Alaska is arguably one of the most picturesque states in the US. A vast area of mountains, greenery, snow and wilderness, it draws visitors from all over the world to its shores and is a top cruise destination in the summer.
My friend Lynne Firth and I spent a week on the Celebrity Century in May, visiting a number of different ports that offered a variety of tours from whale watching to dogsledding. One of the many things we took away from our trip was the reinforced realisation that no matter how artistic or attractive a man-made structure may be, there simply is no substitute for the sheer beauty and majesty of untouched nature.
Most Alaskan cruises originate in Seattle or Vancouver, and two of the most popular routes are the Tracy Arm Fjord and the Inside Passage with a stop at the Hubbard Glacier. Our cruise began in Vancouver and would take us through the Inside Passage stopping in Icy Strait Point, Juneau and Ketchikan, with a swing by the magnificent Hubbard Glacier for a few hours in-between.
Vancouver is a city that really requires a good few days to explore. Unfortunately we were only there for a day, but what we saw was enough to convince us that we’d like to go back there again.
The harbour is a hub for seaplanes, boats, houseboats and large yachts with a walking and biking trail that takes you from downtown to the famous Stanley Park, a truly stunning area that measures over 400 hectares, making it larger than New York’s Central Park. There are trails through its interior, along with a seawall path that follows its perimeter.
One of the many attractions in Stanley Park is the Vancouver Aquarium; a large facility with underwater creatures from all over the globe. Here you’ll learn more about everything from brightly coloured poisonous frogs to the wonders of jellyfish. You’ll need comfortable shoes and a few hours to really appreciate it properly.
Vancouver is a wonderful port to visit, so if you take a cruise that’s leaving from this metropolitan, fascinating city, try to give yourself a number of days to explore it properly either at the beginning or end of your trip. Whether you’re looking for great shopping, excellent restaurants or just want to rent a bicycle to take advantage of its many bike trails, it’s the perfect way to extend your vacation before flying home.
Hotel tip: We stayed at the Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel based on TripAdvisor recommendations and we’re really glad we did. You can get a room with a terrific view of the harbour and as the ships dock right beside the hotel, all you have to do is take the lift down to the Cruise Ship level and it’s a short walk to the check-in desk. Worth every penny.
Restaurant tip: The Irish Heather GastroPub is in the heart of historic Gastown. It serves pub food with flair and a twist and boasts an extremely impressive whiskey menu. The advantages of visiting this place are many. The food, drinks and atmosphere are fantastic and the area is ideal for pedestrians looking for interesting shops.
Icy Strait Point
This was our first stop and the only tender port on the cruise. Hoonah is the nearby town, with a population of only about 750 people and the world’s largest Tlingit village. Tlingits are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America and many examples of their crafts and influence can be found at Icy Strait Point. This old logging town with a strong fishing community has breathtaking views of the water and mountains, which makes it an excellent cruise stop for nature lovers.
One of the attractions here is the world’s longest zipline: The ZipRider; a behemoth stretching over one mile that takes riders on an exhilarating, eye-watering trip over trees and landscape to the bottom where they can get up to speeds of 60mph. It’s a 1,300ft drop that take less than two minutes to complete.
Although we were unable to partake due to another tour booking, we gathered that it was an amazing experience from fellow passengers that went. We had decided instead to go whale watching with Hoonah Travel Adventures and the legendary Captain Paul Comolli. Whenever we go on cruises we book with local tour operators and vendors to ensure that they are getting all the money rather than paying a percentage to the ships. We also find it’s a much more personal experience when you book privately.
There were only seven of us on the boat with Paul and his son and as we sped along the water flanked by mountains on either side, Paul imparted some of his extensive knowledge on the area and its wildlife.
We spent three hours on that tour and saw multiple bald eagles, a seal and a magnificent humpback whale that we followed for miles, tracking it by its blowhole and huge tail.
Our captain also showed us a remote cabin that apparently people can rent if they really want to get away from it all. Out there the only way to get supplies is by boat, so it would certainly make for an interesting vacation.
When we got back to the port we decided to go to the crab shack just outside the casual restaurant on the dock and purchased a large brown bagful of Alaskan king crab legs, complete with clarified butter in containers for dipping. We then took it indoors and sat at picnic tables to eat it all. There’s just something about indulging in such delights at the source that make them all the more delicious.
Tour tip: We would highly recommend Hoonah Travel Adventures and Captain Paul with his enthusiastic personality. He has a brand new boat with a great heating system inside and large windows from bow to stern. When you see a whale or other wildlife, he’s perfectly happy for you to get out on the bow to make it a very up-close and personal encounter. We spent about half our time out there and got a fantastic view.
If you want to go on the ZipRider, it seems the only way to book this is through your ship. I’m guessing it’s because the ship is probably invested in this attraction.
The Hubbard Glacier is North America’s largest tidewater glacier and is pretty impressive when you’re on a ship sitting right in front of it. It is 76 miles long, seven miles wide and 600 feet tall at its terminal face. It is one of the only advancing glaciers in Alaska at approximately 80 feet per year, and regularly calves off icebergs the size of a 10-storey building, so ships will get close but not too close, as ships and icebergs don’t always mix.
As we approached the glacier, more and more ice gathered around the ship and passengers crowded into the bow, which the captain had opened to the public so they could get a better view.
One of the fascinating things about these glaciers is how blue the ice is in parts, particularly in deep crevasses. It all makes for a spectacular scene on a clear day, which luckily we got after a bit of an overcast afternoon in Hoonah.
Once the ship had slowly moved in to be as close as possible, the captain took it through 360 degrees so everyone on board could get a last, good look before he manoeuvred Century back out to the open water.
