Ready, Set, Cruise!
Alaska has more miles of coastline than the rest of the United States combined, so you’re never short on adventure or jaw-dropping scenery. Rich with calving tidewater glaciers, vertical mountains crashing into the sea, marine mammals and ports of call where the ocean and its bounty are ways of life, an Alaska cruise means a close-up look at what makes the state so special.
The Inside Passage, a rain-forested, island-studded southeast region, is the focus of most cruises in Alaska. A few ships cross the Gulf of Alaska and venture into Prince William Sound and other Southcentral areas. And in 2016, a ship carrying over 1000 passengers docked in Nome, on Alaska’s Bering Sea. Most cruisers will visit the Inside Passage, and you can add other regions and land options to your Alaska vacation.
The most popular cruising destination in Alaska, the Inside Passage is a forested labyrinth of islands, steep fjords and quiet coves. Its waters are a veritable wildlife stew, filled to the brim with whales, seals, otters, sea lions and more. You can spot many of these from your cruise ship.
Traveling from south to north, most cruise ships’ first port of call in Alaska is Ketchikan. Like much of Southeast, many residents of Alaska’s “First City” make a living in the fishing industry. You can watch fisherman hauling in the day’s catch in the harbor, and then sample the wares at one of the city’s several seafood restaurants. Shore excursions include kayaking in Misty Fjords National Monument, a lush, mountainous park that is as dreamy as its name implies.
From Ketchikan, smaller boats will make stops in Wrangell and Petersburg. The former is one of the oldest towns in Alaska, and residents were there long before history books were recording it. At low tide, head to Petroglyph Beach to make etchings of prehistoric carvings made by Wrangell’s first inhabitants.
The much younger Petersburg is rich in Norwegian culture and provides access to the actively calving LeConer Glacier. Primarily a fishing town, Petersburg is exciting at the end of the day when you can watch the purse seiners cruise into the harbor.
Many boats call at Sitka, which boasts both Tlingit and Russian heritage. This scenic island town of 9,000 looks out to the dormant volcanic cone of Mt Edgecumbe, and everywhere you look is a photo opportunity. Take in a Russian folk dance, visit the excellent Sheldon Jackson museum, and gape at the totem poles in Sitka National Historic Park.
Juneau, the state’s capital, is a bustling town backed by massive green mountains. On shore, visit Mendenhall Glacier, take a bike tour to Alaskan Brewing Company, ride the tram up Mt Roberts, or peruse the many shops in the busy downtown district.
At the top of the Inside Passage, cruise ships stop at Skagway, an historic Gold Rush town where costumed tour guides ply the boardwalks that act as sidewalks. Take a ride on the White Pass/Yukon Railroad in a vintage parlor car to take in the view of the pass that stampeders crossed on foot.
Equally scenic and a popular destination for ships, Icy Straight Point/Hoonah is also a popular stop for cruise ships offering culture, adventure and wildlife viewing. Hoonah is the largest Tlinget village in Alaska, and also boasts the worlds largest zipline.
Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound has much to offer the cruiser. There are three towns in the 10,000 square mile Sound: Valdez, Cordova and Whittier. Valdez marks the end of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, but it’s just as famous for its surrounding vertical peaks, which give it the nickname “Little Switzerland.”
Cordova is accessible only by boat or air, and this pretty little fishing town is backed by the Chugach Mountains, beyond which is the Copper River Delta. The Delta is home to the largest bird migration in the US, but non-birders will find plenty to entertain themselves with: hiking trails, the massive and active Child’s Glacier, and excellent seafood, to name a few.
Whittier is a small town built in the shadows of steep peaks during WWII. Most of its residents live in one building, which also houses a church, school and store. Whittier is just over an hour’s drive or train ride from Anchorage (through a 2.5-mile tunnel), and many cruises begin or end here, or in nearby Seward, thanks to Anchorage airport access and land tour options.
Other ports of call
Less frequently, boats call at Anchorage and Homer, small towns on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as Kodiak Island and all the way out the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor and on up to Nome.
Every port offers an exciting array of shore excursions, including whale watching, zip-lining, bear viewing, bicycling, fishing and more. But don’t forget that you can always add a land-based tour to your cruise; most cruise companies offer extensive land tours that include travel by Alaska Railroad and motorcoach.
A trip to Alaska just wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of North America’s tallest mountain, Denali, or a capturing a photo of a majestic caribou. Take advantage of cruise and land combinations for an Alaska vacation you’ll never forget.