An Alaska inside passage cruise is one of the world's most popular cruise destinations.
Living in western Canada and already appreciating the mountains it was easy for us to choose this cruise in spite of some very popular options. Our particular excursion was a ten-day package, the first 7 onboard from Vancouver to Whittier, followed by 3 days of inland Alaska.
Shortly after our flight landed in Vancouver we were whisked by a Princess Cruises Shuttle to the harbour where the Grand Princess awaited us.
The weather was warm, clear and sunny; a perfect way to embark on our once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The Harbour is scenic in itself with the mountains surrounding picturesque, shoreline Vancouver; and the waters are full of ships of all sizes, pleasure-craft, and seaplanes landing with regularity.
As we left the harbour our port-side balcony gave us a lovely view of the metro skyline with Mt. Baker as a spectacular backdrop. (See the "media quality images" link below.)
This led us on our way up the channel past Nanaimo towards Campbell River, and heading for our first port destination, the Alaskan City of Ketchikan.
After our day in Ketchikan it was time to head onward to our next stop, Juneau, the State Capitol. Situated in a breathtaking fjordal landscape, Juneau is inaccessible by land.
Disembarking to more sunny weather in Juneau, our Tour-bus took us to Mendenhall Glacier. We walked the trail to the glacier and pristine Nugget Falls beside it. Once finished there, we headed straight for the SkyTram and some epic hiking up Mount Roberts.
My hiking partner and I pondered the several options for trails which included a couple shorter versions, but the 3.5 mile hike to the top was definitely calling our names.
As with any mountain ascent don’t let the seemingly short length (3.5 miles) deceive you. This climb is no piece of cake, but totally worth every minute. (You might already have gathered in describing a trip like this, one quickly runs out of adjectives. So may I use “breathtaking” again to describe the various viewpoints from these trails? See photo. (For media quality images click here.)
Ironically it wasn’t our lungs or legs that kept us just shy of the summit, but time. Our last assessment left us with less than half the time to get back than it took to get to that point, and we had three ladies waiting at the tram wanting to go shopping! We boogied back down and arrived only 20 minutes late. Not bad.
(More Alaska inside passage cruise images: people and places--use password "alaska")
I should say while at sea there is plenty to do on the ship, and you might have guessed one of the tensions with a cruise of this type (so much pristine landscape within eyeshot, the difference between “inner passage” and “outer”) is where to spend your time: what’s going on inside the ship, or outside.
Though the amenities and entertainment (not to mention the food) were excellent, I quickly realized the uniqueness of this cruise was outside the ship. So while at sea I often found myself on our balcony, taking in the vista that is The Inside Passage.
Of course I had up to 400mm of Nikon quietly ready to go, not only for the scenery, but the much anticipated wildlife. It’s not unusual to see whale (humpback, gray, beluga, orca), dolphin, seal, otter, sea lion. And on land, grizzly bear, brown bear, black bear, wolf, Dall's sheep, mountain goat, moose, and caribou. Bald eagles frequent the skies and treetops over both sea and land.
Unfortunately, all species of bear heard we were coming. Kidding aside, while it is certainly possible to sight all of the animals listed above, the best way to view some of these is on specialized excursions, such as the one to Kodiak Island for Kodiak bear.
We did see a number of harbour seals, otters and some dolphins. There was much excitement while at formal dinner one evening when a large pod of humpback whales surfaced. There wasn’t enough window space, however, for all of us to get a look; and the diners on that side didn’t seem to want us sitting in their lap!
On to our next port destination, Skagway, a beautiful town of about 1000 residents (until the ships come in) not far from the Canadian Yukon. Here, we took the famous White Pass Train excursion in the morning and in the afternoon decided to go sledding with the dogs.
The next morning the Grand Princess took us out of the Lynn Canal in which Skagway resides and around the bend to Glacier Bay and then a little farther up the coast to Hubbard Glacier. As is often the case with God's creation my ability to paint a picture with words fails here. The glaciers have to be seen.
Which brought us to the final at-sea segment, our longest stretch of open-ocean sailing toward Prince William Sound, the College Fjord Glaciers and finally to Whittier, Alaska.
The glaciers in the Bay, again, are awe-inspiring. One thing to appreciate about an Alaska inside passage cruise (at least with our Princess captain and crew) is their willingness to manoeuvre a 1000 foot, 100,000 ton ship in tight quarters, performing 180 degree u-turns, to get everyone on the ship a birds-eye view of these magnificent glaciers. I was impressed.
The ship sailed through the night and landed in Whittier early in the morning, where we boarded the train for the 9 hour trek inland to the Princess Denali Lodge.
I know nine hours sounds long but it passed quickly. Our car was double decked, panoramic glass on top. Our second level seats were comfortable and our car was also equipped with an open deck at the back for sight-seeing, fresh air and photography.
Something else to note about Princess is their organization and engaged staff. We never had to worry about luggage—it always arrived at our next destination. Bus-drivers and train crew are more than just drivers, they’re knowledgeable tour guides and even entertainers. Our train crew regaled us with song and stories throughout the trip to Denali.
After a long traveling day the Princess Denali Lodge, which overlooks the Nenana River, was a welcome sight. After a good sleep we got up early for our Denali National Park bus-tour. Again our driver/tour-guide was very knowledgeable and willing to stop-on-a-dime for wildlife sightings, which included moose, and, at a distance, caribou.
Returning to the Lodge we had no time to spare before hopping on the bus for our next resort, McKinley Wilderness Lodge. The following morning and early afternoon was free time so we grabbed the shuttle to the quaint little town of Talkeetna. Shops were browsed, lunch eaten, and more exquisite Alaska scenery enjoyed en-route.
Once again back at the Lodge we prepared to board the bus for an overnight stop at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. Our final Alaska evening was spent perusing downtown for restaurants and taking in the view over Cook Inlet.
The next day our flight back to Vancouver went smoothly; a perfect time to reflect on our Alaska inside passage cruise. Our final segment back home to Edmonton was a pre-planned variation from the norm. Instead of flying we booked a one-way vehicle rental to saunter home over the final two days, extracting one last scenic fix of our lovely Rocky Mountains through Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Overall, our Alaska inside passage cruise met our expectations, with the possible exception of wildlife disappointments. The oft-used phrase "once-in-a-lifetime" is not out of place when describing this trip.