Crystal Cruises' Harmony makes room for kids

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uppies! Take two kids under 10 years old on a luxury-level cruise to Alaska, where there are breaching whales, calving glaciers and oodles of onboard activities to pique their interest, and all they can talk about are puppies.

But to be fair, they're not talking about just any puppies, but frisky huskies in pre-pre-training to become Iditarod sled dogs.

We met the pups during one of the shore excursions on our 12-day Crystal Harmony sailing from San Francisco last summer.

The 940-passenger Crystal Harmony is the only luxury ship plying Alaskan waters that offers organized kids activities on its cruises, which sail to and through the Inside Passage from Ketchikan to Skagway.

Crystal emerges as an unusual player in the ongoing bid for a piece of the Alaska family market. It's a luxury line, which would not jump to mind when looking for a ship suited to children.

Crystal doesn't advertise itself as a family-oriented cruise line, per se. However, if the line wants to go after young professionals, they need to be able to accommodate those young professionals' kids.

And Crystal operates longer cruises than most of the big guys, which intensifies the need to deliver programs that will keep the kiddies contented.

"For the luxury sector, we've got a very good junior activities program in the summer," a spokeswoman for the line said.

"Extended family reunions have been very popular on these Alaska cruises because of this program and also the convenience of the roundtrips from San Francisco for family members from different cities."

A Glacier Bay National Park ranger talks to kids in the Fantasia children's center. Paradoxically, the Harmony's kids center, Fantasia, is smaller than its sister ships' facilities (also called Fantasia) on the Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity.

To accommodate large groups, the line's junior activities directors are able to move groups of kids around to different parts of the ship and to take advantage of good weather by bringing them on deck to play and sightsee.

Our sailing had only six directors, but the line said more would be added this summer.

Director Holly Sproule said the ship gives the staff leeway to coordinate activities, sometimes at the spur of the moment, usually due to weather or public space availability.

During our cruise, the directors used the Stars Disco adjacent to Caesars Palace at Sea; the daytime dining room Lido Cafe; the Galaxy Lounge; the Wimbledon Court on the top Sun (or Sports) Deck; and, of course, the main, outdoor Seahorse Pool.

"It's hard to find places for large groups of kids to go," said Sproule. "Fantasia is really too small, especially with a lot of kids."

Activities you gotta love

But the thrill of cruising the Last Frontier is getting outdoors and enjoying the wildlife and experiences that are uniquely Alaskan.

And few activities could beat the dog-sledding adventure near Skagway.

The sledding excursion, operated by Shinevalley-Yukon Sled Dogs of Whitehorse, Canada, was thrilling -- even though there was no snow.

During the summer, these professional sled dogs are in training to keep in shape, and we were only too glad to help them out.

A van carried us from Skagway's port to the Klondike Gold Rush National Park, about a 20-minute ride. Within the park is the base camp for the husky dog-sledding teams and their trainers.

Twelve of us mushed into the mountains in a custom-built sled on wheels, past Sitka spruce and rocky waterfalls.

The dogs, whose job it was to drag the sled up steep hills and down, looked pooped. Water breaks were frequent.

But, oh, those downslopes, when kids, parents and dogs felt the rush as the pack let it all out.

Back at the base camp, we drank coffee and lemonade while the children played with the puppies as we waited for our ride back to Skagway.

The Dog Sled Adventure runs about two hours and costs $104 per adult (there are kids' rates available).

The kids also enjoyed panning for gold -- which is a typical tourist pastime in the state -- and a salmon bake excursion in Juneau, a horse-drawn trolley tour in Ketchikan and the New Archangel Dance show in Sitka.

More active (and sturdy) teens had many kayak and canoe excursions to choose from in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, as well as bicycle rides in Ketchikan, Sitka and Skagway.

What's doing on board?

The Glacier Bay program for children begins in the morning at the Fantasia children's center.

While we were there, dozens of kids engaged in painting a mural of Alaskan animals. Next was a Glacier Bay scavenger hunt, with some of the items representing animals indigenous to Alaska.

Later, the Glacier Bay National Park ranger gave a short talk about the wildlife, the environment and the huge glacier the children were watching from the center's windows.

The ranger kept his talk pretty much on a kid's level as he explained how a glacier is formed and what happens when a piece breaks off. While he was talking, as if on cue, a portion of the glacier separated and splashed into the sea.

The ranger brought with him a box of Junior Ranger activity books, which he passed out to the children. In the end, each of the children got a Junior Ranger certificate.

Following the ranger's visit, the kids played a "Who Wants to be an Alaskan Millionaire" game (all the questions and answers having to do with, well, Alaska) and watched a movie about a family stranded in, you guessed it, the Alaskan wilderness.

Around the stairwell from the facility, which is located on the Lido deck, is the popular Computer [email protected], where kids and parents can take classes in computer skills, such as the one we took on digital photography.

Even with the number of children on the Harmony, I didn't see kids hanging out at the stairwells or hogging the bars with their soda cards. Good manners were common, as we discovered. And there are no soda cards: Soft drinks are included in the cruise price.

And if some of the smaller ones had trouble minding their manners, Crystal had a solution for that, too.

Last summer, the line introduced a series of etiquette-training classes based on techniques offered by the 71-year-old Gollatz Cotillion school in California.

The Cotillion classes covered verbal introductions, ballroom dancing, posture and table manners. Though not heavily attended (my guess is that the parents were unaware of the classes, or maybe even Cotillion in general), the kids who did show picked up some good tips.

So, with a large group of kids to entertain on a 12-day cruise, and a small space in which to do it in, how do the Crystal Harmony's junior activities directors coordinate the program?

Answer: With ingenuity and flexibility.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Kids sail free again this year on line's cruises to 49th state

LOS ANGELES -- One way Crystal Cruises has succeeded in filling its ship in Alaska season after season is a "Kids Under 12 Sail Free" promotion, which is being offered again in 2004.

The Crystal Harmony will sail 10 12-day cruises from San Francisco to Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway and Juneau in Alaska; and Victoria and Vancouver in British Columbia. Sailings start May 30. Fares start at $2,595 per person, double.

The 2004 sail-free offer is in effect for triple accommodations only. (Crystal constructed third berths in 127 cabins on the Harmony a year and a half ago.)

My two children were part of a contingent of 93 under-17-year-olds (out of 750 total passengers) on the second-to-last Crystal Harmony Alaska sailing last August. This 12% segment on this sailing was typical, said onboard officials, of what occurred throughout the summer of 2003.

In fact, Christine Potvin, the onboard cruise sales consultant, said that 10% of the first-time Crystal passengers on our sailing were rebooking for 2004, and the majority of the bookings were for extended families. -- R.C.

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