Thinking of taking an Alaska cruise one summer? If so then hopefully this post will help you plan. Alaska cruises offer stunning west coast scenery, opportunities to view wildlife, and numerous excursions to enjoy. Having done this round-trip cruise on three separate occasions, I will share some highlights and tips for making the most of this vacation.
Let’s start with the two lesser visited ports…Sitka and Icy Strait Point/Hoonah
Sitka was settled by the Tlingit indigenous peoples over 10,000 years ago. Each clan had its own fishing area and they built many villages along the Alaska coastline. Russian explorers discovered Sitka in 1799, and after numerous battles with the Tlingit peoples, they would finally establish a major trading post here.
The Tlingit culture and artwork…
…combined with the Russian architectural influence…
…makes Sitka an interesting city to explore.
Sitka was the original capital of Alaska before Juneau became the capital. While in Sitka you can easily walk to the Sitka National Historical Park or wander the town stopping in at the Russian Bishop’s House, the Sheldon Jackson Museum and St. Michael’s Cathedral. You can also take an excursion and explore the area by boat or kayak.
The next port, Icy Strait Point on Chichagoff Island, is where the ships dock for the town of Hoonah.
Icy Strait itself is a privately owned port located where the Hoonah fish packing plant once operated in the 1950s. Today you can see what is left of this fish plant by wandering through the museum here.
At this port you will find shopping, restaurants, a museum, and a nature trail. Also located here is a zip-ride that takes you from the top of a nearby peak down to the main lodge at Ice Strait.
Hoonah is the main village for the Tlingit peoples and can be reached by road from Icy Strait. At this location the main excursions would be wildlife and whale watching. Chichagoff Island has the highest density of brown bears in Alaska and they can be seen on a tour of the Spasski River Valley. In the summer this area is home to the largest population of humpback whales and sightings are guaranteed.
Now for the more popular ports: Skagway, Ketchikan, and Juneau.
Skagway is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and a popular port for many of the cruise lines operating ships to Alaska.
In 1896, gold was discovered in the Yukon and the first influx of miners soon arrived. They would then head on a 500 mile journey, that included steep mountain passes, to the gold fields in Canada. Many miners chose to hike over the Chilkoot Pass trail, which they had to climb single file because of the mountain slope.Miners heading up the Chilkoot Pass Trail
In 1898 work began on the White Pass and Yukon Route railway which allowed miners to summit the alternate White Pass route and get them to the gold fields much quicker. Today you can ride the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, which I would highly recommend if Skagway is one of your ports of call. The views are absolutely breathtaking and the journey will not disappoint!
You can also be part of a tour where you hike part of the Chilkoot Trail and then raft down the Dyea River. There are lots of shore excursions to choose from at this port so do some research because your time here is limited.
Ketchikan is located on an island and is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest. With the forest rising up behind the city, and islands dotting the inlet in front of the city, it makes for a very scenic port.
Ketchikan is a major fishing town and boats are everywhere. Today Kethcikan is most famous for the tourist area called Creek Street, a former red light district situated on a boardwalk along Ketchikan Creek.
There are numerous souvenir shops and museums along this boardwalk and you can also watch the salmon make their way up the creek to spawn.
Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection of totem poles and these can be viewed throughout the town as well as at the Totem Heritage Center. This center has the largest collection of unrestored totem poles from both Tlingit and Haida village sites.
The visitor centre, located at the pier, has free walking maps of Ketchikan which is a perfect way to enjoy this city. Many shore excursions in Ketchikan will either take you into the Tongass National Forest area where you can do some hiking, or on a flightseeing tour of Misty Fjords Inlet.
The last port to mention is Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Juneau became the capital in 1906 after it was moved from Sitka.
Juneau has so many shore excursions and tours that there is definitely something for everyone. You can visit Mendenhall Glacier, go whale watching, have a salmon bake, go dog-sledding, head out fishing for salmon or halibut, or pan for gold. If you would rather stay in town you can head up the Mount Roberts tram which is located right beside the cruise line dock.
At the top of Mount Roberts you can meander the trails and get a great view of the city below you, as well as your ship.
If you decide to wander around Juneau make sure and visit the Red Dog Saloon for a fun time…with a sawdust floor, live entertainment, and great pub food, you may end up spending hours here. Just don’t miss the boat!
Alaska cruises operate from the end of April/beginning of May until the end of September. The weather can be unpredictable during these months so be prepared for anything. I’ve worn shorts and t’shirts, and also bundled up in jeans, thick sweaters, and a windbreaker.
All the cruise lines will take you to either Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier to view the icebergs and watch for “calving” of the glaciers. Although Hubbard Glacier is more beautiful and impressive in size, it is sometimes not possible to visit because of adverse weather conditions.
Glacier Bay has more glaciers surrounding the bay that you travel through, and you will have a park ranger come on board to talk about the area. The weather here is usually sunnier and calmer. No matter which of these areas your ship takes you to, you won’t be disappointed.
When you arrive back in Vancouver make sure and get outside to watch the sun rise over the city. It’s the perfect way to end your one week cruising vacation.
*Unfortunately because of Covid-19 most cruise lines have cancelled their cruises from Vancouver this season. I certainly hope this doesn’t affect their sailings in future years as an Alaska cruise is one I would highly recommend!