Answer the call of the wild in Alaska. The Last Frontier is as vast as it is beautiful, snow-capped and evergreen, with a sense of wilderness that makes a cruise here feel like an epic adventure. This is the epitome of the great outdoors. A place for the adventurer, the wildlife obsessed, the inquisitive and the intrepid. Little wonder then that a cruise to Alaska sits on the bucket list of so many a cruiser.
Not much has changed in Alaska in the last million or so years, the air is still as fresh and the landscape still as immense, all 47,000 square miles of it. You could spend years exploring and still not see half of what America’s 49th state has to offer, but a cruise to Alaska ticks off the highlights. In fact, few itineraries cram so much into your time away; any given day could see you delightfully lost in Denali National Park, fly-fishing for salmon in a choice of 3,000 rivers, mushing with malamutes, entertained by lumberjacks or drifting over millennia-old glaciers by seaplane. This isn’t your ordinary holiday.
Alaskan scenery stops you in your tracks, all grey peaks and forests in a green that never seems to dull. Some of the world’s rarest wildlife carries on regardless of your presence, bears on Kodiak Island unbothered and whales in the south east carefree as they come within touching distance of your boat. Look up and the chances are you’ll eventually see an eagle soaring, look out over the landscape of the many national parks and there’ll likely be a moose or two meandering entirely undisturbed.
When National Geographic describes a train journey as the best in the world, you know it’s going to be good. The Rocky Mountaineer snakes through the heart of the Canadian Rockies, dipping into alpine towns and skirting past glacial lakes and whitewater rivers. Start or end your cruise to Alaska by climbing aboard one of the most iconic trains in history, trundling along the historic Canadian Pacific Highway in absolute luxury. Don’t forget your camera; the views from this train are something else.
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The port of Juneau is inaccessible by road but that’s by-the-by; arriving by ship is a far more exciting proposition anyway. Revolving entirely around the natural beauty that is the Gastineau Channel, the Alaskan capital is a city full of life. Western city life meets intrigued local tradition, meaning a to-do list that’s inexhaustible for anyone stopping by on an Alaska cruise.
Juneau is a place to embrace your inner adventurer. Strap into a sea kayak bound for a bay or swap your usual drive-in cinema for a drive-up glacier viewing. Let the huskies lead the way on a sled-seeing excursion or see the scenery from above by helicopter. Alternatively, let the Taku River become your runway, taking flight to the Taku Glacier Lodge.
Mendenhall Glacier is a highlight of any cruise to Alaska, an icy giant of a backdrop suspended just beyond the city. Hit the hiking trails or make yourself comfortable for an afternoon of whale watching, before sampling the infamous salmon bake at the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. And for only the brave, white water rafting at the foot of a glacial behemoth isn’t an experience forgotten in a hurry. With long days in port in Juneau, there’s plenty of time to dry off before one last visit to the historic downtown district.
Arriving in Skagway feels a lot like venturing back in time. After all, this is the ‘Gateway to the Klondike’, heart and home of the Alaskan gold rush, destination for treasure hunters from around the world in 1897. Time travel in the same saloons that once rounded off a busy day’s panning for gold, raising a tankard to your own discoveries that day.
Skagway is one of the most popular ports of call on an Alaska cruise, past and present meeting with untamed natural beauty. Nowhere else on earth can you spend the morning making the most of your luggage allowance on America’s best known brands, then the afternoon ambling along the White Pass trails and Yukon Railroad, past glaciers, gorges and waterfalls to the Klondike Highway Summit. You can even head back down to lower ground by mountain bike or dog sled, if you wish.
Were the title of ‘Salmon Capital of the World’ not enough, Ketchikan offers plenty more besides its fishy credentials. Dotted at the base of Deer Mountain, with a downtown area that slips effortlessly between forest and water, the sweet old city negotiated by boardwalks and wooden staircases is a stunner.
There are more totem poles in Ketchikan than anywhere else in the world, rainbow posts tall in stature and deep in history. The Totem Heritage Centre offers great insight into the ancestry behind them, whilst continuing to salvage and restore the monumental carvings to their former glory.
When Ketchikan locals aren’t welcoming you with open arms, they’re inviting you onto their boats for fishing expeditions in the Tongass Narrows and onto their walking tours of Deer Mountain, a naturalist’s paradise criss-crossed with trails. Take in views across the city – and a breaths of clean air like only Alaska knows how – before dropping into the Hatchery for an insight into the destination’s salmon-rearing culture. Seafood is a real theme round these parts, whether eaten on a catch-and-cook fishing trip or as a crab feast after a horse and carriage tour of town.
Finally, there’s Misty Fjord. The nation’s second-largest wilderness is vast but rather than letting it phase you, use it as justification for chartering a seaplane to take in as much of it as possible. The experience of stepping out onto the plane’s float after a water landing is worth it.
Set right there on the waters of the Inside Passage is Sitka, the Alaskan port where jagged mountains, towering volcano and the world’s largest temperate rainforest vie for the attention of your camera.
Everyone from the Tlingit Indian Tribe to the Russian tsars have sought to lay claim on this slither of scenic land over the years and who can blame them; accessible only by air and sea, it is Alaskan wilderness at its most spectacular. All eyes are on the wildlife here, whether that’s the humpback whales who make the waters around Sitka their feeding ground, the orphaned brown bear cubs at Silver Bay rescue facility or the catamaran trip to Sea Otter Quest, where sea otters, harbour seals, sea lions and the Blacktail Deer reside.
Ancient and enormous at 17 million acres, Tongass National Forest houses trees as old as America itself. Wild and untamed, the 1,000-year-old landscape is home to the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world.
Whittier has a small town feel with a big heart. There aren’t many residents here, four or five hundred tops, but what the lesser-visited port at the edge of Prince William Sound lacks in population it makes up for in personality. Utterly tranquil, this enclave of glassy waters and still rainforest is a nirvana-like gateway to other Alaskan ports, the perfect starting point for a week or two of pinch-me-I’m-dreaming adventure.
While quaint on first impression, time in Whittier unfolds to reveal some real diamonds of Alaskan landscape. Reached by high-speed catamaran, a sprinkling of 26 icy glaciers dot the water 140 miles into Prince William Sound like silver stars in a black night sky. Seeing them, and the wildlife that calls them home, is unforgettable.