Alaska remains a bucket-list trip for many cruisers, and one reason why is that all of its ports are situated right in the heart of the spectacular scenery. Even in Juneau, the state capital, bald eagle nests are within eyesight of the docks, visitors can canoe to the base of a glacier and a tram spirits cruisers 1,800 feet up snowy Mount Roberts. Visit any of Alaska's ports and you won't have any doubt where you are.
Based on member review ratings, these are the 49th State's five top-rated ports.
Glacier Bay. There's no dock and it's not really a port, but for many, Glacier Bay National Park is the highlight of an Alaska cruise. The immense bay is a front-row seat to observe how the planet has evolved in a relatively short period of time: Some of the massive glaciers that engulfed the bay as recently as 250 years ago have retreated more than 40 miles.
Most of a day here is spent sailing to Marjorie Glacier, 55 miles inside the park -- or farther if sea ice allows. Calving glaciers are a reward for the patient, while brown bears and mountain goats along the shoreline are badges of honor for the lucky few. More common are whales, and humpback sightings can number in the dozens when conditions are right, especially near the mouth of the bay. Cruise ship entertainment functions (including the casino) won't operate while inside the national park, but park rangers narrate the journey, staff an information desk and offer presentations.
Located on Baranof Island, on the outer coast of the Inside Passage, Sitka is the former capital of Russian America. That colorful heritage is revealed through the town's beautiful onion-domed St. Michael's Cathedral and the restored Russian Bishop's House. A battle between Russian traders and indigenous Tlingit is commemorated at the 113-acre Sitka National Historical Park on the edge of town, with striking totem poles rising amid the pines.
In contrast to most Alaskan ports, Sitka is not chockablock with jewelry shops. Instead, watch for handicrafts like herbal soaps; artisanal foods and drinks such as berry jams and jellies; and Tlingit and native Alaskan carvings and masks. Favorite shore excursions include the Sea Otter and Whale Quest, and guided kayak excursions through the idyllic Sitka Sound. Or, check out Sitka from end to end in a vintage 1973 Checker Marathon cab with longtime resident Jeff Budd.
Home to 32,000 residents, Alaska's second-largest city is inaccessible by road, with a wild mountain landscape rising from the edge of town straight to the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield that buries the U.S.-Canada border. It's so big that one tentacle, the Taku Glacier, is almost a mile thick! Helicopter trips survey the ice from above, while the city's top stop is Mendenhall Glacier, just 13 miles from downtown, where a visitor center offers excellent views of the ice (and great bear-watching toward the end of summer).
Despite its isolation, Juneau is a lively city. Juneau Food Tours takes guests to explore the burgeoning dining scene, and the swinging doors and sawdust floors of the rustic Red Dog Saloon set the tone for pub grub and bawdy songs from a piano player. For a more down-to-earth experience, visit the Alaska State Museum highlighting the state's natural and human history. Juneau is also home to the Alaskan Brewing Co., where craft beer has been a tradition since 1986; the gift shops sells iconic T-shirts and much more.
In contrast to remote Juneau, Skagway is one of only two towns in Alaska's southeast connected to the interior by road. But despite just 900 year-round residents, Skagway blooms each summer as the cruisers arrive. The town's story is dramatic: In the 1890s, Klondike prospectors began their arduous trek to the Yukon gold fields, and Skagway quickly developed a reputation as a lawless outpost. Many of the historic buildings are restored and part of the six-block Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
Alaska's most popular shore excursion is the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, a journey that became known as "the railway built of gold." The route climbs 3,000 feet and crosses into Canada (bring your passport). But save time to visit Jewell Gardens, where glass-blowing lessons are given and mouthwatering salmon BLTs are served in a beautifully tended garden setting. Or stop by Skagway Spirits, a family-run distillery producing homemade vodka and gin. Independent types can set out on foot to hike to Lower Dewey Lake, high above the cruise ship docks.
Alaska's southern-most port is known for salmon, and the stream running right through town brims with the fish in late summer. Naturally, canned salmon is a top export, but check out the arts and crafts. Ketchikan's local arts scene encompasses painting, carving, weaving and more. Find these treasures along Creek Street, a former red-light district where "ladies of negotiable affection" once entertained the miners and fishermen.
Or get out of town: Nearby Misty Fiords National Monument is inaccessible to larger cruise ships, but flights aboard float planes reveal the 2.3-million-acre monument's awesome glacier-carved valleys and quietude. Other popular shore excursions include visits to totem villages, fishing trips and, yes, even snorkeling. Ketchikan's water temperatures range as high as 65 degrees in mid-summer and the inter-tidal zone reveals a world of giant sunflower stars, red rock crabs and kelp forests.
Updated November 21, 2017