Alaska: It's home to majestic mountain peaks, calving glaciers and exotic wildlife as well as a culturally rich history that began with the settling of Alaskan Natives. Then there was the Klondike Gold Rush and, today, port towns -- large and small -- are attracting new waves of settlers. This time, they're naturalists, adventurers, entrepreneurs and artisans. If you haven't cruised Alaska yet, it's time.
In this day-by-day report from an Alaska cruise, we invite you to come along with us as we share our seven best reasons (one for each day in port) and then some about why this is a trip you must take. We sailed aboard Princess Cruises' Star Princess, on its seven-night Voyage of the Glaciers itinerary. What's unique about Voyage of the Glaciers is that you get to see the Inside Passage's trio of marquee ports, Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau, and you also get two days of glacier spotting --both at Glacier Bay and at College Fjord -- along with a trip through Prince William Sound. We started out from Vancouver and our cruise disembarked in Whittier, a port city that serves Anchorage (this itinerary is also offered in the reverse direction). Join us!
Day 1: Vancouver Pre-Cruise Stay and Embarking
Vancouver, on Canada's northwest coast, is one of cruising's most beguiling port cities, and it's a popular turnaround place for Alaska-bound cruises. What makes Vancouver unique? It's one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities and yet it's surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, the Strait of Georgia and numerous bays and rivers, and, on the other, by the 5,000-foot Coast Mountains.
Since we were boarding our ship here, we made plans to spend a few extra days in Vancouver. In Cruise Critic's own Vancouver port profile, we provide a comprehensive rundown on what to do in the city, and we'd previously done pretty much everything.
This time, we tried something entirely new: a visit to Grouse Mountain, a ski resort in winter, and, increasingly, a popular get-out-of-the-city refuge in spring, summer and fall. We hopped on a free shuttle bus from Canada Place (same place where ships dock), and journeyed across the Lions Gate Bridge (a sister to San Francisco's Golden Gate). After a 20-minute ride, we arrived at the base of the 4,300-foot-high Grouse Mountain, where a massive twin system gondola whisks you to the top.
Think of Grouse Mountain as a wilderness park, with extras. There's a grizzly bear habitat. You can go on guided eco hikes, ride a zipline across mountains and canyons, and take in a lumberjack show. Hungry or thirsty? There's a huge lodge, with casual dining, a coffee bar and a top-rated restaurant (with fireplace if you're sitting indoors and alfresco views and fresh air if you're on the patio).
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Tonight, back in Vancouver, we spent the evening in quite the opposite fashion, wandering around Gastown, an urban neighborhood just blocks from our hotel at Canada Place.
For tourists, it's best known for its working steam clock, one of the only ones in the world. For locals, its abundant selection of cafes and restaurants makes it one of the most convivial places in the city. On a sunny evening, we landed a great patio perch at The Local, and felt, at least a little bit, as if we experienced the best of what the city of Vancouver has to offer: urban and wild, all in one day.
Once we boarded Star Princess on Saturday, there was this feeling of shucking off all travel pressures. At a hotel, you're always thinking about next steps: How do we fill the day? How do we get around? Where will we go to eat? On a cruise -- and this is why, after 20 years of traveling via cruise ships, I still love it so much -- when you get onboard, you get to relax. It's up to the cruise ship to transport us to ports of call. We can choose from the ship's menu of shore excursions, with all logistics handled. There's a range of restaurants, bars and live entertainment. And seven nights in one place means we can actually unpack and create a home-away-from-home ambience in our stateroom.
At tonight's sail-away, the sun shines brightly and we're all celebrating on the pool deck, waving goodbye to the Oz that is Vancouver. Having been lucky enough to cruise north from Vancouver before, I can't help but appreciate that as beautiful as it has been, this is just the start. It gets even better from here.
- Vancouver taxis have a set fare from the airport ($35 CAD); downtown is about a 20- to 30-minute ride. They all take credit cards, so no need to change money at the airport if you don't want to.
