If you plan on visiting Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage, prepare to take either the “high road” by plane or “low road” by boat, since only the towns of Haines and Skagway have paved roads leading in from the outside.
This reality left us, as it leaves the majority of would-be visitors, with the decision of which cruise ship to take (the Alaska State Ferry being another option). We chose a small line, Alaskan Dream Cruises, since it afforded us the opportunity to see more of the Inside Passage and explore places less seldom seen.
Here’s a look at some of the places we visited.
Sitka – Outside of Alaskan Dream Cruises, only Lindblad and Holland Americacurrently visit this friendly, distinctively Alaskan town, which is a shame. The mix of native Alaskan Tlingit people, Russians, and American mainland castaways you’ll find here makes it one of the state’s most culturally significant (and interesting!) destinations.
Beyond its cultural landscape, which includes the St. Michaels Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Russian Bishop’s House, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka offers plenty of natural wonders. The Alaska Raptor Center gets you up close and personal with bald eagles — and try prying your kids away from the Fortress of the Bear, an animal rescue facility featuring orphaned brown bears.
Wrangell – Off the track of the larger cruise ships, this once thriving timber town is well worth the visit. Taking a jet boat up the fastest free-flowing navigable river in North America — the Stikine — is an ideal activity for families. And if your goal is to see wild bears, the four-hour round-trip to Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory will almost guarantee a sighting (at least from mid-July to mid-August).
Later in the day while the boys perused the town’s beach for ancient petroglyphs, a group of us braved the damp weather for the novelty of playing golf in Alaska. Because of the abundance of rainfall, the Muskeg Meadows Golf Course uses artificial turf on its greens, making them as unique to play as they are challenging.
Petersburg – The inaccessibility of this thriving fishing community, established by Norwegians in the late 1800s, is a big part of its appeal. The town’s heritage is on full display at the Sons of Norway Hall, where we enjoyed a folk dance show performed by Petersburg’s children. With the kids safely back on the ship, we couldn’t resist leaving for a few hours of loud music and billiards at Kito’s Kave, a popular watering hole for local fisherman.
Tracy Arm Fjord – Many people consider Glacier Bay National Park to be the jewel of the Inside Passage. And while it is certainly magnificent, the less visited and equally dramatic Tracy Arm Fjordmight just be even more remarkable. We saw a dazzling array of wildlife along the ice-carved passage, including pods of whales, mountain goats, black bears, and puffins. Once we reached the glacier itself, we marveled at the calving icebergs crashing thunderously into the water, each break representing another step in a steady retreat.
Juneau – It’s hard to believe that the capital city of America’s largest state is unreachable by car, but it is. Its dramatic mountainside backdrop, which makes it a mandatory stop on the Inside Passage cruise circuit, might have something to do with it. Regardless of how you arrive, I’d recommend getting out of town and visiting the Mendenhall Glacier (only 13 miles away). We hired Above & Beyond to help us hike on the ice field itself. Complete with crampons and ice picks, we gained a perspective of these incredible landscapes we could never have experienced from the deck of a ship.
If you are able to spend a few days here, the Silverbow Inn and Bakery makes an excellent choice. This quirky boutique B&B offers 11 newly remodeled rooms that really fits Alaska’s ethos: eclectic, yet homey. Its rooftop hot tub overlooking downtown Juneau was the perfect reprieve after a long hike.
The Alaska State Museum, featuring historic Eskimo artifacts and outstanding exhibits on Alaska’s people, history, and art, is also a must if you have the time. Our visit helped put everything we had seen and done into its proper context.
Follow Rainer’s story on Twitter at @JenssTravel.