When in Alaska
To put it simply, the 49th state is large—663,000 square miles large. Though the population of Alaska is less than 750,000, millions of vacationers and tourists visit the northernmost state each year, taking in spectacular national parks, wildlife viewing, cascading peaks, glaciers and pristine ocean waters. There are roughly 1,000 miles of highway across the entire state, and even the capital of Juneau is only accessible by plane or ferry. While serious road trippers with plenty of time can navigate the long stretches of empty highway and connecting ferry system, those with only a week of vacation often opt for a much easier way to see multiple destinations during a short amount of time: cruising.
Many cruise lines offer seven-, 10- and 14-day cruises departing from either Seattle or Vancouver. These include Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Disney and, our choice for our most recent trip, Holland America. Most seven-day cruises visit the inside passage of Alaska, the narrow islands and strips of land bordering Canada and the Yukon. Options include a departure and return to the same port, cruising the inside passage and continuing on further north to Anchorage one way, or extending to a longer one-way cruise that includes days in Denali National Park and flying home out of Fairbanks or Anchorage. As we had just a week for our most recent trip, we chose a weeklong inside passage cruise that included four stops and a return back to Vancouver.
When planning your Alaska cruise don’t overlook a Vancouver departure. While Seattle is probably more convenient, we noticed prices were sometimes much cheaper leaving from Canada. My wife and I and our 3-year-old daughter decided to drive from Eastern Washington to Seattle and take the Amtrak train from Edmonds to Vancouver. It was nice for the toddler to be able to stretch her legs during travel, and the roundtrip cost for the three of us was very affordable, less than $200. The border crossing was also a breeze compared to crossing via vehicle.
Vancouver, BC, is wonderful on its own, with beautiful mountains surrounding the city and port. A $15 to $20 cab ride will put you right out front of the ships with only a relatively minimal walk with your luggage before you embark on your journey.
We set sail aboard the recently refurbished Nieuw Amsterdam, one of eight Holland America ships sailing Alaska at the same time (not to mention dozens of other vessels). Our journey included port days in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and time in Glacier Bay National Park. What we quickly realized during the first few hours of our voyage is that we would never be short on breathtaking scenery.
Leaving bustling Vancouver, it doesn’t take more than a couple hours to arrive in near complete isolation. A few cabins scatter the shorelines, but the mountainous terrain and temperate rainforest make accessing this area near impossible. Forests untouched by man are shrouded in mist, and mountains seemingly rise straight up from the sea, often several thousand feet high right where the land meets the ocean. Over 80 percent of the staterooms on Nieuw Amsterdam include an outdoor balcony, which was the perfect way to kick back and watch the landscape go by. With the passage being relatively narrow, there was often great scenery on both sides of the ship, and the waters themselves were very calm.
After a day cruising at sea, we arrived in Juneau, the state’s capital. Thirty-two-thousand people call it home, and more than a million visit each year. The Mount Roberts Tramway is located just off the docks and takes visitors up to the top of the mountain for some incredible views. If you seek a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, there are several unique excursions available here. Large boats or smaller Zodiak rafts can take you out into the bay for whale watching. You can hop on a helicopter and take to the skies to see this incredible area from the air. Operators can even put you down on nearby glaciers where you can hike or even experience dog sledding from professional mushers. For this day we chose the inexpensive route and hired a cab to take us out to Mendenhall Glacier, located only about 12 miles from Downtown Juneau. The glacier is massive, about 13.5-miles long and can be seen easily from the visitors’ center. There are various trails in the area from the very easy 1/3 mile ‘photo point’ to the more strenuous 3.5-mile East Glacier. Many choose the 2-mile Nugget Falls, which puts you not only closer to the glacier but right alongside a spectacular waterfall as well.
The next stop on our tour was Skagway. This was the heart of the Alaska gold rush, and there are all kinds of museums and walking tours to take you back to this wild time. Storefronts pay homage to the gold rush days, and you can really transport yourself back at ‘The Red Onion Saloon’ and its daily brothel tours. The main attraction here is a train ride up and over White Pass on one of the most spectacular feats of railroad engineering ever done. The track was built in the late 1890s through rugged terrain during the Gold Rush. The 2.5- to 3-hour round trip takes you over numerous bridges, alongside mountain lakes, and the view of snow capped peaks is truly spectacular.
On day five we arrived in Glacier Bay, one of the world’s largest biosphere reserves. As we approached the great glaciers in the distance, small blocks of floating ice were all around us, many with harbor seals resting on them. A guide from the U.S. Forest Service came on board and narrated the experience and sights ship wide. The entire ship seemed to go quiet while everyone took in the incredible beauty of this area.
Our final port was Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world. You can try your luck fishing here or stop at any of the many restaurants to try this delicious fish. My wife and I left our little one with Grandma and Grandpa and hired a local kayak guide to get us off the beaten path for the day. We ended up being the only two people on the tour making for a great personal experience. We paddled around the bay with a very knowledgeable guide. The company also offered e-bike tours of the Tongass National Forest which surrounds the town. What many enjoy about cruising Alaska when compared to the Caribbean is the leisurely pace and more laid-back vibe. When you get off in port there are only a few booths offering trips and information, not like many Caribbean ports where you are bombarded with vendors instantly. Shipboard life on Holland America was geared toward an older crowd with dueling pianos and a blues club as the nightly entertainment and cooking and computer classes, and documentary films playing during the day. The food in the dining room was on point each night, and we splurged at one of the additional cost restaurants for an outstanding seven-course Asian-inspired meal.
Alaska is truly a natural wonder, and cruising through the consistently beautiful landscape is something easily enjoyed by all generations.