First rule of travel, take the travel opportunities available to you. Given Alaska was a cheap, direct flight away from our new home in the top left corner of the United States, I got to planning. We discussed booking a car and taking a train, all great options but we soon realized a ship must be part of the journey to America’s 49th state.
From the water, the access to cce and wildlife is at your fingertips. Certain areas (Glacier National Bay for example) are only accessible from the water. Although we never thought of a cruise as being an adventure, that is exactly what it is. Get to planning and take this trip soon.
Anchorage is beautiful but the drive to Whittier was a surprising adventure. Whittier is approximately 65 miles southwest of Anchorage. Located at the base of the Chugach Mountains, Whittier served as a military base until 1960. Now, there are 290 residents with empty buildings by the port a relic of the prior port for cargo and troops during World War II’s Alaska Command.
Travelers must pass thru the 2.5 mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the longest highway/rail tunnel in North America. Whitter acts as an entryway into the Prince William Sound, renown for its tidewater glaciers and marine life.
The waters started off choppy on the second day of Alaska travel, but the views did not disappoint. We enjoyed ‘scenic cruising’ as we sailed into icy waters and past snowcapped mountains the entire day. Although we were not fortunate enough to see whales, the days could not have been more relaxing on ship when the waters calmed.
The highlight of the day is the Hubbard Glacier, 76 miles long and plunging about 1,200 feet into the bay. The enormity is lost in pictures. 200 miles northwest of Juneau, the Hubbard Glacier meets the ocean when it measures six miles wide. Two major surges have threatened to flood the nearby coastal town of Yakutat twice over the last 30 years. Given the majority of the ice lies below the water, most ships are unable to get too close. The closest a ship may be able to approach this giant is a ½ miles with the right conditions.
Another day of beautiful sailing was in store. The water was rich glacier green, our new favorite color. The water contrasted against the blue skys, the clouds parting as we approached Margerie Glacier. Having an inside cabin forced us outside into the beautiful scenery. We were prepared for this and brought the right clothes but cozy flannel blankets were good for the taking to keep us even warmer. We ran around deck the entire deck, each view more beautiful than the next. We tucked into the dining hall when we got hungry, sure to grab a window seat.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
As one of the largest internationally protected Biosphere Reserves, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve offers natural beauty that at times feels like is disappearing in the modern world. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a highlight of the already stunning southeastern Alaskan wilderness. Scenery includes glacial fjords and mountain peaks that drop directly into the water. The marine park is accessible by boating into inlets, coves and hideaway harbors. Glaciers flow from the abundant snowfall of the surrounding mountains.
The spectacular day of scenery and wildlife is for many, definitely for us, the highlight of any Alaska cruise. Cruisers watch for icebergs and calving glaciers. Bring your binoculars and scan for wildlife…bears, mountain goats, sea otters, harbor seals, and bald eagles. Occasionally a humpback whale or grizzly bear will be visible near a glacier!
Margerie Glacier is one of the few glaciers that is actually advancing. Measuring about 21 miles long and 250 feet high, this glacier is accessible by ship and popular for close-up views of ice calving. At the extreme northwestern end of the bay perpendicular to the Grand Pacific Glacier, this glacier is much cleaner than its harder to access neighbor and one of the most active for ice calving. When ice calving occurs, the sound is similar to a gunshot and the sight truly spectacular!
We found ourselves in the port of Skagway, Alaska for 9 hours. Attractions include White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, Klondike Summit, Gold Rush History, Yukon (Canada), Haines, Red Onion Saloon, and Dog Sledding.
We took a ride on the White Pass Railway and a ferry over to the nearby town of Haines.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
Build it and they will come. The White Pass and Yukon Route connects the port of Skagway with Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon. As a closed system, there is no connection to any other railroad. Originally opened on August 1, 1900, the White Pass and Yukon Route took 26 months to build and cost 10 million dollars. This railway is a chance to experience a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
In 1896, the first gold flakes were discovered in the Klondike setting off a stampede of events better known as the Klondike Gold Rush. The founder of Skagway, Alaska predicted the future rush for gold and it was suggested that eventually a railroad would be built through the rugged terrain of the Chilkoot Pass.
The White Pass Summitt Excursion takes passengers from the tidewater at Skagway to the White Pass Summit, a 2,865 foot elevation gain, in the comfort of the vintage railway cars although viewing from the car platforms is also allowable. Viewpoints along the way include Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, and Dead Horse Gulch.
Haines-Skagway Fast Ferry
Although Skagway will be crowded with tourists, the smaller town of Haines Alaska is a hidden gem and definite location of interest if travelers from a cruise ship desire a more authentic experience. Located along the edge of North America's longest and deepest fjord, 68 nautical miles north of Juneau in Southeast Alaska, Haines can be trickier to access to get to given the harbor is not accommodating to most cruise ships. However, it is easy if you know where to go!
