Alaska cruises are very popular and cruise lines continually add to their list of optional excursions in the various ports. The activity level of these side trips varies from sedate lunches, sightseeing, or seeing a show to more adventurous choices. If you do a little research, you can probably find less expensive excursions than those offered by the ship. However, the advantage to booking through your cruise line is that if you are delayed in returning from your outing, the ship will wait for you. If you book on your own and are late, they will probably leave without you. When we were in Ketchikan, the shuttle returning my husband from his fishing trip in “the wilds” broke down and he and two other men were delayed. Because it was a ship sponsored trip, our departure was held until they returned.
I will share some of the things we learned on our excursions cruising the Inland Passage. Most cruise ships offer similar options. For further information about the various ports of call, there are numerous websites. Many of them are sponsored by commercial enterprises selling their own packages. Sites like www.cruisecritic.com, alaskaportreviews.com, and www.cruise-addicts.com offer reviews from consumers and both Frommer’s and Fodor’s publish Alaska ports of call guidebooks.
Since we chose to cruise from Seward to Vancouver, our ship stopped in Icy Strait Point rather than Sitka. I would not recommend Icy Strait. This is anew port created just for cruise ships and is typically only open when a vessel is in port. While it has helped the local economy and you can visit the authentic Tlingit (an indigenous people) fishing town of Hoonah, there is not much there unless you do plan an excursion. All activities must be booked through your cruse ship; if there are any vacancies, you can purchase them on land for the same price on a first come, first served basis.
We went salmon fishing. Unfortunately, it was September and most of the salmon had left the waters. Only one was caught; on the halibut excursion, no fish were caught. We did have time to explore the few shops in Icy Strait, take a rainforest walk in the surrounding area, and travel on our own to explore Hoonah. The ship offered a trip to Hoonah, but it was just as easy to do it on our own. Whale watching was another optional excursion, but we had chosen to do whale watching in Kenai Fjords (a good choice!) and Misty Fjords. There is a native heritage center, but the ones we had seen in Anchorage and Fairbanks offered much more.
Skagway is a well preserved gold rush town and charming to explore, with its wooden side walk and store facades and one main street. The Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a map for an historic walking tour. After quickly wandering through town,we chose the glacier lake two-man kayak and White Pass Rail Experience excursion. I had never kayaked, so before we left on our trip, we borrowed a double kayak and launched it off Tigertail Beach. Not bad, I thought, until I was reminded that the water was only a few feet deep and 83 degrees. Needless to say, the glacier lake was MUCH deeper and MUCH colder. In fact, we spent most of the trip paddling with sleet hitting our faces. Fortunately, the narrated return trip on the White Pass and Yukon Railway, known as “Scenic Railway of the World” was warm and truly impressive. The railway trip gets my vote for the best excursion out of Skagway and it can be booked without the accompanying kayak trip!
The main attraction in Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier. Juneau, the capital of Alaska and the state’s third largest city is only accessible by air or sea. Although quite hilly, the town can be explored easily. Sights include the state capital and St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. Many of the excursions involve visiting the Mendenhall Glacier by bus or air. Helicopter trips land in remote areas for foot exploration; another flightseeing trip provides a sled dog ride on the glacier. My husband chose a “fly out fishing adventure”. He traveled by float plane over the glacier to fly fish for trout and salmon in a remote area. As is typical with muchfly fishing, it was catch and release. I chose to visit the Mendenhall Glacier on my own rather than with a ship excursion. This is quite easy to do as there are many local buses to the glacier right by the ships’ disembarkation point. I learned an important lesson at the glacier….when you read a sign in Alaska, believe it. I decided to take a hike by myself, something that friends had warned me NOT to do at Mendenhall. I reached a point on the trail where it was cordoned off and posted with a sign that said “trail closed due to bear activity”. I turned around and there was the bear! Fortunately, he was more interested in the salmon in the river alongside the trail than he was in me.
Our final port before Vancouver was Ketchikan. The cruise I selected to Misty Fjords took so much time, I only had a few minutes to explore the town and its elevated, wooden Creek Street, the former red light district now home to shops and a museum. Misty Fjords afforded opportunity to see whales, eagles, waterfalls, pictographs, and towering cliffs. It was a worhwhile trip, but I did prefer Kenai Fjords in Seward for scenery and wildlife. My husband, ever the fisherman, headed out for more fly fishing on Native American grounds. He reported that once the guide scared away the bear who wanted to fish in the same location, it was a good trip.