The deck of a cruise ship might not be the most obvious place to take in the wonders of the Last Frontier, but it's an enticing, accessible approach — even if you're an introvert or a landlubber.
There’s no better way to explore the stunning seascapes of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage than from the deck of a cruise ship. And with most ships departing from the north end of the waterfront before cruising past Vancouver Island up into the byways of the Alaskan panhandle, it’s an especially easy approach for Seattleites.
Even though I’m a landlubber who’s squeamish about being surrounded by nothing but ocean for days on end, this was the watery route I took. I’m also an introvert and couldn’t imagine being cooped up with 3,000 people on one vessel for an entire week (in this case, Celebrity Solstice), unable to escape constant noise and company. But after a close friend took the cruise for her fourth time, she convinced me that the most compelling reason to do it is the scenery.
With no roads connecting cities like Juneau and Ketchikan to the U.S. mainland, the approach to these towns is eye-opening from the sea. The landscapes easily rival the fjords of Norway. Alaska’s snow-covered mountains plunge straight down into narrow bays and massive glaciers in craggy valleys can be viewed up-close (though they are shrinking markedly).
Most cruise ships dock at four towns during a typical weeklong excursion through Alaska’s Inner Passage. Our first stop was Ketchikan. One of the rainiest places on Earth, it averages 153 inches of rainfall in a year. (We went in June, one of Alaska’s drier months.) It’s an old Western town that grew up around salmon fishing and the lumber industry. Since it’s perched on the edge of the largest temperate rain forest in the world, my husband and I went for a hiking excursion in the Tongass National Forest right after docking.
Fittingly, it rained as we trekked through the rain forest with a naturalist guide. Thanks to a packed-earth-and-gravel path and trees so thick they acted as umbrellas, mud wasn’t a problem. Along the way, the guide pointed out plants like skunk cabbage, dwarf dogwoods and Sitka spruce as well as an occasional mound of bear scat on the path. We didn’t see much wildlife on the 3.5-mile hike aside from a handful of deer grazing in a boggy field.
With a few hours left to wander Ketchikan after our hike, we ducked into the Tongass Historical Museum as well as Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, which is run by the Forest Service. The smaller city museum showcases old photos of Ketchikan’s pioneer days — of fishermen, loggers and town scenes from the turn of the 19th century. Today, tourist shops line the main streets of town, most of them jewelry and curio stores full of mass-produced souvenirs. A few of the shops did feature more unique crafts made by Alaska artisans.
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Back onboard the ship, we gawked at the snow-covered peaks of the coastal mountain range until late into the dusky evening. Even more startling was the sight of mini icebergs and chunks bobbing in the glacial waters the next morning. The captain woke everyone up at 6 a.m. with the announcement that we would spend the next few hours cruising through the Endicott Arm up to the edge of the Dawes Glacier.
Over the P.A. system, writer-naturalist Brent Nixon provided a running commentary on the inlets and glacial formations as we passed them. He punctuated his comments with passages from his journal describing a kayak excursion in the frigid waters of Endicott Arm and the adjacent Tracy Fjord. When the ship drew close enough for us to see the blue-ice fissures and crags of the Dawes Glacier, the captain turned the boat several times (he called it “doing doughnuts”) to give passengers close-up views and photo ops.
The scenery wowed us all the way to Juneau, where we joined an excursion to the famous Mendenhall Glacier at the edge of the Juneau Ice Field. At the visitor center, we watched a short film on the glacier’s formation before walking out to view it firsthand. From our vantage point, we had only an inkling of the glacier’s massive size and the deep blue tints that appeared in the newly-exposed ice each time a chunk broke off. To fully experience the glacier’s immensity, one would have to spring for a helicopter.
We opted instead to board a small whale-watching boat that took us deep into the waters of Stephens Passage. We saw six or seven humpback whales during the three-hour boat trip, most from a distance (a few did breach and slap their tails in graceful flukes).
Back on land, we had little time left to explore Alaska’s capital. Juneau is a compact town hemmed in by mountains and lakes, and it boasts the most unremarkable state Capitol in the entire U.S. A guide told us that close to 70 percent of the business in the towns we visited revolve around the jewelry market, and it did seem as if every other shop advertised gold and tanzanite jewelry.
The following day, the scenery grew ever more dramatic as we cruised through the Lynn Canal to the town of Skagway (population 920). Though the mountains lining both sides of the canal barely reach 4,000 feet in elevation, the craggy peaks are usually covered with snow and drop so precipitously into the sea that the contrasts are spellbinding. Such vistas constantly drew us to the ship’s huge picture windows — in the fitness room, in the Skyview Lounge, in the 12th-floor cafeteria — and to the track around the top deck. That day traversing the narrow channel into and out of Skagway was all the justification I needed for such a cruise.
