When I cruise the Inside Passage I am rarely far from a helicopter, river raft, narrow-gauge train, gold-panning sluice, hiking trail, or bear-viewing platform. I’ve watched totem pole carvers at work, gotten a kick out of can-can revues, savored Alaska’s fresh-caught fire-grilled salmon, flown through the trees on a spine-tingling zip line—and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what an Alaska cruise has to offer.
Nothing prepares you for Glacier Bay
Entering Glacier Bay is like being transported back in time. Surrounded on all sides by rugged mountains, deep fjords and dynamic glaciers, you witness what lost generations experienced as the planet emerged from the last great Ice Age. Vast rivers of ice sculpt the landscape leaving behind newly de-glaciated foothills, outwash plains, rocky beaches and forested islands. This 25-million acre World Heritage Site is Alaska’s most highly touted glacier-viewing destination and no wonder. When a slab of ice hundreds of feet high shatters off the face of Marjorie or Johns Hopkins Glacier and “calves” icebergs into the sea, you’ll know why the Indians called this “Thunder Bay.”
You can walk right off the ship into downtown Juneau, the Alaska state capital. Lampposts sport hanging flowers, colorful banners wave outside storefronts and the Franklin Street area, with its National Register of Historic Places, draws me in as if enchanted. I like to stop at the historic Alaskan Hotel for a cup of Alaskan roast coffee. Or when I’m ready for a bite and a glass of something stronger, I head next door to the Red Dog Saloon. The swinging bar doors, sawdust floor and honky-tonk music bring the 1890’s to life.
Most folks head out to Mendenhall Glacier but my favorite tour combines helicopter flightseeing with dog-sledding on a glacier. And I top that off with the aerial tram ride to the heights of Mt. Roberts for a trail hike interspersed with a series of photo stops. The views are to die for and I’m always able to snap a photo of my ship in the harbor.
For Skagway, you have to turn back the clock—the town’s residents have. They dress in vintage costumes, portray con-man Soapy Smith and his gang in the rowdy “Days of ’98 Show,” and offer tours in vintage cars and horse-drawn buggies for a touch of frontier nostalgia. Skagway is a great walking town and, if you’re a shopaholic like me, you’ll want to poke into every little store on the boardwalk—from the Trail Bench to the David Present Gallery, where you can find the work of one of the world’s best-known contemporary “scrimshanders.” The Red Onion Saloon boasts the bar, woodstove, mirrors and steamship counters of the original stampede-era tavern; plus old photos of Klondike Kate, Peahull Annie and lots of other “local characters.” If you can tear yourself away from town, a must-do excursion is the White Pass & Yukon Route railway that traces the grueling gold rush route to the Klondike. During Alaska’s “call of the wild,” Ketchikan became famous, or infamous, for its notorious Red Light district. Everything is quite respectable now but if you’d like to see some of the memorabilia from those rip-roaring days, Dolly’s House (you can’t miss the green wood-frame house with red shutters) has been turned into a period museum. For native culture and totem poles head to Saxman Village or Totem Bight and the floatplane trip to Misty Fjords National Monument is the kind of adventure that you’ll be talking about for years.