Gathering my busy family for a grand vacation is more complicated than planning a royal tour. Last year, my parents, now in their 60s, decided to make it happen: They would take us all — me, my two sisters, our mates and our children (three kids total, all under 6) — on a seven-day cruise to Alaska. We would meet in Seattle, explore Alaska's southeastern islands aboard the Norwegian Jewel with some 2,300 fellow passengers, then return to our respective homes in the Silicon Valley (my sisters) and the Washington, D.C., suburbs (my parents and me).

Join AARP Today — Receive access to exclusive information, benefits and discounts


As soon as we all enthusiastically accepted this generous invitation, my mother — always the planner — started booking staterooms. But shortly after logistics were nailed down came the first surprise: One sister announced that she and her husband were expecting another son at just about the same time our ship was to sail. After we all got done jumping for joy, we realized — oh, no! — that her branch of the family would have to sit this one out. Everyone was disappointed, but my parents decided the rest of us should and would forge ahead.

Surprise No. 2 came the day before our meet-up in Seattle, when we received an urgent email from Norwegian Cruise Line: The planned stop in Skagway — along with the gold-panning excursion we were eager to take — had been canceled due to the ship's maintenance needs. That meant we would spend two days, not three, in Alaska, and return to Seattle a day early. (The cruise line later compensated us for the lost day.) 

We weren't thrilled, to say the least, but as the eight of us arrived to board the ship together, excitement took over. My daughter, 6, and son, 3, loved our cabin, which included a bunk bed that folded out from the wall and a trundle bed that popped up from under the main bed. My parents' room, which came with a lovely little balcony, became the family's main gathering spot before our group dinners in the ship's ornate dining rooms. Although my 3-year-old didn't always relish sitting through three-course meals, he did enjoy bouncing up and down on his grandparents' bed beforehand. 

Our first expedition was in Ketchian, where all of us — from the little kids to the grandparents — hiked along the salmon-filled river through town and then took a taxi tour we had found online. It turned out to be a highlight of our trip. A knowledgeable longtime resident introduced us to his home, pointing out the salmon fisheries that supply jobs and the bald eagles that awe even the locals. He then deposited us at a remote lake in the Tongass National Forest, where we picnicked and hiked.