Six Best Cruise Ports in Alaska, and What to Do When You Get There

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Cruise CompeteA cruise to Alaska allows you to trade in your hectic daily commute for a slice of calm.

This is a destination that speaks to visitors through its history, wild natural beauty, fresh seafood and the native culture of the Tlingit and Haida people. Most major cruise lines sail voyages on a regular circuit in Southeastern Alaska, and you can expect to find a good range of thrilling experiences in these top Alaska cruise ports that are most likely to appear on your itinerary.

Weeklong roundtrip Alaska cruises from Seattle or Vancouver will hit at least four of these ports.

Juneau

Alaska’s capital is a stop for almost all cruises sailing the Inside Passage.

Canoe paddling in Mendenhall Lake in Juneau.

 

What to Do: Juneau offers a lot of restaurants and bars to visit on your own close to port. The famous Red Dog Saloon is a popular stop. You can book a “Best of Juneau” tour that hits a lot of the highlights, including a whale-watching tour, visit to Mendenhall Glacier and fresh-caught salmon bake.

If you want a more active day, try a helicopter ride to a glacier field to try ice climbing or dog sledding. On my last visit, I enjoyed a canoe paddling adventure on Mendenhall Lake that brought us to the base of the waterfalls right next to the glacier.

Sitka

This sprawling city is located on the western part of Baranof Island, a true outdoors wonderland. Much of Sitka hugs the coast and offers stunning views of both the Pacific Ocean and snow-capped mountains. The friendly small-town nature of Sitka delights visitors, who can easily explore downtown and its pretty harbor in a matter of minutes before stopping at a restaurant for a signature spruce-tip beer.

The scenic harbor area in downtown Sitka.

What to Do: Get to Sitka National Historic Park. This 113-acre area is also known as Totem Park because of the dozens of native Tlingit totem poles interspersed amid the pines. This visitors center provides several artifacts, works of art and exhibits that explain Tlingit history and culture in the region.

Also, look for boat tours for whale-watching and nature hikes that feature bear spotting opportunities. You can also try guided kayak or bike tours if you like to be outdoors. The Sitka Historical Museum downtown offers information and displays highlighting the Russian and indigenous peoples’ influence on the city.

Skagway

Skagway is home to just more than 1,000 permanent residents. But this town, which owns a colorful heritage as a lawless territory during the height of the Yukon gold rush, bursts to life during the cruise season as more than 900,000 visitors descend upon its welcoming streets.

Visitors ride the White Pass “Scenic Summit” railway in Skagway.

What to Do: Just strolling the main road in Skagway and venturing down its quaint side streets is an enticing way to spend a few hours. You can find all sorts of shops, bars and restaurants with renovated facades that evoke the frontier and mining town spirit that still inhabits the town today.

The most-popular shore excursion in Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon Route railway “Scenic Summit” experience. This narrow-gauge train covers a scenic route into the mountains to see glaciers, waterfalls, tunnels and gorges. Some tours combine this trip with a historic city tour of Skagway.

Cruisers also can find numerous options for hiking and biking experiences along the Chilkoot Trail, as well as water adventures like rafting and jet boat outings. Got an independent spirit? Try the Lower Dewey Lake Trail. The trailhead is located very close to downtown, and this hike takes no more than a couple hours and offers incredible views over the marina.

Hoonah

Count yourself fortunate if you find this port on your itinerary. Located at Icy Strait Point off Chichagof Island, the cruise port offers a visit to a mostly Tlingit community that has carefully developed this tourist destination just outside the village of Hoonah in a way that accommodates tourists while preserving the heritage of the region.

The main facility at the pier is a converted and beautifully restored structure that used to be a salmon cannery, the Hoonah Packing Company.

Bear watching from a platform in Hoonah.

What to Do: The old cannery is now a large complex that features boutiques selling art and souvenirs. More than 20 tours are offered at this port. You can enjoy activities like Jeep and ATV outings, whale watching and wildlife hikes to look for bears. The island has the highest density of brown bears in Alaska. (There are safe viewing platforms that overlook pretty meadows; we saw four brown bears on our visit.)

Icy Strait Point offers a zipline ride with six lines that travel more than a mile and drop 1,330 feet from its starting point on Hoonah Mountain. The ZipRider reaches speeds of 60 mph. The property also features three restaurants, one with a large deck that overlooks the gorgeous bay.

Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm Fjord

Each cruise to Alaska will have at least one day of scenic cruising. This is a highlight and represents why cruising is the best way to experience this region of Alaska. The two best locations are Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Bay National Park.

Scenic cruising in Tracy Arm Fjord.

What to Do: You have a few options for how to enjoy this time spent onboard your cruise ship. Ideally, you have booked a cabin with a balcony. You can slide open your door, step onto your veranda and feel like you have walked into a landscape painting. You will have the chance to see eagles, Arctic terns, sea lions, porpoises and whales, as well as bobbing icebergs as you cruise along the pristine waterways.

This is a big day for photography, too, as passengers gather on the top decks to snap pics and listen to naturalists give talks about the geography, animals and history of the areas you are viewing.

I love to set up in a hot tub and order up an Alaskan Brewing Co. craft beer to soak in the surroundings that include snowcapped peaks, steep valley walls, waterfalls and glaciers, of course.

Ketchikan

This is the southernmost port in Alaska and is known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Ketchikan is an extremely busy cruise port that usually sees at least three ships at a time during the height of the season. The streets will be lined with cruisers wandering along shopping and dining at the numerous businesses along the main strip downtown and at Creek Street (a boardwalk on high stilts over a creek that runs with salmon).

Main Street in Ketchikan.

What to Do: You can join the crowds at popular attractions like the Lumberjack Show, Deer Mountain Hatchery and Eagle Center (salmon hatchery and eagle rehab facility) or the Totem Heritage Center.

Or maybe you want to explore the wilderness of the region by trying snorkeling, taking a float plane to Misty Fjords National Monument or booking a hiking, fishing or kayaking outing.


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