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Alaska cruises: Senior favorites

Frank Redway wanted to do something special after retiring from a career in retail at age 65 in May. So he and his 67-year-old wife, Kay, a schoolteacher who retired in June, set sail on a cruise to Alaska this summer.

“We planned for six months,” Frank said. “It was an incentive for us to wrap up our careers and do something nice for us.”

Alaska was different, a place of mountains and wilderness a world apart, said Frank, a resident of Port St. Lucie, Florida. “In talking to many people over the years they all said it’s a must-do trip,” he said.

Having just returned from Alaska ourselves, we agree.

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“Mother Nature put her heart into creating Alaska’s scenic beauty,” said Linda Coffman, editor of the Web site CruiseDiva.com and contributor to “Fodor’s Alaska Ports of Call” guidebook. “Where else can you see glaciers put on a show growling and calving while eagles soar overhead?” (When a glacier “calves” it breaks up or splinters, typically with thundering noise.)

Like many seniors - 51 percent of the 1.6 million visitors to Alaska last year were age 55 or older, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce - we too answered the call of the north. And like most visitors - 958,900 in 2006 - we went by cruise ship, aboard Holland America’s Noordam.

Alaska by cruise ship is easy and comfortable; we packed and unpacked only once as we visited Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Victoria and Glacier Bay. The ship serves as both hotel and transport, and meals, activities and entertainment are taken care of as part of your ticket. A multitude of optional tours, which cost extra, are easily arranged on board or independently at each port.

The Redways, who cruised aboard Holland America’s Veendam, took just one excursion at each port “so as not to overdo it,” Frank said. Their favorite tour was helicopter “flightseeing” and a glacier hike out of Skagway.

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“We had to fly over a mountain to get to the glacier - that in itself was worth the trip - and then we walked on it,” Frank said. “It was different from what we expected. You think it’s going to be smooth and covered with snow but it was very rough because ice melts in pockets and you walk on it and you hear it crunch.”

Preparation for an Alaska cruise pays off in extra appreciation and enjoyment. Some tips:

  • Read up on Alaska. We took two excellent books, the “DK Eyewitness Travel Alaska” guidebook and the “National Geographic Traveler Alaska” guide to learn about our ports of call; the wildlife, including bears, whales and birds; and the state’s history and native cultures. Doing so not only increased our appreciation of what we saw but also helped us in tour selection.
  • Research itineraries. Coffman advises to verify that the ship calls at the ports you’re interested in and stays long enough.
  • Attend naturalists’ lectures on board. While we cruised in Glacier Bay National Park, a park ranger on board talked to us about the park’s 11 tidewater glaciers, icebergs and wildlife.
  • If time and budget allow, book an overland tour before or after your cruise to explore Alaska’s interior. Most cruise lines offer land tour extensions aboard deluxe motor coaches and custom domed railcars, including touring to Denali National Park and other points of interest.
  • Pack right. “You needn’t pack a winter wardrobe suitable for the North Pole when cruising in Alaska,” Coffman said. “Dress in layers and stick with cottons and other natural fibers. Plan to buy souvenir sweatshirts and make them a part of your warmth plan.” Other must-bring items - if you bring them you won’t need them, Coffman jokes - include a tightly woven hooded windbreaker, cap, gloves, waterproof shoes, warm socks and an umbrella.

And bring your camera (with plenty of batteries). A month and a half after their cruise, Frank and Kay were still working on their scrapbook.
Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com. Personal replies are not possible.