Alaska Cruise – Making The Right Shore Day Choices
When making the decision to take a cruise to Alaska, you want to make the right tour choices on your shore days, but it’s not easy with so many to choose from. Here are the choices I made when I went to Alaska in August 2014.
If you’ve researched Alaska, you would know that it is somewhat difficult to explore as the everyday traveller. That is why the cruise industry has really capitalised on that and for the summer months of each year, almost 2 million people pass through the amazing southern end of the state with three main shore stops and some sightseeing cruising along the way. All week I heard the phrase “this is a once in a lifetime tour” and probably it is as I’m trying not to repeat myself on the quest of discovering as much as possible in this short life. So the problem, or even stress, that I faced on this trip, was making the right decisions for tours on shore, because if you get it wrong, too bad so sad the ship is leaving that night and you don’t have the next day to correct your mistakes. Here are my right and wrong choices made while cruising Alaska.
The Cruise Line
First up, choose the right cruise line. Some people could think of nothing worse than getting on a cruise ship with thousands of people and actually, I was one of those people. Each cruise line has a different demographic but for me so it depends on what you are after. I personally am a fan of Royal Caribbean as they cater to everyone’s needs. Children, teenagers, young adults and the middle aged upwards all have something to do to fill their time, but that’s a different blog altogether.
When it comes to booking a cruise for Alaska, booking well in advance is the key as it is a short season that pretty much sells out the year before. Luckily, I had my good friends at Flight Centre assist with making the right decisions and bookings.
The Shore Days
The majority of cruises to Alaska are round trips departing from Vancouver. You can also do round trips from Seattle or even a one way to or from Anchorage. If you have more time up your sleeve, consider the one way trip from Vancouver to Anchorage as it ends with a few days extended tour by train into the wilderness. I myself did the round trip from Vancouver which came with the three most popular spots on most of the itineraries; Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan with a bonus drive by of Glacier Bay.
Juneau is where the the big tours are! That means this is where you’ll spend the most money so this is where I was most worried that I would make the wrong choices. The brochures have LOTS of tours to choose from, including the same or similar tour but with different companies, so it all became a blur.
The first mistake I made, was the missed opportunity to see Tracy Arm. On the morning you arrive in Juneau, there is a brief stop about an hour or so prior and that is to let people off onto a tender boat that are doing the Tracy Arm tour. They go by small boat through the glaciers and take you to Juneau, arriving not long after the cruise ship. The brochures don’t really show how spectacular this could possibly be so I hummed and harred and wondered if I should spend the money on this or not. Well the decision was made for me as there is only a small amount of people allowed on the tour so it sold out from under me!
In Juneau, the biggest tour you 100% cannot miss, is the helicopter tour over the Mendenhall Glacier. The helicopter takes you over the soaring mountains where goats can be seen balancing high on the jagged ridges then sweeping down over the mighty glacier itself, coming to a rest at the husky camp.
Here, you meet the boisterous Alaskan Huskies. I was apprehensive about meeting them as I worry about animal cruelty and couldn’t be sure of their conditions. I do genuinely believe they are happy and healthy and treated well, probably better than the humans that live on the camp 6 days a week in arctic conditions. Don’t expect too many cuddles from the dogs as they are more excited to run. Take your seat on the sleigh and the dogs are barking and jumping and in a hurry to get running. They love it!
After being towed around the glacier by the huskies, you will get some cuddle time with some of the puppies before being whisked back over the glacier and mountains and back to the heliport. I will never be able to properly put in words just how incredible this experience was. Words and photos cannot do the day justice. All the conversations I heard on board the cruise ship were the same: expensive but once in a lifetime experience and worth every cent (US$600+).
Now because I chose to take the morning tour to the glacier, the afternoon/evening was free for another tour. As exhilarating as the Mendenhall Glacier experience was, I was so excited to make this the best day of my life and back that glacier tour up with a trip out to see the whales.
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve dreamed of seeing the Orcas in the wild. I don’t know what it is about them, or why I am drawn to them, but I feel connected to them without ever seeing them. Most whale watching tours around the world come with some kind of guarantee sightings or a second trip free. I liked that here your guarantee is a portion of your money back when you disembark if there were no sightings. The brochure for the whale watching has a big old orca on the front cover, breaching in all its glory, so boarding the boat for the evening cruise my anticipation was mounting.
We start to cruise out over the calm waters and the guide starts to talk and ask questions to the crowd. “I can pretty much guarantee we are going to see whales this evening. What type of whales are you hoping to see?” he asks the group.
“Orcas!” everyone shouted in unison.
Imagine the look on my face when the guide replies saying “Ok, so orcas in these waters are pretty rare so chances are we are not going to see any orcas. What other kinds of whales do you want to see?”
“Humpbacks?” a few others tentatively asked. Yes, humpbacks. My heart sank. Then why put an Orca on the brochure cover?
Now don’t get me wrong, I am head over heels for humpbacks. But I live in Queensland, Australia, where humpbacks migrate every year for the winter to give birth and play before heading back to Antarctica. I am sounding like a spoiled brat and I am aware of that. I know how lucky I am to live in Queensland on the humpback highway and also how lucky I was to be in Alaska out on an evening whale watching cruise. I felt like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, stamping her foot in a tantrum shouting “I want an orca sighting NOW!”
