Alaska: Cruising the Inside Passage

In port, Vancouver, Royal Caribbean

Embarking on an exploration of the Inside Passage along the rugged Alaskan Pacific Coast is a journey laden with discoveries in waiting. One of the first pivotal decision awaits: choosing the vessel that will be your floating haven amidst the breath taking landscapes. Will it be the grandeur of a leading cruise liner or the intimate charm of a small ship adventure?

The considerations are vast, and while budgetary constraints may play a role in deciding (boutique small ship cruising comes at a price), the choice extends beyond mere finances. 

For those drawn to the allure of colossal cruise liners, the embarkation points of Vancouver, Canada, and Seattle, U.S.A beckon. Alternatively, some journeys commence from the picturesque San Francisco, offering an extra layer of diversity. 

Allow me to share my personal odyssey navigating the Alaskan waters aboard the Radiance of the Seas, a majestic vessel under the Royal Caribbean banner. Join me as I recount the unforgettable journey from Vancouver, where every wave carried a tale of adventure and the Alaskan wilderness unfurled its majesty before our eyes.

 #1 –  The Ship

Vancouver, Radiance of the Seas
On board Radiance of the Seas, in port, Vancouver, Canada

Picture yourself in Vancouver, ready to board. As you step on board, the allure of this floating paradise becomes evident, accentuated by the panoramic views of the Canadian coastline. Whether you revel in diverse culinary delights, partake in a myriad of activities, bask in the serene ambiance of the ship's solarium and pool facilities, or lose yourself in the captivating evening shows, the big ship experience is tailored to cater to your every desire. Onboard, the freedom to chart your course—whether indulging in a leisurely pace or seizing every opportunity for adventure—is yours to savour. The camaraderie of fellow solo travellers awaits, fostering connections and shared moments that elevate your Alaskan Cruise experience. 

#2 – You Say Float Planes, We Say Sea Planes

The islands of Alaska were the biggest surprise. I never imagined how immense this network of islands would be, and just how important float planes, or what we call sea planes are to their way of life.  Float planes were taking off and landing by the minutes; it was fun just watching this, something so different to life back home.

Taquan Air, Alaska
Spirit of Alaska Tours with Taquan Air

Float plane experiences are options from the port stops of Ketchikan and Juneau.  I went with Taquan Air, in Ketchikan, booked via the ship. It was an easy transfer from port, to the nearby runway (on the water).  The float plane experience was one of my trip highlights. It seemed exceptional value, when I compared it to our prices for sea plane rides out of Sydney. The flying time was about 20 minutes in each direction.  Had I’d have known how much I’d love the ‘up in the air’ experience,  I’d opt for something longer next time like a Misty Fjords two hour experience.

And, if you like the idea of the sea plane, it’s an option while you are in Vancouver. Harbour Air Sea Planes from Vancouver have a big line to choose from and at reasonable prices. Plus there’s the option to visit Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island with their Victoria Day Trip that includes Butchart Gardens.

#3 – Bears? Where?

Ketchikan, as does Juneau, has the reputation of the salmon, salmon fishing and the bears that go with the salmon. It was long time dream to see those wild bears catching their salmon.

Bears, Neet Bay
At Neets Bay. Photo Credit: I did not see a bear.

I booked the float plane with bears visit excursion. I was fairly warned that seeing the bears couldn’t be guaranteed; and I had prepared myself for this possibility. Alas, it was the case, I didn’t see any bears. However, I’d never discourage anyone else from giving it a go; it’s not likely you’ll be back soon, the float plane to get there and back was fabulous, and everyone else I ask that has done this excursion did see bears – it was just an unlucky day, but no regrets.

#4  - Tourist Town

There’s a slight oddness to some of the ports you pull into because of what I’d describe as ‘pop-up’ summer shopping.  The demand from the cruise ships from their short summer cruising season has created it.  

For shoppers, and cruise goers satisfied with leisurely shore visits it makes for an easy way to take a stroll, maybe stop off for a snack or lunch at a local. If you’re not so impressed by shopping, it’s easy to avoid. Whether you book a shore excursion from the ship or make arrangements direct with local operators; you’ll by pass the strip of shops.

#5 – DIY Excursions

You can expect the ports to have vendors waiting, promoting shore visit tours and activities when your ship docks. As it goes for all excursions with Royal Caribbean; book through the ship’s shore excursions desk and you get guaranteed that the operator will get you back in time for the ship’s embarkation time, but the ship won’t honour this if you don’t book through them.

Here’s a list of some options if you want to check out some operators. Booking directly won’t necessarily mean that it’s cheaper than the ships prices. However visiting their websites means you can get a more in depth understanding of their excursions before you cruise and it makes a much easier to choose, as there are so many options it can be overwhelming.


#6 – Sweet Juneau

Junea is pretty. It’s a sweet setting with the mountains behind the town. It’s also home to the infamous ‘Red Dog Saloon’

Red Dog Saloon, Junea, Alaska

She’s got herself quite a reputation and it seemed plenty of cruise ship passengers, also had the same idea about a visit.  Dating back to the mining time era, her style reflects her history, decked out in lots of relics of the past.  The menu is distinctly North American with the likes of potato skins, crab cakes, chicken tenders, clams, chili cheese fries and of course a big line up of burgers.

She’s become so famous there’s souvenirs you can purchase too.

But, if hanging around town is not your cup of tea, it’s Mendenhall Glacier that’s the talk of the town and the highlight experience recommended by Royal Caribbean, with touring options including a visit by land, either by vehicle or a hike, or otherwise by water or air. 

#7 – The ‘Must Do’ from Skagway
Skagway, the last port of call before reaching Seward, with a winter population of just around 1000 people, hosts over 900,000 visitors across their summer season.

Tipped as the ‘must do’ is the White Pass Scenic Railway. If you are up for this excursion, there are limited places. It’s wise to book early. There’s the leisurely option of just the rail journey or if you like to throw in some exercise, mix it up with the train then a bike ride or make it a one way train journey and coach tour back to Skagway.

Skagway, Alaska
Main Street, Skagway, Alaska

But Skagway is not just about the railway. From the quaint township, you can also choose hiking trips, rafting, a jeep adventure, dog sledding, walking tours of town, and more.

#8 – A Glacier; a Unique Alaskan Experience

My cruise trip included the Hubbard Glacier and it was an afterthought for me. I’d paid little mind to it but as it turns out it was a close call between this and the float plan ride for my top highlight.  I couldn’t have known that a block of ice could captivate and impress me so much. I’d compare how I felt about this with how I felt about visiting Uluru and how it left me in awe of her grandeur.

Hubbard Glacier
Photo: Royal Caribbean website, Hubbard Glacier

Our ship’s captain did an amazing job of making sure all sides of the ship were exposed to see her true thundering beauty as we witnessed ice dramatically shed from the glacier, crashing into the water.

Tip: this is definitely jacket, beanie and gloves territory if you plan on being on deck for the visit.

The best part of choosing a seven night cruise is that you get a varied insight into Alaska, getting a much better sense of what appeals to you. With this experience behind you, it would be amazing to return some day for an in depth discovery of Alaska by land.

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About the author

Justine Waddington

Justine Waddington is the founder and director of Encounter Travel, a company that creates holiday groups exclusively for solo travellers. As a solo traveller with 60 countries under her belt and 15 years of arranging travel groups, Justine is in the unique position of being able to offer tips and advice from the perspective of an experienced solo traveller and also that of a travel agent.

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