It was our last evening in Alaska. After 12 adventure-filled days of up-close photo encounters with calving glaciers, grizzly bears, moose, singing whales, bald eagles, Dall sheep, and that mellow, neighborly creature known as “The Local,” our Celebrity Alaska Cruise tour was already the vacation of a lifetime. Here are the story and our tips for the best Alaska vacations for seniors.
Grizzly bear cub in Denali National Park
At bedtime that last night, with the summer sun still bright in the Anchorage sky, I had but one regret: I’d gotten no photograph of magnificent Mt. McKinley, known locally as Denali – “the high one.” Carolyn and I had gazed down on her during what was clearly the most spectacular flight we’ve ever experienced – from Anchorage to Fairbanks. But I’d had no camera.
Alaska Vacation Keeps Its Promise
Next day, at 5:18 a.m. our bed shuddered. Curtains rattled. Guidebooks fell to the floor.
“Frank! Frank!” Carolyn yelled. “Did you feel the earthquake?”
But I had slept right through what was to be the talk of Anchorage that day. Yawning, I got up and looked out the window.
Mt. McKinley aka Denali
A mile taller than California’s Mt. Whitney, Denali is 120 miles away from our Anchorage hotel window. It is so grand and majestic, the mountain creates its own weather.
It’s a wonder of wonders, there was Denali across the bay in all its glory, smiling and ready for my 400mm lens.
Not only had Alaska lived up to every superlative promise – remarkable in this age of unredeemed hype and razzmatazz – it threw in an earthquake at no extra cost.
As a dedicated world traveler, the promise of Alaska had never charmed me. Mosquitoes the size of vultures always came to mind. But when reader after reader wrote to us about their unforgettable adventures in our 49th state, we decided to take a look.
Celebrity’s Alaskan cruises, much like those of Princess, Holland American and others, combine a traditional seven-day cruise through Alaska’s scenic Inside Passage between Vancouver and Seward (near Anchorage), either north to south or vice-versa, with a five-day land “cruise” – ours was by glass-domed, luxury railroad coaches – from Fairbanks through Denali Park to Anchorage.
New Alaska Discoveries Daily
Most every day we have abundant free time for whale watching, kayaking, gold mining, sport fishing, glacier ventures by helicopter or floatplane, bike rides or hiking to glaciers, dogsled rides, glacial treks, fly fishing for salmon and trout, salmon bakes, canoeing among icebergs, wildlife cruises, photo safaris, glacier jet-boat expeditions, even canopy explorations by ATVs, not to mention just strolling around town.
And that was just for the first port, Juneau, home to 30,000, and most likely the only capital city in the US without roads in to or out of the city.
Not that there’s nothing to do at sea between ports.
Polychrome mountains, Denali National Park
Besides the usual orgy of cuisine – with its dawn to midnight delights and diet-breaking extravagances – sailing these waters just off the largest temperate rainforest left on earth is much like living surrounded by a very fancy IMAX screen. Whether on the decks taking sun or watching from the privacy of your stateroom’s balcony, every view is an eyeful of the picture-perfect postcard.
Unlike the nothing-but-water Caribbean cruises, you’re passing an ever-changing panorama of unspoiled beauty. Glacier-carved fjords and primeval virgin forests. Turn around and see eagles, working fishing boats, orcas, and humpback whales.
And it’s not like you’re rushed.
One morning our ship, Summit, hung out – carefully, as the captain must balance passengers’ desire for an up-close view and new career options – within several hundred yards of the 300-foot-high face of the blue and mighty Hubbard Glacier, just north of Skagway.
Surrounded by mini-icebergs, popping and hissing, recently calved to the sound of white thunder off the 90-mile long glacier’s face, we watched as the river of ice performed its awesome and unpredictable spectacle using an 18,000-foot high mountain range as the backdrop.
While Whitewater Rafting in Alaska, Hang On
Along the way, we made leisurely stops at Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Seward, and the tiny Tlingit coastal village of Hoonah, Alaska. Russian-influenced Sitka – with its unique architecture, history, beauty, and typical Alaskan geniality – by itself is worth the price of the entire trip.