For the travel explorers out there, the Fast Ferry service is walking distance from the ship port in Skagway Alaska, a common destination for most cruise tours. This will not be a cruise excursion itself but easily booked independently (and cheaper than most cruise excursions) online. A breathtaking 45 minute trip between Haines and Skagway, you will journey through the deepest fjord in North America. The service is safe, reliable, and an easy way to explore both quaint Alaskan towns in a day.
Given tickets are subject to availability I highly recommend booking ahead of time to ensure your preferred departure time.
It is not always dangerous to stand in the middle of the main road in downtown. In Haines, Ravi was able to do just that. We crossed the longest and deepest fjord in North America to find ourselves here. A small town with breathtaking scenery, we felt Haines was the most authentic stop of our trip. We took the ferry from Skagway having booked our tickets months in advance. A short walk took us into town where chatted and sipped coffee with Alaskan locals, perhaps one of our favorite memories of Alaska.
Alaska is absolutely incredible. We have no criticisms of our cruising experience. We went in knowning that Alaska has become somewhat manufactured to accomadate tourism. However, taking the morning to hop over to Haines we felt like locals in a real Alaskan town.
Juneau not only stuns with natural beauty but offers original Gold Rush-era buildings, art galleries, museums, and colorful neighborhoods.
Mount Roberts is easily accessible from the port. The Mount Roberts Trail will take you through southeastern Alaska rainforest. The Mountain House at the 1,800-foot level is surrounded by sub-alpine ecosystem. Step on the surrounding trails and climb another 300 feet into the true alpine. Scenic viewpoint will be present along the entire journey. Bathrooms will be available at the Mount Roberts Tramway.
The trail system is well-marked. For active hikers, the entire trail is 7.6 miles out and back with 3,733 feet elevation gain. The tramway can cut the hike in half and will take you to 1,800 feet. For hikes that hike up, the tram back to the ship terminal will be free. We were ready to pay for the journey back down, but no one would take our money!
Mount Roberts Tramway
Take the tram. It’s a gorgeous view without the work of the hike if that’s your thing! As one of the most vertical tramways in the world, the ride itself it an experience. The tram takes visitors for sea level to 1800 ft elevation as you pass lush rainforest to the top of Mount Roberts. Adults pay $34 for an all day pass. The tramway is located just south of downtown. Look for the big red building on the ship dock.
The Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway opened in 1996, operating May through September. This is the only aerial tram in southeast Alaska and is a great way to soak in a view without expensive seaplane, arduous hike, or helicopter.
The Mendenhall Glacier ends in Mendenhall Lake, easily viewed from the Forest Service’s visitor center, with many easy to moderate trails nearby. The appeal of this glacier is the accessibility to the public. From the ship terminal many travel options are available.
Bus tour or taxi: The bus will run approximately 40 per person. Taxi may be better and more convenient for large parties.
The city bus stops 1.25 miles from the visitor and will be an extremely cheap option. The walk to the visitor center will be along a trail and is a great option for the budget traveler with extra time. For cruisers with limited time at port, this may be a bit problematic.
The trip wound down in Ketchikan. We walked and walked and walked to explore the town. A local Alaskan warned us before we approached a bear!
The Misty Fjords can be found here, a wilderness area within the Tongass National Forest. The area has been compared to Yosemite Valley by John Muir for similar geology. My only regret of the tour is not putting down the money to visit. The fjords are a relic from light-colored granite sculpted by glaciers. The walls of these glacial valleys are near-vertical and can rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. The majority of visitors will come by ship or fly in from Juneau.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The only comfort of leaving our beautiful ship was that we docked in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Vancouver, British Columbia is stunning. If you only have a day, here are our recommendations.
Find a tall building and find the view. We scored a killer hotwire deal at the Sheraton Wall Center. Not only convenient as we walked easily with our luggage from the ship port, but we asked a kind Canadian at check-in for the highest room possible, and we got it – 25th floor!
Get on the water.
Drop your bags and head to Granville Island. This trendy area sits just under the Granville Bridge with the Granville Public Market a hub of activity and delicious food. The adorable tugboat ferries talk visitors to and from the island. At the island we rented a boat from Granville Island Boat Rental and drove around the city. Relatively inexpensive, Lakshmi with a coupon in hand, it was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. No boating license is required, only a driver’s license. Ravi had never driven a boat in his life but there we were, out on the water in Canada in the middle of the city. We highly recommend this experience.
Whale watching tours take off from the center of Vancouver. If you are in Vancouver and ready to see an Orca, get on a boat!
Unfortunately, there are minimal photos from our whale watching experience from Vancouver. Yes, we did see whales. We found Orca pods, and many of them. The catch is this: Ravi’s eyeglasses found an unfortunate demise in the Pacific Ocean at the moment the very moment Orcas appeared secondary to his wife’s excitement. It put a damper on things but we still recommend this experience. If you are in Vancouver prior or after a cruise from Alaska, the cost of whale watching in Vancouver will be significantly less. Hint: check Groupon.