Alaska by Sea and Land
Cruising with Travel Journalist Bob Bone
With visions of glaciers, eagles, and bears dancing in their heads, many travelers are doubtless dreaming about an Alaska cruise this summer.
Over the last half-century, the June, July or August sea voyage along the calm, protected waters of the Inside Passage has been a prime cultural experience for widows, retired couples and families.
The word "Alaska," means "the Great Land," in the Aleut language. And these days, a cruise there can be a greater adventure than in years past, and one that also appeals to a wider demographic than the stereotypical bingo-playing, buffet-line cruiser.
Alaska residents tend to divide the state into two sections, usually referring to them as "Southeast," the narrow panhandle, and "Central," that great, seemingly mysterious land mass in the far north. It is also often respectfully referred to as "the Interior."
There is no practical land connection between the two regions of the state, and the economics of the business keep many cruise ships from making the long trip to ports in the larger portion. Many have kept their itineraries strictly to the reliable Inside Passage.
I have been exploring Alaska off and on since the 1980s, and it’s true that cruises limited to Southeast do give plenty of rewards. Besides the magnificent glaciers, mountains and other wonderful scenery, there are the Tlingit and other Indian cultural experiences in Ketchikan, the historical sights of Sitka and Skagway, the pioneer-flavored state capital of Juneau and, on occasion, even some wildlife sightings. These can include bald eagles, whales and perhaps a grizzly bear or two lumbering along the shoreline.
But the Alaska experience can be more than that. A few companies have set up special cruise-tour packages combining both land and sea elements into a one comprehensive itinerary -- one that encompasses premier experiences such as history-rich Fairbanks, and the attractions of Denali National Park in the Central part of the state.
Several companies provide well-organized cruises in Alaska. Two in particular have specialized in launching combination land-and-sea tours. They are Holland America Line and Princess Cruises.
Both have massive infrastructures providing solid support for the land tour elements. They operate their own hotels, lodges, restaurants and other facilities in the state. Sometimes other respected cruise lines like Crystal, Norwegian, and others contract with HAL and Princess for specific land operations tailored to serve their own cruise passengers.
On two occasions, we enjoyed a Holland-America land-and-sea experience. Eventually we signed on to one of the escorted cruise-tour programs offered by Princess and found it also a winner. Similar offerings no doubt will be repeated this summer.
When choosing between taking the cruise portion first or the land-tour first, we would opt again for the latter. In the land excursion, you tend to mix more closely with some of your fellow passengers on escorted tours. New friendships made on the connecting buses and trains might be cemented by the time you board the ship for the second part of the adventure.
Our late experience began with a flight to Fairbanks to begin Princess' four-day land tour before a seven-day cruise. We'd take at least one change of summer clothing, by the way. Fairbanks, known for 50-below-zero winters, can be 90 or above during midsummer, at least while the sun is up. (One July we had a rental car in Fairbanks, and we used the air conditioner during the day and the heater at night!)
There's plenty to do in a town that still reflects its 19th-century gold rush heritage. Check out the massive Gold Dredge No. 8 and the stern-wheeler day cruise on the Chena and Tenana rivers. The latter will also take you on a stop where you can learn about Athabascan Indians, fur tanning and dog mushing.
From Fairbanks we continued by train in special Princess Cruises glass-domed cars attached to the Alaska Railroad to reach Denali National Park. Denali is the native word for Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. Wildlife tours often offer close-up views of brown bears, moose, deer, wolves and other animals. We stayed at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, and then a bus ride the following day took us to the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Both were comfortable and featured plenty of Far North atmosphere.
Several optional day tours are offered from both these lodges. You can pan for gold, for example, or travel on a jet boat along a shallow river. We generally choose wildlife tours, and this trip we were rewarded with sightings of eagles, bears, moose and other creatures. On another occasion we took an air tour at Denali to get dramatic views of the massive mountain.
The next day, after a visit to the funky village of Talkeetna, we again enjoyed the special rail cars, taking in the sights pointed out to us en route. The terminus is the coastline village of Whittier, just south of Anchorage, where we boarded our ship. After a day when the ship explored glaciers and other sights of nearby College Fiord, we set sail for Southeast Alaska.
The ship had about everything we want in a cruise ship: good food, plenty of passenger activities, professional entertainment and even enrichment classes in a variety of subjects. Our stateroom sported a balcony, all the better to enjoy sightings of glaciers, whales, sea otters and other sights. We would sometimes enjoy these things while still in our pajamas.
Regardless of all the shipboard hoopla, the prime rewards of a Southeast Alaska cruise are the attractions on the port calls. One of the best is Skagway. If the gold rush prospectors of 1898 would return to Skagway of 2013, they would still find their way around town. Much of the town is maintained as a living museum by the National Park Service.
One popular choice is the White Pass & Yukon Railroad day trip into the mountains of British Columbia and back. This time, however, we took a ferryboat from Skagway across the Lynn Canal to Haines, for a day of eagle and bear watching.
Farther down the coast, our ship nudged through floating ice in Glacier Bay to view some of Alaska's most famous frozen rivers and even watch while they "calved" -- the dramatic effect when large sections of the icy cliffs fall noisily into the water.
Next there was Juneau, the rustic-looking center of state government since 1906. Some of Juneau's streets are not exactly drivable. They are wooden staircases on steep hills. Optional helicopter tours land passengers on the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside town.
Other air trips travel to scenic spots where "bear sightings are not guaranteed." We are never put off by statements like that. When it comes to wildlife viewing, you're not likely to find anything unless you take a chance. In fact, we generally look for the tour described with that kind of disclaimer, and we are seldom disappointed.
Some cruises also take in Sitka, the old Russian capital of Alaska. Our ship made its last Alaskan port call at Ketchikan, known as the City of Totems. Most passengers chose tours that featured the culture of the Tlingit Indians who still carve the totem poles of their ancestors. Another popular stop in Ketchikan is Creek Street, where houses and shops seem to teeter along an elevated boardwalk above a small salmon stream.
Like most southbound Alaska cruises, passengers on our ship, the Coral Princess, disembarked at the Canadian city of Vancouver, capital of British Columbia. We've visited Vancouver many times and always look forward to seeing it again.
But plan your Alaska cruise carefully. Traditionally, cruise ships begin their Alaska cruises by sailing north from Vancouver, although some now sail from Seattle. A few begin and/or end in San Francisco, but these might not include a land tour component. All are viable ports to begin or end a great Alaska cruise, especially one that also includes the greater portion of the Great Land.
Travel writer Robert W. Bone, the author of several travel guidebooks, maintains web sites at http://robertbone.com and http://travelpieces.com, plus a blog at http://bonevoyage.us. He lives near San Francisco. (Additional photos may be seen at http://robertbone.com/alaskacruise.