Alaska is the trip of a lifetime and should be on everyone’s list of places to visit. After my visit, I could easily see why it is such a popular vacation destination. The beautiful scenery and wildlife make it a destination like none other. My visit to Alaska in June was on a cruise ship through the Inside Passage. Cruising season for this destination is only from May through September and demand is always high. For this reason, planning a cruise to Alaska should be done early. Because much of Alaska is not accessible by road, a cruise ship can provide views that could not be seen from land. Although there are several cruise itineraries for Alaska, the Inside Passage is one of the most popular. These waters, along the western coast of North America stretch for about 950 miles from Seattle, Washington to the northern part of the Alaska panhandle at Skagway, Alaska. The waters of the Inside Passage are calm and the scenery is spectacular and beautiful. The ports along this route, such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Icy Strait, and Skagway are also very interesting. My personal cruise included four destinations- Hubbard Glacier, Ketchikan, Juneau, and Icy Strait Point.
The first stop was in the small fishing village of Ketchikan. This is Alaska’s southernmost city and the salmon capital of the world. It is also known as one of the wettest locations in the United States and the locals brag about their “liquid sunshine.” Although it rained the entire time we were there, that didn’t stop us from a full day of sightseeing. One of our first stops in Ketchikan was at a salmon hatchery and canning factory. From there we took a trip to the Totem Heritage Center and the Saxman Totem Park and Carving Center to see the largest collection of authentic totem poles in the world. This city is also home to the famous Creek Street Historic District and the infamous Dolly’s House. The area includes a boardwalk where you can stroll through the former home to the red-light district. Today, only the facades are left and most of the Creek Street area is now filled with souvenir shops. While away from the cruise ship, there are numerous dining options within walking distance of your cruise port. Some are very casual, while others are more formal and elegant. With the exception of McDonald’s, chain restaurants do not exist and all are original. Seafood is the common theme for most of the restaurants.
Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, was our next stop. This is the only capital city in the United States that can not be reached by road, only by sea or air. Touring this city was my favorite part of the entire trip. Because of the importance of the cruise business to the city of Juneau, the cruise terminal is quite impressive. It is centrally located, which puts many attractions within walking distance and is also set among beautiful snow capped mountains. One of the first activities at our stop in Juneau was to ride the Mt. Roberts Tramway. When we reached the observatory at the top of Mt. Roberts, which is 2,000 feet above sea level, the views were breathtaking. Juneau is also home to Mendenall Glacier and your visit here would not be complete without making the short drive to see it. There is an excellent Visitor’s Center here that tells about the formation of the glacier and the wildlife that lives in the area. It includes an observatory; however, walking down the trails is the best way to view this amazing glacier. When you tire of sightseeing, there is plenty of good shopping in Juneau. Alaskan art and hand-carved totem poles are two of the most popular items to bring home from Juneau. You will also find beautiful Native Alaskan jewelry. Whale tails and carved silver bracelets and pendants are found in most stores. Before you leave Juneau, there is one establishment that everyone must see. Although the food is not great, The Red Dog Saloon is legendary in Juneau. You will be greeted by everyone when you walk into the doors and you will immediately notice the saw dust floors and the walls of the building. The inside walls are completely covered with just about everything- posters, animal heads, money, bumper stickers, flags, and t-shirts. Most people are here just to have a drink and listen to the current country music performer on stage. This is definitely a tourist spot, but the place has a long history. It’s worth taking a look and making some pictures.
Our visit to Icy Strait Point gave us a history lesson in the culture of the Tlinglet people and their culture and a real Alaskan experience. This port had an abundance of wildlife from whales to bald eagles. Cruise passengers are tendered to shore at the historic fish cannery which used to be The Hoonah Packing Company. Here you can learn about the area, shop for Native art and souvenirs, and take a nature walk along the beach. It was amazing to see swimmers enjoying the summer on the beach in 50 degree weather! The Cookhouse Restaurant, located next door to the cannery, sells one of Alaska’s most popular foods- halibut and chips. As you sit and eat at the outside tables, you can enjoy spectacular views of Port Frederick and your cruise ship. This port is where we were thrilled to see the blowhole and then a quick glimpse of an Orca whale. Many excursions are offered in the port of Icy Strait, but we opted for a general sightseeing tour of the area. Perhaps next time we will try their most famous attraction- the longest zipline in the world. We did enjoy watching the participants soaring 300 feet above the treetops and descending down the mountain toward the beach at speeds close to 60 miles an hour.
