Image credit: Michel Verdure
Alaska should be high on your bucket list of places to visit as it is a natural phenomenon with its multiple mountain ranges, variety of wildlife and one of the longest coastlines in the world. There is so much to Alaska that you could visit the state every year for the rest of your life and still find new places to explore.
There are many ways you can explore Alaska, but travelling on a cruise is regarded by most as the best way to see the state and its natural beauty. That’s why going on an Alaska cruise is a dream for many people who want to experience the 49th State’s snow-capped mountains and glacier-rimmed fjords.
But with such a great variety of itineraries offered by so many different Alaska cruise lines, it might be hard for you to decide which one will suit you best. The good news is that all Alaska cruise routes can generally fall under one of the following two categories: Inside Passage cruises or Gulf of Alaska cruises (also known as cross-gulf cruises). In this guide, we take a look at the main differences.
Overview of the Inside Passage cruises
Stretching from Puget Sound in Washington state, past the spectacular coastline of British Columbia and then along the south-eastern shores of Alaska, the Inside Passage is a very popular cruise route with many voyagers.
Inside Passage Alaska cruises are typically a round-trip from Vancouver or Seattle. Ships normally stop at the likes of Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway but the ports of call vary per itinerary and Alaska cruise line. Your cruise ship can stop additionally at either Sitka, Haines, Icy Strait Point or Victoria, B.C. One day scenic cruising at Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier or another popular glacier area is also part of the itinerary.
There is a wide range of cruise lines offering voyages along the Inside Passage because of its outstanding views, incredible wildlife and accessibility for larger vessels. Along the route, you can see thousands of islands, fjords, straits and miles of spectacular scenery. A big part of the Inside Passage is covered by the Tongass National Forest and the lands around the area are home to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Alaska native peoples.
The Inside Passage isn’t just the home of native peoples, there are whales, bears and eagles that you can see on an Alaska cruise.
Overview of the Gulf of Alaska cruises
Gulf of Alaska cruises sail further north reaching south-central Alaska. Itineraries include some of the major stops along the iconic Inside Passage in addition to ports of call in the gulf and Prince William Sound. The latter can be College Fjord, Valdez, Hubbard Glacier, Kodiak Island.
Such cruises are one-way northbound or southbound trips between Vancouver or Seattle and Seward or Whittier. You will need to fly one-way to or from Alaska, meaning the air fare for two cities might increase the price of your holiday compared to a round-trip cruise. However, Gulf of Alaska cruises give you the chance to combine your cruise with a spectacular land tour in Alaska’s interior, either before or after your cruise.
Seward and Whittier, where your cruise may start or end are gateways to Alaska’s biggest city, Anchorage. From here voyagers can fly back home or continue their journey on a land tour. These so-called Alaska cruise tours will see you exploring the likes of Denali National Park, Talkeetna and Fairbanks, with some itineraries including Dawson City and Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada.
ALSO READ: What is Alaska famous for?
Length and time it takes to cruise the Inside Passage route
The average cruise through the Inside Passage takes around seven days with most cruise lines, but you can extend the trip with shore excursions, and some holidays can last as long as 15 days. Alaska’s portion of the Inside Passage is around 500 miles long.
Length and time it takes to cruise the Gulf of Alaska route
Although this cruise is a one-way trip that sails through the Inside Passage, Gulf of Alaska cruises are also typically seven nights. However, at the start or end of your cruise, there are plenty of land excursions and activities you can add to your holiday so your entire trip can be more than 14 days in some cases.
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What you can see on an Inside Passage cruise
Along an Inside Passage cruise route, you will be able to see plenty of amazing places and attractions during your trip. Typically, the highlights are:
The state capital of Alaska is accessible only by water or air and is Alaska’s top cruise destination. It has a lively downtown nestled in spectacular natural surroundings – the Gastineau Channel on one side and Mount Juneau on the other. Further afield, a must-visit place is the mighty Mendenhall Glacier. Other Juneau highlights include guided hiking tours in the Tongass National Forest, dog sledding and wildlife watching.
A historical town where you can spend the day discovering the fascinating Gold Rush stories. You can head to the Skagway Museum to learn more about the history of the region and ride on The White Pass and Yukon Route, a narrow-gauge railroad that climbs nearly 3,000 feet and gives passengers great views of spectacular terrain.
You will need to keep your camera close by as you cruise through the spectacular Glacier Bay as not only will you experience unworldly scenery, but you might be able to spot Humpback and Killer whales as they are regularly seen in this area. There are over 1,000 glaciers in Glacier Bay and seven of them are tidewater glaciers which break ice into the water. Normally cruise ships spend a full day cruising in the bay allowing voyagers to take in the breath-taking views.
Located at the southern end of Alaska’s Inside Passage, this is another historical town in Alaska. Here you can learn about the Alaska native cultures of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian as well as learn about why it is called the salmon capital of the world. It is also one of the best places to go on a bear-watching tour in Alaska.
What you can see on a Gulf of Alaska cruise
The Gulf of Alaska cruise route also has some amazing places and attractions that you can see during your trip. It includes some of the above Inside Passage ports of call along with highlights within the Gulf of Alaska itself. The latter can be:
One of Alaska’s most stunning natural attractions is the Hubbard Glacier. It is the longest tidewater glacier in North America and, on a cruise, you will experience picture-perfect views of this glorious mount of ice from every angle. You might even be able to see the glacier calving as this is a daily event, which is where massive chunks of ice crash into Disenchantment Bay.
Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound is 10,000 square miles of protected waterways, islands, fjords, and around 150 glaciers. There is a diverse range of marine life that you can see in the area including humpback whales, orca whales, porpoises, and seals to name just a few.
Whittier is a hugely popular port town to visit as it is home to unspoilt wilderness which includes forests, islands, and glaciers. There are also excellent hiking routes and water sports that you can enjoy during a visit.
ALSO READ: A guide to Alaska’s Glaciers
Excursions and tours available on an Inside Passage cruise
When you go on an Inside Passage cruise in Alaska, you won’t just see stunning landscapes, you’ll have the opportunity to go on tours and take part in fun activities. Just bear in mind that not all cruises will offer all these activities, so speak to one of our experts at Canadian Affair to find out which ones you can do.
Kayaking will allow you to explore areas of the Inside Passage that you won’t be able to get to on the ship and if you’re lucky you might be able to get a glimpse of the local marine life.
There are lots of wildlife-watching trips you can enjoy in the Inside Passage, including whale watching. There is so much wildlife you can see in the area, but if you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of some from the deck of your cruise ship.
There are plenty of hiking excursions you can enjoy on a cruise along the Inside Passage and a popular excursion you can experience on some cruises is the Tongass Rainforest hiking expedition. It is the world’s largest temperate rainforest and is home to majestic mountains, fjords, islands, bays and old-growth forests.
If you are in Skagway, there is the option to go on an excursion where you can hike two miles along the Chilkoot Trail, also known as the Canadian Gold Rush Trail, and then enjoy a rafting trip on Taiya River. This isn’t a white-water rafting trip, it is a peaceful journey down the river, meaning you will enjoy great views of the fjords and snow-capped peaks, glaciers and colourful fields of flowers.
Excursions and tours available on a Gulf of Alaska cruise
There are lots of tours and excursions you can go on during a cruise to the Gulf of Alaska and here we take you through some popular trips that cruisers go on. Just bear in mind that not all cruises will offer all these activities, so speak to one of our experts at Canadian Affair to find out which ones you can do.
Exploring Denali National Park
Land tours typically include a visit to the Denali National Park, and it is well worth the visit. The national park is home to the tallest mountain in North America, the Denali, which stands at more than 20,000 feet, as well as over six million acres of diverse wilderness.
The Mendenhall Glacier Canoe Paddle & Trek
As part of your Alaska cruise holiday, you can go on an excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier. You can visit Juneau and from there you can go on what is the most in-depth glacier tour available as you spend 2 hours exploring the stunning landscape of the Mendenhall Glacier.
You can also go wildlife watching after going on a Gulf of Alaska cruise. The Denali National Park is one of the most popular wildlife-watching spots as you can see Alaska’s Big Five – grizzly bears, moose, wolves, Dall sheep and caribou.
After your cruise, you can add a trip to the Yukon to your Canada and Alaska cruise packages. The Yukon is a territory in the northwest of Canada, and it is famed for its stunning natural beauty and for being one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. After an Alaska cruise, you can visit the likes of Dawson City and Whitehorse, which is the capital city of the Yukon.
It doesn’t matter what tours or excursions you want to do, or if there are certain places you want to visit, here at Canadian Affair we can help to organise these for you.
ALSO READ: Best shore excursions in Alaska
Wildlife you can see on an Alaska cruise
No matter whether you go on an Inside Passage cruise or a cruise in the Gulf of Alaska, there is an abundance of wildlife that you can spot. Whilst you won’t see all the animals on your cruise, you are certain to see some of them.
- Whales – Humpback, beluga, grey and killer whales are a common sighting in the waters around Alaska.
- Dolphins – Dall’s, Harbour and Pacific White-sided dolphins can all be seen in the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska.
- Seals – You can often see Harbour Seals laying out in the sun.
- Bears – Grizzly and black bears are frequently seen in Alaska’s wilderness.
- Bald eagle – Another common sighting in Alaska is bald eagles. There can be hundreds of eagles in large groups when it is salmon season.
- Moose – An iconic animal associated with Alaska are moose and you could spot them on one of the land excursions you go on.
- Wolves – Although not as common as other animals on this list, wolves live across Alaska, and they can be seen paddling along the shorelines hunting for food.
Britni, the author behind the Play Party Plan lifestyle blog, says: “Alaska cruises are about seeing and enjoying the beauty Alaska (and typically somewhere in Canada) has to offer. Once you embrace that and realize that you’re more likely going to be looking for whales alongside the boat or taking photos of glaciers floating in the water, you’ll fall in love with Alaska like I did.”
What are the best Alaska cruise routes?
As we’ve seen both Inside Passage cruises and Gulf of Alaska cruises are truly spectacular and there isn’t a wrong choice. Each one of them has its advantages and disadvantages, but both promise to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Lucy, the travel writer behind the On The Luce blog, agrees: “There are two types of Alaskan cruise itineraries – one-way or round trip. Each has its pros and cons, so the best choice will depend on what’s most important to you.”
She also believes that what time of the year you go on an Alaska cruise is down to what you want to get from it: “The cruise season in Alaska runs from late April/early May until early September and can be broadly split into three different seasons: spring, summer and autumn. There’s not really a ‘best’ time to take an Alaska cruise as each season has different advantages and disadvantages – which might relate to the weather, the wildlife, the prices or the size of the crowds.”
Alaska is a perfect destination to go on a cruise and if you have been inspired to plan a trip to the state, you can get in touch with our Canada travel experts and we can tailor-make a holiday for you. We can even include a holiday to Canada and Alaska in one trip.
For more tips, guides, and advice, make sure to visit our blog.