The ultimate checklist for everyone’s bucket list cruise destination.
From the Arctic north to the Inside Passage, a trip to Alaska can take you from the depths of the wilderness to the peaks of mammoth glaciers, from surprisingly metropolitan cities to quirky small towns. Believe us when we say this place is big and there’s no way you can see everything in one trip, but the best way to get a sense of the state’s heritage and diversity is by taking an Alaskan cruise. Bookings for Alaskan cruises have skyrocketed over the last few years, with more and more cruise lines offering more and more itineraries that take you to several quintessential Alaskan towns and national parks.This fall, I traveled with Princess Cruises on the Star Princess, a two-week journey that took me from Anchorage to Vancouver, with stops in Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan (and an extended detour to Denali National Park along the way). Here’s a checklist of everything you need to do to have a true, once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan experience.
Reserve a Balcony Room
It’s no Caribbean vacation, of course, but the weather during cruise season here (May through September) is actually quite nice. June and July give you nearly 20 hours of daylight, and temperatures can often reach the 80s. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the sunny views of Yakutat Bay and Glacier Bay National Park on your cruise is to spring for a balcony room. There’s nothing quite like watching the magnificence of Hubbard Glacier and Margerie Glacier, some of the largest glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, while on your own private balcony. It’s also a much more comfortable way to watch for calving—that’s the thunderous process of large chunks of glaciers falling off into the ocean.
Due to National Park regulations, cruise ships are only allowed to get within a certain distance of the glaciers, and while that’s enough for some amazing photographs, it still doesn’t quite capture the true size of these magnificent formations. Be sure to pack a pair of binoculars so you can get an up-close look at all their nooks and crannies. Binoculars are also helpful to have for wildlife spotting; seals and otters are often in the waters around the ship, swimming or lounging on ice floes, but can look like small black dots without binoculars.
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Explore the Small Towns
Most cruise lines stop at several small towns and cities along the Inside Passage, all of which offer great excursions for your time off-board the ship. But sometimes the best choice is to keep your afternoon open and explore the towns on your own. I stopped at three ports in all: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, and all three offered a unique glimpse into different parts of Alaska’s fascinating history. Skagway is a former Gold Rush boomtown that still gives off a very Wild West vibe; Juneau is a low-key capital city with plenty of cute cafés and boutique shops; and Ketchikan is a vibrant fishing community with a strong Native Alaskan culture. Even if there are excursions at these ports you don’t want to miss, it’s worth it to set aside some time while the ship’s in port to walk around these fascinating little communities and see how real Alaskans live.
Experience Denali National Park
Due to its location quite north of the coast, a visit to Alaska’s most popular attraction, Denali National Park, isn’t included in your standard cruise itinerary. But a once-in-a-lifetime trip still warrants a visit to one of the country’s most awe-inspiring National Parks, so if you can, schedule your flight a little earlier or later than your cruise departure/arrival and check out the park on your own. Princess Cruises also offers a two-week cruise tour itinerary, where one week of your trip is spent traveling by motorcoach to Denali State and National Parks (stopping in the charming town of Talkeetna on the way). Additional excursions and outdoor adventures are offered each day to make sure you make the most of the park’s unique desert tundra.
Trek a Glacier
Once you’ve spotted enough glaciers from afar, you’re going to want to get up-close and personal. With Princess Cruises, you’ll find glacier trek options at both Skagway and Juneau, exploring the surfaces of Glacier Point and Mendenhall Glacier, respectively (with additional opportunities if you opt for the Denali land option). Strap on your crampons and get ready to explore one of the most unique environments on the planet, from the icy blue deep crevasses to the otherworldly spires of ice.
INSIDER TIPMany of these excursions involve a plane or helicopter ride taking you to the glaciers. It’s a very fun way to arrive, but temperamental Alaskan weather means they don’t always go off as planned (anything from early morning fog to high wind speeds can cause cancellations). To ensure you get your chance to walk on a glacier, either book an excursion that doesn’t involve a flight (you can even reach Mendenhall Glacier via canoe) or sign up for a trip later in the day, when it’s more likely the morning fog has lifted.
