Stirring the imagination in a way perhaps no other state can, Alaska is America’s most untamed land. Host to some of the world’s most extravagant scenery, wildlife is abundant, native cultural heritage is accessible, and active adventures beckon.
The 49th State is the size of California, Texas and Montana combined. No wonder so many travelers are intimidated by planning an Alaskan vacation. While a ship isn’t the only way to explore Alaska, booking a cruise streamlines much of the logistics and you won’t be shortchanged on the grandeur. Cruisers won’t see Mount McKinley, North America’s highest point, but that’s an easy add-on. Instead, ships sail via the Inside Passage, a system of inlets and fjords that laces Alaska’s southeast panhandle. Much of the cruise route navigates territory that is otherwise not easily reached, it’s largely uninhabited. Rugged mountains, virgin forests and awesome glaciers are among the backdrops that can be easily viewed from the decks of a ship. Seabirds, falcons and eagles soar overhead and whales, dolphins and sea lions break the water’s surface. Small settlements whose history stretches back to the era of Russian fur traders and gold seekers dot the coastline.
When to Go
The Alaskan cruise season runs May through September. Within that time frame weather can be unpredictable. That said, for Ketchikan—a major cruise port as well as one of Alaska’s rainiest locales—July and August are typically the warmest months (mid-60s during the day), and June and July are the driest (that is, if 6-plus inches of rain in a month can qualify as “dry”!). But on our Alaska trips we’ve experienced sunny days in both May and September that called for shorts and T-shirt; by contrast we’ve experienced cool, wet days on cruises in June, July and August. Come prepared for either extreme and you’ll be set to sail.
The vast majority of cruises to Alaska are seven-day round-trip journeys departing out of Seattle or Vancouver. Most of them stop at three Alaskan ports, and spend a morning or afternoon visiting a glacier. Although the cruises themselves are priced fairly comparably out of either city, flights to Vancouver are usually more expensive than flights to Seattle. There is an advantage to cruises out of Vancouver, however, as these routings usually travel the east side of scenic Vancouver Island; cruises out of Seattle travel the west side of the island, well out to sea and away from scenery. (Incidentally, Alaska cruises have an ancillary perk: Most of the cruise takes place in sheltered waters with little or no rocky seas, even in inclement weather, meaning seasickness is less common.)
Another option is the seven-day, one-way itineraries that operate between either Seattle or Vancouver and cross the Gulf of Alaska to the ports of Seward or Whittier, located outside Anchorage. These itineraries are ideal for anyone planning an Alaskan land tour before or after the cruise, but be aware than northbound itineraries are more popular, and thus slightly more expensive. A 14-day cruise is possible by booking a round-trip, but most of the ports will be duplicated on the second leg.
Most cruise companies package land tour itineraries pre- or post-cruise, visiting Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The Major Operators
All of the major cruise lines offer Alaskan cruises. With six ships dedicated to the 49th State for 2016, Princess Cruises offers the greatest total number of cabins. The line also offers regular 10-day itineraries out of San Francisco aboard Golden Princess, for those who enjoy a couple extra sea days.
Utilizing seven mid-sized ships, Holland America Line is the next biggest operator in Alaska; some of its cruises visit smaller ports such as Sitka and Haines. Uniquely, Holland America’s Maasdam offers 14-day roundtrip sailings out of Seattle, calling on unusual ports such as Homer and Kodiak Island. Holland America also sails the newest ship in these waters, the Nieuw Amsterdam, which debuted in 2010.
Other lines with a presence include Celebrity Cruises with three ships in Alaska for 2016; Norwegian Cruise Line has three ships, and Royal Caribbean has two (including Alaska’a largest ship, the 3,835-passenger Explorer of the Seas). Carnival Cruises is represented by Carnival Legend and Disney Cruise Line sails the Disney Wonder. Of the boutique and luxury lines, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal Cruises, Silversea Cruises, and Oceania Cruises each dedicate a ship to Alaska.
Alaska’s Top Ports of Call
Three ports are visited on the majority of cruise itineraries: Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. Four or five ships docked the same day in these towns is not unusual, and shopping—especially for jewelry—is the improbable appeal for many cruisers. But each of these ports has a strong tourism infrastructure that can process thousands of guests on shore excursions that explore well beyond the dock and reveal the real Alaska.
