Thousands flock to the icy waters of Alaska every year in order to tick off an important bucket list trip – an Alaska cruise. I was one of those thousands just a few weeks ago when I joined the Holland America Line ship the Westerdam on a remarkable sailing from Anchorage to Vancouver. While there were many highlights onboard the ship and en route to our destinations, ultimately the individual ports of call formed the base of my most important experiences. While similar, each stop has its own quirks and features that make it unique, so today I thought I’d share what I enjoyed doing the most and what I think are fun ways to explore these Alaska cruise ports.
Since reaching Alaska from the East Coast isn’t a short travel day, like most passengers we arrived into Anchorage the day before the start of the cruise to make sure we arrived on time. Instead of killing time in the city before taking the 2-hour transfer to our embarkation point in Seward, I instead booked a fun alternative through Holland America – a day on the water exploring Kenai Fjords National Park. Adjacent to the cruise port in Seward, it was the ideal way to experience even more of Alaska’s beauty before joining the cruise. Named for the fjords carved by glaciers moving down from the ice fields, Kenai is one of the most accessible and visited national parks in the state. It’s home to at least 38 glaciers and an abundance of wildlife, all of which is seen on the daylong boat cruise around the park. The tour was seamless leaving from Anchorage and then transferring directly to the boat in Seward. Once onboard, the commentary and guiding by the staff was excellent with every attempt made to provide the packed vessel with an experience no one will soon forget. We cruised past massive glaciers, lounging seals and even caught sight of breaching whales. It was a fun first introduction to the beauty of Alaska and the ideal way to spend the day before embarkation.
Haines & Skagway
While it’s more common for cruise ships in this part of the state to dock in Skagway, many – like the Westerdam – dock in nearby Haines, which does have a certain charm of its own. I chose though to spend the day in Skagway, famous for its heritage look and feel as well as a certain train. Skagway grew to prominence when gold was discovered in the nearby Klondike region of Canada and the town swelled in size and importance overnight. It was then when the White Pass and Yukon train route was built to carry prospective miners from the town into Canada to reach the goldfields. The train actually continued until 1982 and while today it’s been revived as a scenic train ride, the look and feel of the gold rush era is very much alive. Using heritage train cars, the route goes through rugged and incredibly beautiful terrain, taking visitors into the Alaskan bush that they’ve never otherwise be able to experience. Afterwards I spent the afternoon exploring Skagway before taking the ferry back to Haines. Although I didn’t have a lot of time to experience Haines, the day spent in Skagway was fun and certainly unique.
The capital of Alaska, Juneau is definitely a quirky place. Thanks to nearby mountains and a glacier there’s no way to reach the city by land, only by air or sea and while it’s one of the nation’s smallest capitals in terms of population, it’s the largest in size. Wanting to take it a little easy, I booked a quick excursion out to see the famous Mendenhall glacier, followed by a trip on the Mount Roberts tramway. By that point on the cruise I had become used to seeing glaciers, a strange sight to become accustomed to really. But Mendenhall is just as incredible as the others I had seen and certainly one of the most accessible featuring a fantastic interpretative center and several easy hikes around the park. Returning to the heart of Juneau, I spent the afternoon wandering around, enjoying lunch, buying far too much fudge and eventually taking the tramway up to nearby Mount Roberts. Included in the excursion package, I’m glad I went up to the top for the incredible views, but the 30-minute wait to return to terra firma was an unexpected annoyance. If you take the tramway, try to time it so you’re not trapped on top with a few hundred other cruisers. Juneau though is an easy place to explore as well as enjoy, and the day spent there was a lot more interesting than I had imagined.
My favorite stop on the cruise, I fell in love with Ketchikan almost immediately, although I can’t tell you why; at least, not exactly. When the logging industry left the area, the town made the decision to develop its tourism infrastructure, building a cruise port and renovating the downtown core. While there are far too many diamond stores near the cruise port, once you walk a block or so away you start to discover the real town and what makes it so special. I was excited to visit though thanks to a very special excursion I had booked and one I couldn’t wait to join – a floatplane ride out to Neets Bay to look for bears. Before leaving for Alaska, someone told me that no matter what, to make sure that I saw Alaska from the air at least once, and boy were they right. Jumping into a floatplane, I was excited not just to enjoy this typically Alaskan form of transportation, but to see the region around Ketchikan from the air. The goal was to fly out to Neets Bay to visit a salmon hatchery and hopefully see some bears in the wild. While we never saw bears, the time spent flying over Alaska was alone worth the entire trip. Soaring over snow-capped peaks, mountain lakes and the massive Tongass National Forest, it was a plane ride that I know I’ll never forget. There’s a lot to see and do in Alaska, just make sure you heed the same advice I did and hop in a plane or helicopter to experience the enormity of the state in the best possible way.
The cruise ended in Vancouver, where the cruise port is conveniently located in the heart of the city. As it had been many years since I last visited this colorful city, I planned on spending a couple of nights in Vancouver so I could explore and enjoy everything it has to offer. Knowing that cruise ship disembarkation always takes place early in the day, I booked an excursion on my own that made getting around that day easy and fun. Landsea Tours operate a number of experiences in and around Vancouver, and I joined their special Post-Cruise Vancouver Delights Tour that picked me up from the cruise ship terminal. From there the small-group tour spent the day exploring the best of Vancouver from Stanley Park and Granville Island, to a generous amount of time at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Even better, the tour included drop-off at our hotel, meaning that the day was easy and convenient. It was the best way to disembark and experience the city, instead of schlepping to the hotel, dropping off bags and waiting until check-in time. The tour was also a fantastic reintroduction to Vancouver.
Any cruise will have a number of optional excursions, and that’s certainly the case on an Alaska cruise. In fact, I was a little overwhelmed by the amazing choices offered by Holland America in the Alaska cruise ports, knowing that none would be bad but that I simply didn’t have the time to do everything I wanted. Looking back at the trip now though, I think I chose a great selection of excursions, each one different from the others and providing a fantastic first experience in the 49th state.