To introduce cruise travelers to the Alaskan interior, several cruise lines organize cruise tours: three- to eight-night land extensions available before or after one-way Alaska cruises. Cruise tours offer a broader look at this rugged state, from the wildlife and glaciers of the Kenai Peninsula to the clouded peak of Mount Denali and all the way up to Fairbanks, the northernmost big city in Alaska. Offered by lines like Holland America, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean, these coach-and-rail tours let cruisers go places that cruise ships cannot take them.
Choosing the right cruise tour can be even trickier than choosing the perfect Alaska cruise. Not only do travelers need to choose the cruise line whose ship style suits them best, but each line handles its tours differently -- including meals or not, offering the services of a tour director or just a driver-guide and sponsoring different activities.
Plus, the land tour itineraries are much more varied than the cruise portion of the vacation. Whereas most Alaska cruises hit the popular ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan with some minor differences, each tour offers a vastly different combination of inland destinations and amounts of time spent in each place. You might have heard of Denali National Park and Anchorage, but is it worth your while to spend time in towns you've never heard of, such as Girdwood or Talkeetna?
To whet your appetite for Alaska's secret (and some not-so-secret) charms, check out this photographic journey through popular cruise tour destinations in Alaska.
Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, has its share of souvenir shops selling Alaska T-shirts and ulu knives (round-bladed instruments patterned after native utensils). But duck down a side street, and it oozes a Pacific Northwest hipster vibe with galleries proffering original paintings and organic, silk-screened T-shirts and coffee shops serving up monster breakfasts and spicy hot chocolate. The city even gets a bit high-brow with the fabulous Anchorage Museum, which partners with the venerable Smithsonian to display native Alaskan cultural artifacts and modern art as indecipherable as moose tracks after a heavy snow.
Nestled between the Chugach Mountains and the ocean, Anchorage is ideally situated for outdoor play. On Flattop Mountain, blueberry-pickers, trail-runners, dog-walkers and even the occasional moose test themselves against the steep climb to the summit (or linger on the gentler bottom slopes). In the city center, bikers, walkers and Rollerbladers can stretch their legs on the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail that rims the city. You can't walk very far downtown without passing at least one bike rental place. And, down at Ship Creek -- not far from where Anchorage's one, occasional cruise ship docks -- fishermen hope to catch their dinner in the form of a big, meaty salmon. Try your hand at the local pastime -- a bait shack is located on the creek to rent anything you might need; just be wary of the tide or you might get stuck in the mud.
An hour south of Anchorage is Girdwood, home to Alyeska Resort, an award-winning luxury hotel and -- if you can believe it -- Alaska's only ski resort. Here, the mountaintop Seven Glaciers restaurant serves up fine (four diamond-rated) Alaskan cuisine (like mesquite-grilled Alaska salmon and bison rib eye) 2,300 feet above sea level, with views of Turnagain Arm and surrounding glaciers. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide great views and abundant sunlight during long summer days. Take an aerial tram back to the hotel, or hike the switchback trail down the hillside. For a more down-to-earth local experience, the place to go is Girdwood Laundry, also known as the "Laundromall," voted America's best laundromat. It offers showers, internet, food, beer and T-shirt printing in addition to laundering services.
Seward -- it's not just a cruise port! The tiny town, tucked between glacier-topped mountains and Resurrection Bay, is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. A bay cruise is a must on any cruise tour. On a rare sunny summer day, the bay blossoms into a menagerie for sea life: Orca families dive in and out of the waves, otters backstroke to their next meal and haughty bald eagles perch high in trees to look down their beaks at the fluttering seabirds and the dozing sea lions. The scenery's pretty spectacular, too, especially when low-flying clouds take a breather atop craggy island peaks.
Along the Alaska Railroad
Many cruise tour itineraries include a trip on the Alaska Railroad. The upsides of train travel are the double-decker, glass-domed cars, allowing nearly 360-degree views of Alaska's great interior wilderness. Passengers recline in comfy seats, dine on regional cuisine like halibut tacos and berry pie in the dining area and snap photos from a small outdoor viewing platform. The downside? Four hours is a long time to be stuck on a train with no stops, especially on stretches like the Anchorage-to-Talkeetna leg, where the scenery is pretty but hardly spectacular.
Halfway between Anchorage and Denali on the train line, Talkeetna is a quirky little town that was the inspiration for the sitcom "Northern Exposure". (To give you an idea, the town's honorary mayor was once a cat named Stubbs.) Peek into Nagley's Store, a general store with eclectic merchandise -- pricy bananas and some ammo in one quick stop! Hobnob with climbers (or wannabes) at the West Rib Pub, which honors the sport of mountain climbing -- and fattens you up for the trek with a 2-lb.caribou burger that's topped with ham, bacon and the pub's trademark sauce. Or pick up a memento -- like beaver teeth earrings -- inside Village Arts & Crafts. Don't forget to grab a craft beer across the street at the small (but growing) Denali Brewing Company.
Talkeetna's claim to fame -- beyond its annual Moose Dropping Festival, that is -- is its proximity to Denali (meaning "The Great One"), once known as Mount McKinley. Hardcore cruise tourists might be disappointed to know that climbing Denali is a multiday adventure that requires permits and a flight to the mountain's base. And, most of the time, you can't even see the mountain, which is typically shrouded in clouds. For the best view, hand over that credit card and book a flightseeing tour to soar past the slopes and summit of the 20,320-foot-high mountain. Or, cheap out and sign up for a mountain wake-up call at your hotel. You'll get a call when the mountain becomes visible, whether 11 p.m. or 5 a.m. Who needs sleep?
Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali National Park is the most likely spot to catch a mama bear grazing on berries with her twin cubs by the side of the road or watch a couple of caribou debating whose antlers are the biggest. What many people don't realize is that there's just one road into the park, and if you sign up for the popular Tundra Wilderness Tour excursion, you'll sit on a bus for eight hours, broken up only by sporadic bathroom breaks. Wildlife sightings aren't guaranteed, especially if you don't bring your own binoculars. But it's worth the opportunity of sighting that majestic moose or exotic lynx.
Denali (Beyond the Park)
Denali can be amazing -- grizzlies, caribou, dall sheep, coyotes, foxes and lynxes -- but a bus ride into the park isn't the only worthwhile attraction. White-water rafting on the glacial Nenana River is popular. (You'll look quite stylish in your head-to-toe dry suit.) Or visit the Denali home and training center of four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King on the Husky Homestead Tour. When you step off the bus, a handler will place a warm, wiggly husky puppy in your arms. You can ogle the doggie cuteness while learning about Alaska's most famous sled dog race and the training regimens of elite racing dogs.
Fairbanks is the northernmost "big city" in Alaska, where many cruise tours begin or end. But cruise visitors are kept pretty separate from the folks who live and work there, with a slew of activities created especially for tourists. Gold Dredge 8 serves as a monuments to miners and visitors can take their own stab at panning for gold after riding a replica of a Tanana Valley Railroad train. The Discovery paddlewheel riverboat tour jampacks everything Alaskan into one trip, including a visit with a champion dog-musher, a tour of a faux Athabascan village and a floatplane demo. If you can overlook the forced jollity and tourist-trap atmosphere, the tour is actually a great introduction to Alaska's history and culture. If you're looking for an adventure out of Dodge, consider a flight to the nation's least-visited national park, the Gates of the Arctic.