Five ports of call to sample the best of Alaska on a cruise
A short cruise is the easiest way to see some of the breathtaking sights of America’s ‘final frontier’, such as the Margerie Glacier and grizzly bears catching salmon, and some of its quirky outposts
If you’re an adventurous traveller, being stuck on a cruise ship is probably not your idea of a holiday. But to see the untamed expanse of Alaska in a few days, you might consider tolerating the shuffleboard, lounge music tributes to ABBA and senior fellow guests.
Alaska is three times the size of Texas, and unless you’re British adventurer Bear Grylls or an Arctic explorer with a dog sled, much of the land is inaccessible. A cruise is the most practical option if you want to see more than a tiny corner.
The draw of America’s “final frontier” is its nature and scenic beauty. Mid to late summer is the best time to go – that’s when the salmon run begins and predators including grizzly bears converge for the feast. But the season starts now as the spring thaw begins. Here are five memorable port of calls.
Round trips originating from Vancouver or Seattle are popular because boarding and disembarking at the same port is convenient flying in from Asia. But if you want to spend as little time on board as possible, opt for a one-way, seven-day voyage down to Vancouver. Anchorage might be Alaska’s largest city with an international airport, but most ships board in the small town of Seward.
If you’re flying long distance, your best bet is to fly in to Anchorage, stay overnight to ease into travel, then take a train or bus down to Seward the next day. Whether you choose a bus line travelling along the Seward Highway or splash out for a seat on the historic Alaska Railroad, the three-hour journey is breathtaking. One advantage of the well-maintained train is that it climbs to the summit of the Kenai Mountains where you can see fjords and glaciers not visible from the freeway.
By road it’s less comfortable but just as scenic. Most of the route is inside the Chugach National Park with the highway hugging Turnagain Arm’s impressive shores. There’s majestic mountains and waters that host migrating Beluga whales, and you’ll pass the serene deep blue Kenai Lake, pooled from pure glacial water.
This national park is a must-see destination. The 90km water corridor hosts impressive glaciers and is only accessible by water.
From the Gulf of Alaska, cruise ships enter the narrow basin, usually picking up a couple of park forest rangers on the fly from speedboats. They narrate the journey on the ship’s speaker and point out things like the sprays of whales in the distance and white dots on the mountain that are goats. As our ship approaches monolithic walls of blue-tinted glaciers, it slows to a dead drift letting everyone admire these receding and advancing sheets of ice and the gargantuan mountains hemming their march. Among the most awesome is the Margerie Glacier, which advances about two metres a day. Wait long enough on the bow and ice chunks slide off, creating an epic crashing spectacle.
With a population of only 2,500, Haines is not a regular stop for most ships but the friendly outpost is full of charm and attitude, embodying Alaska’s quirky, eccentric character. A number of the townsfolk are hipsters who’ve moved north to do their eco-organic thing, whether it’s setting up a gin distillery, smoked salmon shop or micro-brewery specialising in pine flavoured ale.
It’s a leisurely walk from Haines’ historic quarter, by the port, to the quietest of downtowns. This is a city without a single stoplight. But it has an attraction called the Hammer Museum. That’s right: more than 2,000 mallets on display.
If you prefer nature, spend a couple of hours hiking in the nearby Chillkat State Park, with several trails leading to beaches and trailheads, or just get lost in the forest of spruce and cedar.
Wi-fi is notoriously slow and expensive on cruise ships, so many passengers’ first agenda ashore is an internet café. Here’s a tip – find the public library instead. There, you have a quiet, comfortable place with free and reliable Wi-fi to reconnect online. In the state capital of Juneau, the library is literally next to the dock above a car park.
Once you’ve logged out, take Juneau’s famous cable tram to the top of Mount Roberts for a bald eagle’s eye view of the whole valley. Ignore the usual souvenir shops disguised as craft and cultural centres. Instead, hike up and around the magnificent summit for ever more stellar mountain views and panoramic photo-ops.
Another option if you have the time: find your way to Southeast Alaska’s only glacier accessible by road. The Mendenhall Glacier is 20km outside of town. Tours offer everything from kayaking near it, ice climbing on it, to helicopter rides over it.
And if you’re tired of cruise ship food, shell out for good but pricey seafood at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, an outdoor stall by the pier. The service is suspect but the crab isn’t.
Most Alaska cruises take the inside pass of the Pacific coastal route. Not only is it more sheltered with calmer waters, the view is consistently remarkable. At one lunch, playful dolphins swam along side the ship. Contrary to the perception of snowstorms and icy weather, much of Southeast Alaska is actually temperate with little snow. Instead, it rains enough to rival Seattle. That explains why much of the landscape qualifies as rainforest.
Ketchikan, due to its southern locale, is often the last port call. Like other towns reliant on tourism, they’re smart enough to offer a free shuttle to museums, attractions and shopping areas. Take advantage of it to go to Creek Street, a picturesque stretch of boardwalk built over water rapids. It used to be a red light district during Alaska’s gold rush days.
The town and its surrounding area are dotted with totem poles. You can learn more about the indigenous Tlingit culture at the Totem Heritage Centre. You might also hop off the shuttle for a drink in Ketchikan’s cheesy bars, fitted to resemble old school cowboy saloons. By the time you’ve finished a quick pint, you might actually want to get back on board and sail away through more pristine woodland and nature.
Delta Airlines flies twice weekly from Hong Kong to Seattle, with connections to Anchorage. Air Canada also offers flights to Anchorage through Vancouver. Options for Alaskan cruises are plentiful from smaller ships to gigantic liners that accommodate more than 6,000 people. The market leaders are Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, although Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line are also popular choices.