Although it is rarely represented properly on a U.S. map, Alaska looms large over North America – it’s actually twice the size of Texas. For the traveler, this means you could spend months exploring “The Last Frontier”—mountain climbing in Denali National Park, biking in Fairbanks, fishing for Sockeye, and exploring Juneau, the state capital. With a coastline longer than all other states combined, many people choose to cruise Alaska on their first visit in order to cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time.
Home to Mt. McKinley (North America’s highest peak), massive fjords, glaciers the size of Rhode Island, the northernmost rain forest, and the treacherous Chilkoot Trail, Alaska combines geography, earth science, and history lessons all rolled up in one unique vacation. An Alaskan cruise usually means a trip through the Inside Passage—the coastal route that weaves through the thousands of islands, coves, and bays that dot the Pacific Coast.
We chose a one-week cruise with Regent in order to minimize days at sea and also to make time for both a pre- and a post-trip. And, a smaller ship allowed for more stops and excursions. Before flying to Anchorage and embarking on our cruise in Seward, we spent several days in Seattle, which I covered in previous posts, “Seattle Top Spots” and “Four Days in Seattle.”
At the conclusion of our cruise, we spent a few days in Vancouver (the subject of my “Canada’s Outdoorsy Urban Oasis” post). Many cruise lines follow this same route, from Northwest to Southeast and in reverse. Other ships embark from Seattle and can last 10 to 14 days. To take advantage of the most outdoor activities, the best time to cruise Alaska is summertime, when days are longest and temperatures are warmest. But, definitely pack lots of layers, a waterproof jacket, boots, hats and gloves, because the weather can change rapidly.
Our days were exciting and included a JetCat Sitka wildlife tour, a scenic helicopter tour, a hike through Juneau’s rain forest and a walk to Mendenhall Glacier, and a trip back in time at the Skagway Gold Rush Museum. Our ship offered a wide range of active excursions: kayaking, biking, and dog sled adventures. In the summer, the fog can roll in quickly, so excursions can be cancelled at a moment’s notice, so backup plans are necessary.
Early one morning, we gathered on deck to watch as the ship approached one of the highlights of the cruise—Hubbard Glacier. This “river of ice” measures 76 miles long and 7 miles wide and it is the state’s most active glacier. It is very common to see sheets of ice separate themselves from the glacier, and crash into the sea with a loud crack that can be heard for miles. These pieces, christened icebergs, filled the bay and we watched in awe as these icy-blue splendors floated past the ship.
The one-week cruise made stops in several ports: Seward, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan (covered in my post “Fish & Feast”). The scenery and wildlife viewing in between ports was equally magnificent and kept us up on deck with camera and binoculars in hand as we scanned the horizon for humpback whales and porpoises.
Although this was a long journey, we look back on our visit to the 49th state grateful for our eye-opening experiences and reassured that the wilderness does still exist. And, even though Alaska is so large and so far away, upon our return, we felt a little bit closer to it.
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