- If you want to stay near the beautiful Canada Place cruise terminal at Coal Harbour bay, the hotels with the best locations -- both for watching your ship come in and also for their easy proximity to the terminal itself -- include Fairmont's two properties, the Waterfront and Pacific Rim, and the Pan Pacific. There are a lot of other options as this area is just a few blocks from the city's Central Business District.
- For a more immersive experience in Alaska, both onboard and off, we are looking forward to Princess’ "North to Alaska" program. It aims to connect passengers to locals and local traditions via culinary, enrichment, and exploring opportunities. We’ve checked out some fun choices, such as “Cook My Catch”, a shore excursion in which passengers head out on a fishing boat to reel in their dinners – chefs onboard will prepare the fish for their dinners. We’ll get the chance to meet locals onboard; on our trip, Iditarod champion Libby Riddles is slated to give a talk about her life and experiences, and an Alaskan lumberjack will teach us how to throw axes. And off the ship, the line’s partnership with Animal Planet extends to shore excursions. We’ve signed up for an Animal Planet visit to a wildlife refuge on our Skagway port call and will let you know what we discover.
Day 2: Sea Day
When the captain pops onto the intercom to tell us that a great example of a morgana effect -- essentially when two mountains appear to be sitting on top of themselves in inverted positions -- can be spotted off the starboard side of Star Princess, you get the sense this trip to Alaska is anything but an ordinary cruise. Plus, it's definitely a busy, port-intensive itinerary. Just about every day we'll either be in port or in bays of glaciers, and so to start off with a day at sea is a welcome bit of scheduling. After the bustle of the past few days of traveling, it's nice to have a bit of downtime.
Or do we? On our first day it's clear how much our destination, primarily Alaska, is incorporated into the cruise experience. It's not just that the entertainment staff wears the red-and-black flannel checked shirts of Alaska's storied lumberjacks or that Alaskan microbrews are on offer, but also that the
component spreads throughout so many onboard aspects. In addition to all of the traditional activities that are offered onboard Princess ships, there's a presentation by the on-ship naturalist on creatures, like sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins and beluga whales, who live in the waters beneath us. Today's arts and crafts project: creating Klondike bracelets. Who knew that the harmonica is a component of traditional Alaskan music? The music aficionados among us got to take a lesson.
And yet, if you really just want to relax, sleep-in, read a good book on the balcony as we pass awe-inspiring snow-covered mountains on the coast or play mah-jongg, you've got those options, too.
Sea Day Highlights
- We loved learning more about life, culture, flora and animal life in this gorgeous region. In the lively piazza, lots of fellow passengers turned out for an informal meet and greet with Michele Tuvo, our gregarious captain, who shared his favorite Alaska moments, and who posed for pics. And a tip from our naturalist: The best place to spot seals and dolphins is on the promenade deck, not at the top of the ship. Snag a chaise lounge and settle in.
- In a presentation in the packed theater, our resident lumberjack is a "timber athlete," an international ax-throwing champion. He previews the history of the timber industry -- particularly in and around Ketchikan -- and reveals that the internationally competitive sport that's arisen, with events like the two-man crosscut saw, tree speed climbing and log rolls, among others, both honor tradition and celebrate the contemporary evolution of what it means to be a lumberjack. It's pretty scintillating stuff -- we particularly loved learning about the important role that women played in the timber industry in Alaska via the creation of "married man's camps," with schools, churches and bunkhouses all created. Sure, the "lumberjills" raised families but they also did their share then, and today, of ax-throwing.
- At around 11:30 a.m., a line of at least 100 passengers snaked around the Piazza on Deck 7 for what's one of the best lunches in cruising. The British Pub Lunch, a Princess tradition dating back some years, is a smash hit, wherever you're cruising. Held in the Crown Grill, the menu features four choices (fish and chips, ploughman's lunch, steak and kidney pie, and bangers and mash. It's tough to decide on just one (and the ship's food and beverage manager, overhearing our conundrum, threw in both the fish and chips and the steak and kidney pie). The bread and butter pudding, for dessert, is sublime. And best of all? Who knew the Crown Grill was so big! Once the doors opened, our line quickly dispersed and there was room for everyone.
