While an Alaska cruise checks many items off that bucket list -- think whale watching, glacier calving and dog sledding -- there's no denying that the typical Inside Passage itinerary barely scratches the surface of what the state has to offer. If you're fascinated by Jack London novels or Gold Rush history, you'll want to extend your vacation and head even farther north on a ship-sponsored cruisetour. This is the land where you can still imagine the Last Frontier; the towns are that remote, and the majestic landscape that unforgiving.
Cruise lines offer a variety of cruisetours; for a breakdown, read Alaska Cruisetour Basics. On our two-week Land+Sea Journey with Holland America, we spent two nights at Denali and ventured into Canada's Yukon, with stops at Whitehorse and Dawson City. We appreciated having more time to explore the seemingly endless wilderness in this part of the world, as well as the convenience that a cruisetour gives you (although the distances covered gave us a severe case of coach aversion).
Follow along the land portion of our trip to see what makes Alaska's Interior so appealing -- and check out our been-there, done-that tips to make sure your cruisetour is all you want it to be.
Land first or sea first? It's one of the first decisions you'll have to make when booking. Our opinion is that the long days on the road can be grueling -- and after changing hotels five times, you'll relish your cabin even more once you board.
Many cruisetours begin in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. No doubt you'll be tired after your trip (it's almost a four-hour flight from Seattle), but the midnight sun means you'll still have daylight. Stretch your legs and rent a bike to ride the gorgeous Coastal Trail. Or go to the Glacier Brewhouse and dive into your first (but certainly not last) salmon meal of the trip. It's popular, so make reservations.
Tip: If you arrive early, take a daytrip down to Portage Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula. Most tours include a stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can see moose, bears and buffalo.
Train to Denali
Your first "official" cruisetour day starts with bags out at 6 a.m. While you'll resent this at first, you'll soon realize that lines such as Holland America and Princess have logistics down to a science. I never touched my bag the entire trip.
The Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Denali is billed as the most scenic way to make the trip, in domed train cars that feature special viewing platforms. And the mountains and rivers that you pass by are scenic, although after eight hours, the extended trip becomes wearying. If you have a less-than-inspiring guide, you might want to pack headphones and a book.
Tip: You'll have the option to buy several meals onboard, although the cafe is on the small size (people are called down in groups) and the food is pricey. If your trip doesn't include a meal voucher, you might want to pack some food from your hotel or an Anchorage grocery store -- just make sure you check the cruise line's policy about bringing food aboard the train.
When you reach Denali, take a deep breath and rejoice; this mountainous national park is as gorgeous and expansive as you dreamed. Make sure that your cruisetour package includes a reservation on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, the park-sponsored bus that takes you 53 miles into Denali's lands. This might be your best bet to see wildlife throughout your trip. On my tour, we spotted nine bears, moose, caribou, countless mountain goats and a small fox running by the side of the road.
Tip: In this era of smart phones, you might be tempted to leave your camera at home. Resist. Alaska is the place to bring out your big lenses (or at least a good zoom), unless you want your photo to show a large brown blob instead of a bear. Keep in mind that you will be sharing window space with others on the bus; unwritten tour etiquette dictates that you take your shot, then leave room for others to do the same.
Cruisetours spend one to three nights in Denali; make sure you're there at least two to take advantage of the park. Once you've done the Tundra Wilderness Tour, use your second day to take an excursion or simply enjoy the park. We enjoyed the sled dog demonstration at Denali's on-site kennels where you can pet the park's working pooches. Best of all? It's free.
Tip: Denali has all types of excursions and even though they are pricey (flightseeing runs $400 per person and up), it's probably a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. If you want to save, independent operators have offices across the road from the cruise lodges in Denali's "Glitter Gulch." Check the refund possibilities because some excursions are subject to weather cancellations and delays.
Denali marks the entrance to Alaska's Interior -- and Fairbanks is its main city. Cruise lines often focus on this region's Gold Rush history, with an included trip to pan for gold. Also of interest: the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez on the Pacific. Fairbanks is also firmly in the Aurora zone; if you're here in the later part of the season, be sure to request a wakeup call for Northern Lights at your hotel.
Tip: The city of Fairbanks is not too exciting; if you have a chance to take an excursion that gets you out of town, do so. My flightseeing excursion to the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle was one of the more interesting of the entire trip.
The Yukon! Something about the term screams historical adventure -- and your first stop, Dawson City, plays right into that. As the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, the city has maintained its 1890s facades to appeal to tourists. Kitschy? Yes. But what make the unpaved streets of Dawson City truly appealing are the young people who are drawn to work in its shops, bars and cafes. There's a definite "hipster miner" vibe, which makes the two nights you'll spend there stand out from the rest. Bonus: Holland America flies its cruisetour passengers there, which cuts out an eight-hour bus ride.
Tip: If you think you're too cool for an old-timey saloon show called Diamond Tooth Gertie's, you'd be wrong. The casino brings in talent from outside the town, and the singers and dancers really know how to entertain. One ticket buys you admittance to all three cabaret shows, which become more risque over the course of the night. So, it pays to stay a while.
Dawson City (Continued)
On your second day, take advantage of Dawson City's proximity to the Yukon wilderness and spend some time outside. If you're hiking the Ninth Avenue Trail to its views overlooking the Klondike River, remember to go with a group and speak loudly or bring a bear horn; grizzlies are common in these parts. Options for less-mobile passengers include an afternoon on Klondike Spirit paddlewheel, which takes you past the city's eerie steamship graveyard.
Tip: While excursion options include a trip to the hard-to-reach Tombstone Territorial Park, you might be done with tour buses for a while. Parks Canada has a series of historic walking tours that cost less than $10. My favorite was a walk featuring the wilderness-themed poetry of Dawson City resident, Robert Service.
It's another lengthy bus ride south to Yukon Territory's capital, Whitehorse. The scenery is spectacular, however, and the coach tends to take a multitude of breaks. You'll also enjoy pastries and treats at Carmacks.
Tip: At this point in your tour, you might be too tired to face yet another excursion. But Whitehorse is also known for its outdoor activities, so if you have the energy for a bike trip or rafting tour, it's worth the rally. Whitehorse also has some first-rate galleries, if you still need a Yukon souvenir.
The last day of the land portion of our cruisetour involved another train, the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, a narrow-gauge railroad built in 1898 to get wannabe miners up to the gold fields. It's truly an engineering marvel, and the views along the sheer cliffs, where waterfalls spill over, are genuinely jaw-dropping. You'll want your camera out for this one.
Tip: You'll arrive in Skagway with enough time to do an afternoon excursion; popular options include a visit to a dog mushers camp, zip-lining or horseback riding. At this point, though, it might feel good to simply board the ship and head to your cabin, unpack and relax by the pool with a drink. After nine days on the road and hundreds of miles under your belt, you deserve it!