Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise, USA & Canada – Vancouver, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and College Fjord (July 3-10, 2012) – Our Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise was a great cruise!
General Alaska Comments
We very much enjoyed our 2-week visit to Alaska. Everywhere you visit in Alaska the landscape scenery is a wow! after wow! The people of Alaska that we met along the way were genuine and friendly and have a sense of self-reliance and cooperation that is refreshing coming from a society that is becoming increasingly filled with entitlement and self-centeredness. Once we got back home to San Diego, we better understood why living in Alaska is preferred by almost a million people. With scenic nature everywhere and no traffic jams, the open space makes people less stressed. Even the teenagers in Alaska smile and are happy – what’s with that?
If you have two weeks to explore Alaska, we believe that this trip that we researched and took is one of the better trips you can take. It includes a number of Alaska’s rather easily accessible main attractions and gets you off the beaten path to see some ‘real’ Alaska. We started with a classic 7-day Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise leaving from Vancouver, Canada, visiting Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and cruising Glacier Bay. Our second week was a land tour of Alaska’s interior visiting Anchorage, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Sewart, and the Kenai Peninsula & Fjords National Park with beautiful scenic Park Connection bus and Alaskan Railroad trips.
The main reason you should consider visiting Alaska is best described as Wilderness with a capital W – land as far as the eye can see left undeveloped for generations to come. Everything in Alaska is big! North America’s tallest mountain is here. The 3 largest U.S. Federal wildlife preserves are in Alaska. The smallest of the 3 having 6.3 million acres. Plant-eating animals (moose) grow to 1,500 pounds and plankton-eating whales become the largest animals on earth.
The tourism infrastructure in Alaska is extremely good offering budget and upscale accommodations, wonderfully scenic public transportation between major sites and towns including free or inexpensive shuttles in towns, and well-organized tours to visit the nature wonders of Alaska. Alaska is proud of its unique history and culture. History displays can be found everywhere.
Before boarding our Alaskan Inside Passage Cruise, we stayed one day in downtown Vancouver on Granville Street. Downtown Vancouver is quite urban, a nice blend of North American and European city influences. They claim to possess more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world and it certainly felt like it. You name a cuisine, Vancouver has got it.
We started our evening in downtown Vancouver on Granville Street at the “Johnnie Fox’s Irish Snug” pub (see photo) with a traditional pint of Guinness beer and sharing a Shepherd’s Pie made of mashed potatoes and meat. To walk off our early evening indolence, we wandered through the Davie village and neighborhood of quaint homes and pretty tree and wildflower lined residential streets. Then it was fun to stroll the Robson district on none other than Robson Street where we found the India Gate Restaurant for some delightful Indian food. This entertaining evening in Vancouver was finished with a visit to Vancouver’s stand up comedy club “The Comedy Mix” where we just laughed the evening away.
As told to us by our Indian restaurant waiter, Vancouver, with a very international blend of residents, is a city of “sharing and caring”. We have been to Vancouver twice before and truly love this city. Driving around the beautiful 1,000-acre Stanley Park with its cedar groves, community gardens, public sculptures, and beaches is a treat not to be missed – get out and take a hike. The adventurous should visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge that swings 230 feet above the river. In downtown Vancouver, it is also fun to visit Granville Island, Yaletown, Gastown with its famous Steam Clock, Chinatown, and much more.
Many cruise lines offer 7-day Inside Passage cruises of Alaska that typically between Vancouver or Seattle to Anchorage and sometimes back. Because of an incredible bargain offered to leave on July 4th ($402/person), we choose Princess Cruise line that started in Vancouver and included the classic Alaskan port of calls of Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway as well as cruising Glacier Bay and College Fjords. Princess offers very nice cruises at affordable prices. Cruising along the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska offers constant scenery to enjoy (see photo).
Our Princess Inside Passage cruise included a talk from Libby Riddles, the first woman Iditarod champion. The Iditarod is a grueling 1,100-mile dog sled race. Winning this race is an amazing feat of athleticism, toughness, and knowledge of sled dogging.
Our first stop was Ketchikan, Alaska’s southernmost city. It is also known as the “Salmon Capital of World.” This small town of about 14,000 people hosts almost 1 million visitors a year, mostly for a day from cruise ships. Although on the day we visited Ketchikan were 5 cruise ships and 10,000 visitors in town, it still did not seem excessively crowded.
Ketchikan is located in the 17-million acre rain forest Tongass National Forest and is one of the rainiest cities in North America. It rains 240 days a year yielding an amazing 13 feet of rain every year. As our luck has it, the sun came out for our visit.
