Celebrate Alaska on a Cruise
Commemorate 50 years of Alaskan statehood in these
10 tempting destinations
By Jennifer Davoren
Two types of cruises offer a choice of Alaska's coastal sights. Inside Passage cruises typically sail round trip from Seattle or Vancouver and travel as far north as Skagway. Gulf of Alaska cruises are one-way itineraries that traverse the Inside Passage and reach northwest to Whittier or Seward, both ports for Anchorage. These also can travel in the opposite direction, using the Inside Passage to end in Vancouver or another Pacific port.
Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska cruises last a week or more, giving passengers plenty of time to spot wildlife, delve into the state's history and native cultures, or simply snap photos of the rugged coastline. All Alaska cruises occur between May and September, with the best deals found at the beginning and end of the season.
While cruises present a slice of coastal Alaska, tacking a land tour onto an ocean voyage provides opportunities to explore inland regions. On these land-and-sea packages, called cruise tours, passengers shake off their sea legs and board trains or motor coaches bound for the interior, with sightseeing and other adventures scheduled along the way.
One of the most popular cruise-tour pairings combines a Gulf of Alaska sailing with a foray north to Denali National Park, where moose, grizzly bears and wolves make their home at the foot of towering Mount McKinley. Other tours take on the Yukon Territory, tracing the history of the Klondike gold rush through a series of tiny frontier towns. A third type of cruise tour includes excursions east into the Canadian Rockies, combining Alaskan points of interest with the scenic lures of British Columbia and Alberta.
Alaskan cruises explore dozens of enchanting destinations, from contemporary coastal cities to rugged treasures tucked away just a few miles inland. Below, we've profiled 10 stops highlighted by a bevy of shore excursions, and we've outlined new Alaska offerings from six major cruise companies. Nine of the destinations are perfect for whiling away a few hours during port calls, and one -- Denali -- offers the chance for extended study with a cruise-tour package. Celebrate the "golden anniversary" of Alaska's statehood with these golden opportunities for exploration.
Frequently the first port of call for northbound Alaskan cruises, the charming village of Ketchikan sits nearly halfway between Seattle and Skagway. Ketchikan's connections to Native American culture have led to the creation of museums, theaters and public art displays dedicated to a fascinating tribal history. Known as the "totem pole capital of the World," the largest collection of these artifacts can be found at the city's Totem Heritage Center.
Salt- and freshwater fish, from hefty halibut to the five types of salmon available in the area's streams, are ready for anglers visiting Ketchikan. Celebrity Cruises highlights the local fishing industry -- and a favorite reality television program -- with a new excursion called "Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour." This trip takes place aboard one of the commercial vessels seen on "Deadliest Catch," a popular Discovery Channel show about the harrowing king crab industry, though the ship has been modified with passenger safety and comfort in mind.
Icy Strait Point
Icy Strait Point, Alaska's newest cruise port located just south of Juneau, is open for business. An old salmon cannery has been converted to a visitors center, complete with craft shops, a family-style dining room and a museum specializing in regional history and the fishing industry. The longest zipline in the World is here, too, whisking adventurous visitors over 5,330 feet of wooded mountainside and ending in a 1,300-foot vertical drop to Icy Strait's beachfront.
Royal Caribbean International will make 38 calls to this port in 2009, more than any other cruise line. Shore excursions include trips to nearby Hoonah, the cultural hub of the Tlingit people, for tribal dance performances and other demonstrations of Native American traditions. Royal Caribbean's "Mammals Cruise" excursion highlights the local sea life, with seals and whales among the targets of a small sightseeing vessel.
The state capital and third largest city, Juneau considers itself a place of contrasts. Looking up, visitors will see some of the most awe-inspiring mountain scenery in Alaska, a tribute to the state's wild past and ecological future. In town, however, cruise passengers disembark from their ships to find art, theater, fine dining and every other contemporary amenity imaginable.
There's something here to suit everyone, from the active hiker searching for a peaceful trail to the laid-back traveler wanting to visit a brewery. Day cruises skirt Juneau's shore, exploring the surrounding nature preserves and neighboring glaciers.
A new Juneau shore excursion from Norwegian Cruise Line drives through the historic downtown district to Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, a 50-acre botanical retreat.
This town is "everything you dreamed Alaska would be," according to local tourism officials. The destination lives up to the hype -- Haines is a place of unspoiled beauty, where chilly fjords drain down from the mountains and fill a calm, indigo sea. Wildlife tours along the Chilkoot River and its namesake lake lead to sightings of black and brown bears, bald eagles and moose. Fort William H. Seward offers a picturesque meeting spot for visiting history buffs.
Cruise West has debuted several new shore excursions in this area. A professional photographer leads the "Chilkat Valley Photography Tour," which provides shutterbugs a chance to capture the area's scenery and wildlife on film. A tour through the backcountry, "Haines Nature and Wildlife Expedition," follows in the footsteps of noted conservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir.
