The hidden coves, glaciers and incredible wildlife of America’s 49th and largest state have made Alaska the third most popular destination for cruises after the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and few places on earth have the sheer scale and grandeur of this untamed wilderness.
One of the best ways of experiencing as much of the US’s ‘last frontier’ as close up as possible is from a cruise ship. After all, with 40,000 miles of stunning coastal landscape and ice fields, there’s an awful lot of it to take in. And in some areas, like Glacier Bay, there are no roads, so access is only by cruise ship or helicopter.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a balcony cabin, you may also be lucky enough to catch a pod of humpback whales playing nearby, or spot brown bear fishing for salmon or a golden eagle. What the view from your window will definitely show you an ever-changing landscape of mountains and glaciers.
When it comes to shore excursion, prepare to be adventurous – children from the age of eight upwards will be in their element with this aspect of an Alaska cruise. Expect glacier walks, dog sledding, whale watching, kayaking, train rides and seeing glaciers and icebergs.
One trip that’s a particular hit, particularly with families, is the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. In 20 miles, you’ll climb approaching 3,000 feet on a journey covering the first 40 miles of the original 110-mile route.
In good weather, consider a half-hour flight in a floatplane or helicopter for a truly unforgettable experience.
Main departure ports for most voyages are Vancouver and Seattle, although some trips also set sail from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Some 30 ships in all cruise round Alaska, and there are two popular itineraries:
- The inside passage route – This leaves from Seattle or Vancouver to Skagway, often taking in visits to tidewater glaciers such as the 15 active ones along the 60-mile Glacier Bay coastline. You’ll probably call in at the state capital Juneau, as well as Ketchikan and Skagway, known for its gold mining period and a true frontier town.
- The glacier route – A generally longer voyage, you’ll take in the Gulf of Alaska on a one-way sailing between Seattle or Vancouver and Anchorage. Ports of call could include Valdez, Haines and Sitka.
If you’re wondering how long to go for, a week-long cruise will give you a good feel for this awesome region, but you’ll see more wildlife and have more opportunities to visit some of Alaska’s smaller, more unusual ports if you set sail for 10 days or a fortnight.
To see even more, consider combining an Alaskan cruise with a stay in Vancouver or a tour of the Rockies.
Cruising in Alaska is on offer from May to September, with crowds and prices often reduced at the start or end of the season, although at these times weather can be wetter and windier and some excursions may be altered.
When it comes to choosing your operator, consider whether you want the best possible price, or whether entertainment and activity or having the children catered for is your priority. Some lines are also better suited to couples or older adults than others, and itineraries and numbers of shore excursions vary from relaxed to super-busy. But, whatever you choose, you can look forward to travelling in style.