Alaska - a destination focus
Untouched. Untamed. Unforgettable. Filled with icy fjords that tower over the Pacific Ocean while snowy peaks stretch toward the horizon, Alaska feels boundless.
You can explore The Last Frontier as intimately as the locals do. Or you can book an Alaska Cruisetour, which combines your cruise with an immersive land vacation, and head deeper into the frozen wilderness. You can feel the excitement of a 30-ton whale gliding under your catamaran. Take the family to meet a friendly pack of huskies at a musher’s kennel. Or kick off your hiking shoes, grab a hot chocolate and enjoy the spectacular views from your private balcony. Sail from Seattle, Vancouver or Seward, with one of our preferred cruise partners.
For a long time the mystery of Alaska was just that. Positioned so far north it appeared untouchable except for true adventures. The truth is, Alaska is easily accessible. While Alaska’s cruise industry technically started back in 1875, the industry and experience has certainly changed. The mystique is still alive and the scenery is as splendid.
Gleaming glaciers, abundant wildlife, and Native American culture are only a few of the spectacular attractions that draw cruise vacationers to Alaska.
FUN FACT: Alaska is the most northern, western and eastern state in the U.S. Why the most eastern? Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain crosses the 180th longitudinal meridian (in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), placing part of Alaska in the Eastern Hemisphere (where the “East” begins).
GEOGRAPHY OF ALASKA
Alaska is separated from the lower 48 states by Canada. Though it’s the largest U.S. state, Alaska has one of the smallest populations, with only a little more than 600,000 residents. Alaska boasts the highest mountain in North America—Mt. McKinley (also called Denali), located in Denali National Park in the Interior region.
Alaska is bordered in the north by the Arctic Ocean, in the west by the Bering Sea, in the south by the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska, and in the east by Canada. A long coastal strip of islands and beautiful fjords make up the Southeast “panhandle” region of Alaska, bordering on northwest Canada. The Southeast region, which includes the ports Juneau and Ketchikan, experiences a relatively mild climate, with summer temperatures often reaching the mid-80s. A surprise to many: Alaska has more than 6,600 miles of coastline, more than all the other states combined.
Alaska’s Inside Passage region is the most common route for cruising and consists of a narrow strip of mainland adjacent to Canada, with hundreds of picturesque islands sprinkled throughout the coastline among many scenic waterways. The majority of Alaska cruise itineraries are 7-14 days departing from both Seattle and Vancouver with options of round-trip and one-way.
The largest cities in Alaska are Anchorage in the south central region; Fairbanks, in the Interior region; and Juneau and Sitka in the Inside Passage. Juneau is the capital of Alaska and is the only U.S. state capital that cannot be reached by road. Like many towns and villages in Alaska, Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane.
Alaskan history has a long backstory dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period (around 14,000 BC). Flip through your history books and you will read stories of Russian voyages, Captain Cook and other sailors, like George Vancouver (the source of several key place names) and the infamous William Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), visited the region. You will also find that Russia ruled Alaska from 1799 to 1867 before selling the region to the United States for a very low price. This transaction was ridiculed in the U.S. as “Seward’s Folly,” named after William Seward, the Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase.
If the Russians had only known... Gold was discovered in Alaska in the 1870s. The first big discovery, though, came in 1880 in Juneau (co-founded by prospector Joseph Juneau). These discoveries brought thousands of treasure-seeking prospectors to Alaska. Many of the towns you will visit on your cruise (especially Skagway) owe their existence to the gold rush. Seward’s Folly wasn’t such a folly after all.
In January 1959, the “territory” of Alaska became the 49th U.S. state. Today, the history and culture of the people native to Alaska is a major part of the charm of an Alaska cruise. Alaska has a variety of native tribes, each quite different from the others. Approximately 15% of current residents of Alaska are descendants of these indigenous people.
HOW DOES AN ALASKA CRUISE DIFFER FROM OTHER CRUISES?
If you have taken only one or two cruises, it’s statistically probable that it was to The Caribbean. Most tourists take a Caribbean cruise for a relaxing sun- and water-oriented experience. They expect to be able to sit out in the sun, go swimming, walk on a beach and shop. Although there are some educational and cultural experiences available on a Caribbean cruise, that’s not the focus for most guests.
