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Alaska cruising

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Did You Know … ?

  • Juneau’s city limits encompass 3,108 square miles, 12 times the size of Singapore.
  • In Alaska, glaciers cover an area roughly equal to South Carolina.
  • The Valdez oil spill occurred on Good Friday 1989, 25 years after Alaska’s Good Friday earthquake.
  • Haines is at the head of America’s longest (80 miles) and deepest (2,000 feet) fjord.
  • Ketchikan receives 13 feet of rain per year.

Seaborne sightseeing

Alaska’s visitors, particularly first-timers, like cruising because they can sample the variety and grandeur that make Alaska a popular destination while enjoying the restaurants and other services typical of the newest cruise ships. Besides, passengers don’t have to move from hotel to hotel in order to see several places.

The four major operators of large passenger ships are Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruises. Their ships sail between May and September.

Although there are exceptions, most of their itineraries are one-week sailings. The cruises are either roundtrips from Seattle or Vancouver (and occasionally Los Angeles or San Francisco), or they are one-way trips in either direction between Vancouver and a port near Anchorage (Seward or Whittier).

The specific itineraries vary, but all the roundtrips take passengers to Alaska’s Inside Passage, to the ports on the southernmost strip of Alaska land that sits between Canada and the Pacific. Passengers visit towns that reflect the state’s Russian and Gold Rush history. They also are awed by impressive examples of glaciers and Alaska’s famous wildlife, especially the whales, but sometimes sea lions, seals, sea otters, plus bald eagles and puffins.

The cruises offer widely varied shore excursions. Besides the predictable guided city sightseeing and wildlife viewing, cruisers have the option during some port calls for things like horseback riding, kayaking, sportfishing, ziplining or sightseeing by air.

The one-way cruises focus on the same destinations and activities on the Inside Passage, but they reach farther north to begin or end at ports that are in driving distance of Anchorage. This routing gives cruisers access to the Kenai Peninsula, the Kenai Fjords National Park and Prince William Sound as well as Alaska’s largest city.

Many, but not all, of the activities listed below are offered as shore excursions to tourists on the large passenger ships.

However, because cruising in Alaska is not limited to sailing on a big vessel, other ideas listed below involve day cruises or charter options on various types of craft; ferry rides that function as both transportation and opportunities for sightseeing, and the most basic of all cruises: the paddle-your-own kind.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Choose a shore excursion that includes riding a zipline. Juneau and Ketchikan are among the cruise destinations that have zipline operations.
  • From Ketchikan, soar over the Misty Fjords National Monument aboard an Alaskan seaplane. The option can be a cruise shore excursion.
  • From Bartlett Cove or Juneau, embark on a sea kayaking expedition into Glacier Bay. Or, as a shore excursion, go kayaking in Prince William Sound when your cruise ship calls at Whittier, or do the kayaking in Resurrection Bay if your port is Seward.
  • Travel up and down the coastal areas of Alaska on the state’s ferry system.
  • Join a three-day adventure cruise into the Kenai Fjords National Park, with time to fish for salmon, walk on glaciers and kayak among seals, among other possibilities.
  • Cruise the Kodiak Archipelago and Katmai coastal wilderness aboard a chartered yacht. Other charters, for one or several days, are options, too, departing from a range of ports.

Things to do for Centrics

  • During your port call at Sitka, spend some time on your own checking out the buildings left behind by the Russians, who made the town their capital. Go inside the Russian Bishop’s House.
  • When your ship calls at Ketchikan, buy a memento for yourself or your significant other in one of the shops on Ketchikan’s Creek Street, once the town’s infamous red-light district. While there, drop by at Dolly’s House Museum, named for the town’s most famous madam.
  • At Haines, see the big bald ones at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Shore excursions vary and include jetboat tours into the heart of the preserve as well as gentler floats into the area.
  • For a potentially very gratifying shore excursion, board a cabin cruiser in Sitka Sound for a half-day sportfishing outing. Or, from Seward, consider a guided horseback trail ride on Kenai Peninsula.
  • At Valdez, take a day cruise to Prince William Sound, to Columbia Glacier. This glacier retreated nearly 7.5 miles from 1982 to 2000.
    Or, head to the sound from Whittier aboard a high-speed catamaran, either as an independent traveler or on a shore excursion.
  • At Fairbanks, choose a river trip aboard a sternwheeler. Learn about the state’s colorful river history and visit an Athabascan Indian village.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Watch a glacier calving, from the comfort of a large cruise ship’s deck.
  • Set aside some time during cruise ship shore visits to seek out unique souvenirs and gifts made by indigenous Alaskans.
  • Choose, for one cruising excursion, a guided city tour of Juneau, Alaska’s capital.
  • Sign on for a whale watching shore excursion. Be aware that blue whales are the world’s largest mammal, up to 100 feet long and 200 tons.
  • During your Skagway shore tour, get a feel for Gold Rush days in the town, the gateway to the Klondike. Also, your cruise might include an option to take a three-hour trip from Skagway on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
  • Select shore excursions that let you pan for gold or participate in a salmon bake — or both.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Alaska Travel Industry Association at