No way can 900 words here describe the abundance of magical moments that made up our 12-day tour. Here are three snapshots:
- While photographing from a 30-foot inflatable, six huge humpback whales got within mere feet of us, sing-songing squeaky greetings through an underwater mike. Such close-up encounters are not recommended for the faint of smell.
- In Denali National Park, a wild place larger than Massachusetts – often called “America’s Serengeti,” Carolyn thought that she’d lost me as we whitewater rafted for our first time. No paddling required. You simply hang on and enjoy the ride and occasional glimpse of moose and eagle. I’d forgotten the “hang on” part.
- Everywhere we saw wildflowers, big as your head during a hangover, and twice as colorful. This is the land of 100-pound cabbages, remember. And with almost 24/7 summer sunshine, everything grows big as the state itself.
Anchorage in July
Finally, Alaska’s people are what make this place truly remarkable. Friendly and open, often quirky, they do everything possible to make you feel welcome and at ease.
In Talkeetna, the town on which Northern Exposure was based, Carolyn exchanged earrings she was wearing with a stranger. And in Skagway, a young man offered us his home for the winter. No strings attached.
That doesn’t happen in my neighborhood.
By the bye, I never was bothered by a mosquito, of any size. But all bets are off if you come in May.
If You Go on an Alaska Cruise Tour for Seniors…
Check out our article, Travel for Seniors: Senior Travel Ideas, Mates, Tours, for more travel tips. Or check out some of our other senior travel articles.
Alaska Tour Costs:
For the 2007-2008 season from May through September, Celebrity offers a variety of cruise tour options ranging in price from $1,400 to $3,000. Tours can be paired with one of their three ships in Alaska: Infinity, Mercury or Summit. Other cruise lines offer a similar range of prices. Does not include tips, personal expenses, shore excursions, and meals on the land portion of the tour.
Celebrity’s five-year-old Summit
Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises
Getting to Alaska:
For early bookings, roundtrip from New York City to Vancouver is as cheap as $483, with most flights around $570. From Chicago to Vancouver, $525. From Los Angeles, $428. Celebrity has an arrangement with the Canadian government so that you can land in Vancouver and board the ship without ever leaving the US. Some trick, huh? Whatever, it eliminates customs hassles.
What to Wear in Alaska:
Unless you will be taking only the cruise part of the trip, packing a lot of formal wear just limits space for stuff you’ll really need. Excursions call for jeans, or chinos, shorts, weather permitting. Remember, only a foot or so beneath your feet is permafrost. Lots of layering is the key, as mornings and evenings can be cold.
A rain repellent jacket is a good idea. Comfortable walking shoes are a must. You will be supplied with the necessary gear on the excursions, but if it’s walking on glaciers that you’re seeking, remember it’s ice!
Dining is casual in all hotels, so jeans are perfectly acceptable. Formal wear is used only on formal nights aboard the ship. Even then, dress clothes fit the bill, although some gentlemen choose tuxedos to match their companion’s formal gowns. Check online for temps as you pack and plan accordingly.
Bonus: If you wish, you can stash one of your bags while on the land portion of the tour, never to lift it again until vacation’s end. We packed our stored bag with souvenirs and dirty laundry.
Where to Eat in Alaska:
Onboard ship this is far from a problem. But land meals are on your own. And food, like everything in this place so far from large markets, is expensive. When possible, avoid hotel dining rooms. In Fairbanks, there’s a great restaurant right next to the hotel. In Alyeska, walk or get a ride to the Double Muskie or another fine eatery in the area. Try reindeer sausage; delicious, and non-greasy. From Alaska salmon, halibut and crab to sourdough bagels, homemade fudge, and award-winning coffee and beer, your land tour can satisfy even the most discriminating palate.
Toilets in Alaska:
Those of us of a certain age know that it’s not the legs that go first, but the plumbing. This is one tour where you never have to worry about the whereabouts of a clean toilet. They’re everywhere. And yes, they flush.
