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Dawson City Welcome Sign
Dawson City Welcome Sign (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

Holland America Alaska Cruise Tours: 10 Tips You Need to Know

Dawson City Welcome Sign
Dawson City Welcome Sign (Photo: Marilyn Borth)
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Chris Gray Faust
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Marilyn Borth

Last updated
Feb 26, 2024

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8 min read

While an Alaska cruise checks many items off that bucket list, there's no denying that these typical itineraries barely scratch the surface of the state's offerings. You may want to extend your vacation and head even farther north on a ship-sponsored cruisetour, especially with Holland America Line. Holland America Alaska cruise tours allow you to explore the Last Frontier, including the remote towns and majestic yet unforgiving landscape.

While cruise lines offer a variety of cruisetours, Holland America Line is one of the most popular lines to do it. On our two-week Land+Sea Journey with Holland America, we started in Anchorage, spent two nights at Denali, spent one night in Fairbanks, then ventured into Canada's Yukon, with stops at Dawson City and Whitehorse.

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).

Check out our 10 been-there, done-that tips for Holland America Alaska cruise tours.

1. Choose Land First on Holland America Alaska Cruise Tours

Alaska Cruisetours: 6 Things You Need to Know (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)
Alaska Cruisetours: 6 Things You Need to Know (Photo: Royal Caribbean International)

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. So, the best choice tends to be a land tour first, cruise second.

2. Arrive Early to Anchorage and Enjoy the State's Largest City on Your Own Time

Reindeer Sausage in Anchorage
Reindeer Sausage in Anchorage (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

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.

If you arrive early, you have the opportunity to take a day trip 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.

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.

Walk around the downtown area and soak in the unique atmosphere of Anchorage. If you're feeling hungry but don't want to stop exploring, stop at Anchor Town Dogs on 4th Avenue. All of their quickly-grilled food is satisfying, but there's nothing quite like their reindeer hot dog.

3. Take in the Scenery on the Domed Train to Denali, But Prepare for a Long Journey

Alaska Railroad's Coastal Classic traverses gorgeous scenery en-route to Seward (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Alaska Railroad's Coastal Classic traverses gorgeous scenery en-route to Seward (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

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.

You might want to pack headphones and a book. Be sure to download any music, podcasts and/or books prior to your departure because internet connection isn't available throughout most of the trek.

You'll have the option to buy several meals onboard, although the cafe is on the small side (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.

4. Bring Your Camera on the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali -- and Prepare for a Bumpy, Long Ride

Tundra Wilderness Tour Bus in Denali
Tundra Wilderness Tour Bus in Denali (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

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. However, seeing wildlife isn't guaranteed.

Alaska is the place to bring out your camera with big lenses (or at least a good zoom). Smartphones unfortunately won't suffice, 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.

This tour is several hours long and is on a school bus, so be prepared for a long, bumpy ride. The bus tour guide -- who is also the driver -- will make several stops for better animal viewing, but unfortunately only about three bathroom stops.

5. Enjoy Denali National Park and Its Excursions to the Fullest for Two or Three Nights

Denali (Continued)
Denali (Continued) (Photo: NancyS/Shutterstock)

Holland America Alaska 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.

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.

6. Fairbanks Is a Spot Best Suited for History Buffs

Gold Dredge 8 in Fairbanks
Gold Dredge 8 in Fairbanks (Photo: Marilyn Borth)

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.

The city of Fairbanks isn't 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.

7. Give in to the Unique Atmosphere in Dawson City -- Explore Both Its Establishments and Nature

Street tour of Dawson City, Alaska, USA (Photo: Holland America Line)
Street tour of Dawson City, Alaska, USA (Photo: Holland America Line)

Your first stop in the Yukon territory is Dawson City, the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush. Dawson City has maintained its 1890s facades to appeal to tourists and, paired with its unpaved streets, it's truly appealing to 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.

Holland America Alaska cruisetours include private flights from Fairbanks and that cuts out the alternative, which is an eight-hour bus ride.

Don't skip the old-timey saloon show called Diamond Tooth Gertie's. This 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.

Aside from exploring the town, 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 paddlewheeler, which takes you past the city's eerie steamship graveyard.

Excursion options include a trip to the hard-to-reach Tombstone Territorial Park, but if you're not feeling yet another tour bus, there are other things for you to do. 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.

8. Enjoy the Scenery to Whitehorse -- and Use the Stop as a Time to Recuperate

Whitehorse (Photo: Pecold/Shutterstock)

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.

It's very likely that at this point in your tour, you'll feel 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. Otherwise, Whitehorse might be a great place to catch your breath and rest up.

9. Ride the White Pass & Yukon Route in Skagway

Passengers riding the White Pass Railway from Skagway to the Yukon Territory
The White Pass and Yukon Railroad From Skagway (Photo: The Old Major/

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.

10. Make a Little Time to Explore the Quaint Skagway Before Embarking Your Ship

Skagway (Photo:Cruise Critic)
Skagway (Photo:Cruise Critic)

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. But, if you don't feel up to a full-on excursion, go for a meander around historic Skagway, especially on Broadway Street. Broadway has the heaviest concentration of 1897-98 historic buildings still standing.

We recommend exploring a bit on your own, but definitely stepping into the Red Onion Saloon Brothel Museum for a drink. The Red Onion Saloon Brothel Museum was a woman-owned upscale brothel, saloon and dance hall during its time. While it's of course no longer a brothel, its decor remains very similar and is one of the most popular bars in Skagway. The second floor is a brothel museum that offers a "Quickie" tour, which is about 20 minutes.

If you're feeling especially adventurous at the Red Onion Saloon, be sure to order a "Reindeer Fart." This shot is more delicious than it sounds: Kahlua, Bailey's and Peppermint Schnapps.

After that, feel free to head to your cruise ship and finally decompress before sailing for your sea portion of the cruisetour.

Publish date December 28, 2019
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