The most popular way to take in Alaska's splendors is on an Alaska Inside Passage cruise, which makes a round-trip journey from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. It sticks to the southeastern "panhandle" area of Alaska, an area roughly 500 miles long and 100 miles wide.
Alaska’s Inside Passage is one of the most popular routes for cruises through Alaska as it is a network of waterways running from Washington State's Puget Sound in the south, up the Pacific coast of British Columbia and through the Alaska panhandle. Simply put, cruisers aboard these sailings witness some of the most astounding wildlife and scenery.
The term "Inside Passage" is commonly used to refer to the entire region: the land and islands, in addition to the waterways. Carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, it's characterized by more than 1,000 islands and islets, coves, fjords and coastal towns, each with its own character.
The largest national forest in the country, Tongass National Forest, blankets the entire southeast Alaska portion of the Inside Passage, and many glaciers can still be seen. Many adventurous cruisers join an Inside Passage Alaska cruise visit or view majestic glaciers.
The Inside Passage is one of the few routes in the world where large cruise ships requiring relatively deep water can safely sail next to steep mountainsides. It was heavily used by prospectors from the American West Coast during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Alaska Inside Passage cruises usually stop at three or four ports. These include historic Gold Rush-era Skagway, Ketchikan (the "Salmon Capital of the World" and home to a notable number of Native Alaskan totems) and Juneau, Alaska's capital city.
Sometimes Sitka, with its heavy Russian influence and alpine meadows, or Haines, known for exceptional fishing and its bald eagle preserve, swaps in. Glacier Bay National Park, or another scenic cruising area like Tracy Arm Fjord, is normally part of the itinerary.
Round-trip Seattle cruises always visit either Victoria, B.C. (home to Butchart Gardens and the storied Fairmont-Empress Hotel) or Vancouver. You're very likely to see some Alaskan wildlife on any Inside Passage itinerary, whether that be whales, bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises or spotted harbor seals.
The high demand for Inside Passage cruises can be partly attributed to the convenience of ending a cruise in the same place you first set sail. Plus, they can be less expensive than cross-gulf cruises, which typically require a pricey flight to Anchorage (the gateway for nearby Seward and Whittier).
Choosing to depart for the cruise to Alaska’s Inside Passage from Seattle over Vancouver can save U.S. residents a little more money on airfare and enables them to take an Alaskan cruise without a passport.
Note that cross-gulf cruises almost always start or end in Vancouver, and flying in or out of Canada requires a passport, though arriving at a Canadian port via a cruise ship doesn't.
Premium lines like Princess Cruises, Disney, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America along with luxury cruise lines, such as Regent Seven Seas, Viking Ocean Cruises and Oceania Cruises, also visit Alaska’s Inside Passage.
Small ships -- such as the five in the Alaskan Dream Cruises fleet, each carrying between 12 and 76 typically adventure-minded passengers -- are a lesser-known option.
Some of Southeast Alaska's coves are too shallow for huge ships, so small-ship passengers get to enjoy less-traveled ports and a more personalized, up-close experience than what's possible when journeying with thousands of people. Small-ship cruises are usually confined to localized areas within the Inside Passage and start out from Juneau, Ketchikan or Sitka.
As you’re booking your dream Alaskan cruise to the Inside Passage, consider what comforts, food and adventures you're seeking. Each cruise line offers unique programs and amenities, and some will be better suited for your budget and level of comfort.