I’ll admit right off the bat: during my recent cruise/land tour of Alaska, I failed to see any whales, bears, or Sarah Palin (but I did see her house). Still, my trip to America’s biggest state was a bucket list-level vacation. And summer is a great time to take an Alaska cruise: the weather’s mild, the wildlife is out and about, and several cruise lines offer a variety of Alaska itineraries.
A summer cruise through Alaska could be one of the more scenically pleasing voyages you can take. (Photo: Princess Cruises)
My Alaska trip consisted of a three-day Princess Cruises land tour followed by a seven-day cruise aboard the Star Princess. In that 10-day introduction to America’s 49th state, I learned a variety of lessons, some the hard way, that you might be helpful on your first Alaska journey. So if you’re planning a summer cruise in the state once called “Seward’s Folly,” here are some tips to maximize your time at sea and on land:
1.) On the day you leave for Alaska, it’s perfectly acceptable to wake your sleeping travel partner by blasting the theme to “Northern Exposure.”
I checked and the courts don’t consider it legal grounds for divorce.
2.) It can got real hot — and a little chilly!
Let’s hope by now you’ve been disabused of the notion that Alaska is all ice, snow, and igloos. Still, if you venture to Alaska this summer you may be surprised at how warm Alaska can get. In some parts of southern Alaska, temperatures can get into the 80s and parts of the state have already seen record-breaking high temperatures this year. Dress accordingly (and, yes, you’re gonna need that sunscreen).
But you’ll also need to be prepared for cool weather, especially if you decide to tour glaciers. So also pack jackets, long-sleeved tees, or maybe even a sweatshirt. Remember: layers are your friends.
3.) On an Alaska cruise, a balcony stateroom is a worthwhile upgrade.
The breakfast on my Star Princess balcony was good, but the view was even better. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
More often than not, a stateroom with a balcony is a luxury you can do without on a cruise. Yes, it’s cool to gaze out into the open water from your own private viewing perch. But for most cruise days at sea, you’re just looking at miles and miles of open water. Soothing, yes. But after a few days at sea, all that ocean blue starts to look the same and you wonder if the extra money you’d spent on the balcony could have gone toward another shore excursion.
Related: Small Ships, Big Horizons: Cruising Alaska is the Perfect Holiday
But on an Alaska cruise, a room with a view is an excursion onto itself, and well worth the price of admission. If your cruise takes you through the lush scenery of the Inside Passage or the otherworldly ice glaciers in Glacier Bay, you’ll find that gazing upon those wondrous visages is a much more intimate experience if you do so from your stateroom balcony, perhaps while enjoying a glass of champagne or a meal. It’s a much calmer way to take in the amazing views than standing elbow to elbow with hundreds of your fellow passengers on the upper decks.
4.) A scenic cruise through Glacier Bay — yes, please.
Just about everyone on the ship is enjoying the nature show during a scenic cruise through Glacier Bay. (Photo: Princess Cruises)
Ice, mountains, and wildlife as far as the eye can see — they’re all what make the 3.3 million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve one of the most breathtaking parks in the U.S. (Glacier Bay is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site). And the way to see it is on a cruise ship. The U.S. Park Service limits the number of cruise ships that can cruise through its 940 square miles of marine waters — generally two ships per day — so be sure to book a cruise that has this scenic cruise through this magnificent park on its itinerary (Princess, along with Holland America, Norwegian, Carnival, and Crystal, has Park Service approval to venture into Glacier Bay).
As your ship maneuvers through the ice-specked waters (it’s perfectly safe, for those of you still having cruise nightmares from watching “Titanic”) there are two amazing sights to behold: one is the glaciers, which are remnants of a general ice advance that began about 4,000 years ago. My cruise took us up close to the 21 mile-long Margerie Glacier and its neighbor, the 25 mile-long Grand Pacific Glacier. If you’re lucky you’ll get to witness what we did: a piece of Margerie Glacier calving off, making a “boom” so loud it sounded like it was being shelled.
“Oftentimes huge sections will calve off,” said U.S. Park Ranger Alexandra Rothermel, one of the two rangers who’d boarded the ship that day to answer passenger questions during our day at Glacier Bay. “You think that it’s an incredibly small [piece], about the size of a car. Turns out it’s at least the size of a house or maybe even an office building. You have no perception of size when it comes to these glaciers. It’s pretty neat.”
The other Glacier Bay spectacle is the wildlife. “We have a lot of humpback whales that come into Glacier Bay every summer,” Ranger Alex (as she graciously let me call her) told me. “Somewhere around 200 different whales we spot every summer who come here to feed in our waters. We see a lot of sea lions and sea otters.“
Speaking of wildlife…
5.) Bears and moose are all the rage.
Beware the Alaskan moose! (Photo: iStock)
Throughout my 10 days exploring Alaska, it seemed that every sentence uttered by my various land tour guides started with, "If you see a bear or a moose…” The locals’ casual acceptance of encounters with potentially dangerous animals can be a little unnerving. “They can be there waiting for you when you step out of an outdoor bathroom” warned one person I met, somewhat seriously. And you learn all there is to know about animal attacks: how moose can be dangerous and actually hurt more Alaskans than bears; what to do if an angry moose charges at you (run — that’s an easy one); what to do if an angry bear charges you (stand your ground — that sounds a little bit harder).
