Alaska -- the mere mention of the state evokes images of bears, moose, whales, glaciers and icebergs. That's what brings hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers here to sail each year between the months of May and September. Just because you might see lots of ice, doesn't mean you will necessarily freeze either. June, July and August are the warmest months, with daytime temperatures rising into the 70s.
Alaskan cruises usually follow 1 of 2 routes. The Inside Passage itinerary runs round-trip from Vancouver or Seattle with possible stops in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, Skagway, Haines and Glacier Bay. The Gulf of Alaska route sails between Vancouver and Anchorage or vice versa. Ports of call might include Valdez and Seward as well as the Inside Passage ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Skagway. Both routes attempt to maximize the scenery for passengers.
As with all cruises, Alaska journeys are full of potential shore excursions offered by the cruise lines. If you're visiting a big city or town, feel free to wander off on your own. But if you're looking for the exhilaration of seeing the scenery from a plane, for example, check out what your cruise line offers. There are bound to be a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences among the choices.
Anchorage, Denali, Glacier Bay, Haines, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Ketchikan, Misty Fjords, Petersburg, Seattle, Seward, Sitka, Skagway, Tracy Arm/Sawyer Glacier, Valdez, Vancouver (Canada), Victoria (Canada)
Juneau, San Francisco, Seattle, Seward, Vancouver
American Safari, Carnival, Celebrity, Clipper, Cruise West, Crystal, Glacier Bay, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Radisson, Royal Caribbean
See the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which opened several years ago in Anchorage. The admission price is a bit steep, but a visit will give you a better understanding of the culture of Alaska's native peoples.
Denali National Park houses North America's highest mountain, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley.
Glacier Bay is designated as a national park, and only a limited number of cruise ships are allowed to sail through at a time. Glacier Bay is particularly notable for its myriad of wildlife.
A short walk from the pier in Haines is Fort William Seward, an Army outpost founded in 1903 and deactivated 60 years ago.
Don't let the remoteness of Alaska's state capital fool you. Juneau is still a city full of stores, museums and, of course, the capitol building. But there's plenty to see outside town. Cruise passengers can visit Mendenhall Glacier as part of the Glacier Helicopter Tour, the Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip, or the Mendenhall Glacier and City Highlights Tour.
Pack your poncho for the port call in Ketchikan, where it frequently rains. If you're a fisherman, take advantage of the visit to the "Salmon Capital of the World" and sign up for a fishing excursion. If people are more your thing, visit the Saxman Native Village, a real working village where hundreds of native people live. For a bird's-eye view of the Alaskan landscape, sign up for Misty Fjords Flightseeing.
Gulf of Alaska cruises usually debark or embark in Seward, which is 125 miles from Anchorage. Passengers usually head straight to or from Anchorage. But if you have some free time in Seward, check out the Alaska SeaLife Center, a research aquarium where the public can view everything from sea otters to seals.
When you arrive in Skagway, consider a trip on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. You can take this historic narrow-gauge railway past some stunning scenery to White Pass Summit, along the US/Canada border.
As your ship sails through Tracy Arm-Sawyer Glacier, look for cliffs, waterfalls, bears and bald eagles.
Valdez is considered the Switzerland of the Alaskan coast. The cruise lines offer the Valdez Sportfishing excursion here.
Vancouver always wins rave reviews from cruisers who embark or debark here. Close to the pier, you'll find Gastown, a neighborhood filled with historic buildings housing restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.
They don't call it British Columbia for nothing! Victoria revels in its British heritage. The Empress Hotel, within walking distance of the port, offers afternoon tea. You can take a city tour via double-decker bus and, of course, how could you have a truly British experience without a castle? Craigdarroch Castle is just outside town.