Cruise ports of call: Alaska for thrill seekers

The state of superlatives is the perfect place for adventurous cruisers, with scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, glacier hopping and scouting for grizzlies all on offer.

There is not a port in Alaska that does not offer cruisers the chance to experience one of the state’s many wild and manmade activities. The state of superlatives, including being the largest in the US, offers adventurers the biggest national parks, tallest peaks and widest glaciers.

Related article: A starter guide to cruising in Alaska

The Alaska cruise season is short, with high season running from June to August and deals to be found in chillier May and September. The largest ships travel the glacier-fed waters from ports in the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada like Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco, while the smallest vessels — those that rock in the wake of a fallen chunk of –iceberg depart from Alaskan ports like Juneau and Ketchikan. Every major cruise line services Alaska, with the biggest players being Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises.

Excursions in Alaska tend to be pricey, with many adventures requiring transportation by small airplane, helicopter or boat. There are ports where you can create do-it-yourself adventures, but you will find that, more often than not, paying for these once-in-a-lifetime experiences is worth it.

Ketchikan scuba diving
Snorkelling and scuba diving are usually associated with tropical waters and coral reefs, but you can get underwater in Alaska — albeit with thick wetsuits and booties — and there is a lot to see.

The intercoastal waters of southeast Alaska near Ketchikan get as warm as 55 degrees Farenheight in the summer, and have one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, with a variety of colourful life on show such as red sea stars, purple sea urchins, salmon, sea lions and whales. Snorkel Alaska offers a snorkelling outing for $109 per person, and a one-tank scuba dive for experienced cold-water divers for $209. Both excursions include equipment and certified guides, take about three hours and are easily arranged through most cruise ships. If you miss the opportunity in Ketchikan, Dive Alaska offers trips across the Gulf of Alaska in Seward’s Resurrection Bay, where you might see octopuses, wolf eels and sea otters. Their snorkelling and diving trips also include equipment and certified guides.

Seward wildlife tours by kayak
The Kenai Fjords National Park has an abundance of beauty and wildlife best seen up close by kayak. Surrounded by spectacular scenery, you will share the water with orcas and sea otters while bald eagles nest on the nearby shoreline. There are several kayak tour companies that work with cruise passengers, like Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking and Kayak Adventures Worldwide, and will provide all the equipment you need.

Skagway gold rush trails
The old miner town of Skagway is home to some of the most famous trails in the US, taken by prospectors in search of fortune during Alaska’s Gold Rush of the late 1800s. While a cruiser will not have time to experience the entire 665-mile Chilkoot Trail from Skagway to the headwaters of the Yukon River, local hikes can give you a sense of what these prospectors faced. Tour companies offer guided hikes to part of the Chilkoot and can add on trips to the Taiya River for wildlife viewing. Skagway Float Tours and SouthEast Tours offer four hour excursions for under $100 per person.

You can do short hikes on your own from town. Try the two mile trek to the Gold Rush Cemetery where many of the era’s most notorious criminals are buried. To get there, walk from the cruise terminal to the Skagway visitors centre in town, then walk one and a half blocks east, and follow the train tracks for two miles to the cemetery. It is then only a short hike uphill from the cemetery to Reid Falls which cascades spectacularly 300ft down the mountainside. A walking tour and trail map of Skagway is available online.

Juneau glacier hopping
No thrill-seeking trip to Alaska is complete without touching down on one of the state’s massive glaciers, especially now they are receding and may not be around in the next century. Strap on crampons and traverse the massive ice fields on guided tours that have you climbing into crevasses and walking through glacier-blue ice caves and tunnels.

Several companies offer glacier walks. Northstar Trekking offers the additional excitement of a helicopter ride to see how the glaciers formed over thousands of years before actually landing on one. A less expensive option is Above & Beyond Alaska’s Medenhall Glacier Trek where you drive and hike to the glacier. Both companies provide roundtrip transportation from your ship. 

Haines grizzly bear sightings
The thrill of seeing brown grizzlies in the wild is unmatched, and one of the most exciting settings is while they are feeding on spawning river salmon. From August through October, Rainbow Glacier Adventures offers trips from Haines and Skagway to see groups of grizzlies gather at the Chilkoot River to feed. For cruisers that go on the daytime trips, this is when mother bears and their cubs are likely to be out fishing for salmon. The viewing site is seven miles outside of Haines, and if you are coming from Skagway the excursion includes a catamaran ride to town.

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