When people sit around the pool on an Alaska cruise, they’re more likely to be relaxing under a comfortable blanket than in a bathing suit. People choose to cruise Alaska to view majestic glaciers up close, to learn more about the environment and nature, to see wildlife and to learn about some cultures very different from their own. While wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, July - September is when it's most likely to see whales during a cruise to Alaska.
Travel Tip: If you choose to sail on one of the first sailings of the Alaska cruise season in late spring, there's a chance you can see the Northern Lights.
Since daylight during the cruise season can last well into the evening and even into the night, you may want to stay in port longer. You will be less likely to return to the ship for an early dinner. On some cruises, there is no need to rush back for a set dining time. With the wide choice of restaurants, you can choose whether you want a full meal or just a light one after a day of activity in the port.
In fact, many of the ships sailing to Alaska feature more dining venues than some of the ports visited! On board, you can select from a multi-course gourmet meal, pasta, pizza, sushi, seafood, a salad, a steak or you can just relax with room service in your stateroom. The choice is yours.
When you return to the ship from your day’s excursion, there are plenty of activities you can enjoy as well, with the wide variety of lounges and entertainment available throughout the ship.
If you want to explore beyond the shore of this beautiful state, we recommend our expertly guided Cruisetours into the heart of the Denali National Park. Cruisetours are an authentic Alaskan adventure you will never forget. Cruisetours are offered on the cruises departing from Vancouver or Seward.
You will enjoy options like traveling along the rails of the Alaska Railroad, extensive tours and overnights in places like Denali, Anchorage, Alyeska, Fairbanks and Homer. There are opportunities to explore Denali with a Tundra Wilderness Tour, stop at an Iditarod Sled Dog musher’s house, enjoy a Halibut and Salmon fishing excursion, visit Talkeetna to get one of the best vantage points of Mt. McKinley. And these excellent tours are all escorted by local Alaskan guides offering their distinct and authentic perspectives.
ALASKA PORTS OF CALL & SHORE EXCURSION
Alaska’s capital sits on the shores of the Gastineau Channel and is surrounded by towering mountains – it may be the most dramatic setting of any U.S. state capital. The Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway is a short jaunt from the ship and offers spectacular views. A famous Juneau landmark is the Red Dog Saloon, with its honky-tonk atmosphere and Alaska draft beer. Abundant shopping is available in downtown Juneau. Boat tours are offered for whale watching. Depending upon the season, you may also see dolphins, seals, bald eagles, and sea lions. About 12 miles from downtown is Mendenhall Glacier, known as the river of ice.
One of the larger cities in Alaska, it lies on the border between Alaska and British Columbia. Known as Alaska’s “First City,” it’s the southernmost city on the Inside Passage, making it the first one that many of our vessels reach. Ketchikan was founded in the 1880s as a fishing village and became a major center for salmon processing. It is the salmon capital of the world. Over the years, the fishing and timber industries grew, making Ketchikan a major city. The wooden boardwalk in the center of town, near where cruise ships dock, is one of the most photogenic spots in Alaska.
Located on Baranof Island in Alaska's panhandle, Sitka is said to be the oldest town, some say 10,000 years old. It’s also the fourth largest city by population, and has a rich Russian history. Whale watching, bear sightings, totem poles, and the Tongass National Forest are a few of the attractions you can experience in Sitka.
After gold was discovered in 1896, Skagway, the Gateway to the Klondike, quickly grew to a town of more than 20,000 residents. However, today the town has fewer than 1,000 permanent residents—although the population doubles during the cruise season to serve the needs of passengers arriving in Skagway. Walking along the main street in Skagway, you feel as if you’re in an old-time Western frontier town. Looking down the street and seeing the snow-capped mountains in the background, it’s easy to believe you’ve entered a very different time and place.
Icy Point Strait
Located 22 miles southeast of Glacier Bay National Park and just down the road from Hoonah, it's Alaska’s largest Huna Tlingit village. Icy Strait Point is a relatively new port for cruisers. Thanks to its cultural ties to the Tlingit population, this port welcomes only one cruise ship at a time, preserving its natural beauty and offering an authentic “wilderness experience.” A cruise through Icy Strait will prove to be one of the most memorable of your vacation. The town is built around the restored Hoonah Packing Cannery. You can expect to enjoy the beaches, nature trails, shopping and biking, or opt for the many excursions including ATV rides, zip lining, whale watching, kayaking, and tribal dances.
