Bears and Glaciers - Alaska and the Yukon Territory by Cruise Ship
Updated: Jul 2, 2019
The cruise up to Alaska has always been on my family’s bucket list. We’d heard incredible things for years, and when I moved to the West Coast, it almost became an inevitability that we’d go. Now here’s the thing – I’d never been on an actual cruise before. Not in the Caribbean, not in Mexico, nowhere. I’m much more of a sailboat type of girl (see all of my posts on Yacht Weeks). But they say there’s no other way to see the glaciers in Alaska than on the cruise ships, so I agreed to go as a 7th wheel.
While I definitely will not ever go on another cruise ship ever again, this week at sea was worth every out-of-control child shoving me out of line for chicken tenders. The Alaskan port towns are unique and rich with history, the glaciers you get to see are literally once in a lifetime, and the Misty Fjords are like something out of a fairy tale.
That said, there are a lot of nuances to a cruise up to Alaska. Everything from what size ship you go on to what port you leave from affects your trip in ways you wouldn’t expect. It took my mom months to figure out exactly which company to go with and which boat to choose. She listened to advice from friends, advice from the cruise ship companies, and advice she read online. Even still she changed our plans at least 5 times. Make sure that you do your homework and you know exactly what kind of trip you’re looking for.
On our trip, we specifically stopped in the following places:
Glacier Bay (no stopping)
Victoria (British Columbia)
Cruise Ship Company: Norwegian Cruise Lines, The Pearl
7-Day Awe of Alaska: Inside Passage & Glacier Bay from Seattle
We ended up going with Norwegian. I’m not entirely sure why my mom chose them, but I think it was the quality customer service and the deal on the drinks package.
That said, there are a couple of boats that NCL has when you’re going up in to Alaska from Seattle. My mom specifically chose the Pearl for one main reason – Glacier Bay. Every summer, the cruise ship companies battle for permits to go into Glacier Bay, and not all of the boats can fit. NCL has a larger ship, the Bliss think it's called, that also goes up to Alaska and is a lot more family friendly – go karts and whatnot. That summer, it didn't have a permit to go into the Bay, but it does now and the Pearl does not. Just make sure that you check when you book. If I give you one single piece of advice in this blog, it is to make 100% sure that Glacier Bay is on your list of stops.
Embarked From: Seattle
You can also leave out of Vancouver and it’ll save you a bit of sailing time, but it honestly doesn’t make much difference. If you leave out of Seattle, however, the ship legally has to stop in a foreign port on your way back, so you’ll get an afternoon in Victoria on Vancouver Island, the capital of British Columbia.
If you’re going out of Seattle, the best airlines to get there are Delta or Alaska Airways. For places to stay in Seattle, see my other blogs. The port itself is right in the center of downtown and you can get there easily with an Uber or a cab from a downtown hotel. Don’t stay down by the airport - it’s probably a 25-30 minute drive without traffic.
If you’re going out of Vancouver, the best airlines are either Air Canada or United.
For anyone that’s been on a cruise before, you know that there are options for your room - a porthole room down below, an interior room but on an upper deck, a balcony so you can get some fresh air, etc. Even where you’re placed fwd-aft makes a difference. Here’s the unique thing about the Alaska cruises – the waters are NOT smooth. Do not assume this will be like a Caribbean cruise. There will be waves, and if you’re down in the lower decks, you’ll probably be staring at water out your porthole 100% of the time. Even on the 8th floor in the martini bar we were sometimes staring at high waves. In addition, the farther fwd you are, the more you’ll feel the waves and even just sitting in the forward theater of the boat for 20 minutes, I was getting seasick.
For the Alaskan cruises I’d absolutely recommend getting something on an upper deck in the middle of the boat. The extra cost is worth your health. My parents had an exterior balcony room and my sister, her fiancé, and I slept in the 3 person interior room across the hall. It honestly didn’t make much difference. I liked having the balcony but we were rarely in the room. The most important part is getting a room that’s central in the boat. I think we were on the 11th or 12th floor too which was convenient for getting to the main entertainment decks.
The main thing to note here is that my mom is a serious planner like me. She did so much research before we got on the boat that almost all of our excursions were booked and paid for before they even got on the plane from Detroit. This meant that on the day we got on the boat, we weren't scrambling to make excursion reservations - we focused on restaurant reservations. In addition, going through the actual companies is much cheaper than booking through the cruise ships. The locals who own the companies will also be more forthcoming with you, especially regarding how often things get cancelled due to bad weather.
I'm not actually sure how many times my mom changed our plans for Juneau. We looked at kayaking out to the main glacier outside of town, but the owner of that company warned my mom that the trip got cancelled often and suggested the bus trip+whale watching instead.
