If there is one place in the world where anyone can try an adventure cruise experience, it is Alaska. America’s 49th state is superbly equipped to provide a great range of outdoor activities and expeditions. The first thing you notice when you reach America’s 49th state is the magnificent snow-capped mountains lining the distance. These rugged, majestic peaks are perfectly positioned to emphasize the dramatic landscape as they slope all the way down to jagged trims of Sitka Spruce trees, still dressed in their evergreen coniferous foliage. Tall and towering above the forest floors, these trees line the waterways and stretch across the great expanse of wilderness that is Alaska. Positioned starkly against these awe-inspiring structures are the elegant and slow-moving channels of water of the Alaskan archipelagos, which cut their way through the landscape as though intricately carved all the way to the ocean. These winding waterways of the Inside Passage will guide you between the mountains on your Alaska cruise, revealing remote towns and cities along the way.
In simple terms, Alaska is the world’s great nature theme park. It is tailor-made for cruising in the south-east and it opens the door to a magnificent array of activities, from salmon fishing to sledge-dog rides and kayaking to glacier trekking. Travelling by sea opens up a vast range of territory in what remains largely untouched wilderness and there are a lot cruise lines offering voyages in this region; Carnival, Norwegian or Royal Caribbean; Holland America, Celebrity or Princess; Oceania, Azamara or Windstar; and ultra-luxe lines Regent, Crystal, Silversea or Seabourn. There are also specialist small-ship companies such as National Geographic and UnCruise Adventures. It is a positive cornucopia of choice, but the bottom line remains all the ships visit largely the same areas, even though the two specialists get more off the beaten track.
Cruise season in Alaska begins in May and ends in September. The schedule sometimes includes a few sailings in late April or early October as well. There are only minor differences in weather by month. Temperatures are warmest in July and August, but even in May you can expect temperatures in the mid-50 and mid-60s. Anchorage is also much drier than other parts of Alaska, the wettest month, August, only still only averages about 10 rainy days. You might also find a little extra elbow room and a few deals in May, early June and September. Late summer sailings have one other tantalizing prospect: by late August, the skies of Alaska are once again dark during the night. That means aurora viewing is a possibility.
ANCHORAGE CITY SCENE – Urban and wild aren’t opposites; they are Anchorage’s two defining elements. There’s no need to choose one or the other since they are both parts of life here. Anchorage lives under midnight sun and auroras. The city’s adventures may be beyond belief, but they aren’t beyond the boundaries.
INSIDE PASSAGE – Shaped by the staggering force of massive glaciers millions of years ago, Alaska’s Inside Passage boasts wildlife-filled fjords and lush island scenery — habitat for bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises and whales. Its mountains are carpeted with majestic forests.
SOUTH CENTRAL – Home to over half of Alaska’s population, South central is a playground of activities from world-class fishing to hiking and wildlife viewing. With mountains and lakes, South central offers the advantages of remote wilderness but is linked via roads.
SOUTHWEST – The region’s terrain ranges from a landscape of volcanoes in Katmai National Park created by the 1912 eruption of the Novarupta volcano, to the windswept Aleutian Islands that make a 1,000-mile sweep toward Asia.
INTERIOR – In Alaska’s heartland, you’ll see the continent’s tallest peak, Denali, and wide expanses of tundra. The forests are teeming with wildlife and bird life ranging from the formidable grizzly to stately herds of caribou to the state bird, the willow ptarmigan.
ARCTIC COAST – Alaska’s Arctic is home to the Inupiat Eskimos, many who still live a subsistence lifestyle and still preserve their history verbally from generation to generation. The Arctic is filled with a rich history and natural wonders, from the gold rush days of yore to the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. This is one of Alaska’s most diverse regions, filled with cultural opportunities, wildlife and a landscape ranging from coastal plains to mountain ranges
TOP ALASKAN PORTS OF CALL
KETCHIKAN – Ketchikan is known for three things: Native Alaskan (Tlingit) totem poles, Misty Fjords National Monument and the city’s distinction as the “salmon capital of the world.” The main draws include opportunities to visit Saxman Native Village and learn about the totem poles in the area, or enjoy The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. The show is staged within walking distance of the cruise port and it’s the place to see athletes wielding axes and saws in traditional lumbering activities. Kayak or cruise tours of Misty Fjords are incredibly popular and you can also sightsee by floatplane or city trolley, bear-watch, fish, hike through a rainforest and try active adventures like a canoe safari, Zodiac expedition, zip-lining or join a Bering Sea crab fishermen’s tour.
JUNEAU – Alaska’s capital city is interesting because no road leads from here to the rest of the state. It’s at the base of Mount Juneau and you can only get there via boat — even residents have to bring their cars to Juneau via ferry. Home to Mendenhall Glacier, this is a popular port for a variety of shore excursions. Look for kayak and bike adventures, a ride in the sky on the Mount Roberts Tramway (the pickup point is right at the cruise port), wildlife-viewing trips (whale, bears and more), fishing outings, glacier visits (Mendenhall, Taku and Tracy Arm Fjord) and even fun culinary trips such as an Alaska salmon bake or a craft beer tasting. You can go to a dogsled camp, pan for gold or take a helicopter and land on Mendenhall Glacier.
SKAGWAY – Alaska’s Gold Rush history, Skagway — 90 miles northwest of Juneau — is a port that shouldn’t be missed. In fact, it’s the gateway to the Klondike and Dawson’s mining district in Canada’s Yukon Territory where prospectors searched for gold in the late 1890s. The historic district still has a Wild West feel though a bit commercialized for the modern era. This port can get crowded in the heat of summer when several ships can call on the same day. Tours include panning for gold, a snowshoeing expedition and rides on the White Pass Rail. Also a visit to a waterfall, hike the Chilkoot Trail, explore Glacier Point by ATV, and helicopter flight-see the area’s glaciers or rock climb and rappel.
SITKA – Sitka is a working town that has more going for it than just tourism. Commercial fishing is still a major player here. Another thing that sets Sitka apart from other Alaskan ports is its Russian heritage. See St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral with its onion dome and the Russian Bishop’s House. Tours include a nature safari by 4×4 or sea kayak, visit the Alaska Raptor Center, go bird- and bear-watching, dry-suit snorkel or book a “ghosts of Sitka” city walk. Guided fly fishing and a sea otter quest are also available, along with Tongass National Forest nature hikes, a bike and hike combo tour and local pub crawls.
HAINES – According to the 2010 Census, the population of Haines is less than 1,800, and it isn’t yet as touristy as some of the other Alaskan ports. It’s known for great fishing (salmon, halibut and trout) and an eagle preserve. The shore excursions include a zip line, kayaking, learning about eagles and other raptors, fishing Chilkoot Lake, seeing Glacier Point by ATV, hiking or play golf.