Once a lawless boomtown born at the peak of the gold rush, modern Skagway is now a peaceful coastal hamlet that pays tribute to its lively past. More than 100 historic buildings have been preserved around town, and a handful of museums, theaters and specialty stores embrace "the days of '98" with mining themes. Often the northernmost stop on an Inside Passage cruise, Skagway is a jumping-off point for adventure tours or flightseeing trips into the wilderness.
Holland America Line offers upward of 250 shore excursions on its 2009 cruises of Alaska. In Skagway, HAL passengers can choose a trip to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, a narrow-gauge train ride to the summit of scenic White Pass or the "Ghosts and Goodtime Girls" walking tour, which highlights the city's haunted homes and its former "entertainment" district.
Glacier Bay National Park
Roads don't reach this 3.3 million-acre park just west of Skagway. Instead, the protected shores of Glacier Bay National Park are best toured aboard a small cruise ship, giving passengers access to the countless animals that make their home here. This UNESCO World Heritage Site shelters 200 species of fish and 220 species of birds in addition to bears, caribou, mountain goats, whales and thousands of barking sea lions. Glacier Bay is a center of study for wildlife biologists and climatologists alike, as the region seems to collect animals and glaciers migrating from other parts of Alaska.
Earlier this year, Cruise West renovated and rechristened a 102-passenger ship to create the Spirit of Glacier Bay, a vessel sailing three- and four-night trips to the park from Juneau throughout the 2009 season. The "Glacier Bay Highlights" itinerary includes presentations by a park ranger and by a local expert on Tlingit culture.
The longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, stretching 76 miles from its source in Canada's Yukon Territory, Hubbard Glacier is a craggy, dramatic sight along the southeast coast. Cruise ship passengers get the perfect vantage point when passing the ice field. Photographers who gather along the top decks may be treated to a "calving," when an ice mass dislodges from a glacier due to movement or melting, disturbing the peaceful surroundings of Yakutat Bay as it crashes into the ocean. The detached chunks of ice become icebergs, which at Hubbard can be as tall as a 10-story building,
A host of seven-night sailings from Celebrity Cruises will highlight the glacier in 2009. The industry's first round-trip cruise to Alaska from Los Angeles, a 14-day voyage offered aboard the 4.5-star Celebrity Mercury next April, also will include sightseeing in the region.
Perched on the edge of Prince William Sound and ringed by the Chugach Mountains, Valdez is a breathtaking spot for shore leave. Guided tours include raft trips through Keystone Canyon, helicopter rides over the peaks and charter fishing on the sea. Valdez's major attraction is Columbia Glacier, a hulking tidewater ice field surrounded by sea life. It's become a must-see for many visitors, as climate change has put the glacier on course for rapid disintegration. This fjord-front city also welcomes hikers looking for a foray into wilderness.
Princess Cruises is the only line making regular calls at Valdez in 2009. The 688-passenger Pacific Princess will include Valdez on 14-day, round-trip "Connoisseur Voyages," which highlight a few less-visited Alaskan ports. Shore excursions include a Columbia Glacier cruise or a catamaran tour of the city's favorite fishing, shrimping and whale-watching spots.
This historic city is a scenic gateway to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, and Kenai Fjords National Park, the region's hot spot for hikers. Seward is an engaging attraction itself, though, with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and two playhouses among options. A charming downtown district lures visitors to art galleries and craft shops specializing in tribal techniques. Train rides and horseback tours of the backcountry are available, too, with most taking six hours or less to accommodate day-tripping cruise passengers.
Princess Cruises introduced 37 new Alaskan shore excursions this season, including two wildlife-centric tours in Seward. Passengers can visit the Alaska SeaLife Center, home to an interactive puffin exhibit, or opt for a kayaking tour of Resurrection Bay, where curious sea otters and fearless porpoises are known to approach boaters for inspection.
Denali National Park
More than 6 million acres of pristine Alaskan wilderness are preserved in Denali National Park, a popular attraction 200 miles north of Anchorage. Mount McKinley provides a dramatic backdrop, soaring some 20,000 feet above Denali. Below, Alaska's "big five" -- caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose and wolves -- mix with black bears, foxes, lynx, marmots, snowshoe hares and other wildlife on the scenic tundra. Domesticated animals are a popular attraction in Denali, too -- sled dogs, a major mode of transport for park rangers, are available for daily demonstrations and visitor meet-and-greets.
Twenty Alaska cruise tours offered by Holland America in 2009 boast a "Double Denali" package, which includes two nights at a classic wilderness lodge just outside the park, plus a guided tour of known wildlife haunts. The leisurely stay at Denali provides ample opportunity for animal encounters.
Information: Call (800) 338-4962 or visit Vacations To Go for destinations, departures and deeply discounted rates. For cruise tours, click here.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.