Our visit to Hubbard Glacier took place while we were aboard the cruise ship. We happened to visit on a clear day and our ship was able to sail in about a mile away from the glacier. We stopped at this point for several hours and spent the day just watching the glacier in awe. The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America. Unlike the typical glaciers, which are retreating and becoming smaller, this one is continuously thickening and advancing toward the Gulf of Alaska. Because the Hubbard Glacier was the most impressive one that we saw while in Alaska, this was one time when we were especially happy to have a balcony cabin. Our cabin faced the glacier and it was amazing to sit on the balcony of our own cabin and just take in all the wonderful aqua-blue colors of this massive piece of ice. We were on constant lookout for brown bears and whales, however, none were spotted on the day of our visit. We did, however, get to watch seals playing on the chunks of ice floating in the water, and bald eagles were numerous. We have been told that the weather in Alaska can be unpredictable, but we found that the temperatures in June stayed in the upper 50s for the entire seven days of our trip. June through August are generally the warmest months and the best times to visit, but the locals will tell you that you can not always rely on that to be true. Many times the summer months can be cold and rainy and late August and September will have warmer days. In other years, early snow comes in and cruise ship shore excursions have to be cancelled. The key is to pack for anything and be flexible. Alaska is very casual, so a wardrobe of jeans, rain gear, and lots of items to layer will keep you most comfortable. Plan to bring good walking shoes, rain boots, and sunglasses.
The best part of cruising to this state is that you have your ship to enjoy even if the weather is bad. Generally, you want to avoid a visit to Alaska from late September to April because of the frigid cold and snowy conditions. However, prices are lowest for travel during the winter, so if you’re willing to brave the cold, you may have a chance to see the famous Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights, as it is also called, is a spectacular light phenomenon that is best observed from the northern part of the state during the harsh winter season. One especially interesting fact about your visit to Alaska is the difference in daylight and nighttime hours. If your visit occurs during the summer, the daylight hours are very long. Even at nightfall, you won’t have complete darkness, but more of a twilight. As a result, Alaska produces huge, beautiful flowers and plant life. The opposite is true if you visit during winter, where you will experience long hours of darkness. You have to make an effort to live by the clock and not according to the light outside.
The two most popular departure ports for an Alaskan cruise are Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, BC. We chose to fly to Vancouver and depart from Canada Place, the site of Vancouver’s Cruise Terminal. It was a short and inexpensive cab ride to the downtown hotels. It is extremely easy to board your cruise from this site, because there are many hotels located within walking distance of the cruise port. The Pan Pacific Vancouver is actually on the waterfront and connected to the cruise terminal, providing an easy embarkation for cruise guests. There are also great restaurants and wonderful shopping in the area near the cruise port, so many travelers plan to spend a few days in Vancouver exploring and sightseeing either before or after their Alaskan cruise. Vancouver is a very diverse city; however, there are no language barriers to overcome. We did not encounter anyone who did not speak English. This city has numerous attractions to visit and is considered one of the world’s best cities for dining. Vancouver definitely lived up to all my expectations. Travelers need to be aware that departing from Vancouver will require that you cruise with a passport. If departing from Seattle, a passport will not be required since your cruise departs and ends in the same United States port. However, even though not required, US citizens are encouraged to have a passport for travel. As a travel agent, I would not hesitate to book guests of all ages on a vacation to Alaska. There is definitely something for everyone. Seniors will enjoy the scenery and leisurely pace of some of the tours, children will enjoy the many outdoor activities and adventurers will love participating in hiking, kayaking, zip-lining, helicopter tours, mountain climbing, dog sledding, backpacking, gliding over rivers in a float plane, and more. There are several different ways to travel to Alaska. If you are not a fan of cruising, you can fly or drive to the state. Several cities, such as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis have daily direct flights into Anchorage or Fairbanks. Driving to Alaska can be a true adventure and is a great way to see both Canadian and Alaskan countryside. Depending on your location of departure, this trip can take days or perhaps weeks, so a huge time commitment will be required. For example, the distance to Anchorage from Seattle, Washington is 2313 miles, but the distance from Miami is 5434 miles. For the most enjoyable vacation, research and plan well ahead of time. Anchorage and Fairbanks have an abundance of hotels, but they fill up quickly and early. The lodging around Denali is also in demand and will be hard to find at the last minute. Major bookstores will have guidebooks for Alaska which will be very helpful in planning your trip. There are also some great websites with current information. Some of my recommendations are: http://www.travelalaska.com, http://www.alaska.com, and http://www.welcometoalaska.com. Life is different in Alaska. There is no other place in our country where you will find such majestic scenery, abundant wildlife, and interesting culture. This is the vacation of a lifetime!