July 24, 2024

The Alaska Cruise Experience

Boardwalks in Alaskan ports lead to some of the town’s major attractions, such as Creek Street in Ketchikan.

The scenery is non-stop in Alaska, where snowcapped mountains and glacier-carved fjords provide a moving panorama for ships cruising the winding channels. Yet, for many passengers, the ports of call offer the quintessential Alaska experience.

Sitka’s tender dock is located beside the fishing boat harbor.

When you step off a cruise ship at an Alaskan port, you can engage in any activity that’s your idea of a northern adventure. This might include dogsledding on a glacier or viewing humpback whales from a catamaran. But there is much to be said for just strolling the streets and soaking up a bit of local atmosphere. However you decide to spend your time in port, it can be an opportunity to meet the people who live and work in Alaska.

Numerous trailheads are close to the cruise docks in Skagway.

The ports of Southeast Alaska (also known as the Alaska Panhandle) are dramatically situated at the base of coastal mountains and are connected not by road but by the state ferry system, appropriately named the Alaska Marine Highway. Surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, these pockets of human habitation bustle with cruise visitors during the summer months. When several cruise ships are in port for the day, tour buses line up beside the piers and passengers clog the nearby shopping streets. But nature is never far away and it’s easy to escape the crowds, either on an excursion or simply setting off on foot to a nearby trailhead for a walk in the woods.

Floatplanes depart Juneau harbor on flightseeing excursions.

Visitor information booths are conveniently located near the main pier at each port. If a ship anchors in a port, passengers are tendered ashore to a central location on the waterfront.

A hooded waterproof jacket is a must in Alaska.

Shore excursions offered by the cruise lines are run by local guides and licenced operators at each port of call. These companies provide their services to all of the cruise lines and a passenger booking a ship’s tour will be paying a fair price. Plus, there’s no need to worry about returning to the ship on time – the shore excursion staff will make sure everyone’s back on board before the ship leaves port.

Shore excursions can be reserved beforehand on your online account and can also be booked during the cruise. Some sell out more quickly than others, so it makes sense to book in advance. Should you change your mind, most cruise lines offer a full refund for cancellations up to 24 hours before the ship pulls into port.

Be prepared for a mix of sun and clouds on a cruise to Southeast Alaska, where the weather quickly changes and is often overcast. May, June and July tend to be the driest months, but rain is always a possibility. August usually brings more frequent showers, which increase in intensity in September. Wet weather can spoil many a vacation, but not a cruise to Alaska. Everyone takes it in their stride – and brings a raincoat.

Avatar photo 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.