We had a very special pleasure in Ketchikan that we highly recommend to all visitors to Ketchikan. When you visit, do take the “Flightseeing Crab Feast” offered by Experience Alaska Tours (see photos). First, we enjoyed a bus ride to the remote George Inlet Lodge where along the way we saw Sitka Black Tail Deer and scores of eagles and learned about the history of Ketchikan. This was our first time witnessing these majestic birds. At the rustic, yet elegant George Inlet Lodge, you start your amazing feast with an Alaskan Amber beer or glass of white wine with smoked salmon appetizers. It’s wonderful but don’t fill up because the best is still to come… all you can eat steaming hot Alaskan Dungeness Crab with warm clarified butter (see photo). The crab is fresh caught and is so sweet and delicious, we had seconds. If you have any room left, the creamy cheesecake covered with Alaskan blueberries will take care of that. Want another beer? – it’s all included.
Well if that is not enough, on your Flightseeing Crab Feast, you now board an authentic Alaskan bush float plane that takes off from the dock for an aerial view of the beautiful majestic snow-capped mountains, thick rainforest, alpine lakes, and glacier-craved sea inlets of the Tongass National Forest (see photos). Gently gliding over one of Alaska’s treasures with headphones listening to the fully narrated tour is exciting, beautiful, and informative. Landing on water is an interesting event everyone should enjoy sometime. Everyone on our trip was completely satisfied saying the Flightseeing Crab Feast excursion offered by Experience Alaska Tours was well worth the money spent and a day that will be fondly remembered – and we completely agree!
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Back in Ketchikan, the delightful scenic Creek Street in downtown Ketchikan is a must visit. Today Creek Street’s picturesque wooden buildings house tourist-oriented shops, restaurants, galleries, and museums (see photo). Its history is much more exciting. Up until 1953, Creek Street was a red-light district. Because Creek Street is built on stilts over Ketchikan Creek where the salmon run upstream each year, it was once said that Creek Street is where both salmon and fishermen come to spawn.
Ketchikan’s Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is a favorite of many visitors showcasing the athletic skills of lumberjacks. Also, the world’s largest collection of totem poles is found in Ketchikan. You can see many totem poles at the Saxman Native Village and Totem Bight State Park and also witness native dancers. Flightseeing to Misty Fjords and zip lining are also exciting excursions in Ketchikan. Travel Tip: The Ketchikan public library offers 15 minutes of free Internet connection for visitors.
Like many other towns in Alaska, Alaska’s capital, Juneau got its start as a silver and gold mining town. Now about 40% of Juneau’s about 31,000 residents find their riches working for the government with tourism the largest private industry. Legend has it that Juneau was named after Joe Juneau who bought a round of drinks at the bar before the town voted on the name for the town. I bet current politicians wish they could be so lucky getting off that cheaply. The climate in Juneau and Alaska’s southeast panhandle is best described as a “cooler wetter version of Seattle.” Juneau has the distinction of being the only state capital in the U.S. that there are no roads leading into it. You must arrive in Juneau by plane or boat.
In Juneau, a real treat was our visit to Glacier Gardens (see photos). The amazing upside down tree gardens at the beginning and the beautiful hanging flowers in the atrium alone were worth the trip. From there we hopped on a golf cart with a local guide for an up-close tour of over 50 acres of Alaskan wilderness where you see streams, ponds, waterfalls, and towering Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce forest in the heart of the Tongass National Forest rainforest. Our local guide gave us an interesting description of the indigenous plant and animal life. A visit to the Glacier Gardens is definitely worth the $25/person. We continued on to visit the Alaskan Brewing Company that brews some very good beers that you can taste for free. The Alaskan Brewing Company is a symbol of pride for Juneau. Founded in 1986 with $5,000 investments from Alaskans, their beers have brought home more than 100 major medals and awards. All their beers use water from glacial-fed streams. Start with the Alaskan Amber. If you are a beer coinsure, do try the Smoked Porter, IPA, and Stout – wonderful beers. If you like lighter beers, the White and Summer Ale are for you. Just thinking about them makes me thirsty. After wandering the quant shops of the Juneau’s old district, we ended our day in Juneau having wonderful steaming-hot crab bisque at Tracy’s King Crab Shack and listening to a fun local singing talent at the Red Dog Saloon. The Red Dog Saloon (see photo) with its sawdust covered floors dates back to the early days of Juneau and has a lot of character filled with historic artifacts including Wyatt Earp’s gun.
