Have you ever seen the amazing blue ice of a glacier, or dozens of bald eagles in the sky or bears stuffing themselves full of fish? You can in Alaska, a land of unimaginably wild beauty. And what’s the best way to experience this magnificent state? Cruising, of course.
Almost 1 million people cruise Alaska’s southeast coast every year, during a cruise season that runs from the second week of May to the third week of September. Cruises through the Inside Passage are generally round trips from Vancouver or Seattle; on these you’ll see little of the interior.
Gulf of Alaska cruises travel one way between Seward or Whittier (the cruise ports for Anchorage) and Vancouver or Seattle; these also include the Inside Passage. The majority of cruises take visitors to the historic port towns of Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan.
Here’s what you’ll experience in these ports of call.
Sitka was established by Russian colonists and many remnants of that period remain. The most prominent relic is the onion-domed St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which dominates the town’s skyline. Learn more about the town’s Russian past with a visit to the Russian Bishop’s House, which is operated by the National Park Service; it offers excellent displays and insight into that era.
Just a short walk from town is the Sitka National Historic Park, a beautiful wooded area that was the site of the final battle between the native Tlingits and the Russians. The visitor’s center offers many exhibits and multimedia presentations. The highlight of the park is its many colorful totem poles, one of the best collections in the state. The Inside Passage is noted for its rainforests, and this park has one of the best. A walk along the paths through the dense and enormous foliage is humbling, yet the fresh air is almost intoxicating. It’s a strange feeling.
Across the street from the park is the Alaska Raptor Center, the best place to get up-close and personal with the great bald eagle. This all-volunteer center has become a national leader in raptor rehabilitation and public education. Each year the center treats between 100 and 200 injured eagles, owls, hawks and falcons. Many birds are rehabilitated and released; others, whose injuries are too severe to allow them to survive in the wild, remain at the center or are sent off to zoos or other aviaries around the country. Don’t miss “Sitka,” the center’s “educational bald eagle.” Sitka was injured when she was hit by a car, causing a severe injury to her right foot that required partial amputation. Her sprit wasn’t broken, however; in fact, she has a lot of personality. Rock your head side to side and she’ll mimic you.
Juneau was founded in 1880 following the discovery of gold. Its steep hills, which cling to the sides of Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, gave it the nickname “Little San Francisco.” Though it is Alaska’s capital, the only way you can reach Juneau is by plane or ship; there are no roads into or out of town.
For a landlocked town it sure is busy, and most of the activity comes from cruise ship passengers. Sadly, the new “gold rush” for many who visit here is a mad dash to shop in one of the numerous souvenir shops that now occupy many of the city’s historic wooden buildings, to visit one of the old-time saloons, or to pan for gold in defunct mine tailings. Savvy visitors make it past these places to look for the real soul of Juneau, which offers wildlife, glaciers, flight-seeing, hiking, biking and paddling.
To get the lay of the land, take the Mount Roberts Tramway, which will whisk you from sea level to 1,800 feet in less than five minutes. From the top, the view over the city and out across Lynn Canal and Gastineau Channel is spectacular. Thirteen miles outside the city lies another must-see: Mendenhall Glacier, touted as the world’s only “drive-up” glacier.
For a real adventure, take a float plane tour to Taku Lodge. From the air you’ll see the shimmering expanses of the Juneau Ice Field. Other great options include whale watching and tours of Tracy Arm Fjord, which is home to the Sawyer Glaciers. During a Tracy Arm excursion, I saw many bears eating fish along the shore, mountain goats with their newborn kids teetering along the cliffs, and eagles flying around the icebergs. The highlight is seeing and hearing huge chunks of glacier crashing into the sea. You’ll be amazed at how blue the ice looks.
The characters from the HBO series “Deadwood” would feel right at home in Skagway. Wooden walkways and original timber houses make the town a living museum of Klondike Gold Rush days. Its bordellos and saloons once hosted such colorful customers as Guzzling Gertie, Gum Boots Kitty and gang boss Soapy Smith, the town’s worst villain. The spot where Smith died in a gun duel is routinely pointed out during tours of the town. Today, Skagway’s year-round population is about 750 and there are only a few saloons.
Most visitors to Skagway opt to take one of the world’s greatest train rides, aboard the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, which began service in 1900. The railroad parallels the old trail that the miners trekked to the goldfields. The trail is so dangerous that hikers are forbidden to use it; one portion, called “Dead Horse Gulch,” marks the final resting place of some 3,000 pack animals. Leaving Skagway at the four-mile point, the railroad begins its steep climb at 260 feet per minute from sea level to 2,865 feet. From the train, which still uses many of the original carriages, you’ll see scenery that’s vast and absolutely wild.
Salmon and hookers together -- who knew? In the 1920s Ketchikan was known as “one of the wickedest dens of the Pacific.” The colorful wooden cottages and alleys of Creek Street were once home to the town’s famous red-light district. Today, most of the buildings house restaurants, souvenir shops and art galleries. For a brush with the past, stop by Dolly’s House, where the sign says, “If you can’t find your husband, he’s in here.” Pretend madams in full regalia will give you a legal tour of this well-preserved home.
Ketchikan has the largest collection of Tlingit totem poles in the world, and they can be seen at three sites: Totem Bight State Park, which re-creates the setting of a traditional native village; Saxman Village, an active Tlingit community; and the Totem Heritage Center, home to the oldest totem poles in Alaska, some dating back more than 150 years. Across the creek from the Heritage Center is Deer Mountain Hatchery and Eagle Center, where thousands of salmon and trout are raised each year. In the summer months, the hatchery’s holding tanks are full of fish in various stages of development. Also on display are two injured female bald eagles who like to show off their eight-foot wing spans when visitors stop by their enclosure.
A flight-seeing excursion or boat trip to Misty Fjords National Monument is the big thing to do in Ketchikan. Encompassing an area of more than 2 million acres, this protected wilderness area has waterfalls, pristine lakes, snowcapped mountains, and granite cliffs that drop thousands of feet into the sea. It’s a don’t-miss.
If you’re up for something completely different, try getting in touch with your inner Tarzan. Alaska Canopy Adventures allows you to zip across Ketchikan’s rainforest 135 feet above the ground. There are seven zip-lines and 4,500 feet of cable strung across spruce, hemlock and cedar trees; distances between platforms range from 175 feet to 850 feet. There are also three rope bridges to navigate. Those fearless enough to look down might catch sight of a bear; glance upward and you might get a bird’s-eye view of a bald eagle.
Breathtaking scenery, gleaming glaciers, abundant wildlife and interesting native culture -- you’ll never have a better chance to experience adventure and true wilderness than in Alaska.
Tripso wants to take you on a cruise for a cause! See how far New Orleans and Cozumel have come since Katrina and Wilma. Join us October 26, 2006, for four nights on Carnival’s Fantasy, one of the vessels that Carnival offered for hurricane relief. Chat with your favorite Tripso columnist and contribute to a worthy Gulf Coast relief organization. Space is very limited. For more information, e-mail us or check out our cruise page.
Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anita or visit her Web site anitavacation.com.