The 49th American State
Take a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad
There are several ports in Alaska that cruise ships will make day stops to. There’s Juneau, which boasts the Mount Robert’s Tramway, which provides a unique six minute ride 1,800 feet up the mountain. From there you can enjoy amazing views of the city and of the Gastineau Channel. Don’t forget to make a stop at the Red Dog Saloon, which has to be the most talked-about pub in the United States, complete with honky-tonk music and good wholesome fun and wonderful food.
Sitka is probably most famous for its Alaska Raptor Centre. This non-profit facility dedicates itself to restoring the health of various birds of prey, primarily eagles, who have been injured or stricken with various illnesses, many unique to the birds in this region. The goal is to restore these birds to health and then return them to the wild, though some who are too badly injured are housed in the Centre’s permanent facility. Comprehensive tours are offered of the Centre, with all proceeds raised going toward the vital work of this organisation and its many volunteer workers. Sitka contains many remnants of Alaska’s Russian heritage, including St. Michael’s Cathedral. The Russian Bishop’s House, containing a historic park in which can be found totem poles and story boards detailing the past of the region’s Tlingit Indians, can also be found in Sitka.
There are also many smaller towns in America’s 49th state, though many of them are too small for the larger cruise ships to access. However, some of the smaller lines routinely visit these ports (such as Haines) and provide tourists with some unique perspectives of the region not available to the big ship passengers.
Weather in Alaska is generally mild all spring and summer, though it is best to always dress with several layers. Visit in early spring or late summer if you want to experience Alaska in less crowded conditions, though you will have a greater chance of colder weather or rainy conditions at these times. But even at the beginning and end of the Alaska season, it is not unusual to have very, very mild weather, and cruisers have reported touring Alaska towns in shirtsleeves and sunglasses at these times.
Alaska is popular with both larger and smaller cruise lines. Holland America, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise lines and Royal Caribbean deploying cruise ships here annually. If you prefer the smaller luxury cruise lines, you are still spoilt for choice with Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania cruises.
Glacier Bay, a 3.3 million acre expanse of land, water and mountains were covered by ice just 200 years ago. Located in southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay is a Y-shaped, 65-mile long bay that has continued to expand, thanks to the glacial retreats, noted first by the American nature lover, John Muir. This phenomenon exposed new land and water, which unleashed the growth of unseen flora and fauna in this region. Since 1925, Glacier Bay as Glacier Bay National Park has enjoyed government protection so that environmentalists, biologists, zoologists, wildlife and animal lovers can study and admire its beautiful inhabitants.
Haines, a port, located along the Alaskan Inside Passage, is surrounded by sightseeing musts. To the north is the gold rush blessed town of Skagway, to the southeast is Juneau, the capital city of Alaska and to the southwest is the beautiful Glacier Bay National Park, home to unique flora and fauna and wildlife.
Set in the Chilkat peninsula, along the Chilkat River, Haines enjoys a warmer and drier climate compared to the rest of the southeast Alaska. The spring and summer temperatures can range from 60-80 degrees F, making Haines the warmest place along the Inside Passage and also more hospitable to tourists from spring to fall.
The Hubbard Glacier is located at the northern end of Yakutat Bay and empties itself into the sea at the head of the bay. Hubbard Glacier can also claim the title as the longest glacier in North America. The Hubbard continues to calve (shedding its building material, that is, ice) into the sea from its open face that is six miles long. The glacier was so named after Gardiner G. Hubbard in 1890, the founder and the first president of the National Geographic Society. It is a part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The northern portion of the passage is in the US with a shoreline of 15,000 miles and covers hundreds of islands, inlets and bays. The southern portion has a similar landscape and is in the British Columbia region of Canada.
The Inside Passage encompasses world-famous national parks, cities, glaciers, fjords and towns making it the most popular tourist destination in Alaska. The route is also heavily trafficked by cruise liners, freighters, fishing vessels, tugs and other commercial ships.
It is often said that the variety offered by tourist destinations along the Inside Passage is what has made Alaska cruising so popular around the world. Now let’s have a look at what makes the Inside Passage so popular.
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, inhabited by about 30,000 people. Accessible only by air and water, Juneau is the third largest city in Alaska and the largest city along the Inside Passage. It is located on a narrow landmass between the soaring Mount Juneau and the deep waters of Gastineau Channel. It was named after Jo Juneau, a gold prospector. Discovered in 1880, Juneau attained prosperity during the Gold Rush days. It was the headquarters of three gold mining operations in those days. In 1900 it became the capital of Alaska.
Summer temperatures range from 44º F to 65ºF and rainfall is frequent throughout the year. You can reach Juneau by air from Anchorage or Seattle or enjoy a ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington. Alaska Airlines has partnerships with other airlines to connect other parts of the US to Juneau. Once you reach the capital, taxicabs and the comprehensive local public transit system can take care of your transport needs.
