Originally Published: February 14, 2008 7:21 p.m.
This is the season when travel plans are made for the year and it appears that many people are headed to Alaska. I truly didn't intend to write a three-part column about going to Alaska next summer because I thought that a double column would cover the subject pretty well. But the response to the past two columns about traveling to Alaska has been so overwhelming that it seems as though one more installment is in order. So for those of you who had questions about the ports you might be visiting on an Alaskan cruise and the types of shore excursions available, this one's for you.
Let's pretend you're sailing northbound from Vancouver on a seven-day cruise to Anchorage, a Voyage of the Glaciers, where Vancouver is your city of departure.
Vancouver. Canada's emerald jewel is a stunning spot. From downtown, you can see the Strait of Georgia's blue-green waters, glacial fjords and mountains capped with snow and covered in dense old-growth forest. In 2003, it was named the second best place in the world to live and it's easy to see why. It is a sophisticated city with excellent restaurants, entertainment and shopping that is beautifully located on the ocean. Please take the time to go in a day before your cruise leaves so that you can meander around Stanley Park, a wonderful 1,000-acre forest right in the middle of the city.
Victoria. A touch of England awaits: Afternoon tea, double-decker buses, the famed Butchart Gardens - a brilliant tapestry of color spread across 50 blooming acres. Try to see the totem poles at downtown Thunderbird Park, stroll through Beacon Hill Park and have afternoon tea at the famed Empress Hotel.
Ketchikan. The site of an ancient Tlingit fishing camp and a supply town during the gold rush, Ketchikan is only about three miles long and a few blocks deep and is literally a port town, with half of the city built into a mountainside thick with spruce and the other half built on stilts over the water. Explore Creek Street for shopping and then take the cable car to the top of the hill for the view. If the salmon are running you can rent a fishing pole just north of the Ketchikan Creek Bridge. A floatplane flight-seeing trip to breathtaking Misty Fjords National Monument is a transforming adventure not to be missed.
Sitka. The onion domes of St. Michael's Cathedral are your first clue that Sitka was once a Russian settlement - the colonial headquarters of Count Baranof, no less. Plan to be on deck when your ship sails into Sitka Sound. Particularly if it's a sunny day, the views of the town from the ship are beautiful. Explore Sitka's Russian history via a bus tour followed by a Russian dance performance, learn about eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center, or bike and hike through the area. Boat tours allow you to watch sea otters and other wildlife, experience a working salmon hatchery, enjoy sport fishing and watch whales.
Juneau. Perched on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek, surrounded by mountains, wooded valleys, ocean and massive glaciers, Juneau is often referred to as America's most beautiful capital city. A visit to the ruins of the Alaska-Juneau gold mine or the local salmon hatcheries makes for educational tours. Climb aboard the Mount Roberts Tramway for a great spot to hike and shoot a souvenir photo of your ship in port. Visit spectacular Mendenhall Glacier or get out and kayak, dogsled, raft, whale watch, flightsee or fish. If you have a chance stop at the touristy but fun Red Dog Saloon, but be sure to tip the piano player.
Skagway. Sitting amid the imposing St. Elias Mountains, Skagway stands as the gateway to the Klondike. In the late 1800's, Skagway once boasted a population of over 10,000, with another 20,000 gold prospectors who passed through en route to the Yukon, with a mandatory ton of supplies to be hauled with them over the steep and treacherous Trail of '98. You can still ride the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway up through silvery-purple rock faces, past Deadhorse Gulch, to see what it was like back then. (Sit on the left side of the train for best viewing.) There is a graveyard there that dates back to the 1800s and is worth the walk.
Glacier Bay/Hubbard Glacier. How does it feel when a monumental chunk of ice splits off a glacier and crashes into the sea? The sound is like thunder. The impact shoots water hundreds of feet into the air. You hold your breath and then you wait for it all to happen again. And it does. Glacier Bay has more actively calving tidewater glaciers than anyplace else in the world. At Hubbard Glacier come face to face with a gigantic wall of ice that fills your view and extends for miles in either direction, dwarfing even the largest ships. As you glide along this sparkling blue marvel, watch for seals basking on ice floes, listen for the loud, deep rumble and wait for the mighty crack and thunderous crash.
College Fjord. Some of the best glacier viewing in the state can be seen tucked into the northwest corner of Prince William Sound at College Fjord. Only one place in Alaska surrounds you on three sides with flowing rivers of ice. Winding down from mountains and through valleys and fjords, these massive rivers of ice are on the move.
Anchorage. Beautifully situated on Cook Inlet and surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, Anchorage is big-city Alaska, a hub of activity with everything from fine restaurants and frontier saloons to museums and art galleries. If you decide to extend your stay, there is plenty to do. Some of the more popular attractions include the Museum of History and the Alaska Native Heritage Center with its re-created Indian villages. If you have time, try to visit the Anchorage Saturday Market, ride the tram to the top of Mount Alyeska in Girdwood, watch for beluga whales along Turnagain Arm and feast on Alaskan king crab legs at the Glacier Brewhouse.
They say once you've been to Alaska, you never really come all the way back. The lore and legends of the North, mountains and moose, glaciers and whales, room service and music are all waiting for you. Is an Alaskan cruise an opportunity to visit beautiful and fascinating places? Of course. Is it a complicated destination? Definitely. Think seeing your travel agent for advice and assistance would be a good idea? You bet!
Mike & Leslie Ross are long-time owners of Kachina Travel Agency.