Day 3: Ketchikan
Ketchikan, in Southeast Alaska, is the rainiest city in America, nabbing something between 13 to 17 feet of the wet stuff in 2017. It's the southern gateway to the Inside Passage, that spectacular series of gorgeous waterways that makes Alaska such a beautiful place to cruise. Ketchikan is located in the midst of Tongass National Forest.
For visitors, Ketchikan is all about the great wilderness and sublimely fresh seafood, like salmon and halibut. Salmon spawn here and are, in fact, the reason for Ketchikan's development. The town was built around a salmon saltery in the late 19th century. The Misty Fjords National Monument, with its sheer granite cliffs, 1,000-foot waterfalls and crystal lakes, is another draw. It's dubbed the "Yosemite of the North."
You can opt for active explorations via canoeing, ziplining, nature hikes, 4-wheel drive treks and salmon fishing.
You won't want to miss out on downtown Ketchikan, either. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, which we got a taste of yesterday during an onboard presentation, is located on the waterfront. Have a locals' lunch in town -- the New York Cafe and Alaska Kitchen are big favorites (don't miss the salmon chowder and anything with halibut).
And, there's one more "don't miss" in downtown Ketchikan: A thriving arts scene, mostly centered on the Creek Street area, means there are wonderful small shops, such as Ketchikan Dry Goods, Soho Coho, Niblicks General Store and The Captain's Lady, among others, which sell locally created fashions, art, jewelry, bath products and handicrafts. We're told that Ketchikan is experiencing a renaissance among artists, who make their homes here in the region. What's driving Ketchikan's art scene? "It's probably the rain," says Lindsay Johnson, Ketchikan Dry Goods' owner. The year-round resident mans the store with her 3-month old-son Quinn in her arms. "When you're stuck indoors all day," she adds, "you can either drink or make art. Or make babies."
- It only occurred to me today, wandering around Ketchikan, that U.S. residents have it easy on this itinerary. Aside from our stop in Canada's Vancouver, we don't have to worry about currency and its conversion. Even better, we can use roaming on our mobile devices without incurring hefty foreign charges (though do check to make sure your provider has a foothold here). We've been having fun sharing our trip with our friends on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. Feel free to hashtag #NorthtoAlaska, #CruiseCritic and #PrincessCruises.
- When it comes to learning the history about a place, there's nothing more inspirational than traveling, meeting locals and visiting museums. Curious to know more? In Ketchikan's Creek Street area, check out Parnassus Books, a superb book shop that specializes in Alaska-themed books (from history to fiction), locally created cards and just-good-reads. I'll weigh in that James Michener's Alaska saga brings this place to life in a way that few writers could. And yes, I picked up a copy there.
- One big plus about cruising Alaska in spring and summer: You get long, light-filled days. And, last night, we were given another gift: This part of the U.S. is four hours behind New York time, not three, like the rest of the West Coast. That extra hour of sleep? Marvelous.
Day 4: Juneau
Juneau is America's only capital city that you can't actually drive to. No roads lead there (fortunately there are plenty of options via boat and plane to get in and out of town).
So, you have to imagine that there's a pretty incredible wilderness that lies just over the mountains that frame the city, and, just like Ketchikan, it's in the midst of the Tongass National Forest. On cruise ships that call at Juneau, most tours aim to get travelers out of the city and into the wild, and what a "wow," no matter what you choose. On our first trip, some 20 years ago, my mom and I took a helicopter ride to Mendenhall Glacier, and trekked over the ice. This time around, sea kayaking among the glaciers, cycling, ziplining and dog sledding are other options among the breathtaking 47 different tours that Star Princess offers in Juneau alone (good thing we had a long day in port!).
