5 Things to Bring on Your Cruise to Alaska (that you already own)

What makes a perfect vacation? If you're like me, you want memorable experiences, fun and relaxation, and a good friend to share it with. You want to make every moment count.

To me, making every moment count during a vacation means paying attention to the things I lack at home - the sounds, smells, and sights that are different from the place I live.

I'm fortunate to call Alaska home, but I love to travel. My next big trip is to the mountains of Georgia. I'm looking forward to the intangible things: the scent of pine needles baking in the summer sun, the buzz of insects swarming around azaleas, the tartness of muscadine grape jam, the ooze of red clay earth between my toes, and the brightness of the blue summer sky.

I can imagine all these things because I've been to those mountains before, and my senses remember it all.

In a new place

But what if you're going someplace new?  In a new place it can be easy to forget to pay attention to the senses. From the stress of travel, to sleeping in a strange bed, and trying to figure out where to eat -- our brains are often working overtime and not primed to stop and notice the environment.

With a little mindful preparation, it is possible (and easy, and free!) to make every moment of your vacation count. 

So if you haven't been to Alaska before, here's a short list of things to pay attention to. Don't just experience Alaska with your eyes, use your whole body to build a memory that you can take home with you. 

Sounds: noisy birds

Alaska is a vast state with a small population, so in most of the state it's rare to encounter human-made sounds. Even in the larger cities like Juneau, Anchorage, or Fairbanks natural sounds vie with manmade ones like traffic. 

Take birds, for instance. Ravens, bald eagles, gulls and geese can make quite a racket, even in the city.

That honking? It may not be a car. Look up - maybe it's a V of Canada geese

Listen in Anchorage for the insistent sound of Mew Gulls. They descend on the city in April, coming north to Alaska to breed after wintering along Pacific coast beaches. Mew Gulls are rare on the east coast of the U.S.  But watch out, they can be defensive about their nests. I've seen them dive-bomb people they think are getting too close.

Get familiar with the sound of Bald Eagles in Juneau. With their white heads, large bodies, and bright yellow legs and bills they are easy to spot. But in contrast to their size and fierceness, their calls are rather wimpy-sounding. Take a listen here.

If you have the chance to venture out on the tundra you might be amused to hear the comical sounds of the Willow Ptarmigan

But wherever you are, also be sure to notice the quiet. You don't have to get very far outside one of the cities to hear… silence.

Smells: take a whiff of the sea

On a springtime walk to school following an overnight rain, my daughter remarked that it smelled like Trailside Camp, a kids' outdoors camp in Anchorage.

It's the smell of the wet earth about to bloom. As the amount of daylight increases, it seems that all at once everything bursts into green. The rush into spring is accompanied by a smell. It's a heady mix of willows showing off their fat new catkins, bright green birch leaves unfurling, and earth warming up.

Summertime brings its own smells. See if you can experience a pleasant one like the western red cedar tree, or an offensive one like the stench of carrion emanating from the ironically-named chocolate lily.

Get acquainted with the earthy, musty smell of a rainforest. Or take in the signature salt-water scent which permeates everything on the coast due to the endless cycles of tides -- of wet and dry, wet and dry.

Other smells are redolent of Alaska as well. Notice the smell of salmon - whether it's the enticing aroma of a juicy pink salmon filet on the grill or the stench of a bear-chewed salmon carcass on the beach.

Sights: how to take a good landscape photo

It's hard not to pay attention to the sense of sight when visiting Alaska. The scenery is jaw-dropping, and it's nearly impossible to ignore it.

Sit back and admire the sky-high peaks draped by hanging glaciers; valleys that look untouched by man; and miles and miles of unspoiled coastline.

But don't forget to bring your camera! Increase your chances of getting good photos of Alaskan landscapes by following these tips:

  • Think about lighting: Sunrise and sunset are good times of day to take pictures because the light often beautifully illuminates the landscape. Of course, in the summertime sunrise and sunset can be at inconvenient times, so another option is to use a polarizing filter.

  • Compose your shot: The rule of thirds suggests you divide your composition into thirds both vertically and horizontally. When you find the focal point of your shot, try to place it at a point where the imaginary lines that divide your composition into thirds intersect. 

  • Play with your camera's settings: Make as much of your scene as possible in focus. That may require you to select a small aperture (a large number). This will give you less light which means you might need a slower shutter speed -- and perhaps a tripod to hold your camera steady.

Another way to appreciate the scenery is to use an app like CoastView. See thousands of high-definition images of the coast of Alaska whether you're nearby or far away. The app works even if you're not online, so paying for an internet connection isn't an issue. You can tag your favorite images of the coast and share them with friends and family on social media. Find the app starting summer 2016 in the App Store.

But whatever you do, don't keep your eye behind the lens or the screen the whole time. Once in a while just live in the moment and let the beauty and enormity of the scenery amaze you.

Touch: not always what it appears to be

The element of surprise might be the most interesting thing about touch.

Touch a starfish. You might be surprised to find out that it actually feels like sandpaper. Rub your hands along the bark of tall trees in Southeast Alaska to understand what ancient canoes felt like. Don't be afraid to get a little dirty - walk barefoot along a beach or explore an old cabin. And don't forget to stop and, at least once, dip a toe in a river and feel how cold the water is. Ponder what that might mean for animals who live here.

Taste: salmon, berries, and brews

I saved taste for last because tasting my way through a new place is one of my favorite pastimes. Food helps me associate a vacation with the local climate, plants, and animals.

While in Alaska you must sample salmon. A large part of Alaska's economy runs on salmon, and many of the households do as well; people pack their freezers full of salmon to get through the winter with this healthy, delicious source of protein.

Try salmon prepared in all sorts of ways: smoked, grilled, jerky and even salmon-infused vodka. Order a salmon burger, salmon taco, or salmon pot-pie.  Alaska boasts some great chefs who will do their best to make you fall in love with the rich taste of this prolific fish.

Do you like berries? In late summer look for blueberries, salmonberries, crowberries, raspberries, cloudberries, and high-bush cranberries. As long as you're not on someone's private property go ahead and indulge (but stay away from any white berries - in Alaska white berries are poisonous).

Enjoy happy hour with a specialty flavor. Sitka spruce tips are used in Skagway Brewing Company's Spruce Tip Ale, Sitka's Baranof Island Brewing Company's Sitka Spruce Tip Ale, and Haines' Port Chilkoot Distillery's 50 Fathom's Gin which won a 'double gold' at the San Francisco World Spirits competition. For dessert, try the award-winning rhubarb ice-cream at Juneau's Coppa.

If you're a foodie who likes history, be sure to sign up for a Juneau Food Tour. Take a walk through Juneau with a local host and learn about the city's colorful history while you sample delicious, locally-sourced foods. 

No need to save room in your suitcase

There you have it. Five ways to make your trip to Alaska unforgettable by using tools that you already have: your sense of sound, smell, sight, touch and taste. The only thing you'll have to remember is to stop and notice.