In 1959, my grandpa was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. He and my grandmother packed all of their belongings and their four children into a car and drove from Montgomery, Ala., to Anchorage, where they lived for four years.
When I was growing up, my grandparents and mom would sit around the dinner table and tell me and my sister stories about seeing moose and beavers; how Paw and the other dads in the neighborhood would shovel snow and spray water on the ground when it was below freezing so the kids could skate on an “ice rink”; and how my mom got her tongue stuck to a frozen garbage can when she licked it.
They always said they wanted to go back; my mom wanted to see if she would love it as much as she did then. She realized as she got older that it probably wasn’t as much fun for her parents, who had to raise four children in a place where they all had to get bundled up most of the time they went outside and where they would have to stop in the road and wait for moose to cross.
My grandparents never made it back to Alaska, but after they died, we booked an Alaskan cruise, both to celebrate my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary and to remember Ma’am and Paw.
We embarked on our seven-day Alaskan cruise from Seattle. Our first day was spent entirely at sea, which gave me ample opportunity to get used to being queasy all day and appreciate the fact that my sister, Hayley, and I would be sharing a twin-size pullout couch bed.
When we made it to our first port, Juneau, we got on a bus that took us to Mendenhall Glacier. Because we were in southern Alaska in the early summer, it certainly wasn’t tongue-freezing-to-metal cold — it was about 70 degrees during most of our trip. At the visitors center, there is a large window that looks out onto the glacier and has a placard that says, “In 1935 you could touch the face of the glacier from here.” That placard is 1 mile from the face of the glacier today, a sobering look at how quickly glaciers are melting.
After a hike to Nugget Falls, a waterfall right next to the glacier, we rode the bus back to Juneau and got lunch before I gathered my courage and braved the Mount Roberts tram, which takes you 1,800 feet up the mountain to a visitors center. When we got to the top, we were able to explore some incredible hiking trails that allowed us to see snow-covered peaks and sweeping views of the Gastineau Channel.
My mom said a big difference between her memories of Alaska and our experience there in May was how the land was more pure when she lived there in the ‘60s. As we cruised into port, she was surprised by all the telephone lines strung throughout the mountains and how big the cities were.
One of the most beautiful, untouched places we went wasn’t in port; on our third day at sea, the cruise ship sailed through Glacier Bay National Park, a park reachable only by air or sea. This was an incredible benefit of exploring Alaska via a cruise ship. We slowly coasted through the park throughout the day, enjoying hot chocolate and Bailey’s on the chilly deck. A park ranger told us about the glaciers and pointed out wildlife, including bald eagles and bears, and they set up a souvenir station on the top deck, which was perfect for my state and national park patch collection.
At the end of the bay is Margerie Glacier, which the park ranger told us is one of the few glaciers in the park that is stable instead of receding. We stood at the front of the deck and stared intently, and we were rewarded with the unforgettable sights and sounds of the glacier calving, creating “white thunder,” the sound the ice makes as it breaks from the glacier and falls into the sea.
In Sitka, Hayley and I decided to go on a sea kayaking adventure, which proved to be an excellent choice. We hadn’t kayaked before but got a quick lesson and went out onto a beautiful bay, surrounded by bald eagles and the Tongass National Forest. Our guide picked up starfish and sea cucumbers and passed them around the group before putting them back in the cold water; we saw spitting clams along the shoreline; and on the way back to port, we saw the magnificent tail of a humpback whale come up out of the water.
The activities on board the cruise ship ended up being entertaining. One night at sea, we went to a show called the Marriage Game, which is basically “The Newlywed Game” without the newlywed requirement. When the host was looking for a couple who had been together between one and 50 years and was having an anniversary, Hayley and I immediately volunteered our parents.
They sheepishly got on stage, provided some answers that were mildly uncomfortable for their children to listen to, and, naturally, won the game. Their prize was a cookbook and a bottle of sparkling wine, which we used for mimosas on our last morning at sea.
Though we didn’t make it to my mom’s old hometown, my sister, my dad and I were able to see the beauty of Alaska for the first time, and my mom was able to return to that extraordinary state. And, though it could’ve had something to do with the fact that she didn’t have to deal with snow and 17 hours of darkness a day on this trip, Mom decided she still loves Alaska.
IF YOU GO
Cruise: Holland America Line, Westerdam
Ports: Seattle; Juneau; Sitka; Ketchikan; Victoria, British Columbia
Cost: From $599 per person
More information: hollandamerica.com/cruise-vacation-onboard/Westerdam