We opted for the four-hour "Taku Lodge Feast and 5-Glacier Seaplane Discovery." After a 25-minute, incredibly scenic floatplane ride, where you literally fly right above the Juneau glacier field, close enough (but not too close!) to see crevices and tidal pools, you swoop in for a landing. At Taku Lodge, an historic log cabin that's so cozy there were more than a few folks speculating about what it would be like to live here, we wandered around the expansive grounds, keeping an eye out for brown bears. There was a guided hike to a waterfall, and the chance to enjoy the view of the Hole in the Wall Glacier, just across the river, via comfortable Adirondack chairs set out on the lawn. And, oh, yes, the feast -- a substantial home-cooked lunch, consisting of alderwood-grilled salmon with a butter/brown sugar/wine sauce, baked beans cooked for 24 hours and the most delicious dill biscuits, still steaming.
It’s funny: When you take yourself out of your own familiar zone, it’s astonishing how quickly you shuck off your daily cares. A few hours spent down by the riverside in the company of a spreading glacier was a magical elixir.
- In a day packed with activity, this one stood out: Iditarod champion Libby Riddles came onboard this afternoon, with one of her huskies, to give a talk about winning the race and her philosophy on life. It was standing room only, and for good reason: She's an inspiration. Iditarod, billed as one of the most treacherous competitions in the world, involves mushers and their dog teams as they compete over a 1,000-mile course from Anchorage to Nome.
- If you find yourself wandering further afield in Juneau than you'd meant to (its downtown district has some lovely clothing boutiques, a bookstore with lots of Alaska titles and some intriguing restaurants) and you need a lift home, call Uber! Yes, Juneau has Uber.
- Star Princess just underwent a refurbishment, and there's one improvement that will matter a lot to anyone who thinks of a vacation as a chance to get caught up on sleep: It replaced bedding in all cabins. Not only that, the "Princess Luxury Bed," developed in conjunction with Dr. Michael Breus, WebMD's sleep expert, lives up to its Cruise Critic nod as the best at sea. Having experienced the beds on another Princess Cruise last year, we liked them so much we bought a pair for home.
Day 5: Skagway
In the busy rush of life that we all live, when's the last time you just felt purely, simply, happy?
I felt that spontaneous joy on one of Princess' Animal Planet-organized tours, when we visited the Kroschel Wildlife Center. Steve Kroschel, a filmmaker for National Geographic and Animal Planet, and a naturalist, is a "wildlife whisperer (he's pictured here with a fox wrapped around his neck!)."
There is a lot to do in Skagway, and despite competition from tours that offered quite-appealing opportunities to go sea kayaking or rock climbing, take a Klondike summit-to-sea cycle ride, create-your-own glassblowing and a chance to mush a dog sled, this wildlife reserve tour was one of my favorite, ever, in any port.
We started with a fast-ferry ride to Haines (a 40-minute trip that has to be one of the most beautiful commutes of all time) and then we took a ride to Kroschel's ranch. Along the way, the driver shared insightful stories about what it's like to live in a place that truly seems like it's in the middle of nowhere. She told us that artisans are increasingly drawn to Southeast Alaska, partly because the region is an inspirational one.
The ranch itself is a cross between the Addams Family and a rescue shelter, with a quirky new-age-like energy along with a variety of animals rescued from the wild. Creatures ranged from a wolverine and lynx (which we all got a chance to pet) to a brown bear and the most darling moose named Karen, who was so tame she'd gently nibble on carrots fed from the mouths of fellow tour-goers. And there's the darling reindeer rescue, pictured. We got to pat a red fox and feed carrots, mouth-to-mouth, to Karen-the-moose, though the brown bear was kept a safe distance!
I realized, about midway through the visit, that I was smiling. All the time. I couldn't stop smiling, not that I wanted to, and it occurred to me I couldn't remember the last time I felt this much quiet joy. Kroschel, a grown-up who wears the skin of an eternal kid, is an eccentric character, the Jim Carrey of the animal world. He walks around barefoot (it grounds him, he tells us), engages in crazy-fun interactions with his rescues, like foxes and minks and reindeer, and just delights in the world around him in a way that absolutely lifts all spirits.
We headed back to Star Princess on the fast-ferry just as the sun was setting behind the mountains. The views were stunning, for sure, but I realized that it was because of the visit to Kroschel Wildlife Reserve that I was still smiling.
