Total Immersion: Alaska Cruise Tours

A Journey By Land And Sea Is The Best Way To See This Great State

And this. Simply stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A cruise-tour combines a land and sea journey through Alaska, allowing you to see more of the state than one kind of transportation alone. Here’s the view of Denali National Park from the Alaska State Railroad, bound for Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Alaska.

It’s the largest of the United States by area, but also the least densely populated, meaning much of this great state remains largely as it always has been: a land of immense natural beauty, untouched by the ravages of time and modern civilization.

There are villages so small they barely feature on a map, interspersed with big cities and even famous cities. Of course, Alaska is also one of the quintessential cruise destinations. Along with the Caribbean, Alaskan cruising helped give birth to the modern cruise industry as it exists today. For more than 40 years now, cruises have been departing from Vancouver, British Columbia bound for the cities and towns of Southeast Alaska every week between May and October. But there’s only one way to truly immerse yourself into this land of contrasts for what it is, and that’s by taking an Alaskan CruiseTour.

The big reveal: Star Princess, as seen after exiting the tunnel in Whittier. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Princess Cruises’ Star Princess awaits guests in Whittier. They will sail south, on a weeklong voyage to Vancouver, BC. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

CruiseTours combine a weeklong, one-way cruise between Alaska and the Canadian port of Vancouver with an extensive overland journey through mainland Alaska. Not only do they offer a way of extending your Alaskan experience beyond the traditional seven-day duration of most cruises, but they allow you to explore a different side of Alaska than the typical ports-of-call in Southeast Alaska.

While most cruise lines sailing to Alaska offer these extended land and sea combinations, two stand out above the rest – and perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re the ones who have been operating here the longest.

Both Holland America Line and Princess Cruises offer a full array of CruiseTour options, with dozens of possible combinations. You can choose to take your land tour before your weeklong cruise, working your way south from Alaska’s far north to the warmth of Vancouver. You can elect to start in Vancouver first, sailing north to the ports of Whittier or Seward (or, in a few rare cases, even to Anchorage itself), and begin the land portion of your trip from there.

On-land, there are an almost mind-boggling array of possibilities.

Anchorage, Alaska...at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Anchorage, Alaska…at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Though Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan each have their charms, they exist today primarily for tourism, with the possible exception of Juneau, which also serves as the state capital; the only one in the continental United States that can only be accessed by air or sea.

Mainland Alaska – accessible only on a CruiseTour – offers a stunning array of sights. Most CruiseTours will include the city of Anchorage, thanks to the proximity of Ted Stevens International Airport, which offers a number of direct connections to many major hub cities in the United States and Canada, and European connections via Reykjavik, Iceland aboard Icelandair and charter service from Frankfurt, Germany with Condor.

Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest city, but despite the fact that almost 40 percent of Alaska’s entire population resides here, there’s still a good amount of small-town feel here. Its downtown core is intimate and walkable, populated mostly with local bars and restaurants and anchored with a single shopping center featuring a JC Penny outlet.

During the summer months, the sun never really sets in Anchorage. From the top floors of the Hotel Captain Cook – one of the most popular hotels in the city – the amber glow of the setting sun can be seen for miles, refusing to be extinguished even as the clock pushes past midnight.

Anchorage serves as a jumping-off point for two of Alaska’s most thrilling natural spectacles: Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park.

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Nestled next to Denali National Park is Princess Cruises’ Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Mt. McKinley is named after William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States and a man who never once set foot in Alaska. Its name was officially changed to Denali on August 30, 2015, but the name McKinley still exists on branding throughout Alaska and the cruise industry, though locals all tend to affectionately call the mountain “Denali.”

Princess Cruises is in prime position to showcase Mt. McKinley’s charms: Its McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge features a direct sightline to the imposing mountain, which on a clear day towers over the surrounding landscape.

Rather than having guests clustered in a single massive hotel, Princess employs the effective strategy of placing guests in a series of more intimate “out-buildings” that are separated from the main lodge. Because of this approach, guests feel as though they’re completely immersed in the surrounding landscape.

The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Road to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Wrapped around that landscape is Denali National Park, which encompasses more than six million acres of pristine, natural wilderness. No matter which CruiseTour option you choose, you’re practically assured of having at least one day in Denali. But pick wisely: Most guests who come here find the park so breathtaking that two or even three days are necessary.

To fully explore Denali, the park service runs tours that last from a few hours to a full day. The largest of these takes you deep within the confines of Denali National Park, to places seldom viewed by the vast majority of tourists. The landscape of Denali inspired author Jack London, and it will leave its magical impression on you, too.

Heading north, many CruiseTours also feature a handful of days in the university town of Fairbanks. The third-largest city after Anchorage and Juneau, Fairbanks has a mood and style that’s all its own. In fact, the same could be said of every town and city in mainland Alaska; they’re more dissimilar than not, and a world apart from their Southeast Alaskan counterparts. Fairbanks, Alaska, as seen during the middle of “rush hour.” This unique town moves to its own ebb and flow. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For many though, the real highlight of these Alaskan CruiseTours can be found in the Alaska Railroad. With over 760 kilometres of track, it stretches from Fairbanks all the way south to the popular embarkation ports of Seward and Whittier, meaning that guests can be transferred directly to their ship by train.

The most impressive of these journeys is available with Princess Cruises, which utilises Whittier as its northernmost turnaround port. Guests joining the ship in Whittier are treated to a day-long journey by rail through Denali National Park, past Mt. McKinley and through the scenic Portage Glacier area south of Anchorage.

The final piece of the journey: a trip through the 4,100-metre long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel that serves as the only access to and from Whittier. When you emerge, the first sight that greets you as your eyes adjust to the daylight is that of your mighty cruise ship, lying peacefully at her berth in downtown Whittier, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Today's Amazing Experience: landing on a glacier near Denali National Park. Stunning! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Plenty of excursions are available on the overland portion of an Alaskan cruisetour, like this glacier flightseeing journey and landing near Denali National Park! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But an Alaskan CruiseTour is more than just beautiful scenery seen from a motorcoach or a train; it’s the perfect opportunity to do the things you never dreamed possible. From landing on glaciers to hiking mountain peaks to excursions deep in the woods to spot the region’s indigenous and plentiful wildlife, there’s nothing like the wilderness of Alaska.

And the best way to see it is on a CruiseTour.

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