It’s really difficult to capture the grandeur of the glacier without a quality camera and some perspective. You can’t appreciate the sheer size of it unless you get the perfect angle and maybe someone in the photograph to show relative size.
Tip: If you don’t have a verandah cabin (which you really should book on an Alaskan cruise, trust me), make sure you get to the bow early or another part of the ship where you can stand up against the railing for an unfettered view. We saw people basically camping out in their spots for a while so others had to crane their necks behind them.
Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was the biggest port of the three we visited and helicopters and seaplanes crisscrossed the sky as we pulled in for the day.
There are many tours to choose from in Juneau, including whale watching, seaplane rides, trekking, kayaking, fishing, visiting the Mendenhall Glacier or dogsledding. We decided to go with the latter, a not inexpensive tour by any means as it involved a helicopter trip to the camp on the glacier and driving or “mushing” the sleds led by dogs built for racing, including some that had previously run the famous Iditarod, but we figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we didn’t want to miss.
We had booked with Era Helicopters, a very well respected company with multiple copters in the fleet. The flight took us over some amazing scenery – mountains so covered in white that it was sometimes difficult to tell where the snow ended and the clouds began.
We also flew by a couple of glaciers, again with deep blue crevasses visible from our seats, before landing on Norris Glacier in a spot a short walk from the dog camp, affectionately known as “Dog World”.
It was at this stage that we found ourselves grateful for the snow boots we’d all been given to cover our shoes, as the snow was so virgin and soft that our feet sank down to the knees at some points.
There are over 150 dogs kept at this camp over the summer and just like humans, they are all flown up via helicopter along with supplies. The trainers stay up there with them in tents and spend the months training the dogs, particularly the puppies, while at the same time running tours.
Our trainer was Tamara, a lighthearted, energetic young lady who gave no indication that 12-hour days were taking any toll on her spirit. She gave us an overview of what we would be doing, to the soundtrack of the dogs going bonkers in the background, keen to get moving.
It’s so difficult to describe the landscape because it was so overwhelmingly white and beautiful. Mountains looked much closer than they actually were, and everything seemed so bright with the sun reflecting off the snow. We had been warned that it would be colder than the town of Juneau, but it was actually warmer and I found myself with the first sunburn I’d had in ages by the end of the day.
Lynne and I were assigned a sled with Tamara, and although Tamara was obviously in charge of the mushing, we were both given a chance to ride in the seat and get on the back sled behind the main one to get a real sense of what it felt like to run a dog team. It was incredibly exhilarating and the weather was perfect. Those dogs could really motor and instead of welcoming the rest stops we took, it seemed they couldn’t wait to take off again the moment Tamara shouted “OK”!
At the end of our sledding time we got to meet the dogs and chat with Tamara for a while before the helicopter returned to take us back. Four helicopters actually arrived at once. Seeing them coming over the mountains reminded us of an episode of M*A*S*H.
When we got back to the town we indulged in some shopping. I was hoping to get some great native art pieces but they were really expensive. We ended up settling for a couple of prints and some cards.
Tip: The average cost of a dogsledding trip is about $500 per person and therefore the price might put you off booking, but honestly if you have the money, a dogsledding tour on the glacier is a must. Book in advance and thoroughly read the information about weight and what you’re allowed (and recommended) to take with you. We definitely recommend Era Helicopters and the family-run “Dog World” operation.
When shopping in Juneau, go beyond the Red Dog Saloon to find more local shops with better prices and if you’re a fan of crab legs do NOT miss Tracy’s King Crab Shack nestled on the waterfront on South Franklin Street.
The library, situated above a parking garage, has free Wi-Fi.
We decided not to book a tour in Ketchikan, although there were several we could have taken. This quaint town is perfect for a walking tour as it’s pretty compact and offers a nice variety of shops.
One of the most popular tours in Ketchikan is the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour on the Aleutian Ballad crab boat, which was a part of season two of the Discovery Channel’s TV series “Deadliest Catch”. The Aleutian Ballad is the only genuine Bering Sea crab fishing vessel licensed to carry leisure passengers and has been completely remodelled to give passengers the experience of commercial fishing in comfort without all the hard work and danger that can go along with it. If you’re stopping in Ketchikan and you’re a fan of the Deadliest Catch series, this will probably be the tour you won’t want to miss.
We wandered around at our leisure and found a number of shops with some nicely priced pieces, including ulu knives traditionally used by Inuit people for everything from cutting meat to trimming blocks of snow and ice.
I ended up purchasing a carving by Eddie Lee, a master carver, from a fine art gallery that carries only his work. What drew me into the store in the first place was the absolutely incredible intricate carving of a 10,000 year-old mammoth tusk that he had worked on for over two years. I unfortunately had nothing like the kind of budget needed to buy a large item, so I settled for a small one of two Inuits with spears.
Tip: Even if you go on a tour in Ketchikan, do give yourself time to shop. We found much more affordable gifts and souvenirs in this town than elsewhere and there are some great photo opportunities, particularly if you attend the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, rated as a top attraction by the Travel Channel.
When you book your cruise
Shop around, read reviews of ships, and know that you’ll get a better deal in the early months. May is one of the least expensive times to go to Alaska, and although it might be a bit colder then, you’d be surprised at how much cheaper your cabin will be compared to prices in June, July and August.
Another reason to book a cruise to Alaska earlier in the summer is that if the prices are lower, you can spring for a verandah cabin or even a suite. This is definitely the time to have a balcony so you can enjoy the views in the comfort of your own room.
Don’t be afraid to book your own tours separate from the ship and to visit shops that are not on the ship’s recommended list. Remember that there is always money changing hands for anything the ship recommends to its passengers. If you do your research properly, you can truly enjoy a unique and much more personalised experience when you map out your own journey through incredible Alaska.