Head west to Alaska if you’re in search of adventure and excitement. This unspoilt wilderness has much to offer the first-time or seasoned cruiser.
Alaska is America’s Last Frontier, an unspoilt wilderness of soaring eagles, prowling bears and spouting whales; of majestic peaks, eye-wateringly beautiful fjords and glaciers that stretch as far as the eye can see.
This is a land where everything is big except the population. There are barely 640,000 people in a state twice the size of Texas and one fifth the size of the Lower 48, as the locals call the bit down below. If Manhattan had as many people per square mile as Alaska, there would be 14 people in Manhattan.
It was exactly 50 years ago this year that President Eisenhower signed the document declaring the territory the 49th state of the US, but it remains poles apart from the mobile phone and McDonald’s culture of the Lower 48.
Instead, it’s a land of adventure, where 100,000 49ers risked life and limb in their race to get rich during the 1896 Gold Rush and where modern-day visitors seek excitement flying over glaciers, or on expeditions to see the wildlife.
Plenty of visitors arrive by road, but almost one million people cruised here last year, taking the opportunity to relax at sea and see as much of the scenery as possible in a short time. And whether you’re a first-time cruiser, or have just had your share of the summer crowds in Europe’s great cities, you really cannot help but be moved by the grandeur of Alaska, where the crack of calving ice and subsequent echo-o-o is often the only sound to be heard.
If you’ve cruised here before, there are new activities and new sights all waiting to take your breath away. Choose an itinerary with Sitkaand the Hubbard Glacier if you missed them last time, take a hike in Skagway instead of the sceneic train ride, go on a bear-spotting trek.
Around 10 cruise lines sail in Alaska during the short season, from mid-May to mid-September. Most ships arrive from Vancouver or Seattle, cruising through the Inside Passage, variously stopping off at Ketchikan, Juneau (which has the dubious honour of being the only state capital in the world not accessible by road), Skagway and Sitka, and spending at least one day cruising through bays or fjords so you can get close to the glaciers.
Princess Cruises and Cruise West, for instance, spend a day in the icy waters in Glacier Bay National Park, taking passengers to the 250-feet-high Margerie Glacier. Others cruise in Tracy Arm Fjord, travelling up to the Sawyer Glacier, or to the Hubbard Glacier, an incredible six miles wide and up to 400 feet above sea level.
Spoilt for choice
Between them, cruise lines offer a huge array of ships and itineraries in Alaska. You can cruise for seven or 14 nights, sail round-trip from the US or one way between Vancouver and Whittier, 60 miles from Anchorage, or vice-versa.
There are exploration-style ships with capacity for less than 150 passengers, ultra-luxury ships that hold 700 guests and lively resort-style vessels with lots of entertainment for when the sun goes down.
Whichever you choose, this is the one time to treat yourself to a balcony – your private space from where you can be sure not to miss any of the sights. On my cruise with Princess, I spent almost the entire day in Glacier Bay on my balcony, listening to the commentary over the TV given by rangers from the national park while keeping a look out for a passing whale. In fact the only times I left were for lunch and to watch for calving from the Marjorie Glacier on the starboard side of the ship.
Where to eat and drink
Forget fine dining – if you fancy a change from cruise ship fare it’s restaurants and diners. In Ketchikan, the salmon capital of Alaska, the Bar Harbour Restaurant is known for its seafood, while in Juneau, the Wild West-themed Red Dog Saloon is a fun place for lunch with a menu of sandwiches, skins and salmon. In Skagway, the Red Onion, in a former brothel, is the place to be. Dine downstairs on the soups and sandwiches-style menu and afterwards have a tour of the brothel museum..
Bag a bargain
Cruising in Alaska is not cheap – it’s the price you pay for the remoteness, and Europeans have long-haul flight costs as well – but there are some great bargains around. For the British, Norwegian Cruise Line has a seven-night cruise on the 2,394-passenger Norwegian Pearl this summer, sailing from Seattle and calling at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria in Canada, and cruising Glacier Bay, from £1,299 per person including flights and transfers. And if you’re starting in the US, Carnival Cruise Line has a seven-night cruise on the 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit, sailing from Vancouver and calling at Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka, and cruising College Fjord, from $579 per person cruise-only.
Out and about
All the cruise lines have excursions at each port, with everything from zip-wiring through the tree tops, kayaking and flight-seeing over glaciers to wildlife-spotting and sightseeing days out on the menu. Whether you’re after a shot of adrenalin or want to take things easy, there will be something to appeal.
The excursions are a big part of the Alaska cruise experience, but be warned – they will make a big hole in the budget. A three-hour zip-wiring excursion with Princess Cruises will set you back $179 each; a two-hour glacier discovery helicopter trip with Holland America Line costs $250-plus per person, and a trip with Royal Caribbean bear-spotting lasting three hours is priced at £231 per person.
They’re expensive because they involve helicopters, boat trips, float planes and so on, but it’s worth doing a bit of on-line research before you go as local tour operators might be able to do similar trip for less.
Cruise lines also sell land tours that you can wrap around your cruise. You can spend a few days before the cruise travelling through the Canadian Rockies or a few days before or after your voyage exploring deeper into the Alaskan landscape. You can even do both should time and budget allow.
Norwegian Cruise Line has a five-night trip that includes two nights in Denali National Park and time in Anchorage from £699 per person, while Celebrity Cruises has a 15-night cruise-tour which visits Alyeska, Denali and Fairbanks.
Princess Cruises, which owns glass-domed trains, lodges and even tour coaches in Alaska, has lots of pre and post-cruise tours, such as a couple of nights at Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge combined with a night at their lodge in Denali.
In Ketchikan: Fishing for salmon, sea kayaking, and the lumberjack show from May-September.
In Juneau: Zip-wiring, flight-seeing, canoeing through icebergs to the Mendenhall Glacier and dog-sledding.
In Skagway: A scenic train ride through the White Pass, rock climbing, hiking along the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail, used by the 49-ers on their way to the gold fields.
In Sitka: Mountain biking, driving around Kruzof Island in an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) on the lookout for bears, otters and deer, and a Historic and Nature walk.
What to wear and what to pack
For our guide to what to take on your Alaskan adventure, read our guide: What to pack for a cruise to Alaska
Interesting facts about Alaska
- Alaska contains a million acres for each day of the year
- Alaska has North America’s highest mountain, largest freshwater lake and greatest number of glaciers.
- Alaska was sold by the Russians to America in 1867 for US$ 7.2 million, roughly two cents per acre
|When to go||Cruises to Alaska operate from mid-May to mid-September. The days start getting shorter in August and September, which are generally the wettest months (but it can rain any time).|
|Climate||Average summer daytime temperatures are between 16°C-27°C (60°F-80°F), but it feels a lot colder when the ships cruise near the glaciers and you’ll find gloves and scarves won’t go amiss. You should also pack for rain – Ketchikan, which makes a virtue of its liquid sunshine, gets 152 inches a year. Winter brings 24-hour darkness and freezing temperatures: the lowest temperature recorded was in January 1971, at Prospect Creek, when the thermometer dipped to minus 62°C (-80°F)..|
|Currency||The currency of Alaska is the US Dollar.|
|Getting around||Coaches, public buses, taxis and trams run in the city and across the island. Buses: the 102 and 103 to Puerto de la Cruz run every half an hour and take 40 to 55 minutes, while the 110 and 111 run to Playa de las Américas every half an hour and take 70 to 90 minutes. Trams in Santa Cruz cost €1.25 per journey – buy your ticket at the tram stop and punch it when you get on board.|