Story and photos by Krisha Chachra
I have never met anyone who isn’t completely blown away by Alaska. There is no competing with the majesty of those ice blue glaciers, how close you get to wildlife and how strange and remote it feels touring the 49th state to join the Union. Alaska feels like its own country, so wild and untouched.
We promised ourselves when we became parents we would find a way to continue seeing the world and share it with our baby daughter. We wanted to knock Alaska off the list but how would we cruise toward the Arctic, keep her comfortable and still have an adventure? The solution was clear with the aptly named Disney Wonder cruise – a fantasy for children and a dream come true for adults.
Traveling with a baby can be tricky, but if you leave it up to Disney, it’s smooth sailing. So smooth, in fact, that we met several couples traveling without kids because the ship boasts the cleanest, most organized and best executed experience to Alaska. The company is a master of logistics. From the moment you set foot at the Vancouver dock, you don’t stand in any long line anywhere. Despite children of all ages, multi-generation families and the cast of Disney characters sharing the ship, you don’t feel crowded. When you want to explore on land, you scan your Disney card on the way out and off you go. No fuss, no problem, just as Disney wants you to believe – pure magic.
Besides constant activities, themed evening shows, 24-hour gourmet food service and a variety of restaurants, Disney has an adult day spa on board with tranquil zen rooms, private whirlpool tubs and massage tables overlooking glaciers, lush tree lines and chunks of icebergs floating by. The latest Disney movies play continuously in two large theaters, but the real selling point was Flounders nursery, staffed with experienced au pairs from Europe who keep your infants safe while you explore Alaska.
Without question, Skagway, the northernmost point on the Inside Passage, has the most character. Founded by those seeking fortune during the Gold Rush, Skagway’s charming downtown (no more than five blocks long) has been restored to its roots with wooden sidewalks and old western saloon facades. Population is 862, and it has infamous history peppered with outlaws, crooks, cons.
No trip to Alaska is complete without riding a dog sled, Iditarod style. Make sure you book the helicopter ride with Alaska Icefield Expeditions (through your cruise or online) over the majestic Coast Mountains. You land at the dog camp on the stunning Denver Glacier. More than 50 dogs and 15 trainers camp on the glacier from May to the end of summer. Third place Yukon Quest Finisher Matt Hall told us that he runs and breeds the dogs during the summer and trains and races them in winter. Hall has only visited the lower 48 once when he was 12. These mushers are dedicated to the land, their way of life and the dogs. After securing dogs to the sled, Hall instructs us to sit down or stand in the back, like you see in the movies. At his command, you are off. The adrenaline kicks in whooshing through the valley surrounded by ice-capped mountains and an exposed glacier face. It’s thrilling and gives you a real taste of being an Alaskan.
You can mush in Juneau, but we opted to tour the Mendenhall Glacier, go whale watching and attend an authentic salmon bake. Mendenhall is the most accessible glacier in Alaska and pulls its ice and snow slowly down 13 miles from the Juneau icefield. Visitors can get close by taking a trail to the thundering waterfall. Scan the tree lines for what look like golf balls – they are bald eagles watching you. Juneau is the only capital city that is solely accessible via ship or air; no roads connect Juneau to the rest of the state. So boating and whale watching is plentiful. We must have seen 20 whales twisting and leaping from the water. A different kind of fish landed on our plates at the end of the day; the salmon bake delivered nicely grilled melt-in-your-mouth fresh fish plucked right from the river nearby.
You can walk down a trail, pan for gold, admire the waterfall and watch the salmon fight an upstream current. Watch for bears. They are everywhere and not shy when it comes to the stealing the flavorful fish off the grill.
Lastly, Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world, is home to the famous lumberjack show. You might think it’s a little “kitschy” to see big, burly men in plaid shirts swing axes, saw wood and climb tall trees as fast as squirrels, but hey, you’re in Ketchikan and the art of logging is part of the city’s history. After the lumberjack show, book a seaplane to go soaring over the Coast Mountains looking for families of mountain goats skipping over the peaks. If you ask, the pilot will quietly land on an icy sapphire lake – so still it looks like slick glass. You can step out on the rudder and feel the majesty of Alaska around you. Nothing but water, snow, mountains and air – pure nature, pure magic.
Krisha Chachra serves on the Town Council of Blacksburg and is a regular columnist and author. She has traveled to over 40 countries in 6 continents and reported and hosted shows for public radio and television. Her columns are taken from her journals and personal insights from traveling nationally and internationally throughout her life. Her book about returning to Blacksburg, Homecoming Journals, may be found online or in local bookstores. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org