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Overview of Small Ship Cruise of the Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska
We loved our light adventure cruise from Juneau to Ketchikan because small cruise ships give their passengers a real up-close and personal look at the Inside Passage of Alaska. The ships touch on the magnificent sites in the Inside Passage and visit several of the quaint historic towns along the way, without ever leaving sight of land. Small ships often have a friendly, informal atmosphere and offer exceptional learning opportunities and fantastic itineraries. Most small ships are very homey, and the passengers act like one big happy family--dining, drinking, and comparing travel stories.
Small ship cruises are often more like a traveling family tour with a guide than a traditional cruise. You won't find any casinos, organized onboard activities, formal nights, or evening entertainment. You also won't find crowds or lines at the buffet or when boarding. You will find interesting people, educational experiences, great food, and innovative itineraries. Small ships are great for those who don't like traditional cruises, but love traveling with a group.
Since most small ships in Alaska focus on the destinations, the rest of this article starts in Juneau and focuses on our Alaska itinerary.
Author's Note: Although Cruise West is no longer operating, other small ships that cruise Alaska's Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska offer similar itineraries and cruise experiences.Continue to 2 of 10 below.
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Juneau - Alaska Capital City and Home of the Mendenhall Glacier
Juneau was the embarkation point for our small ship cruise. We flew into Juneau via Seattle and were met by a friendly Cruise West representative, who told us about Juneau as we drove into town. She also told us that Cruise West had an information desk at the Goldbelt Hotel, where we were staying overnight. After checking into our room, Ronnie and I explored downtown Juneau, and saw our ship already docked right across the street from the hotel. Since Juneau is a very popular cruise ship port of call, we were not surprised to see four mega-ships in port. After eating a late dockside lunch and watching the float planes, we wandered the streets and browsed in the numerous souvenir shops. Ronnie also found a place to fish in the channel and managed to catch a couple of salmon. In the early evening, after the mega-ships had sailed away, we took an excursion to the Mendenhall Glacier. This was an excellent choice since the park was quiet, with few visitors. We marveled at the glacier and were thrilled to see our first bears. Because of the delightful, long summer days in Alaska, the excursion did not return to the hotel until almost 9:30 pm.
The next morning, we took a closer look at Juneau and noticed that four different cruise ships had moved in overnight. The setting of the capital city of Alaska is spectacular, strung along the coastline between the mountains and the sea. Ronnie and I toured the interesting state capital. We watched the tourists riding the tramway to the top of Mount Roberts and enjoyed seeing a commercial fishing boat unload its catch.
We met up with Cruise West at the hotel at 4:00 pm and did a short driving tour over to Douglas Island before boarding the Spirit of Yorktown at about 5:00 pm. Since there were only about 75 passengers, boarding went quickly and we were soon on our way to Skagway.
Author's Note: Although Cruise West is no longer operating, other small ships that cruise Alaska's Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska offer similar itineraries and cruise experiences.Continue to 3 of 10 below.
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Skagway Alaska - Gateway to the Yukon and the Klondike - White Pass Railroad
Skagway was the first port of call on our Alaska Inside Passage cruise. We awoke in the early morning, surrounded by mountains, and the sea was like glass. Skagway is famous because of its connection to the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. The small town boomed to 20,000 residents and became littered with saloons, brothels, and criminals. The gold rush was over in a few years, but Skagway's residents did an excellent job of preserving the old buildings for today's tourist boom. Skagway looks much like it did in the late 1800's, although many of the buildings were moved to their current location and house gift shops and restaurants rather than saloons and brothels. Skagway looks a little like it has been recreated by Disney World.
