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What a cruise to Alaska is really like
On my recent trip to Alaska I sailed with Disney Cruise Lines, although based on the research I did of other companies sailing to the “49th state” the itineraries are basically the same (when leaving from the port of Vancouver, Canada). So I thought I would do a general run-down on what an Alaskan cruise is like on a seven-night sailing.
When one thinks of Alaska, the image of the enormous land mass that is America’s largest state usually comes to mind. The Alaska land portion is home to sites and places like Denali National Park and Anchorage. Well, “Inside Passage” sailings (what seven night cruises are commonly referred to) don’t go anywhere near them.
What’s the Inside Passage, you ask? It is a coastal route for vessels along a network of passages which traverse through the islands on the Pacific coast of North America. So yes, it’s Alaska, but the land directly to the east. To go deep into the heart of Alaska, one needs to either visit himself, or do a popular “land/sea” combo, meaning you get the best of both worlds.
Excluding those cruises that are longer than seven nights (and originate in a port other than Vancouver), most Alaskan cruises will stop at the following ports:
-Endicott Arm (fill in for Tracy Arm)
Cruise lines will list Tracy Arm as one of their stops, Disney’s included. However, due to a near constant high density of ice, they are not able to visit (no cruise ships visited Tracy Arm during the 2016 cruise season). Well, 2017 seems to be off to the same start. I was on a sailing in the first week of June and we went to Endicott Arm instead, an equally beautiful and impressive fjord. (As substitutes go, I think this was probably the best I’ve ever had.)
When we first entered the fjord, the scenery greatly reminded me of Norway, specifically the Geirangerfjord area. But as we drew nearer to the famed Dawes Glacier, we started seeing chunks of ice in the water, which was neat. I had signed up for a port excursion that would transport us on a catamaran (a much smaller sized boat compared to a cruise ship) and being on a smaller vessel really allowed us to get up close to the glacier. No words can describe the thrill and amazement of seeing something like a glacier and also learning how it had created the fjord (Endicott Arm). And let me say, the sound of ice breaking off a glacier (what an iceberg is) truly sounds like thunder. No joke.
We did see some wildlife here, a couple of bears from a distance, and then two seals lounging on a chunk of ice.
Skagway was the farthest north we went so this was the port where we had the most sunlight. It’s a super tiny city but its population of 800 people balloons during cruise season when tens of thousands of visitors descend on it. Skagway’s biggest fame is that during the Klondike Gold Rush, it was the starting off point for prospectors as they made their way into Canada’s Yukon Territory.
It’s home to gold-rush era buildings that are now preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, along with a tacky abundance of jewelry and duty free shops. The downtown at least still retains its “Wild West” feel and set against the backdrop of stunning mountain vistas, well, it’s a pretty scenic place to visit.
One of the most popular excursions is riding on the historic White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad which takes passengers on vintage locomotives past the Chilkoot Trail. However, another popular option, and one that I chose, was going on an overland route (same itinerary, but more options to stop, take photos etc). It was incredibly cool to say that I’ve been to the Yukon now.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska and it was probably the most visually striking state capital I’ve ever been to (sorry, Honolulu). Juneau is near to countless outdoor attractions including Mendenhall Glacier and whale watching opportunities. Being the biggest city we visited, there was obviously a greater and more diverse selection of eateries and shops.
My biggest tip for Juneau-go on the funicular here. My guidebook had said there was one in Ketchikan (our next port) and as we had already had a full day in Juneau on our excursion, I figured I’d save the funicular for Ketchikan. Well, that was a mistake. While the one in Juneau literally goes up a mountain, the one in Ketchikan is more like a tram going up a hill. Major disappointment.
Ketchikan is best known for its many Native American totem poles that can be found throughout the city. It’s also close to Misty Fjords National Monument which is glacier-carved. Any nature enthusiast, mild or extreme, would adore it. Some popular attractions near to the cruise ships’ terminal include the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and crab tours (the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour is the number one attraction for Ketchikan on TripAdvisor).
Creek Street is also lovely to just wander along as it’s home to many picturesque wooden buildings from the last century (just ignore the fact that at one time it housed the city’s red light district).
Pre and Post Cruise
Vancouver is Canada’s third largest city and has a ton to offer visitors, so be sure to leave time to explore this gem of British Columbia. Seriously, the sea air and those mountain views- be still my heart.
The cruise terminal is located right in the downtown, literally in the heart of its popular attraction Canada Place. In theory this seems good; depending on where you stay, you could walk to the terminal on embarkation day. However, it’s a madhouse there in terms of traffic. Another cruise also left (and arrived back) on the same days as my cruise and especially on the day we returned to Vancouver, it was a nightmare getting a taxi (endless lines). If you can swing it, I would almost advise doing the Vancouver tourist portion post-cruise and walk to your hotel after you disembark.
The Red Headed Traveler’s pro tip-Most flights back to the East Coast leave Vancouver’s airport either early in the morning (before you could get to the airport subsequent to the cruise docking) or late at night (the dreaded red eyes). But the Pacific Gateway Hotel at the airport offers a day rate room, meaning by spending less than $100 USD you have the use of a room as opposed to hanging in the airport (there was also a pool on site). When you consider how much money you’re already spending, it’s definitely worth it.
I had read that the weather in May/early June would be less rainy than in September (the two times of the year I was considering). Well, take that with a grain of salt. The weather wasn’t too bad and for the most part I packed the right clothes. And I think spending hours out on a boat near to a glacier, well anyone would end up feeling chilled to the bone. Most days were in the high 50s to low 60s.
Tank top in Vancouver, winter hat, scarf and gloves in Alaska-all in a week’s time.
The worst weather we had was in Ketchikan when it lightly rained, mildly hailed, turned semi-sunny, and then repeated. Fortunately, none of these weather patterns seemed to last longer than 10 minutes. My biggest disappointment was that I never had any blue sky days so none of my pictures look that phenomenal but c’est la vie, it’s Alaska.
Waters were the worst the evening we left Ketchikan and into the next morning (our second sea day). The water was incredibly rocky. I don’t get sea sick on cruises but everything was up and down and when you feel it on a vessel as large as a cruise ship, that’s telling. I was quite worried our brunch at Palo would be ruined as a result (all that rich food as the cruise ship is semi-bobbing along) but thankfully I was fine. I had taken dramamine as a precaution the night before so maybe that helped avert any unpleasantness. But for the majority of the cruise, the waters were extremely calm.
My favorite thing
The younger me (i.e. during my study abroad years) never would have dreamt of visiting Alaska. I just always had more interest in getting to as many countries as possible, and trips of an entirely nature based level? Pass. But now I love the idea of visiting all 50 states in my country and am just thrilled I made it to one as far away as Alaska, since I’ve already been to Hawaii. And of course the nature-themed trips, j’adore now as a 30-something traveler.
Alaska was stunning and picturesque and I can see why for centuries it has truly captivated travelers.
It really is a cruise like no other
A lot of people told me that while they would never have interest in going on a cruise (they’re most likely referring to Caribbean ones), they would consider an Alaskan one. And now having done both, I can safely say that an Alaskan cruise is entirely unique and different in that regard. The clientele is also a bit different but more importantly, most people are there to see the stunning and varied landscapes and natural phenomenon that grace them. You’re not there to sip tropical drinks and sunbathe (well, for the latter it’s much too cold). You’re there to appreciate Mother Nature.