Many Alaska cruises tend to explore the same southeastern ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka. Yet to immerse yourself in the land of sled dogs and Arctic tundra (and even get a chance to see the northern lights), a trip to Alaska's northwest interior is required. Cruise lines have the answer so you can do it all: Alaska cruise tours.
A cruise tour is a land tour of interior destinations before or after a cruise. In conjunction with Alaska cruises, land programs extend each trip with visits to interior destinations, such as Anchorage, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. Some visit the Yukon in Canada (only Holland America offers cruise tours to the Yukon).
It's hardly a cruise on wheels. The go-go-go pace might have you putting luggage outside your doors at 6 a.m., leaving the hotel an hour later and not arriving at the next destination until the evening. But, that's not all you need to know about Alaskan cruise tours. Here are eight things you need to know about the best Alaska cruise tours ... and the worst.
Visiting Alaska is all about the wildlife, but you have to know where to look. Spotting orca whales, caribou, moose and grizzly bears requires cameras and binoculars at the ready while staring at scenery all day.
The trick is to look for movement. If it's not moving, it's often a "spruce moose" or "rock bear." Using this advice in Denali National Park, you might find a mama and baby bear along one slope, Dall sheep next to a sheer cliff drop and caribou with huge antlers among the shrubbery. Also be on the lookout for lesser-known creatures like the spotted lynx or red-tailed fox.
Each and every possible destination on an Alaskan land tour is unique, so be sure to choose wisely. Below are some hot spots and a brief summary of what makes them so enticing.
Anchorage: Many cruise tours begin or end in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Acclimate yourself to the state's indigenous culture by visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center, or spend time outdoors by taking a day trip to Portage Glacier or biking the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Alyeska Resort: Outside Anchorage in the town of Girdwood, Alyeska serves as Alaska's biggest (and only) ski resort during the winter and an activity and relaxation hub in the summer.
The biggest attraction is a gondola ride to the top of 2,300-foot Mt. Alyeska, where you can get stunning views of Turnagain Arm. Other excursions include hiking, mountain biking, dog mushing or glacier trekking.
Homer: A quirky fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is known for art as it is for nature, and you can visit many galleries. That said, this part of the Kenai Peninsula offers bear-watching opportunities, as well as fishing excursions for halibut and salmon.
Denali National Park: Alaska's premier national park, Denali National Park is prized for a reason; with more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness, it's one of the country's best-preserved swaths of forest and tundra.
Most cruise tours give you a choice of one-, two- or three-night stays here; you need at least two to get the most out of your experience. Hop on a Park Service bus to seek out bears, moose and caribou, splurge on a flightseeing trip around Denali, or take a rafting trip on the Nenana River.
And don't be too disappointed if you never see the mountain, as only 30 percent of the park's visitors are lucky enough to glimpse it.
Fairbanks: Fewer than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is the gateway to Alaska's Far North. There, you can view the famed Trans-Alaska Pipeline, explore the state's Gold Rush history at Gold Dredge No. 8 and raft along the Chena. You can also take a flight to communities at the base of the Brooks Range, such as Coldfoot or the Athabaskan town of Fort Yukon, accessible only by plane.
Dawson City: The epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City has maintained its historic atmosphere by renovating its old facades and developing first-rate tours and programs. Don't miss the informative historic walks put on by the city's tourism office or the cabaret show at Diamond Tooth Gerties.
If you're really adventurous, go to the Downtown Hotel, and try the Sourtoe Cocktail -- a shot with a real human toe in it. (You'll get a certificate and membership in the "Sourtoe Cocktail Club" for your efforts.)
Whitehorse: Yukon's capital, Whitehorse, might not be as cute as Dawson, but there are still several things to do. Meander on the Millennium Trail (the city's gorgeous paved trail along the Yukon River), watch the salmon struggle through what's considered to be the world's largest fish ladder or take one of many active excursions outside town.
For more inspiration, check out our list of the nine best Alaska cruise tour destinations.
June through August is considered the high season in Alaska, and Alaska shines during this period, with endless hours of daylight due to the midnight sun. Still, the shoulder season has its advantages, beyond fewer crowds and lower prices.
In May, one of the best months to cruise to Alaska, Denali emerges from its snowfall with wildflowers and animals searching for food. Likewise, the tundra starts showing fall colors as early as mid-August, and bears are visible as they frantically beef up for the winter.
No matter when you come, prepare for changeable weather; it can be wet and chilly, even in the middle of the summer. With the exception of flightseeing, excursions generally run regardless of rain, so bring appropriate gear. Conversely, when the sun is out, it can reach the upper 70s in northerly Fairbanks. Bring plenty of layers.
There are several choices when it comes to your itinerary's length of time, ranging anywhere from three to 18 days. The most basic (and shortest) Alaska cruise tours usually run directly between your ship and Denali National Park, where you'll have a day or two to explore; these typically include a stay in Fairbanks or Anchorage.
If your tour offers it, it's well worth the upgrade to take the longer seven-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour by school bus through the park. While wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, you have the potential to see bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and more.
If you opt for the longer itineraries (at least seven days on land), you'll have more time to build upon the classic Denali circuit, with perhaps a longer stay in the Denali area. A longer cruise tour can also take you to the Kenai Peninsula, where you'll spend a night or two in a wilderness lodge or at the famed Alyeska Resort, or you might extend your trip into the Yukon instead.
If you're OK with skipping out on the Denali trip altogether, several lines propose an alternative option via a Canadian Rockies trip that takes in scenic spots like Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.
Why should you tour first and cruise later? Simply because it's nice to have time to relax in your stateroom for a good run after traveling to different hotels every night.
