The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Alaska

It seems that everybody and their grandmother has either cruised, or wants to cruise the scenic coastline of Alaska. Each summer a growing armada of cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of passengers—many of which are in fact people’s grandmothers—into various ports of call along the southeastern arm of the 49th state. That fact alone may scare off potential travelers who come to Alaska to commune with nature and escape the crowds. Well, fear not. With a landmass greater than California, Texas, and Montana combined, getting away from the crowds—grandmothers and all—is not so hard if you know what to expect going in.


The vast majority of Alaska’s northbound visitors begin their journey from either Seattle or Vancouver, where they are herded onboard their waiting ships. After a muster drill and the first buffet, most ships start by winding their way through the Inside Passage, making their first port of call on the town of Ketchikan. Creek Street, KetchikanThe proud residents of this hillside settlement have dubbed themselves “Alaska’s First City” a reference to the fact that this is usually the first piece of Alaskan soil that visitors set foot on. Personally, I think this is just because there’s no one else around to contest it. Nearby is the Misty Fjords National Monument—a dramatic inlet of pristine wilderness. Getting there involves either a boat or a seaplane, and the high price tag of such an excursion ensures that you won’t be contending with the masses for this up-close view of nature untouched.


For those who don’t mind the aforementioned masses, guests will have fun browsing through historic Creek Street—a collection of vintage buildings propped up on stilts where souvenir shops have replaced brothels as the primary source of income. Shopping for souvenirs here is both easy and reasonably priced, and if you miss out on doing it in one port, don’t be alarmed. I’m convinced that all the stores pack up their goods and move to the next port overnight. Which now brings us to Juneau, the state capital. You could meander about town, but one of the star attractions is just a short bus ride away at the Mendenhall Glacier, situated at the source of the Mendenhall River, which is nestled in the—you guessed it—Mendenhall Valley.

Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau


The glacier, valley, river, et al are the essence of what people come to Alaska to see. You can hike, tromp, stroll, and mosey until your heart’s content, all while taking in the gorgeous alpine scenery made famous in movies, documentaries, and cruise brochures everywhere. By the time your stay here is over, you will have some great additions to your photo album to go along with the burning sensation in your calves.


The next stop on the itinerary for most is the frontier-style town of Skagway. Once again the charms of villainy and prostitution are softened and packaged for the masses, and you could spend the whole day revisiting the shops you missed back in Ketchikan. For those wanting more of a natural connection, I highly recommend a trip into the nearby Yukon, easily accessible via an overpriced train ride brimming with grandmothers or a cheap rental car.

The Yukon sign

Getting to the Yukon in a rental car is remarkably simple with some stunning scenery along the way. Entry into Canada requires a passport and a drive through the aptly named White Pass. From there it is a short ride through British Columbia to the majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities lingering just behind the giant Yukon sign, welcoming you to an even more northwestern territory than the adjacent Northwest Territories.


Once you’ve got your land-based activities done, most ships pull into Glacier Bay National Park for scenic cruising of its namesake glaciers. Again, the natural splendor is sure to delight even the most jaded traveler, and it’s great to get a sense of the tremendous scale when other ships pass these cascading mountains of ice looking like sleek, white rubber duckies in comparison.


Col Fjord
College Fjord

While some ships turn around at this point, a sizeable fleet will make the crossing of the Gulf of Alaska and file their way into Prince William Sound and stunning College Fjord.  This waterway of ice floes and the telltale ripples of otters is home to an amazing array of glaciers, some nineteen in all, each bearing the name of an Ivy League school. Whether this has drawn the ire of less-prestigiously named glaciers in the area remains to be seen, but the overall effect is quite impressive. At the very least the whales, bears and bald eagles seem to like it.


It is at this point that guests must disembark at either Seward or Whittier for the trip to Anchorage or an excursion into the larger interior playground of Alaska. I’ll cover that in another article but for those considering a cruise, the following is some practical information you’ll find helpful, amusing or both.


Many people have accused Alaskan residents of being a bit quirky, to which I reply, “A bit?” Alaska has the distinction of being the only state where men outnumber women, leading to a clever saying devised by Alaskan women to describe their prospects: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” If you have trouble remembering it, don’t worry—you can always pick up a t-shirt emblazoned with the saying at one of the souvenir shops that follow you around. If at some point it feels like you’ve strayed into a lost episode of Northern Exposure, just embrace it as part of the cultural experience.


Another factor to consider are the costs involved. Prices are definitely higher than you’ll find in the lower 48. Put it this way: At one point I saw signs touting a $1.50 store—a near 50% increase over the 99 cents stores back home. Food and transportation costs too are higher than average. If it makes you feel any better, you can revel in the fact that by the time you pay off your credit card bill those same merchants will either be buried under snow, enveloped in darkness, and/or withstanding a 5000 below wind-chill.


Armed with this precursory information, should you venture to the northernmost, westernmost, and easternmost state in the union, you should be able to keep the crowds at bay and enjoy your time taking in the majesty of what is otherwise a very un-crowded place. And if there are still a little too many other people around as you heed the call of nature, at least you can shop your disappointment away in a souvenir shop—there’s sure to be one right around the corner. Just be sure and say hello to my grandmother while you’re there.