I live in a place that’s cold, snowy and rainy for six months of the year — near Niagara Falls and the Canadian border — but I still yearned to travel to Alaska. How could I pass up the chance to experience spectacular beauty and unique culture, much less the adventurous spirit that the 49th state ignites in its visitors? Simply put, I couldn’t. So in August 2013 I set sail on the Celebrity cruise ship, Solstice.
An Alaska cruise is one of the best ways for wheelers to experience our northernmost state, not only because of accessible accommodations on the ship, but also the ability to arrange doable on-land excursions to enhance the adventure. Alaska may seem like it’s in another country since it’s so far away, but the ADA applies, and accessible excursions must be offered at all ports of call in the state.
I wanted to save energy for the Alaskan excursions, so I flew from New York to Seattle two days ahead of the cruise’s departure date. At the dock, I accepted every offer of assistance: Lines are long before boarding the ship, and ramps are steep getting onboard.
On the seven-day cruise, there were two full days at sea and three full days spent in ports. Days in port can be as jam-packed or as leisurely as you wish. If you stay on board, most ships offer lectures, entertainment, recreational activities and much more. If you venture out on an excursion, your choices only get better.
At some ports we were docked most of the day, allowing time to book more than one excursion or take an excursion and spend half the day exploring the locale. Then after sailing all night, we awoke to a new port and another day of exploring. But beware, stringing several of these high-activity days together is a recipe for exhaustion, complicated by the chance you’ll be sightseeing in the pouring rain some days.
To conserve energy, I chose excursions that got me close to nature with the least amount of pushing my chair. I avoided walking tours, hikes and climbing into challenging vehicles (helicopters, float planes and sleds) and found I was able to do this without compromising the adventure. Even though excursions can be pricey, they are your ticket to the real Alaskan adventure. Each land excursion has its own price tag, and many are in the hundreds of dollars. You can save some bucks by not taking a trip at every port and opting for the most exciting experiences — like a whale watching trip or fishermen’s tour.
Ports of Call and Scenic Wonder
Smart planning can also help you cope with the changing conditions. After docking at our first port, Ketchikan, my travel companion and I took the Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer, a four-and-a-half hour boat ride out to the fjords, where we also saw eagle nests and myriad wildlife. With the help of a well-trained crew, I navigated a steep ramp down from the dock to an accessible lower deck that was glass-enclosed and warm and, best of all, afforded perfect views of the breathtaking 3,000-foot vertical cliffs we passed. The Misty Fjords boat excursion cost $186 per ticket, but included lunch (hot and delicious chowder), commentary from a local naturalist, a video about the wonders around us, and a presentation from a Tlinglit story teller.
The trip ended in the drenching rain, but the dock was just a stone’s throw from the cruise ship pier and was a flat, smooth push. As we reboarded the Solstice, the crew handed out steaming cups of hot chocolate, with a shot of brandy if adults desired. It was the perfect way to settle back into cruising.
Since being prepared for Alaska’s rapidly changing weather is tricky, my travel agent had sent a clothing list that called for multiple layers: shirts, sweaters, rain coats with hoods, heavy coats with hat, scarf and gloves. My feet and legs get cold in the winter, so I packed lots of warm socks. And I wore everything I packed — all at the same time — early one morning after we had left Ketchikan and the ship entered the 30-mile-long Tracy Arm Fjord.
Slowly and almost silently navigating the fjord, six miles of which are covered in glacier, the Solstice offered magnificent views of steep cliffs, some covered by lush trees and shrubs, and many waterfalls plunging off the cliffs into the fjord. Farther into this magical place are the twin Sawyer Glaciers, where ice continually breaks into chunks — this is called calving — and plunge into the water. The sound of calving is other-worldly. The freezing cold temperatures at 6 a.m. jolted us back to reality. Still, getting up that early and donning that many layers was hardly a sacrifice for the opportunity to see spectacular scenery all around us.
Later that day we docked in Juneau, where we took the Mount Roberts Tramway (only $33 per rider), which offered a panoramic view of the state capital and the Inside Passage from 1,800 feet above the city. At the top of the tramway are also a restaurant, gift shop, native artwork and hiking trails into the alpine meadows, including some marked with the international access symbol. One tramway ticket can be used all day if you plan another excursion.
Juneau is close to some spectacular glaciers, and a ride to one glacier via helicopter costs a pricey $350 or more. A lift is available to help wheelers into the helicopter, and riders must have enough mobility to sit upright and slide across the seat into the copter. Wheelchairs stay behind, so expect to stay onboard when the copter sets down on the glacier and other passengers get out.
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the cruise came on the next day after we docked in Skagway. The White Pass & Yukon Scenic Railway ($121 per person) is a ride you must take. Built during the Klondike Gold Rush, the train climbs almost 3,000 feet with incredible views of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls and historic sites.