Ketchikan, the southern-most city along the Inside Passage, is often the first stop for cruise liners that depart from Seattle, which is about 500 miles north of Ketchikan. Located at the foot of Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, Ketchikan’s Indian name “Kach Khanna” means “spread wings of prostrate eagle”. Originally known for its fishing, Ketchikan became a supply centre for gold miners during the Gold Rush. In 1886 white settlers opened several canneries and Ketchikan was on its way to becoming the “salmon centre of the world.”
This port city is often the tourist’s first look at Alaska. Built into the hills and propped up by wooden pillars and strewn with boardwalks, totem poles and wooden staircases, it fills the tourist with excitement and wonder about the rest of the state. The weather increases the appeal too. Annual rainfall reaches 165 inches making it the wettest city in Alaska. The tourist board dismisses the rain as “liquid sunshine”. And that is so true. The round-the-year rain does not detract from the city’s charm. Summer temperatures range from 50-65ºF.
Seward is a very scenic town, located at the head of the Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, about 126 miles south of Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska. Known as the “Gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park”, Seward is placed against the beautiful backdrop of the 3000-ft-tall Mt Marathon. This town was founded on an Easter Sunday by the Russian explorers in 1903. It was destroyed by the tidal wave unleashed by the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 but the town was rebuilt and today it is home to about 3000 people. Seward is named after William H. Seward, the secretary of state, who advocated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Sitka, the largest city in the entire US, area wise (four times the size of Rhode Island), sits on the western shore of the island of Baranof in the Alexander Archipelago in southeast Alaska. It was founded in 1799 by Alexander Baranof, the Russian explorer. Soon Sitka was embroiled in a fierce battle for control between the Tlingit Indians, who wanted Sitka because it was their ancestral land and the Russians led by Baranof, who did not want to let go of their new conquest. In 1804 Baranof won decisively and made Sitka the capital of Russian America. In 1867 the US purchased Alaska. The capital however moved to Juneau in 1906 because of the explosive population growth following the discovery of gold. Sitka is a Tlingit Indian name meaning, “People on the outside of Shee,” the latter being the Tlingit name of Baranof.
Skagway is the northern most town along Alaska’s Inside Passage, about 100 miles to the north of Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Placed strategically close to the US, Canada border, Skagway came into existence because of the Gold Rush and became notorious as a lawless town ruled by vigilantes and criminals out to rob the miners on their way to dig for gold. Today it is described as the nation’s best-preserved Gold Rush town.
In 1896 gold was found in the Klondike region of Canada. The next year thousands of starry-eyed miners, gold diggers, opportunists and stragglers started pouring into the new town to take a break and get ready for the 500-mile journey north to the prospective gold fields of Canada. The journey was hard and treacherous and many decided to stay back and open shops, stores, saloons and offices to provide goods and services to the miners. By the middle of 1898, with a population between 8000 and 10,000, Skagway became the largest city in Alaska though it was known to be a living hell because of the rampant lawlessness and criminal activity. After 1900 when the gold ran out, the population of Skagway dwindled too. Today merely 800 people call Skagway home.
The port of Vancouver is the embarkation point for Alaskan cruises. These cruises are some of the world’s most popular! Between May and September more than 900,000 people pass through the port’s two cruise terminals. The cruise ships are operated by international lines such as Carnival Cruise Line, Peace Boat, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises. Ships departing from this port take passengers to experience the outstanding beauty of the mountains, wildlife and glaciers of America’s last frontier. In addition to the natural attractions visitors experience the unique culture of Alaska.
College Fjord is a spectacular collection of glaciers located in the northern region of Prince William Sound, located in the Gulf of Alaska. Prince William Sound lies at the southern end of the state of Alaska. A sound is an ocean conduit, larger than a bay, placed between two landmasses (Whoever knew that the word sound had a geographical meaning too!).
Whittier is a small town that lies 120 km south east of Anchorage in south central Alaska. The town has its origins from World War II, when the American military built a port and railroad terminus near the Whittier Glacier (named after the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier). The port was used by the military until 1960. Today, the town is a popular port of call for cruise ships and is popular with tourists and sport fishermen. It has links to Anchorage and the Alaskan interior.
Whittier offers the visitor a number of activities including fishing, glacier cruises and kayaking. The Prince William Sound Explorer Glacier Cruise takes passengers through the fjords and is an opportunity to explore the wilderness and tame waters of Prince William Sound. Highlights of the tour include the waterfalls and inlets of Esther Passage and the tidewater glaciers of Barry Arm. The cruise lasts six hours, during which passengers can enjoy lunch, watch the abundant marine life and learn about the natural history of the area. The cruise is available from May to September.
Port Alberni, Canda
Known as a logging and fishing town for many decades Port Alberni in recent years has been trying to transform itself from a stop over town on the pacific coast of Vancouver to a fully fledged tourist town in its own right. British Columbias first sawmill started in 1860 and this first mill began the forestry industry of the Alberni Valley that eventually extended across the world as it has up until the present day.