Exploring the beauty of Alaska from a cruise around the last frontier

Many people in Alaska learn to fly before they learn to drive. Here, a helicopter ride over Mendenhall Glacier. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

Just thinking about summertime in Miami is enough to make any local break into a sweat. As you consider plans for next summer, put an Alaskan cruise at the top of your list.

What I once considered a trip for the card-carrying AARP crowd is actually a getaway that appeals to all generations. Even those who claim they “aren’t cruise people” should board a ship as it’s really the only way to see these remote but breathtakingly beautiful parts of our country.

We took the popular Inside Passage route, allowing a day for glacier viewing and stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria.

JUNEAU

Born from the gold rush of 1880, Alaska’s capital is home to some 30,000 people and receives nearly 1 million cruise visitors a year.

Fresh seafood is easy to come by in Alaska. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

 

Raring to go, we disembarked our ship for our most-anticipated excursion, a helicopter ride and hike on Mendenhall Glacier, blissfully unaware of the high winds that would force its cancelation.

Regrouping, we found ourselves on a whale-watching boat in Auke Bay, where hundreds of humpbacks and orcas feed from April to November, so prevalent that companies guarantee sightings or your money back. We weren’t even out of the harbor when the whales emerged, forcing the captain to cut the engine as we all peered through our camera lenses waiting to see where we’d spot them. For the next few hours, we were treated to the show these whales put on; I quickly reframed my notion that whale-watching cruises are boring. We also spied sea lions, seals and bald eagles.

After grabbing a late lunch by the dock — enormous Alaskan king crab legs and fresh-off-the-boat salmon — we checked in for whitewater rafting on Mendenhall River. Our guide maneuvered past floating icebergs to a five-mile stretch of Class III river (the rapids themselves are actually Class II but the trip is rated Class III because your body starts shutting down after 15 minutes in water so cold). When the guide explained that someone fell out the day before, my daughter looked down at her orange waterproof jumpsuit and held on a little bit tighter. Rafting in the Land of the Midnight Sun, we glimpsed bald eagles and beavers in the scenic valley.

SKAGWAY

Once at the heart of the gold rush, Skagway now has fewer than 1,000 residents.

Cuddling with the next Iditarod champion. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

 

For my first-ever helicopter ride, I was comforted to learn the 20-something behind the controls got his pilot’s license before learning how to drive, a common refrain in Alaska. Not only did the flight offer the most stunning scenery, but a headphone/mic system allowed my 7-year-old to get answers to all of her questions: “Why is the ice blue? Why doesn’t the snow melt over the summer? How do the glaciers get their names?”

Upon landing on Mead Glacier, we got a quick safety briefing and walking poles. I held onto my daughters’ coats as they peered into crevices and munched on glacier ice, throwing some into the holes to listen and guess the depth. Guides showed us how to do planks over narrow streams and sip glacial water.

That afternoon, a 4×4 Unimog carried us up a rugged mountain road to a training camp for furry athletes who compete in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest. We cuddled week-old puppies and boarded a summertime sled for a mile-long trail ride in the Tongass National Forest. We sat around a campfire with Denver, a 19-year-old wildlife biology major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who, along with her 22 dogs, is in the process of qualifying for Iditarod 2025.

KETCHIKAN

Known as the Salmon Capital of the World, Ketchikan is perfect for viewing the salmon run.

Lumberjacks in Ketchikan. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

 

After two action-packed port days, we opted for nearby souvenir shopping and a lumberjack show where athletes competed in springboard chopping, buck sawing, axe throwing and log rolling.

GLACIER BAY NATIONAL PARK

Catch the calving glaciers while you still can as National Park Rangers board the ship to narrate.

Glacier Bay National Park Alaska cruise
Glacier Bay National Park. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

 

You’ll hear thunderous roars as colossal chunks of ice drop from Margerie Glacier into the sea. You’ll grab your binoculars and camera as word spreads on deck that a moose — yes, a moose — is crossing the waters in front of the boat. You’ll gasp at the sight of harbor seals and mountain goats, then head for the hot chocolate station, a reminder that you have not actually entered the Ice Age.

We chose Princess for our Alaska vacation because it’s one of the only cruise lines allowed in Glacier Bay National Park. They say the other glaciers are just as spectacular, but my kids got their coveted stamps in the National Park Passport Book for one that not many people cross off their list!

VICTORIA

The oldest city in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria is most known for Butchart Gardens, a 55-acre floral wonderland.

If the week of exploring the final frontier leaves you exhausted but still longing for nature’s beauty, relax at Butchart Gardens, meandering through the themed gardens, over the footbridges and alongside refreshing fountains and ornate statues. Around every corner, there’s a new sight to behold.

SEATTLE

This port city caters to cruise passengers and offers plenty to keep busy until the red-eye return.

Seattle
Seattle’s harbor is the last stop for many at the end of their Alaskan cruise. Photograph by Princess Cruises.

 

Seattle so badly wants its cruise passengers to spend the day as tourists that it transports bags complimentary from the cruise terminal to the airport. But if you miss the flyer in your stateroom like we did, don’t panic. Just book BAGBNB, a luggage-storage service that takes care of the awkward what-to-do-with-your-suitcase problem.

We piggybacked on the week’s fish theme and went to see the flying variety at Pike Place Market, then waited in line for close to an hour at the first-ever Starbucks. Next stop was a trip up the Space Needle and a walk through Chihuly Garden and Glass. Officially back on the grid, it seemed fitting to end such a gorgeous week with man-made marvels before catching the long flight home.

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