The word “epic” doesn’t do Alaska justice. It’s America’s wild playground, with parks that are bigger than many U.S states. Its scenery is dramatic, its wildlife so plentiful that animals outnumber people.
Alaska ranks as a top bucket-list choice for many travelers, but if it’s on your “must” slate, you face a choice: by land or by sea?
Mark McConnell, an Anaheim financial planner, did both. He got his feet wet, so to speak, by sailing through the Inside Passage on Norwegian Cruise Line.
He then took a 10,000-mile van trip that included the Alaska Highway, a 1,387-mile stretch of road that was built during World War II to connect Alaska with the contiguous United States. (It also includes parts of Canada and is often called the AlCan Highway.)
“The scenery in Alaska is awesome,” McConnell said. “In some places, the rivers are so full of fish it seems like you can almost walk across the water on [their] backs.”
Which of his trips did he enjoy more?
“Both were great in different ways,” McConnell said. “But I have to admit it was the scenery on the cruise that whetted my appetite to see more.”
I also have done both and agree. I’m glad I drove the Alaska Highway; it was stunning and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the journey seemed endless at the time.
“When you’re doing it, there are so many mountains and so many trees that you feel like you’re on scenery overload,” McConnell said.
For that reason, I’d give the edge to cruising for Alaska newbies.
Here are points to consider when planning your trip:
The glaciers: Some sites and places in Alaska can be seen or accessed only from the water. You can fly into Southeast Alaska cities such as the beautiful state capital, Juneau, colorful Ketchikan and historic Sitka, none accessible by road and financially prohibitive to see all by air.
Some spectacularly scenic places such as Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are best seen from the deck of a ship or boat.
Lots of cruise choices: Because of Alaska’s popularity as a destination, many ships ply its waters, which means competitive prices and a variety of itineraries.
Among the major lines cruising Alaskan waters this summer: Princess, Holland America, Carnival, Seabourn, Crystal, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Disney, Celebrity, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas and Silversea.
Or try the Alaska Marine Highway, the state’s ferry system.
Most cruise ships depart from Seattle, San Francisco or Vancouver, Canada, but this summer, Carnival will offer a two-week round-trip sailing from Long Beach to Alaska on Sept. 2 (rates for an interior room from $1,529 per person, double occupancy.)
In 2018, Princess will add its first round-trip sailings from Los Angeles to Alaska, offering 12-day cruises in April and September (rates for an interior room from $1,699 per person, double occupancy.)
History and culture: Southeast Alaska has a fascinating Gold Rush history and a rich Native culture; both are easily accessible in the most commonly visited cities along the route.
Wildlife: If you want to see Alaska’s big game but don’t want to run into a bear or moose on the trail, settle back on a deck chair. You’ll see plenty of grizzlies patrolling the woods close to shore in search of a meal.
If you visit when the salmon are running, you can watch them make their incredible upstream journey to spawn (lay eggs) in cities such as Ketchikan or on shore excursions that will take you farther afield.
Cruise land opportunities: Many cruise lines offer vacation extensions that allow you to visit interior Alaska, including Denali National Park, Anchorage, Talkeetna and Fairbanks, plus Canadian highlights such as the Yukon Territory and British Columbia.
For travelers who can’t decide whether to sail the Alaskan coast or take a road trip, McConnell has this suggestion: “Cruise one way, rent an RV in Alaska and then spend an extra week or two seeing the sights. That would be ideal.”
Tip of the week
Don’t forget to take binoculars and long camera lenses on a trip to Alaska.
Do forget to take an umbrella. It rains frequently in Southeast Alaska, but residents say umbrellas are practically useless. All you need, they say, is a waterproof jacket with a hood.