Don't get me wrong, I was not excited about getting on a tour bus with all of the 60-85 year olds and hanging out at a visitor center. I complained for a while about missing the sled dog trips and the helicopters landing on the glaciers. In the end, my mother was, as usual, correct. It was absolutely down-pouring rain and a bunch of the excursions got cancelled. We ended up on a school bus out of town headed up to the tourist center for the Mendenhall Glacier. We spent a little while there exploring the area. If it hadn't been raining, there's a path that leads out to a waterfall just near the glacier that we may have had enough time to check out, but it would have been cutting it close.
On top of that, while most people hid inside staring out at the rain, we decided to wander a bit to the walking trails around the center, because the rangers mentioned there had been some bears wandering the area recently. Let me tell you something - bears could not care less about rain. We got super lucky and ended up watching a momma bear teach her cubs how to catch fish in the river. It was incredible.
After we got back on the bus, we headed out to the boat docks and jumped on a relatively small boat to go out into the bay/ocean to go whale watching. The boat captains were great and they let us hang out in their cabin with them, showing us pictures of each of the humpbacks tails so we knew which ones we were seeing come up. One thing to note - I think a lot of people assume when they go whale watching they'll be seeing orcas jumping up and out of the water. That's actually pretty rare, even in the Northwest where some of them live. You're much more likely to see the humpbacks and they're much too large to jump. You'll probably just see the occasional fin and water spout or back. Definitely bring a zoom lens with you if you have one though - you can get some pretty cool shots of their tails, and each one is unique.
The last thing to check out in Juneau if you have the time is the Red Dog Saloon. It's a classic. See more info in the restaurants section.
When we got to Skagway, we immediately walked over to the jeep rental place (DIY Tours) that my mom booked in advance, hopped in our jeep with the accompanying CD tour soundtrack and drove out of town. Keep in mind the town is about 10 blocks total, so if you don't have an excursion planned, you'll be bored very quickly. If you can't get a jeep rented, there's also an Avis/Budget Car Rental agency in town where you can get a car for cheaper.
I think the other main excursion that people do in Skagway is the railroad tour. While we debated this and I'm sure it's cool, it's a one way trip and you have to take a bus back. In addition, you don't get to stop and honestly, I got one of my favorite pictures of all time when I yelled at my dad to stop on the side of the road, ran back about 200 meters, and snagged a shot of a deserted railroad leading into the mountains.
For a while, the tour CD will lead you to specific places - different lookouts and pull-offs you never would have known were there without it. There's one spot off the road where you can actually still see the route that the gold rush wagons would have taken. As you get closer to the Canadian border, the tour will end, but that's when the real views begin.
Based on some reviews and our time limit, we had a destination in mind - a place called Emerald Lake. It was supposed to be a gorgeous spot, but when we asked the border agent about it he kind of laughed, so we got a bit apprehensive.
As we drove up into the Yukon, we got pretty lucky and the clouds cleared enough for us to get some picturesque views of the river and the mountains. After a while, we came across what looked like a tourist center and it had restrooms, a small cafe and a suspension bridge. However, they wouldn't even let us into the bathrooms if we didn't pay to cross the bridge, and it was pretty expensive, so we didn't bother. The staff was rude and the cafe said they had all kinds of cookies and chili that they didn't actually have.
Further up the road, we came across a place called Carcross. It's a tiny town - blink and you'll miss it, but just past it you'll find Carcross Desert. It was probably one of the more baffling things I've ever seen. A full on sand desert in the middle of the mountains, with white-caps in the background. Just past that, you'll see a sign for a sled dog and alpaca farm. We stopped here for a just a bit to pet the sled dog puppies and the alpacas and use the restroom. I think you can actually pay to have the sled dogs take you out for a ride if you want. It was a good spot for families.
Once we finally got to Emerald Lake, it became pretty clear that the border guard was right. It's really not that impressive haha. But we may be a bit biased given we grew up surrounded by the Great Lakes of Michigan.
On our way back, we stopped at The Bistro in Carcross to grab some food. There was plenty of parking in the area, and the Bistro is about the only thing there, so it's easy to find.
I highly recommend doing this excursion - it's low cost and gives you a lot of freedom to stop and start when you want to. For all 5 of us, we only paid $275. The other excursions in that area were more like $1000. Just keep in mind the mountain passes can get extremely foggy, so drive with caution. Also keep an eye out for the Yukon Territory sign. How many people can say they've taken a photo there!?
I think the photos say it all, but Glacier Bay is an absolute must on a cruise up to Alaska. If your ship doesn't stop there, you're seriously missing out.
One tip - if you're on the Norwegian Pearl, there is a viewing deck at the fwd end of the boat that has no glass walls. It's by far the best spot to get pictures. I think you can access it from the 5th deck?
I think the one main thing that everyone wants to see here is glacial calving. This is where a piece of the glacier breaks off and makes a thunderous noise. Keep in mind that while this is a once in a lifetime thing to experience, it also means something regarding the state of the planet you're living on. These glaciers are receding at ridiculous rates, and people near me were saying that they were in the bay for 2 hours years ago and didn't see one calving. We were there for an hour and saw 6.
