1. San Francisco
It’s a long way from Alaska’s usual first port of call, Ketchikan –1,310 miles to be precise – but San Francisco is one of the key departure points for Alaskan cruises, and one of the great US cities. It’s a big bonus if it’s on your itinerary and it makes sense to devote two or three days to exploring it either at the beginning or end of your cruise.
If you don’t start an Alaskan cruise in San Francisco, the chances are you’ll do so from Vancouver, which is every part as beautiful and interesting, and a good alternative to Seattle, another departure option. It’s easy to combine a seven-day cruise with a week split between the Rockies and Vancouver. Otherwise, three days will give you a good taste of the city (tourismvancouver.com).
It’s a plus if this small Canadian city, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is on your itinerary, because it’s well suited to the day-long stopovers offered by many cruise lines, with a pretty and easily explored downtown area full of cafés, restaurants and historical buildings, plus a museum, the Royal British Colombia Museum, which has been previously ranked among the top 10 museums in North America (tourismvictoria.com).
4. The Inside Passage
The immense collection of islands, fjords and bays between northern Vancouver Island and Skagway is one of the world’s most scenic sea routes. Virtually all cruises incorporate the Passage, but check itineraries and days at sea carefully to find out just what you will see: much cruising between ports is done at night.
5. Ketchikan zipline
Ketchikan town offers little, but the ziplines through the rainforest canopy (3.5-hour excursion, with transfers) offer a superb excursion by any standards, with eight different lines ranging from 100 to 850 feet, as well as tree platforms, ground trails and sky bridges, all with a good chance of wildlife sightings. Alternatively, hold out for Icy Strait Point, where its 5,330-foot zipline is one of the world’s longest (alaskacanopy.com).
6. Tracy Arm
There’s no shortage of glaciers or spectacular scenery on Alaskan cruises, but this immense fjord, just south of Juneau, has some of the best. However, cruise ships must make a diversion, so check to see if it is on your itinerary. If it is not, consider floatplane or small-boat excursions from Juneau or ensure your cruise offers similar set-piece “scenic cruising” at Glacier Bay or elsewhere.
Relatively few cruises stop here, on the seaward side of the Inside Passage, but the former capital of the earliest Imperial Russian settlers in Alaska is one of the prettiest towns in the state. Ignore the Russian-themed tat in the souvenir shops and concentrate instead on the many cultural attractions and the easy strolls and short hikes in the Starigavan area (sitka.org).
8. Medenhall Glacier, Juneau
Ignore the boat, plane and other excursions from Juneau to see this glacier, the port’s main attraction, in favour of an easy guided four- or six-mile rainforest hike, which as well as offering views onto the glacier also gives you a brief but bracing taste of the Alaskan wilderness (traveljuneau.com).
9. Mount Roberts Tramway, Juneau
It’s expensive, and only takes around five minutes, but this cable car whisks you more or less straight from the cruise-ship terminal into the mountains for great views and, if you want to escape some of the crowds, offers access to a variety of panoramic trails you can manage before you ship departs (mountrobertstramway.com).
10. Wildlife at Icy Strait Point
This isolated local community and restored salmon cannery is a day-long stop for numerous cruises, but there is little to see or do in the immediate vicinity. However, this remote region is an excellent place to take a boat trip that combines the chance to see both whales and bears (icystraitpoint.com).
11. Glacier Bay
Not all cruise companies are allowed to access this majestic 65-mile-long fjord west of Juneau, so if scenery is what you want above all it can be worth choosing your cruise accordingly. The fjord is fed by 16 tidewater glaciers and ringed by mountains, including the 15,000 ft-high Fairweather Range, the world’s tallest coastal mountains (nps.gov/glba).
12. White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
The first-choice excursion out of Skagway – and a trip you can easily organise yourself – this narrow-gauge railway climbs into the mountains above the town, passing through magnificent scenery as it follows the route taken on foot by Klondike gold prospectors at the end of the 19th century. Most cruise passengers take the White Pass excursion (three hours round-trip) but longer trips and road-rail options are available (wpyr.com).
13. Haines wilderness river tours
Few cruises stop at Haines, preferring nearby Skagway, but if the port is on your itinerary take a jet-boat tour up-river into the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve for a great taste of the wilderness and good wildlife-spotting opportunities. Note, however, that the area’s famed gathering of thousands of bald eagles happens in November, outside the cruising season (haines.ak.us).
14. Hubbard Glacier
Far less well known than Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay, and rather isolated between Skagway and Whittier, Hubbard Arm is nonetheless the largest, most spectacular and most active (calving almost continuously in summer) glacier on the Alaskan coast; even the largest cruise ships here are dwarfed by the 40-storey high glacier.
15. Denali National Park
Cruises with half- and one-day port stopovers offer only limited access to interior Alaska. To see more of the state, take one of the “cruise tours” increasingly being offered by cruise companies, which combine a cruise and several days of guided or self-guided touring by rail and/or coach. Princess Cruises’ “Denali Explorer” (princesscruises.com), for example, combines a seven-day cruise with three to six days’ touring,including the Denali National Park, home to North America’s highest mountain (nps.gov/dena).
16. Floatplane tours
If you can, treat yourself to at least one floatplane or helicopter tour, the best way to gain a quick, one-off insight into some of Alaska’s finest scenery. They’re likely to be the most exhilarating but also the most expensive excursions on offer on any cruise. The best places to take such tours tend to be those that coincide with the best scenic cruising, so if your cruise doesn’t visit Glacier Bay, Tracy Arm or College Fjord, then book a flight from the nearest appropriate port of call.
17. Anchorage to Seward by rail
If you’re on a cruise that starts or ends in Whittier-Anchorage, then be sure to ride the 114 miles of railway between Anchorge and Seward (journey time three hours 20 minutes one-way). Passing glaciers, fjords and spanning gorges and cresting mountains passes, it’s one of North America’s most scenic train rides (alaskarailroad.com).
18. Glacier sightseeing from Whittier
Whittier is the northernmost point for most Alaskan cruises and you can start or finish cruises with nights in, and flights to or from nearby Anchorage. Board a small, fast boat from the port to explore the best cruise-accessible scenery in northern Alaska, notably the extraordinary fjords and mountains of Turnagain Arm and the Portage and 25 other glaciers.
19. College Fjord
Prince William Sound is the size of Switzerland, so cruise itineraries cannot take in its many highlights. Look for scenic cruising that incorporates College Fjord, in the bay’s northwest corner, which contains the world’s highest number of tidewater glaciers, along with snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see.
20. The Alaskan Peninsula
The long arm of land and islands that tapers west far into the Pacific, ending in the Aleutian Islands, is the last frontier for Alaskan cruising. Wild and almost unimaginably remote, it is one of the preserves of small-ship cruising, often from ports in Japan rather than the US. The rewards here includes volcanoes, superb wildlife-watching – especially for bears in the Katmai National Park – and a rich cultural and historical heritage that embraces Russian settlements and forgotten battles of the Second World War.