Cruise tours tend to favor Alaskan lodges over chain hotels. The lodges typically feature a carefully created rustic look with exposed-log exteriors and blond-wood interiors. Lobbies are homey with cozy seating, fireplaces and taxidermy mounts of various animal heads, like moose and caribou.
Wi-Fi is often available, and amenities are rather simple. Few lodges have pools, and fitness centers might be tiny.
Guest rooms are either in wings off the main lobby or in out-buildings. Be prepared to walk, though golf carts might be provided for those with mobility issues. In Seward, you might walk along wooded trails to get from your room to the restaurant or lobby, and in Denali, there's a bit of a hike through some properties in order to get to the shuttle bus stop.
And, yes, animals do frequent the premises. From a seat on the back patio of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, you could see a black bear wandering down a walking trail behind the hotel.
A cruise tour offers myriad opportunities to learn about Alaskan culture, but know that presentations range from sophisticated, interactive exhibits to more touristy attractions.
The Anchorage Museum has an excellent exhibit on Alaska Native cultures, in partnership with the Smithsonian, with fascinating items like a jacket made of seal intestines and a helmet with a human face on it.
There are also art galleries, where rotating modern art exhibits showcase a range of media. Kids will likely love the interactive Discovery Center where they can explore science, art and history.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a short drive from Downtown Anchorage, and fare is included in a culture pass, along with the Anchorage Museum. It's an eye-opening look -- complete with a walkable "village" -- at all of the Last Frontier's native cultures and how they balance tradition and modernity today.
A paddlewheel boat river tour in Fairbanks also offers a floatplane demonstration followed by a sled-dog demo at the home and training camp of an Iditarod champ. Debark in a mock Athabascan village, and receive a culinary demonstration (how to best prepare a salmon for dog food), fashion show (someone models an elaborate fur coat) and open house (a peek inside a typical trapper's cabin).
You can also learn about the Gold Rush and mining with a visit to Gold Dredge No. 8 near Fairbanks. Your tour includes a ride on a replica of the narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad and the opportunity to try panning for gold. If you can get past the tourist-trap atmosphere, the excursion can offer invaluable educational value and even a bit of fun.
The Alaska Railroad -- which traverses the long distance between Anchorage and Talkeetna, and on to Denali -- is a can't-miss experience, but be sure you know what you're getting before boarding your train car.
You'll pass some beautiful scenery, most notably Hurricane Gulch Bridge, where the train crosses a 918-foot bridge poised some 296 feet above a creek. Unfortunately, the viewing platform can be crowded with other travelers blocking views and viewfinders.
Cruise lines tend to hype the rail portion: double-decker, glass-domed cars with 360-degree views, outdoor viewing platforms, a dining room with regional specialties. Instead, you could spend four hours at a stretch with carry-on bags squashed at your feet watching a bunch of trees go by, hoping that one of them was a moose.
Train hosts provide commentary about Alaska and the railroad's route, which can be enriching (or sleep-inducing). And, depending on your ticket, a spiked coffee to sip while you listen might be included.
One of the biggest surprises about the cruise tour is that certain meals might not be included. Some cruise tour programs don't include meals in the price to give travelers the freedom to try local restaurants of their own choosing.
Yet, you might often be compelled to eat at certain times and in certain places. On the Alaska Railroad train rides, you might not be allowed to eat your own food up in the seating area, but since the ride typically takes place smack in the middle of a meal time (the train from Talkeetna to Denali, for example, leaves at 11 a.m. and arrives at 3 p.m.), you are basically forced to eat in the dining car.
And, because the dining car can't accommodate all the passengers at once, you'll have to eat in shifts as dictated by the train host.
Eating dinner at the hotel each night will likely be the most convenient option, especially if you're in a more remote lodge. However, it's likely to be more expensive with limited options.
Only in Alaska can you choose from an array of interesting wake-up calls. The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge offers a Mount Denali wake-up call. The hotel staff will call you if the skies clear, providing a view of the majestic mountain from the hotel's back deck.
If your trip is blessed with clear skies and sunny weather, you might actually see the mountain several times, say, during a jet boat tour on Talkeetna's three rivers or on the way to board the bus in the morning.
In Denali and Fairbanks, you can request a northern lights wake-up call, and the front desk will alert you in the middle of the night should the aurora borealis be especially active. The heavenly phenomenon is not common during the summer months of cruise season, but don't count out a phone call at 11:30 p.m. to view a ghostly arc of green, shimmering across the night sky. (Your best bet is in Fairbanks, way up north, in late August or September.)
The wake-up call opportunities show just how much scenery is a part of an Alaskan vacation -- in addition to many hours riding buses, trains and boats. One of the most scenic rides is from Seward to Anchorage, along the Turnagain Arm, where snow-capped mountains and rolling hills rise on each side of the bay.
On a clear day in Anchorage, you can see the volcanic peaks of the Aleutians and the faint outlines of Denali before watching a dramatic sunset from your 15th-floor hotel room. And, if you really want to immerse yourself in the beauty of Alaska, you can book a flightseeing trip, offered in most destinations, to see the glaciers and mountain peaks up close.
After days on the road in Alaska, there might be mixed feelings about the cruise tour experience. Some feel a bit trapped by the heavily scheduled tour, long train/bus rides and restrictive meal offerings. Although the lodges are well appointed, they are often off-the-beaten path, leaving sightseers at the mercy of shuttle buses.
In these ways, the tours are very unlike an Alaska cruise, where you travel at night and have full days in port, free to choose activities and time meals that best suit you. However, a majority of the activities on a cruise tour are quite good, while others might seem too touristy.
The biggest impression you can come away with, though, is that Alaska is an indescribably beautiful and intriguing state well worth exploring.