22 October 2018
Read Time: 4.6 mins
Shore excursions offer cruisers a chance to get to know the real Alaska.
Lush, verdant and virtually unexplored, with mist-shrouded mountains and ancient glaciers crashing directly into the ocean, Southeast Alaska is a visual and sensual feast. Deep ords carve through more than 1,000 islands which buzz with wildlife, from breaching humpback whales and massive brown bears feeding on salmon to regal bald eagles perched on old-growth fir trees.
Culturally rich, this slice of the state is home to several Alaska Native tribes who have lived here for millennia, and, together with more recent arrivals, they populate the small coastal towns and villages of the region. Most of these communities rely in large part on abundant natural resources to make a living, and part of the joy of visiting them is witnessing the lives of those who choose to live and love here.
Southeast Alaska towns are not connected by road, which means most communities, including the state capital, can only be reached by plane or boat. Cruise ships follow the same route as the state ferry, through a protected corridor called the Inside Passage and along the Alaska Marine Highway. It’s the only water-based road system in the USA, and easily one of the world’s most scenic. Because Southeast Alaska is so reliant on water transport, most cruise ships dock right in the centre of towns. Often you can walk off your ship and straight into the heart of a small Alaska community.
Cruises through Alaska are perfect for families, with the wilderness serving as a veritable playground at ports of call. Don’t leave the kids home for this one, as the journey through this magnificent green labyrinth of forested islands truly is a trip of a lifetime.
Many Southeast Alaska cruises travel on a north/south path, either starting or ending in Seattle or British Columbia, Canada. The first stop in the southern panhandle is Ketchikan, a fishing community and one of the region’s larger towns.
Explore Ketchikan’s colourful Prohibition history on Creek Street, where you can visit a brothel-turned-museum and wander the boardwalks among brightly painted historic buildings. If that content feels too adult for the kids, catch a bird’s-eye view of the wilderness at one of Ketchikan’s three zip-lines. Here you’ll be whisked through a rainforest canopy on a series of lines. As you travel through the trees you’ll be surrounded by the sounds, smells and sights of the living, breathing Tongass National Forest.
From Ketchikan, your ship will head north. Smaller ships will thread through the needle-thin Wrangell Narrows, where you’ll feel as if you can reach out and shake hands with the trees on either side of the boat.
A few ships will stop at Wrangell and Petersburg, small Inside Passage fishing communities. One of the thrills of visiting these towns is watching purse seine (a style of commercial fishing) boats, thrum into busy harbours with the day’s catch. Bear-watching excursions to Chichagof Island, salmon fishing trips, and marine mammal cruises are also on offer from these towns, making them excellent bases for viewing wildlife.
Most cruise ships call at Sitka, a small town of 9,000 located on the west side of Baranof Island. Sitka has existed under three flags: Tlingit (an Alaska Native tribe), Russian and American. Not surprisingly, there’s a rich and tangible cultural history here that is worth exploring. View an elaborately costumed Russian dance troupe, visit a Russian Orthodox cathedral, or walk among totem poles at a national historic park marking the Russian defeat of the Tlingit in 1804.
Sitka, like most Alaska towns, is also a perfect base for outdoor adventures. Kayaking among the spruce-forested coves and views of the volcano Mount Edgecumbe is a popular family activity, as is visiting injured eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center.
All ships call at Juneau, the state capital. Boats dock within walking distance of the downtown centre, so you can easily wander the steep streets, all of which are backed by massive green mountains rising directly behind the city.
A family hike at the Mendenhall Glacier is a stunning way to spend an afternoon in Juneau. A motorcoach will deliver you to the excellent visitor centre, from where several walking paths begin. Many are wide and easy on little legs, including the walk to the roaring Nugget Falls.
Other options include riding the Mount Roberts Tramway straight up the mountain of the same name. Here you can explore meadows full of wildflowers, and enjoy lunch at the mountainside bar and grill while gawking at the views of Gastineau Channel and Douglas Island.
After a day in the ‘big’ city, your cruise will continue on to Skagway. Along the way your ship may spend a day in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site packed with calving tidewater glaciers. The crown jewel is Margerie Glacier, which sits in a quiet repose 40 storeys high. But when it calves it roars like thunder, and can send massive waves rolling out under your boat.
The historic town of Skagway is full of fun, with guides dressed in Gold Rush-era costumes leading walking tour groups along the boardwalk-lined streets, past brightly painted storefronts. The main town is easily explored on foot, and there are museums (even a few free ones), hiking trails, and excellent dining all within a few blocks of each other.
To get a real sense of Skagway’s past, however, take a ride on the White Pass Scenic Railway. You’ll travel in vintage railway cars up the rocky mountain pass, where many gold seekers pursued fortune in the late 1800s. Waterfalls, gorges, old Gold Rush machinery and even swathes of the original Gold Rush trail are all part of the scene from your carriage window. It’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in a historic journey.
Skagway is connected to the Alaska Highway system via Canada, and many cruises terminate here. You can step off your ship for the last time knowing you brought your family on a journey filled with adventure and wonder. With some of the biggest wildlife in the world, a rich history and thriving coastal communities, the opportunities to both learn about and enjoy this abundant region are unparalleled.