At one point during the three-day land portion of my cruise vacation, I was out running by myself on a paved trail that cut through a wooded area near Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. As I ran through a relatively isolated stretch of the trail, I heard a faint rustling in the leaves beside me. I stopped running to see what made the noise; I didn’t see anything but I heard another rustle. I couldn’t tell if it was a bird or a squirrel or, worse, a bear or a moose (in fact, there’d been signs all over the lodge alerting that both a bear and a moose had been spotted near the grounds).
Remembering the bear/moose attack rules, I was faced with a dilemma: “If I stand there and the rustle turns out to be a moose, I’m done for,” I thought. “But if I run away and it turns out to be a bear, I’m done for, too.” The third rustle helped me decide to risk a quick retreat back to the lodge. I don’t know if it was the smart or the cowardly thing to do, as it probably was a squirrel. But I didn’t care; I vowed long ago that my obituary would not include the words “mauled,” “animal,” or “while exercising” and I damn sure wasn’t going to break my word in Alaska.
6.) Land on a glacier.
Taking a helicopter to land on a pair of glaciers is a cruise excursion well worth shelling out for. I landed on two: West Fork east of McKinley Park and Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau. An aerial view lets you appreciate how massive those wonders of nature really are. And nothing beats the exploratory high you get from walking on an isolated glacier. Nick, the Era Helicopters sightseeing pilot who ferried my travel mates and me to West Fork glacier, even invited me to taste the water from one of the insanely-blue lakes made by melting glacier ice. It was delicious, as you can see in the video below. Some may question the safety of drinking glacier water, but I found that spending an Alaska vacation cavorting amongst bears and killer moose tends to make one a tad more risk tolerant.
WATCH: Sid lands on West Fork Glacier and does some drinking
7.) Bring binoculars and a good zoom lens.
A trip to Alaska is no time to cheap out on camera equipment. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Stupidest thing ever said by a travel writer (he’ll remain anonymous here but his name is in the byline): “I really need a new camera. But I don’t have time; I’ll just buy one when I get back from Alaska.” With the amazing wildlife and dramatic natural spectacle, you’re definitely going to want to bring your photography A-game here. Because unlike stuff you shoot on most of your other vacations, you’ll actually want to go back and look at your Alaska pics and videos.
8.) Take in Denali.
I couldn’t help but gaze at Mount McKinley, but my horse, Dozer, was over it.(Photo: Sid Lipsey)
Chances are, the land portion of your cruise ship itinerary won’t include a shore excursion where you climb Mount McKinley (aka Denali), North America’s tallest mountain. But you’ll find the 20,320 foot-tall behemoth is often front and center as you explore the 325,240-acre Denali State Park and the 6 million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. A hike, a horseback ride, or a 90-mile bus ride through the only road into the Denali National Park and Preserve (you can’t take the trip via a private vehicle) is a perfect way to explore this wilderness. And the awesome spectacle of Mount McKinley provides endless selfie potential.
9.) Spot bald eagles.
“I want to fly like an eagle. To the sea. Fly like an eagle. Let my spirits carry me.” (Photo: iStock)
If you ever wanted to get a snap of this national emblem, Alaska is the place to do it: there are more bald eagles in Alaska, an estimated 30,000, than in any other state in the U.S. During my time in Alaska, I saw dozens of them, particularly in Ketchikan and just outside Juneau. In fact, as the Star Princess cruised through Glacier Bay, one eagle did several slow, majestic glides above the bow of the ship, to the screaming delight of the hundreds of passengers who’d gathered to watch the glacier show. A Princess spokesperson officially denies that the eagle is on the cruise line’s payroll.
10.) Bring your insect repellent.
Who knew? Alaska apparently has 35 species of mosquitoes, many of whom take turns feasting on unsuspecting hikers. I found myself on the tasting menu while touring the Denali National Park and Preserve. Turns out we were in Alaska during the peak mosquito season, which runs through the end of July. Sure, Alaska isn’t known for being a mosquito nest like, say, Florida. But Alaska mosquitos are no joke in this time of year, so be sure to gear up.
11.) Prepare to eat lots of salmon.
Do you love salmon? Yes? Then why aren’t you in Alaska right now? (Photo: iStock)
Salmon: it ain’t just for bears. You’re probably going to eat tons of the stuff up there, where preparing salmon is a state-wide pastime and reading a menu makes you sound like a character from “Forrest Gump”: salmon steak, salmon burgers, salmon glazed with just about every delicious substance under the sun. it’s all here and it’s all good (special shout-out to chef Travis Haugen of Anchorage’s Southside Bistro: his pan-seared Alaska salmon with root vegetable hash and mushroom tea is a work of art).
Fish not your thing? Don’t worry, there are other local delicacies. Along with salmon, you can make reindeer sausage and reindeer burgers key food groups in your Alaska cruise vacation.
12.) You don’t need to be a nature lover to enjoy an Alaska cruise…
Alaska awaits! (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
… you can be a nature liker, like yours truly. Exploring Alaska by sea can give you multiple vantage points from which to marvel at the state’s vast and unspoiled natural beauty. You’ll appreciate Alaska. You’ll appreciate the United States for having the foresight to preserve these priceless stretches of nature. And most of all, you’ll appreciate moose; who knew they could be so dangerous? You’ll never think of that moose in the “Northern Exposure” opening credits the same way again.
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