- Skagway itself is easily the most atmospheric old town among the major ports. It's also the most touristic, with its platform sidewalks and lots of opportunities to buy diamonds and T-shirts. While the town does have a year-round community (and schools, post office and grocery store), much of its industry occurs during cruise season of late-spring through early-fall. Interestingly, at lunch at the Bonanza Bar & Grill, our waitress told us she hailed from Ft. Lauderdale. She laughed as she shared that she supports the cruise industry year-round; now, the money's good in Alaska. In winter, she'll return to Florida. Sounds pretty appealing, actually.
- In another chance to learn more about the challenging Iditarod competition, today's big highlight onboard was "Puppies in the Piazza." Dog handlers bring their baby sled dogs onboard the ship, where passengers can interact and take photos.
- One of the best parts of a cruise experience is that you can have the most eye-opening experience in port and then come back to a familiar home. After a busy day, it felt comforting to tuck into a corner chair in Crooner's and sip a martini before heading to dinner.
Day 6: Glacier Bay
A visit to Glacier Bay, home to ice fields and calving glaciers, is the highlight of this day, spent entirely onboard and mostly in the bay. It's part of the larger Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which has more than 3 million acres of forest and shoreline, many mountains (Mount Fairweather rises to 15,000 feet!) and, naturally, the glaciers. According to the National Park Service, "Glacier Bay is a homeland, a living laboratory, a national park, a designated wilderness, a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO world heritage site. It's a marine park, where great adventure awaits by boating into inlets, coves and hideaway harbors. It's also a land park, with its snow-capped mountains, spectacular glaciers and emerald–green forests. From the summit to sea, Glacier Bay's wildness is remote, dynamic and intact."
Our stay in Glacier Bay lasted several hours and was filled with information as national park rangers were onboard to provide narration and to help point out wildlife spottings. We saw bald eagles, otters, seals and mountain goats, among others. The highlight, of course, is hearing and seeing glaciers calve. Essentially, calving means that chunks of ice on the towering glacier are pushed loose by the pressure of the ice behind it, crack off and drop to the bay. You can generally tell when it's about to happen because you hear a big boom -- much like thunder erupting from a summer storm -- and then ice splashes down.
Onboard, the mood was joyful. We made new friends as we gathered at the rail, awaiting calving spottings (you could also position yourself on your balcony but it was just more fun to be with other passengers). Bartenders pushed carts stocked with glacier-inspired beverages like the Molten Glacier, a confection made with hot chocolate, creme de cacao and Bailey's Irish Cream. The Trident Grill dished up reindeer chili. And, the calves kept cracking!
Glacier Bay Highlights
- Star Princess is a terrific ship for a venture to Glacier Bay because there are so many great nooks and crannies from which to watch calving. Certainly, the pool deck was a convivial spot. We also loved deck eight’s promenade, the aft-facing Skywalkers Nightclub (which was fully staffed on our Glacier Bay day, and quite undiscovered), and all the vast expanses of open decks above the pool areas. And a day like this makes a great case for booking a cabin with its own verandah. There was plenty of room for everyone.
- We have been, mostly, blessed with beautiful weather (warm sun, cool shade), and today, out on deck for such a long time, it occurred to me that there are four essential necessities to pack for a cruise to Alaska: a light winter jacket, a rain slicker, fleece and comfortable walking shoes. On this trip, I have lived in my fleece. Wear layers so that you can bulk up -- or shed down -- based on weather. Forget anything? No problem; every port we visited had an ample supply of shops selling travel gear (prices were reasonable, too) and Star Princess has an amazing clothing boutique onboard.
- A lot of travelers think of Alaska as a "bucket list" destination, sort of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What was surprising on this cruise is how many passengers we met who had returned to Alaska, time and time again. I get it: It's otherworldly. Every port has so many different types of shore experiences. You could visit each a dozen times and still see something new. Cruise lines also expand the coastal-focused trip into cruise tours that also delve into majestic, land-based places like Denali and Fairbanks. One more reason to return, if you needed one!
Read reviews from travelers in our Princess cruise reviews.