BRITISH COLUMBIA PORTS OF CALL
British Columbia’s capital is on the southern tip of Vancouver Island that retains its British colonial atmosphere. Despite its northern location, Victoria’s climate is quite temperate and the frequent light rain nurtures its beautiful flowers.
Positioned between the snow-dusted North Shore Mountains and the rich, blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver blends big-city sophistication with small-town charm. You will want to visit Queen Elizabeth Park, a 130-acre civic arboretum accented with sculptures.
The deepest port in North America, Prince Rupert serves as Canada’s gateway to Alaska and the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). You will want to see the totems of the Haida and Tsimshian First Nations in the beautiful town parks, with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
EXPLORING THE INSIDE PASSAGE
After a cruise departs from either Seattle or Vancouver, the first part of the voyage sails the Inside Passage in Canadian waters, a glacial formed coastal route for cruise ships and other vessels. Once the ship arrives at Prince Rupert, British Columbia or Ketchikan, Alaska, the rest of the passage is through Alaskan waters. Most of ship's itineraries pass the mainland of British Columbia or Alaska on the eastern side and a string of islands on the western side, protecting the ship from the open seas of the North Pacific Ocean. The Inside Passage ends in Skagway.
The preferred cabin for Alaskan cruises is a balcony stateroom. That way you can experience Canadian and Alaskan wonders in an immediate, dramatic way.
It is fairly common to see whales, dolphins or eagles as the ship sails these waters. Remember to keep an eye on the sea for such occasions. Binoculars are a must to completely enjoy the experience. It takes a full day to travel the Inside Passage on the way to the first port.
Glacier Bay, which was discovered by famed naturalist John Muir in 1879, offers some of the most spectacular sights in Alaska. If nature is cooperative, here’s what you will experience as your ship glides slowly into Glacier Bay. First, small chunks of ice float past the ship, with wisps of mist rising from the icy waters. Sounds like thunder echo from the distance. Then bigger chunks of ice float past. The clouds part. To the left, a sheer, broad wall of ice, ahead a grayish one. These are the renowned glaciers. The thunder? It’s the sound of “calving”: huge slices of ice cracking from the glacier face and plunging into the cold, deep waters below. Are we getting too poetic? Think again: Glacier Bay is one of the most poetic places in the world.
Sawyer Glacier isn’t as well known as Glacier Bay, but many naturalists consider it more spectacular. Located within the large Tongass National Forest, the narrow, 25-mile-long fjord of Tracy Arm leads to Sawyer Glacier. The face of South Sawyer Glacier is one-third of a mile long and calves large and small icebergs regularly.
Named for Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Franklin Tracy, this fjord is located near Juneau. Hundreds of harbor seals make their home on the floating ice within Tracy Arm. Mountain goats, whales and bears are some of the other wildlife you can see here. But the real star is a huge glacier and its mountainous setting of 7,000-foot, snow-capped, waterfall-lined cliffs.
You will be in total awe as you sails past Hubbard Glacier. And yes, it is massive, extending 76 miles from its source, resulting in the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska. In fact, the cliff face you will sail along is over six miles wide and over 300 feet from the top to sea level. But massiveness is just one element that makes viewing Hubbard so exciting. It also happens to be one of Alaska’s most active glaciers, releasing huge chunks of ice crashing and thundering into the water.
There are many award winning and reputable tour operators and tour leaders in Alaska. In fact, many of them are Alaska locals, giving you an authentic insight into Alaska.
Mendenhall Glacier & Whale Quest (Juneau)
This is one of the top excursions in Juneau, as it features glaciers and wildlife from two very different vantage points, by land and by sea. A narrated motorcoach ride takes you to view and photograph the famous Mendenhall Glacier. Back aboard the motorcoach you will take the scenic route through the Mendenhall Valley. At Auke Bay you’ll board a water jet powered catamaran specially designed for wildlife viewing through the island studded waters of Stephens Passage.
Sea Kayak Adventure (Juneau)
Your kayak adventure along Juneau's coast begins with a short drive by bus to North Douglas Island, where you will enjoy scenic views of the Mendenhall Glacier. Here, your guide will hand out life jackets and rain gear before teaching you paddling techniques. Then you will will board the two-person kayaks with your travel companion, or assigned partner, for the breathtaking trip, which will give you a sense of how the Aleut First Nations traveled the coastal waterways.