You can save money visiting all these sites by taking the very nice Mendenhall Valley public bus out of downtown Juneau for $1.50/person each time you get off and on. The transportation for our excursions in Juneau cost a total of $9/couple for the complete trip. The helpful visitor centers located around Juneau will assist you in planning your day. Visiting the Glacier Gardens, Alaskan Brewing Company, Red Dog Salon, enjoying crab bisque, and wandering around Juneau’s historic district cost us about $75 for a very enjoyable and informative day in Juneau.
If you want to visit and learn more about glaciers, from Juneau’s cruise ship docks you can take local shuttles ($16/person round trip) to the 12-mile long Mendenhall Glacier. Other popular excursions include dog sledding, whale watching, and taking a helicopter or plane flight. Juneau also has a couple of museums in town to visit as well as hiking trails.
Skagway is a charming little town that was famous as the gateway town to the largest gold discovery in the world, the Yukon Klondike gold rush in the late 1800’s. The idea of becoming rich enticed about 100,000 men and women to come to Skagway. Because of the dreadful harsh elements of the 550-mile overland trek to the Klondike and the 1-ton requirement of provisions and supplies, only about 35,000 made it to the gold fields where only about 4,000 found gold. With so many arriving late to after the best claims were taken, only a few hundred struck it rich – and I thought the stock market was tough.
We took one of the most popular excursions offered in Skagway and we recommend it – the historic and scenic 3.5-hour White Pass Summit Excursion on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. From your heated replica vintage railcar, you climb nearly 3,000 feet passing through tunnels and over trestles. You are treated to spectacular vistas and scenery of forest, lakes, waterfalls, and cliff hanging turns (see photos). We spotted a couple of bears along the way. This engineering marvel is designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark taking just 2 years to construct blasting through the rugged coastal mountains.
Back in Skagway, the mountain-backed historic Broadway Street with its wooden sidewalks and colorful restored storefronts is a step back in time and fun to wander (see photo). Make sure to check out the driftwood building. We ended up having lunch at the Red Onion Saloon. The Red Onion Saloon is a fun place where the waitresses dress in authentic vintage costume (see photo) – pretty fun considering the Red Onion Salon was once Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. Some of the working girls here in the 1890’s were called Birdie Ash, Big Dessie, Popcorn Lil, the Oregon Mare, Pea Hull Annie, Kitty Faith, and Kondike Kate. Many other adventurous excursions are offered out of Skagway.
Today Skagway is a town of 982 residents. With only 27 inches of precipitation a year, Skagway is known as the sunshine capital of southeast Alaska.
Glacier Bay and College Fjord
Alaska’s Glacier Bay is amazing. With its massive snow-capped mountains rising from the sea, nature’s blend of blue seawater, green forest, and white snow partially covering black rock is spectacular (see photo).Officially known as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, this U.S. National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site includes breathtaking tidewater glaciers, snow-capped coastal mountain peaks rising to over 15,000 feet, ocean coastlines, deep fjords, and freshwater rivers and lakes.
Just 250 years ago Glacier Bay was all one huge glacier formed during the Little Ice Age that occurred around 1750. This massage river of ice was more than 4,000 feet thick in places, up to 20 miles wide, and extended more than 100 miles. The glacier gouged out 1,000-foot deep Glacier Bay that was a flat river valley in 1680. Predating human carbon emissions, global warming started around 1815. By 1879, naturalist John Muir discovered that the ice had retreated more than 30 miles forming an actual bay. Today it has receded 65 miles leaving the magnificent Glacier Bay.
Our Princess cruise ship came within 1/3 mile of the tidewater Margerie Glacier. The Margerie Glacier is about 250 feet high at the waterline and ‘flows’ towards the ocean about 5 feet a day. We stayed an hour to witness the crashing roar of a calving glacier where icebergs break off the Margerie Glacier and float away. We witnessed some small calving but it still was loud.
College Fjord has the world’s largest collection of tidewater glaciers, each named for an east coast college or university that sponsored an expedition in the area. The largest, Harvard Glacier, is almost a mile and half wide. Other College Fjord glaciers are called Columbia, Yale, and Wellesley.
See our other 2 blog posts on Alaska to read about our complete trip:
Trip planning to Alaska
Even during the summer, chilly weather and rain is common. Fashion is not important in Alaska so pack casual comfortable clothing – lightweight shirts layered under sweaters and jackets (fleece is good). Take with you pants and shorts, a water-resistant coat with a hood, sturdy waterproof shoes, lightweight gloves, rain gear, and sunglasses.
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