Shopping in Alaska:
At each port of call or stop along the railroad, amazing shops await you. Everything from the expected touristy stuff to authentic, often unique Native Art. In Sitka, there’s a shop where you can purchase a walrus penis, always a tasteful souvenir for your maiden aunt. Note: Many jewelry stores are owned and operated by the cruise companies. If nothing else, pick out that perfect T-shirt for your grandson.
Some of the little craft and food shops are especially delicious, each featuring its most splendid homemade delights. In Talkeetna, be sure to say “Hi” to Laura MacDonald at Berry Delightful inside the “Three German Bachelors Cabin.” Since 1989, this lovely grandmother of two has been picking and cooking berries of every kind. Her jams and jellies are scrumptious.
Credit cards are accepted everywhere. You’ll find ATM machines, too.
Alaska Cruise Tour Email Access:
The ship has a large cyber café, rather costly I thought. All the hotels in which we stayed had high-speed Internet connections. You’ll find storefront cyber cafés in town, even places to download your digital photo memory cards to CD.
Laundry in Alaska:
All hotels provide laundry and dry cleaning services and some have laundry facilities for guest use. Irons and ironing boards are provided throughout the tour.
Visiting Alaska Documentation:
US citizens need valid passports.
If you’ve never been to Vancouver, consider spending an extra day or two visiting this most cosmopolitan city and Vancouver Island, a ferry ride away.
5 Reasons for Seniors to Take an Alaskan Vacation
by Katlyn Miller
Among the rising number of people who are traveling to Alaska each year, seniors comprise a large portion of these visitors. This does not come as a surprise since the state hosts many tourism experiences that deliver guided tours, a high degree of accessibility, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. From cruises to bus tours, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of vacations you can plan. If you are a senior who is looking for the perfect travel spot, explore five reasons that make Alaska an incredible choice.
The natural sights are stunning
Whether you are looking to see the sights at Chena Hot Springs, or the Denali mountains, those who love nature will be in awe when visiting Alaska. The state is home to places such as the Alaska Highway, the Arctic Coast, Glacier Bay, and many more breathtaking spots. While each of these destinations may sound adventurous, seniors of any age and physical ability can access the most popular travel excursions thanks to a focus on accessibility for the many older tourists who visit each year.
There are plenty of ways to experience Alaska without a personal vehicle
Unlike many states and international destinations, the most beautiful places in Alaska can be experienced in a variety of ways. Since the state is challenging to access by car for many tourists, tourism companies offer dozens of ways to get to and around the state by alternate modes. Trips to Alaska can now be exclusively enjoyed on a bus, train, or on a cruise ship. What is even better is that many of these excursions are designed to be senior-friendly. In general, these tours include pre-arranged transportation, light walking (if able), and itineraries that have seniors in mind.
Senior travel groups to Alaska are popular
Above and beyond most travel spots, Alaska offers a high number of senior-specific travel options. Although there is no specific data to capture the ages of those traveling to the state, one quick Internet search reveals numerous travel itineraries designed for groups of seniors. For those who don’t regularly travel, or who have concerns about accessibility and accommodations, these tourism options can provide peace of mind.
See the sun for 24 hours during the summer solstice
In addition to the year-round sights, there are seasonal sights in nature that are able to be experienced by anyone in the state. One of these experiences is seeing the sun in the sky for a full 24 hours during the summer solstice. Senior travelers who plan to visit the state in the two months surrounding the summer solstice (from about mid-May through late July) can view this marvel of nature. While there is technically still a “sunset” and “sunrise” listed for each day in the official weather forecast, the sun never fully goes away.
View the Northern Lights in Alaska
Another stunning seasonal performance found in the Alaskan outdoors are the Northern Lights. In the evening, beautiful colors light up the sky on many nights during the colder months of the year. Even though it may sound like this could only be viewed in remote areas, the Northern Lights can be seen by tourists throughout the state. Visitors who wish to see this sight should plan to visit the state during the Northern Lights season, which runs between mid-September and late April.
After learning about what Alaska has to offer, it is no wonder why the state is such a popular destination among senior travelers. From enhanced accessibility at popular tourist spots to senior-specific travel to the exceptional displays of nature, Alaska is a fantastic spot to choose for your next vacation.
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