September 18, 2021

My First Cruise to Alaska Part 2

Anne at John Hopkins Inlet

Why, our friends often ask, “do you keep going back to Alaska?” Ever since Bill and I made our first trip north from Vancouver by sailboat, we haven’t been able to get enough of what Alaska has to offer: stunning scenery, untrammelled wilderness and the locals whose hospitality increases, it seems, the farther north you go.

We’ve returned numerous times to Alaska, most often aboard a cruise ship, and we never tire of its natural wonders. This is the place to see glaciers and glassy fjords and snowcapped mountains cloaked in evergreen forests. Mind you, the ever-expanding array of shipboard facilities does compete for our attention as we steam northward to Alaska. Fortunately there is time enjoy the magnificent vistas as well as onboard activities, be it lounging in a deck chair with a good book or taking classes in everything from yoga to cooking to digital photography. If you’re travelling with children, the large ships provide supervised facilities and age-appropriate activities. And because modern ship design incorporates windows wherever possible, you can be just about anywhere – in one of the restaurants, the gym, the spa, the youth centre or one of the lounges – and have a view of the passing scenery.

When the ships reach Alaska, they visit two or three ports of call, spending a full day in each port. Juneau, the state capital, is one of the most popular Alaskanports. In addition to its historic Gold Rush buildings now housing shops and restaurants, downtown attractions include the famous Red Dog Saloon, where you can quaff a pint to the sound of honky-tonk piano music. However, like all Alaskan ports, it’s the surrounding scenery that shouldn’t be missed. In Juneau, some of the best whalewatching anywhere can be enjoyed on a boat excursion to Lynn Canal or Stephens Passage where humpback whales feed in summer. Great hiking trails can be reached by taking the tramcar up Mount Roberts or by taking a shuttle bus to Mendenhall Glacier. And if money is no object, book yourself a flightseeing excursion over the Juneau Icefield.

The boardwalk town of Ketchikan is another popular port, its downtown streets packed with cruise passengers at the height of the season. However, it’s easy to escape the crowds either by taking an excursion – flightseeing over Misty Fjords is a perennial favourite – or setting off on a hike to the summit of Deer Mountain. Skagway, a famous boomtown during the Klondike Gold Rush, is also featured on roundtrip cruises from Vancouver. The National Park Service has restored several of Skagway’s historic buildings, including the old railroad depot and Mascot Saloon. The scenic train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad is one of Skagway’s most popular attractions, but other options include renting a bicycle or hiking the local trails (maps are available at the Park Service office).

One day of a seven-day cruise is spent visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm or Hubbard Glacier – to view up close the region’s beautiful tidewater glaciers. These towering walls of ice each mark the terminus of a valley glacier and sit partially submerged at the head of a fjord or inlet. The cruise ships linger at the face of these tidewater glaciers on the chance a massive chunk of ice will drop with a huge splash into the turquoise water.

Roundtrip cruises return to Vancouver via the Inside Passage, whereas one-way cruises continue northward, visiting glacier-lined College Fjord in Prince William Sound on their way to Whittier or Seward. Here passengers disembark for a land tour of Alaska or to catch a flight home from Anchorage. (This one-way itinerary can also be taken in reverse.) Roundtrip cruises are also available from Seattle, which is a more economical option than Vancouver for American passengers flying to their embarkation port. However, ships departing from Seattle do not travel up B.C.’s Inside Passage but instead stay in open waters until reaching Alaska.

About Anne Vipond

Anne Vipond is the author of several guidebooks to cruising destinations around the world. She draws on an extensive sailing background to impart her enthusiasm for cruise travel. From her home port of Vancouver, she travels by cruise ship to a wide range of destinations to keep her books current and useful for her cruise readers. Her cruising articles have been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and over seas.