Cruise Ships Are a Fantastic Way to See Alaska, Part 2
A deep-dive into the attractions and ports-of-call on most Alaskan cruises. With insider tips!
Three days ago, we published Part One in our two-part series on how a cruise ship can be a fantastic — and affordable — way to see the otherwise vast and expensive U.S. state of Alaska.
Here is Part Two, in which we explore in detail the most popular ports-of-call on an Alaskan cruise. Not every ship stops at every one of these destinations, but your ship will almost certainly stop at some of them.
We’ll give each port-of-call an “overall” rating on a scale from one to five “totem poles,” based on the following categories:
Plus, we’ll have special “insider tips” for each town.
(Here’s our first insider tip: Make sure both Juneau and Skagway are on your ship’s itinerary, as we think they are far and away the best destinations.)
The following stops are presented in geographical order from south to north.
Traveling up from the rest of America, Ketchikan is the first large Alaskan town you reach, which is why they call themselves “Alaska’s 1st City.”
It could also call itself “the Rain Capital of the U.S.,” as Ketchikan gets some 300 days of rain per year — more than fourteen feet (or four+ meters) of rain.
Thankfully for cruisers, almost all of those sixty-five days of sunshine happen during the summer.
Frankly, Ketchikan is fairly charmless. This town is a major cruise ship hub, but also very much a working port, with lots of evidence of forestry and commercial fishing.
Most of the “downtown” area is tourist shops, though there is a large boardwalk along the waterfront where cruise ships dock. Alas, the cruise ships loom over everything.
But Ketchikan does have one very charming feature: Creek Street, on the far side of downtown, which is actually a series of buildings built on wooden docks lining both sides of Ketchikan Creek. This area was once famously Ketchikan’s red-light district, but the original historic buildings have since been turned into shops and restaurants.
Ketchikan lacks the dramatic scenery of other Alaskan cities. This is somewhat ironic as it’s located on the water, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest.
But the above-mentioned Creek Street is lined with trees, and the Ketchikan Creek tumbles between the area’s brightly colored buildings. Even better, all five species of salmon spawn in the creek, each at a different time of summer, making it likely most visitors will see some kind of fish.
During our stop, pink salmon were in abundance, and crowds gathered to watch a seal happily snacking on them.
In terms of tours and excursions, Ketchikan (and later, Juneau) offers the greatest variety. This is an especially good spot to do sea-kayaking, sport-fishing, or whale or bear-watching.
Ketchikan also has an exuberant local “lumberjack” show, which is well-reviewed (and an easy walk from most cruise ships).
There’s also plenty you can do on your own. There are a number of hiking trailheads within a short walking distance from town, most notably the Rainbird Trail.
Also, don’t miss the Ketchikan Salmon Walk, which is a very pleasant 1.5 mile/2 km loop around town (passing through Creek Street at one point) that is just like it sounds: a chance to view salmon. It also passes by the Totem Heritage Center mentioned below — a fantastic place to learn about totem poles.
Here too is where Ketchikan excels. Juneau has four times the population of Ketchikan, but this place felt like it had four times as many souvenirs for sale.
The shops include the usual collection of Alaskan souvenirs: t-shirts and baseball caps, not to mention precious stones like tanzanite and alexandrite — stones that you only ever hear about on cruise ships and in cruise ports. But Ketchikan also has Soaring Eagle, a store that sells stunning lamps and tables made of cut stones illuminated from within, and eagles carved out of quartz.
If I were going to buy a souvenir in Ketchikan, it would definitely be a quartz eagle. I say, Go big or go home!
Ketchikan’s population is almost 17% Tlingit, and this a good place to learn more about Native Alaskan culture. Around town there are informational signs about the Tlingit who once made this area their summer fishing grounds.
Ketchikan is also home to Totem Heritage Center ($6 USD), on the Salmon Walk, which explains the history and cultural importance of totem poles, but also includes a number of original, pre-white-settler-era totem poles, of which very few remain. You can also take excursions out to Saxman Totem Park, Totem Bight State Park, and Potlatch Park to learn about Tlingit and other Native Alaskan cultures.
It’s always cheaper to book shore excursions independently, directly with a local tour company — usually online, ahead of your cruise. You can also find or create an excursion more to your personal tastes. The problem is, if your ship cancels or reconfigures its various stops, you will not make your tour and may not get a refund. Likewise, cruise ships guarantee they will never leave behind a passenger on a ship-endorsed tour, and they don’t make the same claim for independent excursions. In dozens of cruises, we never had a ship leave someone behind, but you never know…
If you’re cruising on Norwegian Cruise Line, be aware that you aren’t going to be docking in town. Instead, you’ll dock at Ward Cove, which is a (free) fifteen-minute bus ride away. That’s because Carnival — which owns Princess, Holland America, and Seabourn — has a lock on all four berths in downtown Ketchikan. As such, Norwegian built their own deep-water port on the outskirts of town. But it does mean you’ll pay slightly less port taxes (which are included in your fare).
Ketchikan Overall Rating:
Sitka, population 8500, is the largest incorporated city in the entire United States — technically, some 2,874 square miles (or 7,440 square kilometers) of municipality.
This is a “fun fact,” but it will not impact your visit in any way, as the town center is quite small, and most of this “city” is just wilderness.
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