Also remember that each boat spends enough time in the harbor to turn around a couple of times, so you don't have to rush up to the top deck right when you get there.
Last thing - if you like those bright blue reflective sunglasses in the pic above, this is a shameless plug for my favorite sunglasses company - Blenders ;).
By the time we docked the boat in Ketchikan, I was already convinced that I was going on a sea plane tour even if I had to go alone. We didn't have anything booked for that day, because the seaplane tours aren't cheap, and there was some talks of going on the duck boat tour. However, as soon as we got off the boat, the sea plane companies confirmed my fears - the duck boat tour is almost all seniors and/or children. If you really want to do something cool in Ketchikan, you go for a tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument.
Now, there are a bunch of different sea plane operators in this area, and there was a recent crash with a couple of them where a few cruise ships guests did die, so make your choice carefully. Inquire about their safety records. We chose to go with Misty Fjords Air. The pilot was a retired airforce pilot, and we were promised that they had some of the safest planes out there.
We were able to book a 6 person seaplane with just our family and the pilot, and they took us by van from the cruise ship terminal out to their dock. The staff and the pilot were incredibly friendly and accommodating, and answered all of my mom's questions/concerns.
And holy moly, was this worth it. It was hands down one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. Yes, the plane is tiny and yes you feel every turn and bump, but there is literally no better way to see this part of the world. You'll get to fly over waterfalls and around cliffs. You land on the water out in the middle of the forest and tie up to a dock that's literally only there for sea plane tours in the summer. This land is completely uninhabited and it's absolutely stunning.
The rest of Ketchikan is super cute. I'd definitely recommend going over to the old town and wandering through the shops. There's also an old brothel there that dates way back with some hilarious sayings on the side. You can also grab a bite to eat around there or just wander through town. There's also a food cart near the docks with some quick bites if you're running out of time.
Usually you'll only have a few hours in Victoria - just long enough to get out to Bouchard Gardens and see their fireworks. If you don't plan to ever be back in this part of the world, that's probably what I'd recommend doing.
Given that I live a 3 hour ferry ride away, we just wandered around downtown to the main harbor and ate Happy Hour at a local pub.
The one thing you could check out is afternoon tea at the Fairmont. I've heard it's pretty wonderful. Then later in the night as it gets dark, you'll be able to see the state building lit up which is quite beautiful as well.
What went wrong: WEATHER
The weather on shore is very rarely going to work with you. Alaska is a rainy place and in Juneau, a lot of the excursions like kayaking and helicopter tours were cancelled due to the rain/wind.
The weather while sailing – a lot of people on the boat got sick. Like I mentioned above, the waves are way worse sailing the Pacific Ocean than they are in the Caribbean, so bring Dramamine or a seasickness patch. This also means you probably won’t be using the pool. It’ll be COLD while you sail so make sure you dress in layers and bring warm jackets.
What I may have done differently:
Sled dog excursion out in Juneau. I wish the weather had cooperated and we'd been able to either land on a glacier or even take the sled dogs out there but those excursions are super expensive.
On Board The Pearl
Brazilian Steakhouse - probably not worth the extra money
The Italian Place at the back - this place was good, it was not included in your food package
The huge restaurant at the back on the lower decks - we ate here twice. they had great food both times, it was included in your food package
The Asian place in the middle - so good, also i think included but you need a reservation
Martini Bar - hung out here a lot of afternoons and played cards
The cafeteria - the main spot to eat - it's what it is
Eating at the back deck - we spent a good majority of our time on the ship out here. It's where the waves were the least aggressive and most people were too cold or didn't bring the right jackets to sit out here. that said, there is a bar back there and a separate buffet line with the same food as in the cafeteria.
Off the ship:
Red Dog Saloon in Juneau – this place is a classic spot. It’s 100% a tourist trap, but it’s a fun one and it’s got a great shot called a Duck Fart – quack quack knock it back!
The Bistro in Carcross – This was a quaint spot that we found on our drive up out of Skagway. They had great fries and good sandwiches, but it’s not cheap. It is, however, one of the only restaurants on the drive
General Tips and Tricks
Book your excursions yourself in advance. Don’t wait to get on the boat – not only do they sell out extremely quickly, you’ll also end up paying significantly more. Do your research before you depart.
Dress for freezing wet weather. The likelihood that you’ll wear a bathing suit past the first day while you’re docked in Seattle is about 2%.
Get a boat that allows you to try multiple restaurants and doesn’t have a set dining time. It’ll allow you more flexibility in your on-shore excursions
If you have the extra time, most Pacific Northwesterners will actually recommend doing the two-week option. Take the cruise ship up as far north as you can go, then hop on the train for a week and take that back through the interior of the country. Obviously that’s not what I did with my family, but I’d probably opt for that if I ever go back.