Get Serious About Wildlife Spotting
If you play your cards right, an Alaskan cruise is the perfect time to spot the Alaskan Big 5: moose, bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and gray wolves (especially if you opt for the land portion that involves a trip to Denali National Park). There are also plenty of options to see Orca whales, dolphins, seals, humpback whales, and bald eagles. Wildlife spotting is better in the summer, but you can still see some awesome animals in September and beyond. Whales and dolphins are often swimming alongside cruise ships, while otters and seals are usually hanging out on ice floes. Bald eagles are quite literally everywhere, so keep your eyes open. Moose and bears can be a little trickier, but your best option is a hike or tour through Denali. If you want to guarantee a sighting, be sure to book an excursion like a whale-watching adventure in Juneau or a tour through grizzly bear country in Ketchikan.
Book a Hotel
Visit a Sled Dog Camp
Another popular shore excursion, Skagway and Juneau are home to some of the state’s most prestigious young learners: sled dog puppies. Come meet the dogs training to be future Iditarod champions and try out mushing yourself (even without snow on the ground, it’s really fun). And then of course meet and cuddle with the puppies, and try your hardest not to sneak them back on the ship with you.
Sign up for the On-Board Chef’s Table
Cruise ship cuisine has improved significantly in recent years, with most cruise lines offering several specialty options ranging from fancy steakhouses to gourmet Italian bistros. But to get a taste of the best of the on-board dining scene, reserve a spot at the on-board Chef’s Table dinner, a multi-course foodie feast (paired with wines) that also gives you a peek into the ship’s galley and a chance to meet and chat with the ship’s head chef.
Appreciate the Great Outdoors
Alaska is, of course, an outdoor adventure wonderland, and each port of call offers plenty for those who want to stay active on vacation. Hike the famous Gold Rush-era Chilkoot Trail in Skagway, kayak to the banks of the Mendenhall Glacier, zipline through the rainforests near Ketchikan, or snorkel the calm waters of Mountain Point, southeast Alaska’s prime snorkeling destination. Less active outdoor adventures also await, from riding the rail to the Klondike Summit in Skagway to sailing into the gorgeous Misty Fjords National Monument to riding a Zodiac from Saxman Native Village through Nichols Passage in Ketchikan.
Sip Some Alaskan Brews
As with the rest of the United States, craft brewing has seen a huge spike in popularity in Alaska. Breweries like Denali Brewing Co., Alaskan Brewing Co., and 49th State Brewing have popped up in recent years, with the one caveat being that you can’t find their beers anywhere else in the lower 48. So get your Alaskan brews while you can; most cruises have drink menus that are heavy on the local brews so be sure to taste a classic Alaskan Amber before you disembark.
Get a Bird’s Eye View
The landscape in this part of Alaska covers miles upon miles of glaciers and wilderness, so often the best way to see as much as possible is by booking a flight excursion. A classic Alaskan mode of transportation, the sea plane, takes you up-close to gorgeous sights like Misty Fjords National Monument while helicopters help you arrive for a trek on Mendenhall Glacier. If your trip includes Denali National Park, many small plane and helicopter tours will take you to the peaks of Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America.
Go Fishing (for Your Own Dinner)
The highlight of Alaskan cuisine is undeniably the seafood (although Alaskan blueberries do put up a mean fight in the race), and an Alaskan cruise is the perfect chance to savor all the salmon, king crabs, and halibut you can. You can also try fishing yourself, with plenty of ports of call offering excursions that put you on the open sea. Ketchikan is known as the sportfishing capital of Alaska, with some of the best salmon fishing in the entire world. Several excursions offered by Princess Cruises also have a “Cook My Catch” option, where anything you catch during your fishing trip will be cooked and served to you on-board later that day.