The most popular sunny day excursion in Skagway is a 28-mile ride on the small gauge White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to Fraser, BC. A bus picked us up at the ship and did a short driving tour of Skagway before our small group boarded a private car on the train. I was happy to see the classic train car had its own restroom and that we had access to the outside platforms at either end of the car. The ride was just as we expected, passing over glacial rivers, bridges, mountain passes, high trellises, and through tunnels. As the train climbed for 20 miles up 3,000 feet to the summit, I thought about the 35,000 men who completed this 110-mile railroad in only two years, finishing in July 1900. When we reached the summit, the train rolled across the mountain plateau for eight more miles, ending in Fraser, BC. Our bus driver had brought a group up from Skagway who were riding the return train, so we boarded the bus and rode down the mountains to Skagway. It was a good idea to take the bus back since we had more time to explore Skagway before sailing for Haines at lunchtime.
Author's Note: Although Cruise West is no longer operating, other small ships that cruise Alaska's Inside Passage in Southeast Alaska offer similar itineraries and cruise experiences.Continue to 4 of 10 below.
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Haines Alaska - Scenic Alaska Inside Passage Town - Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
Haines is connected to the rest of the world via the 154-mile Haines Highway, which links to the famous Alaska Highway. Haines is only 15 miles via water from Skagway, but is way less touristy. Only small ships can dock in Haines, but cruisers from the big ships can visit via water taxi or excursion from Skagway. Haines is the home of Fort William H. Seward, which was built as an Army post in the early 1900's, but abandoned in 1946. Today the fort is a national historic site. Because of its size, picturesque setting, and remoteness, many think Haines is one of the nicest towns in Alaska. The passengers on the Spirit of Yorktown who did not do an optional excursion all came back raving about how much they loved their included walking tour of Haines.
In addition to the quaint town of Haines, the area is best known for its bald eagles. The Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve has one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in North America. We decided to take a jet boat ride on the Chilkat, and it was a good decision. We boarded a bus at the dock and rode for about 30 minutes to the Chilkat River landing. Before boarding the jet boat, we were provided hats, gloves, and jackets. It was a beautiful day, and we were glad to not need all the extra clothing. The jet boat ride on the glacial river was relatively slow, and we stopped often to look at wildlife and listen to stories from our interesting guide. We watched a moose munch on river grass, silently encouraged a baby eagle on his nest to fly for the first time (he didn't), and gazed at a flock of wild swans in a quiet area off the main river. It was a wonderful shore excursion, and we had brownies and hot drinks when we got back to the river landing. By dinnertime on the ship, we realized what a long day it had been and all we had seen and done. The next day we would be in Glacier Bay.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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Glacier Bay National Park - Alaska Inside Passage Cruise - Cruise WestGlacier Bay National Park is in the northern part of the Alaska Inside Passage, and most cruise ships spend a full day there. It is one of the most memorable natural wonders in Alaska.
The Cruise West Spirit of Yorktown picked up a Glacier Bay Park Ranger and a local Tlingit cultural interpreter early in the morning at the Bartlett Cove station. As we sailed into the park, the ranger explained that in the year 1800, the ice reached to within 5 miles of Bartlett Cove; today it is more than 55 miles away, having gradually receded over the past 200+ years.
We passed by the Marble Rocks, which were covered with sunning Stellar sea lions and by cliffs with several mountain goats picking their way across the steep face. When I wondered how the goats kept their footing, the guide explained that gravity was the worst enemy of goats! Truly, only the strong (and most sure-footed) survive. The wildlife highlight of the day was a momma Alaskan brown bear and her two cubs. The captain pulled the ship close to the shore and we silently watched the animals feeding and playing for about 30 minutes. What a memorable moment on our small ship!
As we sailed further into the bay, it became cooler and we could see glaciers and snow-capped mountains all around. Even the Fairweather Mountains, the tallest mountains in Canada, were visible. Sailing up the bay, we could see glaciers and glacial valleys all along the coast. At the end of the bay, we stopped for a while near the Marjerie and Grand Pacific glaciers before sailing back towards the entrance to Glacier Bay. The park ranger and Tlingit cultural interpreter spent the day explaining much of the historical and geological events of Glacier Bay. As we neared the end of a wonderful day in Glacier Bay, we talked about our expectations for the next day--cruising through the narrow Peril Strait and fishing in Sitka.Continue to 6 of 10 below.
