Alaska is one of the quintessential cruise destinations, with regularly scheduled sailings since the late 1960s. It is home to some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet, from the breathtaking enormity of Glacier Bay National Park to the rugged and narrow forests that line the famous Inside Passage.
But not all Alaska cruises are created equal; in fact, there are three distinct types of voyages that you can choose to embark on, each offering up its own unique set of advantages.
Until 1999, the de-facto embarkation port for most Alaskan voyages was Vancouver, British Columbia; an increase in cruise traffic and the ever-growing length of cruise ships saw Port Metro Vancouver lengthen its iconic Canada Place cruise terminal in 2003, providing space for up to four mega-ships to dock at a single time.
Nearby Ballantyne Pier provided berthing capacity for an additional two megaships and one “pocket ship.”
But Norwegian Cruise Line was one of the first to question this single-port mentality, and acted as a major driving force and champion behind offering cruises departing from nearby Seattle, Washington. What started as a trickle of ships in early 2000 offering Seattle departures quickly eroded some of Port Metro Vancouver’s market share, and today there are an almost equal number of Seattle departures for every Vancouver sailing.
These typically sail roundtrip from Vancouver, and, as the name suggests, they usually offer two days of sailing the magnificent Inside Passage. While you might not see the close-up bear sightings so often advertised in cruise line brochures, you will gasp in awe at how close your ship sails to land for the better part of your day-long transit. Sailing past small islands dotted with single-occupancy houses, passing tugboats pulling barges filled with lumber, and even sighting wildlife are just some of the spectacles you can count on.
Inside Passage voyages typically visit the “big three” Alaskan ports of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway.
Ketchikan is remarkable for its cozy atmosphere, and is known as much for its fine salmon as its wet weather (the town gets more than 137 inches of rain per year). Juneau is larger in size, and guests disembarking for the day can participate in a number of excursions, including one to nearby Mendenhall Glacier. A few cruise lines even offer an up-close and personal tour of Tracy Arm and its small but no-less impressive North and South Sawyer glaciers. Gold Rush-influenced Skagway offers a taste of the past with improvised “brothel” visits and a train excursion up the legendary White Pass.
Rounding out Inside Passage cruises are visits to Glacier Bay National Park or the more northerly Hubbard Glacier. A few cruise lines offer scenic cruising through Tracy Arm, though access to the Sawyer Glaciers is often impossible due to ice buildup in the channel.
These “one-way” cruises sail from Vancouver, British Columbia to Anchorage, Alaska or vice versa. Ships can’t actually dock in Anchorage for obvious reasons, so cruise lines use nearby ports like Seward or Whittier as (dis)embarkation points.
Spanning one week, these one-way voyages are immensely popular for providing a cruise experience that goes much farther north than the typical voyage, but also for their ability to be combined as part of a land-based cruisetour. Once offered only by a few lines, cruisetours are now offered by nearly every mainstream line sailing the region, and can range in duration from a few days to a few weeks. Highlights of these voyages can include visits to College Fjord and more off-the-beaten-path ports like Sitka or Icy Strait Point.
For the truly adventurous, Alaskan cruisetours can go as far north as Barrow, Alaska – the northernmost city in the United States. The must-see adventure on any cruisetour, though, is unquestionably Denali National Park. Epic valleys and snow-capped peaks give way to miles of forest and expansive wilderness. It is truly a sight like no other.
Many passengers appreciate the lower cost of flying into Seattle’s SEATAC airport compared with similar flights to Vancouver International Airport. Seattle departures are also popular with American travelers looking to vacation without the need for passports.
These weeklong Seattle departures usually call at two of the “big three” ports, but with a more off-the-beaten path call to ports like Sitka or Icy Strait Point. In order to satisfy American legislation known as the Jones Act, all Seattle-based Alaska cruises must call on a Canadian port before returning to the United States. By far the most popular port choice is Victoria, British Columbia.
Located on Vancouver Island, the capital of British Columbia exudes a decidedly English charm, and sights like the famous Empress Hotel and the world-class Butchart Gardens keep passengers returning again and again. Recently though, cruise lines have begun to diversify their Canadian offerings by calling on smaller ports like Prince Rupert, Nanaimo and Campbell River.
The main drawback with departing from Seattle is that the picturesque Inside Passage is bypassed in favor of the faster Pacific Ocean route.
In 2012, the powerhouse duo of Holland America Line and Princess Cruises return to offer another spectacular season from Vancouver, Anchorage and Seattle. Celebrity Cruises and parent company Royal Caribbean also return, porting one ship each in Vancouver and Seattle. Norwegian Cruise Line continues to “Cruise Like a Norwegian” from Seattle, with the popular Norwegian Star returning for one last Alaska season along with fleetmate Norwegian Pearl.
Disney Cruise Line also returns to Alaska in 2012, but this time gives the people of Seattle, Washington some love as Disney Wonder leaves its previous Vancouver homeport. Carnival Cruise Lines brings its Fun Ships back to Alaskan waters, with Carnival Spirit resuming her popular weeklong voyages from Seattle.
Ultra-luxury fans have plenty to be thrilled about, as Regent Seven Seas and Silversea both return to Vancouver, offering some of the most unique and comfortable itineraries afloat. Regent will return with Seven Seas Navigator, while Silversea sends its popular Silver Shadow back for another season.
Few things can compare with hearing the thunderous roar of calving ice in Glacier Bay, or the thrill of sailing the Inside Passage near sunset. It’s the reason why those who sail here continue to do so time and time again. Will next year be your season to cruise Alaska?