Alaska: Cruising the Inside Passage

In port, Vancouver, on board Radiance of the Seas

Looking to cruise the Inside Passage and make discoveries along the Alaskan Pacific Coast, picking the type of cruise experience needs to match your travel style. The first place to start is to decide on your vessel; is it a big ship cruise liner or a small ship adventure?

Once you’ve narrowed down some options; and price may have a lot to do with it (with many of the small ship adventures coming in with a hefty price tag), then deciding if you want a one way or return journey of the Inside Passage is next.

If you’ve settled on the big ship cruise experience, the journeys begin from Vancouver, Canada or Seattle, U.S.A and then some from San Francisco (or for a one way journey there’s also the cruise in the opposite direction).

So, what’s the difference with one way versus a return cruise?  It’s the distance covered; the one way trip makes it to Seward or Whittier, Alaska whereas a return trip can’t cover as much ground; the last port of call is Skagway, Alaska, and they don’t include Hubbard Glacier.

My experience was cruising on Radiance of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship, and it was the one way journey Vancouver to Seward. 

 #1 –  The Ship
Choosing a big ship experience from cruise line companies such as Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess Cruises is ideal if you prefer all the big ship comforts, and your ‘at sea’ experience is just as important as your land visits.

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

You enjoy variety on board; with dining, the activities, enjoying the ship’s solarium and pool facilities, evening shows, and an experience that lets you choose to do as little or as much as you want. And, when you’re cruising solo, chancing you’ll come across some other solos on board who may also be on the lookout for some company (with our annual Alaskan Cruise, it’s a solo travellers’ group, so this is already taken care of for you).

#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 – A Whale Of A Time

As part of the solo traveller group Alaskan Cruise package a highlight Whale Watching excursion with Icy Strait Whale Adventures is included.

Icy Strait Whale Adventures

It’s a small boat experience, and I think, a far more appealing option compared to the ship’s option on a big vessel. Your hosts, the Captain and crew are all descendants of the Hoonah Tlingit, Southeast’s first people and it’s a custom built whale watching vessel for a small group experience. You can stay inside or opt to view whales from the outdoor deck. All up, it’s about a three experience. Take your woollies, its one place where the wind is biting.

Also, a great reference for your visit to Icy Strait Point is their website promoting options for shore visits. It includes the details of their zip rider, or zip line as some call it; it’s the world’s largest zip rider. And, you can check out the Hoonah townwebsite.

#7 – 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. 

#8 – 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.

#9 – Hubbard Glacier; Why The One Way Cruise Is My Top Pick
The Hubbard Glacier visit 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.

#10 – Making Your Way to Anchorage, Alaska’s Capital
The final port was Seward, Alaska. You disembark, meet your transfer and for most passengers make your way to Alaska’s capital, Anchorage, having to allow at least two and half hours driving time. 

My top tip is to break up the transfer between port and Anchorage with a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. As you’re off the ship early it makes senses to add in a stop as hotel check in won’t be until 2 or 3pm in the afternoon.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

At the Center you can meet the locals; bison, reindeer, ox, black bears, lynx, grizzly bear, foxes, eagles, wolves and many more.

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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