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Sitka and the Peril Straits - Alaska Inside Passage Cruise - Spirit of Yorktown
Sitka does not have pier facilities for large ships, but small ships like the Spirit of Yorktown can dock right downtown. We arrived in Sitka after lunch, having sailed through several narrow channels on the way from Glacier Bay, the most famous of which are the Peril Straits. The Peril Straits did not get their name because they are so narrow; the name came from the perilous mussels found along the shores of the straits that contain paralytic shellfish poison. In the 19th century, a large group of over 100 Russian hunters died from eating the mussels. Large ships cannot reach Sitka via these narrow channels and must take a sea detour to approach this old settlement.
Like Haines, Sitka is not particularly touristy, and has a good bit of Russian and native Alaska history and artwork. Two bits of interesting trivia--Sitka was once the capital of Alaska before it was purchased by the USA, and John Michener wrote his famous book, Alaska, at the Sheldon Jackson Museum there. Many of the Spirit of Yorktown passengers enjoyed wandering around Sitka and seeing the onion domes of St. Michael's Cathedral, the native art of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, or the Alaska Raptor site.
Since Sitka offers good salmon fishing in its bay, Ronnie and I chartered a boat for the afternoon through Cruise West with another couple. It was a beautiful day, and we enjoyed hearing the boat captain's stories and watching him skillfully manage the boat. We trolled for salmon, landing 10 Cohos (silvers) and losing a few others. The most prominent natural feature in Sitka is the dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, and we had good views of the volcano from our fishing boat. We divided the fish and took them to a processing plant where they were flash frozen and shipped home.
We left Sitka in the late afternoon and sailed back through the straits for Tracy Arm.Continue to 7 of 10 below.
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Tracy Arm and Frederick Sound - Alaska Inside Passage Cruise - Cruise West
Tracy Arm is a beautiful fjord, over 25 miles long and with steep granite cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. The fjord bends and turns, ending with the two Sawyer glaciers. The Cruise West Spirit of Yorktown arrived at the mouth of Tracy Arm, and we cruised most of the day in the area. As we got closer to the glaciers, the water became icier and we easily spotted small icebergs (growlers) and tiny floating chunks of ice (bergie bits). The captain was able to maneuver the small ship very close to the glaciers, and we all waited expectantly to see the glacier calve (break away) a large piece of ice. Unfortunately, the Sawyer glaciers would not cooperate, but we enjoyed seeing the other ships and boats in the Tracy Arm. Everyone on the Spirit of Yorktown agreed it was one of the most amazing natural wonders we had ever seen.
The next morning, the Cruise West Spirit of Yorktown spent a few hours cruising Frederick Sound before heading into Petersburg after lunch. Frederick Sound is one of the best places for humpback whale watching in southeast Alaska. Over 500 humpbacks often frequent Frederick Sound in the summer, feeding on the abundant herring and krill. We didn't get to see the Sawyer Glacier calve, but we did see dozens of humpbacks, and they put on quite a show. The humpbacks dove, blew, and breached the surface. It was a delightful morning for all of us on the Spirit of Yorktown.
After lunch we arrived in Petersburg and Ronnie and I took a jet boat to LeConte Glacier.Continue to 8 of 10 below.
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Petersburg, Alaska - Boat Ride to the LeConte Glacier - Alaska Inside Passage
After the humpback whale watching in the morning of day seven on our cruise, we arrived in Petersburg, and about 15 of us took an optional excursion jet boat ride with Breakaway Adventures to the LeConte Glacier. As we motored out of the harbor, we passed by this buoy, which was covered with Stellar sea lions. Evidently it is one of their favorite hangouts! The 30-minute ride to LeConte Bay passed by quickly in the covered, heated boat. As we approached the bay, we all recognized we were in for something special. Large icebergs were everywhere, and the water was filled with ice! The tiny boat clunked through the ice, and we all felt very small and insignificant when surrounded by the massive cliffs, waterfalls, and the large LeConte Glacier at the end of the bay. And, all this time we had felt like the Cruise West Spirit of Yorktown was a small ship! We stayed in the bay for quite a while, watching the glacier calve and marveling at the hundreds of harbor seals scattered around on the ice. Ronnie and I sat outside on the back of the boat on the return, just taking in all we had seen. It was a great afternoon.