Skagway plays up its pivotal role in the Klondike Gold Rush. The tiny town burgeoned in 1898 when the gold rush was at its height and “stampeders” (as prospectors were called) who traveled through the region numbered close to 100,000. Many of the prospectors took boats from Seattle to Skagway before hiking the perilous paths over the mountains (near White Pass) to the source of the Yukon River. Then they had to build rafts to float down the remaining 500-odd miles to the Klondike gold fields.
We paid for an excursion that included a bus ride up the winding road paralleling one of the paths the stampeders hiked. The sky was a pristine blue on our ascent into the mountains all the way up to White Pass. In the Canadian town of Fraser, we boarded an old narrow-gauge train that chugged slowly back down the rugged slopes, giving us even more jaw-dropping views around cliff faces and above the raging river that carved out the so-called Denver Valley.
Skagway had the usual collection of jewelry and curio shops catering to nearly 12,000 tourists who flood the town most days during summer. We had a couple of hours to wander around the old Western-style town and visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park museum. But Skagway was so inundated with day trippers that we sat for over an hour in a cafe waiting for a lunch that never came. We left in frustration to eat on the ship instead.
Enthralled by the dramatic land and seascapes as the boat pulled out of Skagway and drifted back down the Lynn Canal, we stayed up on deck gazing at the plunging mountains and inlets well into the evening.
The two full days at sea — one going out and one returning to Seattle — were tedious for me. I swam in the indoor pool early in the morning before it got crowded, took a yoga class both days and walked around the track when I wasn’t reading. While working out in the fitness room, my husband was lucky enough to see several pods of orcas frolicking and breaching frequently. Both days were dreary and overcast, which probably contributed to the sense of tedium. Yet we were fortunate not to have rough seas or sizable waves.
What I liked least about the long days at sea was the relentless Muzak that blared seemingly everywhere — from speakers in the cafeteria (even at 6 a.m., when we were eating breakfast), on the track of the ship’s top deck, in the fitness room, by the swimming pools. I found it ironic that while cruising through one of the last great wilderness areas in the U.S., we were hard-pressed to find any peace and quiet except in our cabin.
We did appreciate the variety of entertainment offered most evenings. There were comedians who did stand-up routines, thrilling performances by acrobats and dancers and a rock band that featured music from the 1980s. My husband attended a few of the lectures offered during the sea days — on orca whales, the ship’s construction and — of all things — “the last song played on the Titanic before the ship went down.”
We enjoyed getting to know the staff, who hailed from dozens of countries. Seeing the same employees every day, we talked at length to a sommelier from Ukraine, waiters from Indonesia and Vietnam, and our cabin attendant, who had just returned from a month’s home leave in India. Several employees told us that they worked for seven or eight straight months with only a few hours off to visit ports where they docked. We were amazed at how engaging and cheerful they were despite these long hours.
Our last stop in Victoria, British Columbia, was far too short. We arrived at 6 p.m. and had no time to explore the city or visit any shops, since most had closed for the day. Many passengers opted to eat in local restaurants, but we returned to the ship for dinner in a nearly empty dining room.
The food onboard was actually quite good, and the restaurants aimed to satisfy most hankerings, offering Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern buffets on certain days. For an extra fee, you could dine in one of the specialty restaurants that featured Italian, French and Asian cuisine. There were six restaurants onboard and they were packed most nights — with families, groups of friends and retirees with their relatives. Couples could always request a private table, which is what we did.
Long after the cruise ended, I’m left not with the minor complaints but with indelible images of the staggering scenery along Alaska’s southern waterways; I can’t imagine a better way to view those landscapes than from the deck of the ship.
If you go
Six major cruise lines sail from Seattle to Alaska: Celebrity, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, Holland America and Norwegian. (There are also several smaller lines.) Most cruises operate on 7-day itineraries similar to the one in this story, from April to the end of September.
Prices vary. A stateroom with a balcony on the Celebrity Solstice cost $2,700 for one person at the time of this trip. Three excursions cost an additional $300 per person. Less expensive cabins were also available (inside cabins started at $1,000). It’s wise to check out different cruise lines for promotions and discounts. We booked three months in advance, but some lines may offer discounted rates closer to the day of departure if they haven’t sold out.
More information and price comparisons: alaskacruises.com/cruises/alaska-cruises-from-seattle.php, cruises.com