To the Aleut peoples, Alaska was “Alyeshka,” meaning the great land. Visitors today are likely to agree: Alaska is truly one of the world’s special places. Those who visit can’t help marveling at the exotic wildlife, magnificent mountains, glacier-carved valleys and steep, rocky coastline. And after they spend several days encountering one wonder after another, they marvel at just how much of this special place there is to see. The sheer size of Alaska is hard to imagine: The town of Barrow is more than 1,600 mi/2,575 km north of Ketchikan, while Attu (at the end of the Aleutian chain) lies almost 2,000 mi/3,220 km west of Anchorage. Acreage aside, Alaska is large in lots of other ways: It has the tallest mountains, biggest glaciers, best fishing and wildest wilderness on the continent. With such abundance, it’s no wonder that more and more travelers visit Alaska each year, particularly aboard cruise ships.
Because of this heavy traffic, some towns in southeastern Alaska and such attractions as Denali National Park and Portage Glacier can seem a bit overrun at times. It must also be noted that Alaska isn’t cheap: Per-day expenses in remote parts of the state are comparable with those in New York City or London. Nonetheless, we think the cost is well worth it—a bargain, in fact—given all that you’re going to see.
Keep in mind that Alaska cruises only operate between the months of May and early September.
Big or Small Ship Cruising in Alaska
Alaska offers well over 500 sailings in 2010 alone. Most of the "mass-market" cruise lines operate larger ships with 2,000+ passengers while Cruise West, an American small ship cruise line, operates smaller ships holding 100 or less guests. We have had the pleasure of sailing Alaska several times and have done so on both large and small ships. Each has their own appeal. The small ships offer a more personal "up-close" look at Alaska's natural beauty and wildlife, while the large ships offer all of the amenities many of today's cruise guests have come to expect.
If you prefer a slower pace with less crowds, and budget is not an issue, then Cruise West is an excellent choice. Our 2005 sailing aboard Spirit of Oceanus was a memorable one for sure with great whale watching, Zodiac excursions and excellent lectures on Alaska's wildlife and history. However, a small ship does not offer the dining and entertainment choices available on the larger ships. That same year (2005) we had the opportunity to sail Alaska again on Holland America's Oosterdam. Holland America has a long and rich history in Alaska cruising. Booking an Alaska cruise on Holland America is probably a safe bet since they have been "doing Alaska" for so many years.
Things To Do And See in Alaska
Just sitting on your balcony as the ship sails through the Inside Passage or Glacier Bay can be a breathtaking experience. But you will want to experience so much more on your Alaska cruise. There are dozens of excellent shore excursions available for you to chose from in each port. Once secret to booking an Alaska cruise is to book early. Popular shore excursions can sell out well in advance of your sailing date. The best advice is to book six months or more in advance and book your excursions online. Here are just a few of our favorite things to do and see in Alaska:
Haines, Alaska - Kayak Experience
If you are physically able, this is a beautiful and peaceful kayaking adventure. You do not have to have any experience since the water is like glass. You never know what wildlife you will see as your guide leads you on your tour.
Skagway, Alaska - White Pass Summit Scenic Railway
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad was constructed through some of Alaska's most rugged terrain. You will pass through tunnels and valleys with views of waterfalls. This is about a 3 hour round trip excursion and one that we will always remember. There are some great photo opportunities as well.
Juneau, Alaska - Dog Sled and Glacier Adventure By Helicopter
Although we have never done it, we have always wanted to. We have talked with dozens of people who have done this and swear it was one of the greatest experiences. Maybe next time! This combines an amazing helicopter sightseeing flight with a dog sled ride. What could be better? But be prepared, this excursion is always a sell out so book early!
Juneau, Alaska - Whale Watching
There will be whale watching tours offered in several ports, but we have always enjoyed the one offered in Juneau for some reason. You will take a motorcoach to a location where you will board a jet-powered catamaran designed specifically for whale-watching. As I recall, you can stand outside or inside a heated cabin with large windows. When whales are sighted, the Captain steers the boat so that everyone can get a good view. Make sure to bring your camera and a warm jacket.
Ketchikan, Alaska - Motorcycle Tour
Of course this will only appeal to those of you who ride, but we could not resist the opportunity to ride a Harley in Alaska! It was great, albeit a little cool and rainy. A group of about 12 of us headed out with a guide for a 3 1/2 tour of Ketchikan. We visited a coffee company where we warmed up with a cup of Joe, then we were off to a park with some traditional totems. The guides did an excellent job and it was lots of fun. We still talk about it to this day!
Ketchikan, Alaska - Rain Forest Canopy and Zipline Expedition
This will probably be our Ketchikan choice on our next Alaska cruise. We have really gotten into zipline tours. There are a couple of different ones offered now in Ketchikan so check with your cruise line to see what is available.
Ketchikan, Alaska - Salmon Fishing
This is a VERY popular excursion with the anglers in the group and it sells out early. But, we have heard nothing but praise for those who have done this tour.
Sitka, Alaska - Raptor Center
This is a very nice, slow-paced tour that we found very interesting. The Alaska Raptor Center is a rescue facility that rehabilitates injured eagles, owls and other raptors. There are some great photo opportunities of these amazing birds.
As I mentioned earlier, there are literally dozens of different excursions offered in Alaska at each port, some more physically demanding than others. There is truly something for everyone.