The first or last stop on a cruise is usually Ketchikan, Alaska’s southernmost port. It’s also the rainiest. A “Liquid Sunshine Gauge” graphically shows the city’s 162-inch average rainfall—in feet. Ketchikan also is the salmon capital of the world and thousands of the silver leapers may be seen from Creek Street, the town’s one-time “red light” district. Native tribes retain a strong presence and elaborately carved totem poles can be viewed at Saxman Native Village, Totem Bight State Park, Totem Heritage Center and even in front of residences. Ketchikan is also the gateway to Misty Fjords National Monument, 40 miles away. The park’s spectacular, glacier-gouged U-shaped valleys are most commonly reached by small plane or explored by kayak.
Though just 32,000 live in Alaska’s capital, Juneau is the state’s second largest city. No roads reach Juneau—it is accessible by air or sea only—and just beyond the mountains rising abruptly behind the city one sees why: The breathtaking Juneau Icefield blankets 1500 square miles along the U.S.-Canada border. One of the frozen tongues extending from the icefield is Mendenhall Glacier, just 12 miles from downtown Juneau and easily accessed by public and private bus service. Among Juneau’s popular shore excursions are helicopter flights to the glacier, float-plane trips to Taku Glacier Lodge for a salmon bake, and the Mount Roberts tramway carries visitors 2,000 feet above Juneau for panoramic views. The city itself offers a mix of frontier flavor, still alive at the Red Dog Saloon, and history, revealed at the Alaska State Museum, with displays on native tribes and the Gold Rush and Russian colonial eras.
The borough of Skagway was where Klondike prospectors began their 500-mile journey to the gold fields of Canada’s Yukon Territory. A lawless outpost in the 1890s, today the town’s restored historic buildings are protected as a National Historical Park that celebrates the gold rush story. With just 900 year-round residents, cruise ships deposit 900,000 visitors to the town’s streets each summer. Skagway’s past comes alive in Old Town and the Days of ’98 show, featuring a re-enactment of a Klondike-era shootout, culminating in the death of notorious “Soapy” Smith. Skagway’s most beloved attraction is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, built in 1898 at the height of the gold rush; today it offers spectacular views and an appreciation of the miners’ arduous treks.
Smaller ports and glacier vistas
Alaska’s other ports include Sitka, the former capital of Russian America, an “occupation” that extended almost to San Francisco. The town shows its heritage in the onion-domed St Michael’s Cathedral and Bishop’s House. Totem poles and exhibits about the local Tlingit and Haida tribes are displayed at the scenic 113-acre National Historical Park. Haines is known for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve which protects the world’s largest concentration of bald eagles. The town, founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1879, is linked to Alaska’s vast interior by the Haines Highway. Located 35 miles west of Juneau, the town of Hoonah is better known today as Icy Straight Point. At one time a major fishing cannery, the buildings have been converted into a tender port for cruise ships. Of note: The mile-long zip line ride here is the longest in North America.
Almost every Alaska cruise will also spend time sailing close to a tidewater glacier—a river of ice that terminates in the sea. Although we’ve visited the four major ones (below), we find there’s no “best” one: Each has its own attributes, and weather conditions can play a big part in the experience. A sudden warm spell may increase ice calving from the glacier, forcing ships to stay further away, while overcast skies can make a glacier’s iridescent blue even more pronounced.
Located west of Juneau, the most famous collection of ice is found in Glacier Bay, a national park that is inaccessible by road. Although glaciers had retreated significantly by the time naturalist John Muir visited in 1879 (and further since), there are 15 glaciers that reach the sea, one or two of which would be visited on a typical cruise. Park rangers board the ship to narrate the sights and are available for questions. Tracey Arm, located 45 miles south of Juneau, is a narrow fjord with two glaciers snaking into the chasm. The walls rising above the ship are close enough to spot wildlife, including mountain goats, deer, and black and brown bears.
Visited only on cruises that cross the Gulf of Alaska, Hubbard Glacier is a 76-mile-long channel of ice that is one of Alaska’s few advancing glaciers. It’s so long, in fact, that it takes ice 400 years to travel from the accumulation zone to the terminus. Icebergs are routinely calved from Hubbard’s 10-story-high snout. And many cruises that terminate in Whittier spend a few hours in College Fjord, with five tidewater glaciers, and others higher up—all named after famous colleges.
Updated February 12, 2016 to include ships for the 2016 season.