Well I was quickly snapped back out of that mood when I realised the different type of humpback behaviours I was about to witness. I learned that in Queensland (and other tropical places like Hawaii and Mexico), the whales go there for the winter to play. So in those places you can expect to see breaching, spy hopping, fin slapping and other fun stuff. But in the colder waters such as Alaska or Antarctica in the south, the whales are there to feed. Cue the bubble net feeding!
Never before had I witnessed such an event and it was out of this world. Our guide told us that there are over 20,000 humpbacks in the northern waters and for this event to take place, one of five individual whales are present to instigate the feed. The whales circle their prey for a few minutes, blowing bubbles to trap them. Then the whales all dive under and it’s silent for about three or four minutes.
Absolutely incredible! The whales charge up through the surface with their mouths wide open and gorge on their prey. We watched this pod repeat this maybe six or seven times and each time was just as exciting as the last. Eventually they tired and seemed to split up and go their separate ways. We didn’t get to see orcas but wow, this was truly one of the best days of my life.
Again, there seemed to be too many tours to choose from. We had decided to leave this stop to book on the cruise and see how we feel. The tour I really wanted to do was through a forest then by small boat to the glaciers, having regrettably missing the Tracy’s Arm experience. My mate I was traveling with was not so keen to do another boat tour so we looked at the train options. There was the full day train ride to Yukon and return to the ship by bus, or the train ride to Fraser, British Columbia, hiring bikes and riding back downhill to the ship. We chose the train and bike combo.
It was a cracker of a day. Sun shine and 16 degrees celsius. Our guides were excited about the weather and couldn’t stop saying how lucky we were to have the sun shining. To be fair, the whole week was sunshine and everywhere we went, everyone we spoke to said how lucky we were to have sunshine as apparently it rains about 360 days a year in this region.
We’d worked up a sweat on the bike ride even though it was mostly downhill, so when we reached a roadside waterfall (glacial run off), our guide decided he was going to jump in for the first time ever.
It was also my first time to cross into a different country by bicycle.
All in all it was another incredible day. I was talked out of the tour I wanted to do but I don’t have regrets. It was nice to ride down the mountainside with the fresh air in our face and enjoy the sweeping views of the British Columbia wilderness.
To be honest, there wasn’t a great deal of tours that caught my eye in Ketchikan. The main tours were bear watching or zip lining. I of course was excited to see the black bears but as we’d just seen the brown bears on top of Grouse Mountain in Vancouver before the cruise, my mate was not so convinced. We’d also been zip lining in Whistler so decided no need to do that again.
So our morning was free to wander around the cute little town. I really loved it! There is a real charm to the town.
Along with my dream of seeing the orcas, I’ve always wanted to witness the salmon run. I had researched when it was a good time to see them and according to what I found, this was the wrong time of year. So when we stumbled across the stream where thousand of salmon were making their way upstream, I was in complete shock. I did not expect to see this! I thought today would be a nice day walking around the town then off to see the bears. This was an absolute bonus and I was just in awe of their strength and determination. I never quite got that National Geographic shot of the salmon leaping as you have to be both patient and quick, plus this was the first day we were experiencing rain on the tour so waiting in the rain unprepared for this event was not ideal.
We followed the salmon upstream to some calmer waters where we saw they were spawning and then unfortunately dying from exhaustion. So incredible that the salmon that will spawn here will have the scent of the water basically tattooed in their brain and will find their way back to this very spot to complete the circle of life.
Buzzing from the unexpected surprise of seeing the salmon, we headed off to see the black bears. You head into what can only be described as an enchanted forest with dewey green lichen draping over the branches.
Continuing up over the suspension bridge and deeper into the forest, I looked down to see the black bears right below us. They are majestic and magnificent and ferocious yet tender. I witnessed a Mama bear leading two adorable cubs upstream and teaching them how to eat salmon. The mother would catch the salmon in the shallows and leave it for the cubs to eat. Absolutely incredible.
I could have sat there and watched them all day. They were so beautiful. But as time runs out quickly on shore days and it was time to head back to the ship.
The next morning we woke up to the sight of sailing into Glacier Bay. I kind of knew what was in store but for some reason was not prepared for the grand scale of what we were about to see. Mountains of ice leaking into the bay. A true reminder of how small we are and just how incredible this planet is.
In the picture below, the glacier used to be higher than the grassy ridge on the mountain side. But global warming is not real.
If you’d like to see my time-lapse of the Glacier Bay experience, see it here at Glacial Speed-An Alaskan Timelapse
What an absolutely spectacular way to finish this journey. The whole trip was truly out of this world. I am so humbled by the sights I have seen in Alaska, knowing that the world is a magical place that will carry on no matter what our stresses or struggles are. We need to appreciate and preserve all that we can.
I wanted to keep this short and to the point but I couldn’t help myself. Sorry there is a lot to take in here! If you have any questions about cruising Alaska, don’t be shy to ask questions in the comments below or tweet them to me @mttbne
Thanks for stopping by.