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The 500-mile strip that defines the lower corner of Alaska has many names, including: the Panhandle, the Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska. It consists of a long net of remote islands, fjords and waterways lacing together Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island to the south, with Haines and Skagway to the north.
The region is an endlessly fascinating network of marine mammal habitat, bird rookeries, rich old-growth forests, glaciers, tiny ancient fishing villages and modern towns.
This splendor prompted 19th century naturalist John Muir to declare his trip through Southeast waters "pure wildness."
The network of waterways, called the Inside Passage, is integral to life in the region. The marine highway connects 33 communities in Alaska, and many residents know the region from top to bottom. Alan Chaffen grew up in Haines, the northern terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway system, riding the ferries that ply those waters. Formerly the manager at the ferry terminal in Petersburg, located at the southern half of the passage, he recommends traveling the waters of Southeast to anyone.
"There's a way of life you see and it's all set in this amazing place," he said. "I'm always telling people they need to see it."
Alaska's Inside Passage is one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in the world, welcoming 883,000 visitors in 2011 alone. The journey takes travelers through a rich tapestry of rivers, fjords, waterfalls, tidal pools and expansive straits. Along the way, the network of waterways provides access to miles of pristine coastline, glaciers and vast populations of porpoises, whales, sea birds, seals, sea lions, otters and eagles.
From Vancouver, British Columbia, five-to-nine day itineraries include stops at various ports of call where passengers spend the day taking optional land-based tours such as flightseeing, fishing, gold panning, hiking, and touring Alaskan Native cultural attractions.
The natural formations and vegetation in Southeast Alaska are equally impressive. A temperate, maritime climate feeds forested shorelines, carpeted moss, giant wild ferns, towering spruce trees and countless waterfalls cascading down rocky mountainsides.
Southeast is home to major attractions such as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Misty Fjords National Monument, Admiralty Island National Monument, Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, LeConte Glacier near Petersburg, and the Stikine River near Wrangell.
Some 73,000 people live along the Inside Passage. Among the residents is a large Alaska Native population of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians. Southeast's seaside communities offer a glimpse into life of both urban and rural Alaska. You can explore the shops, restaurants and museums in Juneau, the state capital, or wander among charming historic homes weathered by saltwater and sea winds in smaller communities like Petersburg and Sitka.
The question is, which sort of watercraft is best for exploring Alaska's Panhandle?
If you want to recall the days of the 19th century Klondike Gold Rush, when steamships carried passengers to the land of adventure and wealth, take a cruise ship. This option allows travelers to combine the luxuries of a hotel with the adventure of a trip through America's most spectacular wilderness. Cruise ships range in size and luxury, from megaliners to small ships and their accommodations are just as diverse. Options for cruising amenities range from casual to formal, it just depends on the experience you are looking for on your next Alaska getaway.
Or maybe you're more of an independent traveler. You can jump on a ferry in Bellingham, Washington and ride the Alaska Marine Highway, sleeping in recliners on the deck or in berths onboard. Other nights you may find yourself in a bed-and-breakfast in one of the towns and villages along the way. Ferry stops along the Inside Passage route begin in the south, with Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg. Sitka, Juneau, Gustavus, Skagway and Haines comprise the northern section of a trip along the Inside Passage. A car or camper can be easily loaded onto the ferry as well, expanding independent travel options even further.
For the truly adventurous, consider loading a sea kayak onto the ferry and designing a trip that allows time to explore the silent coves and tiny islands that pepper thousands of miles of the pristine coastal water. Sea kayaks are easily checked onto ferry vessels, or can be rented in most Southeast towns and villages along the route. Many tour operators offer fully-guided sea kayaking trips for all ages and skill levels that range from one day to one week and include gear and support services such as camp set-up and meal preparation. There is no greater scenic advantage than the perspective offered from sitting behind the paddle of a sea kayak. These narrow, sleek boats can access secluded harbors and hidden estuaries too small for larger vessels.
If you prefer a trip that combines ambiance without the crowds of a cruise, hop aboard a yacht. Often owned by local Alaskans, small yachts offer the luxury of a commercial cruise ship and the intimacy and flexibility of exploring from a private boat. Larger yachts can accommodate 12 guests in six private staterooms and offer fishing, kayaking, hiking and wildlife viewing from the boat and onshore. Many larger yacht charters have on-board naturalists and itineraries can be customized to fit any schedule or interest.
For information on the Alaska Marine Highway System, call 800-642-0066.
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit our website http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
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