Wheelers and companions board the 1890s-style parlor car via ramp, and when the train reaches the summit, passengers switch to the opposite side of the car to view what they may have missed on the ride up. Since it was a clear day, looking miles down to the bottom of the mountain on a train speeding along the edge of a cliff took my breath away. Talk about adventure!
Our final port was Victoria, British Columbia, where my companion and I had planned a tour and tea at Butchart Gardens. Some say the gardens are a wonderful change of scenery and restorative, but at $167 per ticket and for the few hours we docked, we decided to skip it. I stayed onboard the Solstice to watch the sun set from my private balcony; my companion got off ship to walk around the city. We were both satisfied with our low-key choices and the money we saved.
• Celebrity Cruises, 800/647-2251; www.celebritycruises.com
• Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer day trip, Ketchikaninfo@allenmarine.com, www.allenmarinetours.com/sightseeing/ketchikan/tours/fjord-wilderness/. Allen Marine Tours highly recommends setting this tour up through whichever cruise line you use for your Alaska adventure.
• Mount Roberts Tramway, 888/461-8726; www.goldbelttours.com/mount-roberts-tramway
• Seattle-Tacoma Airport, 800/544-1965; www.portseattle.org/Sea-Tac
• White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, 800/343-7373; www.wpyr.com
Seven-day Alaskan cruise, Aug. 16-23, 2013. It’s important to know how long the ship will be in port before selecting land excursions.
Friday: Depart Seattle’s Smith Cove Cruise Terminal 91 at 5p.m.
Saturday: At sea all day
Sunday: Ketchikan, Alaska, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Monday: Tracy Arm Fjord, by sea, 6 to 10 a.m.; Dock at Juneau, 1:30-10 p.m.
Tuesday: Skagway, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Alaska Inside Passage, by sea, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday: At sea all day
Thursday: Victoria, British Columbia, 6 to 11:59 p.m.
Friday: Return to Seattle, 7 a.m.
Recently, I’ve yearned to stay in bed and breakfasts rather than big, impersonal hotels. But accessible B&Bs are hard to find, and the interpretation of accessibility varies widely from place to place.
I totally lucked out in Seattle at the Bacon Mansion, where a carriage house behind the main building, built in 1909, was converted into a beautifully accessible respite. Guests roll up a short ramp into the charming, little house with a small living room, kitchenette, bedroom and large bathroom with spacious roll-in shower.
Owner Daryl J. King is more than willing to make adjustments. He removed the box spring from the bed to make it easier for me to transfer into, offered to remove the area rugs and delivered a delicious, fresh breakfast in the morning since the dining room, in the main house, is up a few steps.
As he made the necessary structural changes for accessibility, King was careful not to compromise the look and feel of the original structure so guests experience the quaint feel of a B&B.
Bacon Mansion is in the Capitol Hill district of Seattle, near shops and restaurants and only about a 20-minute accessible Yellow Cab ride to the cruise ship pier.
I started planning my trip in early 2013 by working with Connie George Travel Associates, which specializes in booking travelers with the total spectrum of disabilities. Vicki Thorpe, my wonderful travel consultant, is a pro at booking cruise ship accommodations, checking on bed height, cabin balcony ramping, width of doorways, etc. This made the journey easier and enjoyable.
To help in my research, my agent emailed me detailed information on the ports and a list of excursions deemed accessible. She sent back my selections to Celebrity and worked with them to ensure that access details were in place. If there was any doubt or last-minute changes, she advised consulting with the on-ship excursions desk. I found that staff to be helpful, especially when being specific about personal needs.
Before signing up for any excursions, make sure you can navigate them by researching what they offer and what they require of you. For example, find out whether your big ship docks directly at the pier or if passengers are ferried to land on smaller boats. Once on land, are the walkways paved? Are there steep inclines because the town is on a hill, as is common in Alaska? Is there accessible transportation if you want to go into town or dine at a local restaurant, or must arrangements be made in advance?
Seattle and Vancouver are the main departure ports for Alaska. The ports of San Francisco and Los Angeles are used less frequently. There are also sailings from ports in Seward, Alaska (gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park) and Whittier, Alaska (gateway to Prince William Sound). But first you have to get there, which isn’t as easy as flying directly to the West Coast. However, if you decide to combine a cruise with a land tour to other parts of the state, you might reboard the ship at a different port or fly home from an Alaskan airport, depending on your package.
• Accessible accommodations onboard.
• Accessible transportation to and from excursion sites at all ports.
• Make sure tour operators are aware of your needs. Is there an accessible bathroom on the fishing boat you’re riding on all day? Do they know you use a power wheelchair?
• Do you have the proper clothing and gear for protection in all types of weather?
• Are your wheelchair and other adaptive devices in tip-top shape and can they withstand the rugged environment on land and sea?
• Make sure you packed your passport, credit card and taste for adventure!