Cruise passenger Steve Trabun has sailed through Alaska's Inside Passage three times. And he can't wait to go again.
"The scenery is spectacular, and the wildlife is amazing," said Trabun, who lives in Spokane, Wash., and enjoys sailing with Princess Cruises. "Alaska is absolutely incredible. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff."
Nearly a million people explore Alaska's waters each year by cruise ship. Many, like Trabun, are so captivated by the scenery within the famous Inside Passage that they cruise again.
Barry Shulman, a cruise veteran with 89 trips under his belt, has been to Alaska four times on a variety of ships. "Alaska has the prettiest glaciers in the world," says Shulman, who lives in Las Vegas. "And you can only see them by ship."
The first time I visited Alaska, I thought I would be able to see more by land. I flew into Anchorage and took bus tours everywhere. Big mistake. Alaska is as wide as the Lower 48 and larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Not only was my trip tedious, but I also missed the big show on the water. I didn't have the experience of sailing on icy seas and trying to wrap my head around the enormous size of Alaska's glaciers, which dwarf huge cruise ships.
The next time I journeyed north, I did so by sea. It was a revelation. I enjoyed seeing Alaska's southeastern cities, including Juneau, the capital, and Ketchikan. Both are rich in Gold Rush and Alaska Native history. But I really struck scenic gold sailing the Inside Passage.
Stretching from Puget Sound, Wash., along the British Columbia coast into the Gulf of Alaska, the Inside Passage was formed by the movement of massive glaciers millions of years ago. It includes more than 1,000 islands, fiords and lush island scenery, habitat for whales, bald eagles and other wildlife — and, of course, the glaciers.
And as Trabun put it, "It's really great to see all this from the comfort of a cruise ship."
But striking scenic gold requires some planning. We talked to veteran travelers, cruise companies and tourism officials to find eight must-see destinations and activities for Alaskan cruisers. Most are offered as excursions by the cruise lines that sail the Inside Passage and farther north.
Experienced cruisers often organize their own excursions, giving them flexibility and sometimes saving money in the bargain. Shulman's advice: Novice cruisers "might be more comfortable booking through their ship and not worrying that the ship will leave without you if you get back late."
The Inside Passage
This is what Alaskan cruising is all about. Check itineraries to see how much time your ship will spend cruising there. Some ships sail mainly at night, which means you might not see as much.
Check out Creek Street when your ship docks here. It's charming, of historic significance to the community and, when the salmon are running (July through September, peaking in August), you can watch them make their way up the creek to spawn.
If this enormous fiord south of Juneau isn't on your ship's itinerary, try to visit by floatplane (a wonderful adventure) or on a small boat when you dock in Juneau.
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau
You can take boat, helicopter, plane or dog sledding excursions here. Or take an easy four- to six-mile wilderness hike. One way or the other, don't miss it.
Mt. Roberts Tramway, Juneau
Get a bird's-eye view of lush rainforest and subalpine meadows on this tram ride, which ascends 1,800 feet from the cruise dock to the mountain. The ride is thrilling, and you can top it off with a hike on a panoramic trail.
See the ebb and flow of glaciers within this majestic 65-mile-long fiord, which has tidewater and alpine glaciers and is ringed by mountains, including the world's tallest coastal range.
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
This may be the No. 1 choice of cruise passengers. The White Pass trip includes a ride on the narrow-gauge railway that climbs out of Skagway, following the 19th century Klondike gold rush trail.
Hubbard, a whopping 40 stories high, weighs in as the largest and most active tidewater glacier on the Alaskan coast, dwarfing even the biggest cruise ships. Its phenomenal blue color is spectacular even from a distance.
This list is far from comprehensive and doesn't mention many other only-in-Alaska sights: Denali National Park, Prince William Sound, Misty Fjords National Monument, or activities such as floatplane, dog sled or salmon-fishing tours.
Happily, Alaskan cruise passengers have a dizzying array of choices. Perhaps that's why as many as 40%, industry statistics say, make the trip more than once.
Cruise Tip of the Week
Cruise Tip: Alaska's cruise season and shoulder season
Alaska's cruise season runs May to September. Shoulder season cruises — in May and September — often offer good deals, and usually there are fewer children onboard.