Saxman Native Village & Lumberjack Show (Ketchikan)
Another popular excursion that is a favorite with cruisers as it reflects the rich culture of Southeast Alaska’s Native Americans and offers the excitement of the lumberjack competition. The first stop is Saxman Native Village where tribal elders and others have worked hard to maintain many of the traditions that have long defined their culture. The next stop is the Village Carving Center where world famous carvers work and pass on their skills to eager apprentices. On the return trip are sights of Creek Street and the thrilling Great Alaska Lumberjack Show with chopping, sawing, tree climbing and much more.
Misty Fjords & Wilderness Explorer (Ketchikan)
Explore Misty Fjords, one of nature’s most spectacular creations while cruising in luxury aboard one of the fastest sightseeing vessels in Alaska. The adventure begins as you leave Ketchikan’s picturesque harbor, passing by colorful fishing boats and floatplanes, in route to a wilderness experience you will forever treasure. Enjoy first-class service, an informative naturalist’s presentation, and watch for wildlife as you ‘fly’ at sea level past the rugged coastlines bordering Revillagigedo Channel.
Best of Sitka–Bear Sanctuary, Eagle Rescue & Native Trail (Sitka)
On this tour, a Native Alaskan guide provides commentary and points out sites of interest during the transfer to Sitka's Raptor Hospital for a close-up encounter with Alaska's bald eagles. After the eagle experience you will enjoy a scenic 7-mile drive along Sitka's rainforest coast to the Fortress of the Bear, a non-profit sanctuary for orphaned brown bear cubs. Watch resident brown bears as they frolic and play in their 3/4 acre habitats created from a re-used mill site. Next up is the 112 year old Sitka National Historical Park to see totem-lined forest paths.
Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest (Sitka)
You will enjoy a cruise that guarantees wildlife viewing and offers the opportunity to observe sea otters, whales, sea lions, porpoise, harbor seals, brown bears, black tail deer, bald eagles and a variety of marine birds. An onboard naturalist will explain the workings of this remarkable ecosystem. They will also learn about the sea otters' recovery, following their near-extinction at the hands of Russian fur hunters in the early 1800s.
White Pass Scenic Railway (Skagway)
No trip to Alaska is complete without a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow gauge railroad. This memorable journey aboard the "Scenic Railway of the World" travels from tidewater to the summit of White Pass, a 2,865 foot elevation. The 40 mile round-trip ride in a vintage rail retraces the original route to White Pass Summit passing Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point and Dead Horse Gulch. This fully-narrated tour features panoramic views of mountains, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles and historic sites including the original Klondike Trail of '98.
White Pass Railway, Klondike Gold Fields & Panning (Skagway)
You will want to add this to your bucket list of things to do. This is your golden opportunity to experience the Klondike's rich past on this historic railway and dredge tour. In Skagway, you will board the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to journey down the west side of White Pass Canyon to Skagway via motorcoach. This guided tour provides a unique opportunity to explore a massive gold dredge formerly used in the Klondike Gold Fields. You will have a chance to try your hand at gold panning, with gold guaranteed in every pan! The Gold Shack staff will weigh your gold and fashion a memorable keepsake for purchase.
Butchart Gardens Evening & Victoria Highlights (Victoria, BC)
By far the most popular attraction is a visit to the wonderful Butchart Gardens, with its vast array of flowers, trees and shrubs. Depart from Ogden Point to one of the finest gardens in the world. The tour guide points out the majestic legislative buildings, Empress Hotel, Royal British Columbia Museum, Beacon Hill Park and the exclusive residential districts of the Uplands and Oak Bay with their manicured grounds and gardens, Bastion Square, and Chinatown (the oldest in Canada) including the “Gates of Harmonious Interest.”
Zipline Adventure Tour (Victoria, BC)
You can experience an exhilarating ride as you soar up to 1000 feet off the ground on eight scenic ziplines. The professionally trained guides emphasize safety and comfort, ensuring a ride full of thrills, awesome beauty and great memories. As you descend through the forest and over the beautiful Sooke Hills, British Columbia, your guides will provide you with interesting facts and stories about the local ecology and history of the area.
PORT TIPS FOR ALASKA
✓ Bring layered clothing, since temperatures can change considerably during the day and/or in different environments such as near glaciers, in rainforests, in town, etc.
✓Remember to bring binoculars on the cruise and to take them on any Shore Excursion off the ship. It will enable you to see distant wildlife.
✓ Be sure to bring a camera. You will find more photo opportunities in Alaska than in almost any other place in the world.