of family vacation, however, I’ve known of many a vacation to be spared from destruction due to family members taking time away from the group to do their own thing. When travelers have the opportunity to explore the ship on their own, group adventures at each port become much more enjoyable.
On Alaskan cruise itineraries, Juneau has the most to offer in terms of shore excursions, giving travelers a host of options for things to see and do during their visit. When traveling with a family, choosing activities that appeal to everyone can be a challenge, but thankfully, Alaska’s capital city is very family friendly.
For families who want a low-key day in town, most cruise ship docks are a short shuttle trip or walk away from downtown, where shops, restaurants, and historic sights abound. Most visitors like to frequent South Franklin Street (adjacent to most docks) for souvenirs at one of the many shops or snacks from a handful of excellent eateries (stay tuned for another post about my specific recommendations). Just a few blocks over from Franklin are the Alaska State Museum and a few government buildings for families traveling with history and government enthusiasts. Between enjoying delicious food, taking in the scenic Gastineau Channel, and learning about the antics of Alaska’s early mining days, downtown has a lot to offer just a stone’s throw away from the docks.
Beyond downtown, the activities in Juneau are more focused on nature. The Mendenhall Glacier a popular stop for travelers since nothing says “Alaska!” like a massive piece of ice, a guaranteed crowd pleaser for all ages. Most tours allow visitors at least an hour to check out the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors’ Center and to explore surrounding trails. Trails near the visitors’ center are flat and extremely well-maintained, allowing for groups to embrace their inner naturalist an explore the area immediately surrounding the glacier. Park rangers throughout the area are available to answer questions or give more in-depth information about glaciers and other geographic landmarks of Alaska as well.
Another extremely popular excursion for families is whale watching in the water surrounding Juneau. During the summer months, both Humpback whales and Orcas migrate north to the waters of Southeast Alaska, giving travelers a special opportunity to witness these creatures in their natural habitat. Most ships spend about two hours out on the water searching for whales (I have yet to hear of any time when travelers returned to their ship without seeing a whale). The ships offer indoor seating, bathroom facilities, information about wildlife in the area, and occasionally light refreshments to complement whale watching experience. Personally speaking, I’ve been to a few aquariums in my day. I’ve seen Keiko (of Free Willy fame) more times than I can remember, and yet nothing compares to the excitement I have when I see a tale or dorsal fin rise out of the water. I can’t help but squeal and clap my hands at the sight of a pod of orcas, prompting my friends to tell me I’m causing a scene. Like Christmas morning or watching one of those Charlie Brown specials on television, nothing brings out the inner child of most people like seeing pods of whales swim freely.
Since I spend my summer working in tourism, I learn more and more about the dynamics of a family vacationing simply by observing families. From my observations, the happiest families are those who take their time at sea to explore the ships independently and come together to explore every port. These groups are the ones who seem to have the most fun and arguably the most interesting conversations at the dinner table.
Note: Certain cruise lines offer certain packages. It is possible to book a single excursion that combines a visit to the glacier and whale watching, for example. Review your cruise line’s website beforehand to determine which excursions you prefer, at which times of the day, and other attractions you wish to enjoy. Planning well in advance will pay off!