When we returned to Petersburg, we had a short driving tour of the town before returning to the ship. Petersburg is a major fish processing town, and hundreds of workers migrate to Petersburg each summer from all over the world, drawn by the good pay. Petersburg was settled by Norwegians, and the town still has a Norwegian flavor. Those who didn't do an optional excursion were treated to a performance by a group of Norwegian dancers at the local Sons of Norway Hall.
As we sailed from Petersburg in the evening, the Spirit of Yorktown navigated the 21 miles of the Wrangell Narrows, having to make 46 course changes along the narrow channel on our way to Metlakatla the next morning and the Misty Fjords the next afternoon.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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Metlakatla Indian Community and the Misty Fjords - Alaska Inside Passage Cruise
We arrived in the Metlakatla Indian Community in the morning and toured the small town on buses. Metlakatla is the only native Indian reservation in Alaska, and is just north of the USA/Canadian border. Metlakatla was settled by 800 members of the Tsimshian tribe who immigrated from a town of the same name in British Columbia. They were led by a Scottish missionary. The community seemed much poorer than other small towns we visited in Alaska, but the residents seemed happy and were anxious to share their culture with us. We were entertained with music and dancing by a native dance troupe, and enjoyed browsing the small shops for jewelry and native artworks. Metlakatla had many totem poles, each of which told a different story or celebrated a family.
We sailed from Metlakatla to the Misty Fjords National Monument. Only small ships like those operated by Cruise West can enter the Misty Fjords, but passengers on large ships can take a float plane or small boat excursion from Ketchikan. Two kayak rangers who were living in the park joined our ship and provided narration, history, and stories of their exploration of the area. Most of us stood outside on the forecastle deck, soaking up the scenery of our last full day in Alaska. We sailed by Eddystone Rock before turning right and moving slowly into Rudyerd Bay. The Misty Fjords are too far south for glaciers, but the granite cliff remnants left by the retreating glaciers are impressive. The kayak rangers stayed onboard through dinner, and as they kayaked away into the darkness back to their floating cabin just off the Behm Canal, I couldn't help but think we would also be leaving the ship the next day in Ketchikan.Continue to 10 of 10 below.
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Ketchikan Alaska - Alaska's Southernmost Town - Alaska Inside Passage Cruise
The last morning we were up early on the Cruise West Spirit of Yorktown as she docked in Ketchikan. The ship docked next to the Holland America Oosterdam, which towered over the Spirit of Yorktown. Our checked luggage was sent ahead to the airport, and the crew stood outside on the dock to bid us farewell as we boarded buses for the short ride to the Westmark Hotel, which sits high on a hill overlooking Ketchikan. The view was great from the hotel, and it has a funicular lift to carry guests down to (and up from) Creek Street. Our flight was not leaving until the late afternoon, so we left our hand luggage at the hotel in the Cruise West hospitality room and had most of the day to explore this popular port of call.
Ketchikan is the southernmost town in southeast Alaska, and like Juneau and Skagway, is filled with large cruise ships on most summer days. We did a walking tour of the town, wandering through some of the numerous shops in the harbor area and on Creek Street. We found a good place for a light lunch, and watched the salmon swim upstream in Ketchikan Creek. Since Ketchikan is one of the rainiest cities in Alaska, we felt lucky to have a sunny day for traveling. One interesting tidbit about the Ketchikan Airport is that you have to take a ferry across the channel to the airport, which is on an island.
As we flew away from Alaska, we remembered all the good times on our small ship, and how we felt like we had seen and experienced much more of the "real" Alaska of our dreams.
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