Day 7: College Fjord and Cruise Wrap-Up
Today, essentially, was a sea day (with a late-in-the-afternoon visit to College Fjord on our way to our embarkation port of Whittier). It felt good to kick back and relax and prepare for the next stage in the journey.
College Fjord itself was such a revelation! Located in Prince William Sound, the fjord is home to the most actively calving glaciers in the world. We spent the most time watching Harvard, which, true to its reputation, was actively thunderous throughout our time there. Interesting tidbit: The fjords here are all named by explorer and railroad magnate Edward Harriman, after Ivy League universities, both women's and men's. Harriman himself never graduated from high school.
Of course, the ship laid on a full day of activities if you preferred activity (those sun loungers in the Sanctuary sure looked tempting). There was a galley tour and a wine tasting. You could take lessons in ballroom and line dancing, play shuffleboard, and bid on art at auction. As if to nudge us that there's always an opportunity to learn more, there were presentations that fall under the "North to Alaska" banner, including "Tales from Wild Alaska" and "Understanding Alaska's Mighty Glaciers, Volcanoes and Rugged Fjords."
Which reminds me: What has seriously contributed to making this cruise so impactful is the "North to Alaska" effort to incorporate our destination into all aspects of the experience. Alaskan cuisine was included on almost every dinner menu in the Portofino and Amalfi dining rooms. Crown Grill also had its own offerings, in addition to its regular surf and turf fare. Bars were stocked with beers from the Alaskan Brewing Company. For me, the most important component of "North to Alaska" was in entertainment and enrichment activities, designed for fun but also meant to provide education.
Upon arrival in Whittier, where we debarked, passengers headed in all directions. The lucky ones would spend a few days traveling deeper into Alaska’s wilderness on one of Princess' cruise tours, which combine a cruise with an extended land tour and allow travelers to explore Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Fairbanks and Anchorage. On a cruise tour, you stay at Princess-owned wilderness lodges and you are transported by the cruise line’s own train cars (which is seriously cool). Activities on these cruise tours include white water rafting, tundra mountain golfing, jet boats, and flightseeing tours among others.
Looking back, the biggest challenge that an Alaska/British Columbia cruise presents is its wealth of amazing opportunities to explore this remote region. There's a reason why so many of the folks I've met onboard are on their second, third or even 10th Alaska cruise and that's because there's always something new and different to experience. One tip that I discovered midway through the cruise: Princess videographers create a video for each voyage and you can preview it on the in-cabin television. A good chunk of it takes you along on shore excursions so you can see what you've missed. I'm certain it's meant to tempt you back on another Alaska cruise.
General Observations and Debarking Highlights:
- With each port on this cruise, my interest in history and culture is piqued. All three ports -- Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan -- have terrific local bookstores with a deep selection of tomes, from history and novels to kids' picture books to the diaries of naturalists and explorers. Ketchikan's Parnassus Books has the best selection, though (and we appreciated the bookseller's recommendations on best books to read). It was a wonderful surprise too, to see that the rangers from Glacier Bay offered a whole range of books about the bay for sale onboard Star Princess.
- One tip about debarking in Whittier: Unless friends are picking you up, there are no services here. It's a tiny little place with no taxis or car rentals. Plan in advance and book the ship's transfers to wherever you are heading.
- Even if you're simply heading homed from Princess' Voyage of the Glaciers cruise via Anchorage's international airport, or spending the night in Alaska's largest city, you get a bonus: The transfer between Whittier and Anchorage takes about 1.5 hours, and it's gorgeous, winding through the Portage Valley with its dynamic Portage Glacier, and then along the Turnagain Arm. You'll see mountains, rivers, salmon streams, forests, inlets and even, if you're as lucky as we were, a whole bunch of rainbows.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for 20 years. That Alaska ranks right up with some of the world’s most beautiful destinations is no big surprise. What was particularly fresh and delightful on this trip, her fourth Alaska cruise, was seeing a burgeoning cultural and culinary arts movement, along with a continued respect for the heritage of its original settlers and historic traditions.
Discover why cruising is the best way to experience Alaksa!