From a cruise ship in the calm waters of Alaska’s Inside Passage, the wilderness unfolds with snow-capped peaks, emerald rainforests and pristine fjords. You embrace the high drama of an icy glacier crashing thunderously into the sea. Bald eagles fly overhead, whales spout streams of water into the air, and you keep your binoculars poised, hoping to spot a grizzly bear.
Alaska is the antithesis of the fun-in-the-sun Caribbean cruise experience — the slight chill in the air a reminder that you are someplace very different and truly amazing.
During the May-to-September season, Alaska is one of the top cruise destinations in the world, annually attracting about 1 million cruisers. They come to Southeast Alaska to experience the delights of nature, Gold Rush history and native culture.
Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska itineraries operated by all the major cruise lines visit glaciers and popular Alaskan ports: Juneau, the only state capital you can’t get to by car; the fishing town of Ketchikan; Skagway, with its Gold Rush history; the Russian heritage city of Sitka.
Yes, places like Juneau become virtual tourist malls, with vendors, including from the Caribbean, operating seasonal jewelry and souvenir stores catering to the cruise crowd. You’ll have to jostle if you want a seat in, say, the Gold Rush-era Red Dog Saloon, the oldest tourist attraction in the state.
There is a changed ambience when a town like Skagway, with fewer than 1,000 residents, sees 8,000 cruise passengers on a busy port day. But go exploring and you’ll find an endearing rustic charm beyond the tourist façade.
Shore excursions take you into the wild for only-in-Alaska experiences such as a helicopter or floatplane trip over the glaciers and fjords.
Pre- and post-cruise tours make it easy to explore inland sights such as Denali National Park, Fairbanks and the Yukon Territory. Alaska powerhouses Holland America and Princess Cruises have their own land operations, with fleets of buses, train cars and lodges. Royal Caribbean/Celebrity also runs its own land tours.
Choice of itinerary
Itinerary will play a big part in your ship choice. Some cruises are round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver, while others require open-jaw, one-way flights to Anchorage (for departures from Seward or Whittier) and Vancouver. Expansive Glacier Bay National Park is not the only place to see glaciers — and a case can be made that glaciers in places such as College Fjord put on an even greater show — but if the park is on your wish list, that’s another consideration.
Small ships sail from ports including Juneau and Sitka, their shallow drafts allowing them to explore more-remote areas and less-touristed towns, with some of the cruises of Un-Cruise Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic pretty much avoiding civilization altogether, giving you close-up views of glaciers and wildlife from kayaks or Zodiac boats.
Picking the right ship
Choosing the right ship is also a big factor in assuring you get the type of experience you’re looking for.
Forty ships will cruise in Alaska this year, the 27 larger ships serving up such resort-like amenities as casinos, show lounges, fancy spas, a choice of restaurants and plenty of balcony cabins and open deck space for viewing the coastline. Just don’t come here looking for the latest and greatest in ships — the Caribbean and Europe, not Alaska, are the destinations for the major cruise lines’ newest ships.
The dominant Alaska players are Holland America and Princess, each with seven ships here this summer. Celebrity and Norwegian will have three ships apiece in the market.
The largest ship in Alaska this summer is the 3,080-passenger Crown Princess; the newest ships the 2,850-passenger Celebrity Solstice (2008), with its half-acre of grass on top and fancy AquaSpa, and the 2,394-passenger Norwegian Pearl (2006), with its “Freestyle” cruising experience including a large variety of dining venues.
Hailed as putting Alaska on the map as a family cruise destination and back for a fourth year is Disney, with its 1,754-passenger Disney Wonder sailing from Vancouver, B.C.
Luxury is well represented in the market by ultra-luxury line Silversea, with its 382-passenger Silver Shadow; and Regent, with its casually elegant 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. Both ships provide excellent cuisine and suite accommodations.
Returning to Alaska this year is relative newcomer Oceania, with the lovely 684-passenger Regatta.
Carnival assigns one ship to the market, and this year it is the Carnival Miracle — the Joe Farcus-designed ship with a disco designed with Frankenstein’s lab in mind. Royal Caribbean cruises Alaska this year with its 2,143-passenger Radiance and 1,998-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas, both with lovely indoor solarium pool areas.
Among the four small-ship lines here, Un-Cruise dominates with eight ships focused on casual luxury, less-frills active adventure or history — ranging from the 22-passenger luxury yacht Safari Quest to the 88-passenger S.S. Legacy, a replica coastal steamer with onboard commentary by costumed interpreters.
Choose lines such as Un-Cruise, Lindblad, American Cruise Lines and the locally owned Alaskan Dream if you prefer small-group socializing and a more-intimate view of the 49th state.
Recommendation: Book your Alaska cruise now to take advantage of early-bird fares and a good choice of itineraries and cabins. Last-minute fares may be cheaper, but your choices will be more limited.
Fran Golden is co-author, along with Gene Sloan, of “Frommer’s EasyGuide to Alaskan Cruises and Ports of Call 2014.”
An earlier version of this article had the incorrect name for Regent’s Seven Seas Navigator. It also listed the wrong departure port for the Disney Wonder, which sails from Vancouver, B.C.