Everyone really does need to visit Alaska at least once in a lifetime. And unless you’re made of very strong stuff, like “Running Wild” star Bear Grylls or “Expedition Wild” naturalist Casey Anderson, touring Alaska on a cruise ship is an easy way to go, at least for your first trip. There are a number of choices for cruising The Last Frontier, ranging from major cruise lines — like Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — to smaller ones like Un-Cruise Adventures and Lindblad Expeditions. We recently sailed on Princess Cruises’ Star Princess ship. Here are five reasons to see America’s 49th state from the sea.
1. Sometimes, you just can’t get there any other way.
Alaska is the biggest, wildest state in the U.S. Take a look at a map and the first thing that jumps out are the vast tracts of wilderness and the complete lack of roads. Juneau, the state capital, is easy to fly or sail to. To drive? Not so much. In fact, all of the vehicles you see in that scenic city have come there on a boat. Likewise, the best way besides flying to reach Sitka (the historic spot where Russia sold the Alaskan Territory to America in 1867), Ketchikan (the state’s southeastern-most city), and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve (at the top of most Alaska bucket lists) is by ship.
2. You can get up close and personal with massive glaciers.
Speaking of which, cruising into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is the ideal way to see why it’s a World Heritage Site. You’ll see towering glaciers like the Lamplugh, Margerie, Johns Hopkins, and Grand Pacific that shed huge chunks of ice. Alongside the glaciers, humpback whales, sea otters, and other critters frolic happily in the freezing water. Every ship that enters the bay takes on rangers from the National Park Service, so you can seek out the experts and geek out on scientific facts and wildlife stats. Also good to know: It can be cold in the frozen bay, even in the midst of summer, so pack and dress accordingly.
3. There’s as much adventure as you can handle.
There are plenty of thrills to be had in every city where an Alaskan cruise ship docks. Travelers can either book via their cruise line (online or on board) or directly with local vendors (online or by the docks). Whichever way you choose, there’s every level of adventure to be had. For those on a tighter budget, there’s everything from a guided mountain hike ($60), to a dog sled run (from $100), to ziplining ($149). You can fish for hours ($150 and up), go sea kayaking ($60 and up), or scuba dive (from around $85). Want to splurge? As a part of our Star Princess trip, we donned oxygen masks and flew in a six-seat airplane to the very top of Denali with K2 Aviation ($345). While we were berthed in Juneau, Taku Glacier Adventure landed us right on the glacier, then Airboat Alaska zoomed us into the Taku River basin ($550).
4. You can eat and drink locally, both on and off the ship.
Alaskans have always been very much in tune with the bounty of their environment, and visitors can enjoy it, too. In Talkeetna (at the base of Denali National Park), for example, you can pair a Denali Brewing Company Chinook Pale Ale or an award-winning Chuli Stout with a blackened Alaskan cod sandwich. There are local flavors on board many of the cruise lines, too. On the Princess Cruises fleet, for one, the “North to Alaska” menu literally brings on-land favorites onto the ship, including crab cakes from Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau (one of our favorite seafood spots in southeastern Alaska) and fish tacos from the Alaskan Fish House in Ketchikan. Cruisers will also be able to nosh on the pan-seared Alaska salmon dish that won the 2014 Great Alaska Seafood Cook-off.
5. It’s easy to extend your trip and explore on land.
There are must-see parts of Alaska that are land-based — the spectacular Denali National Park and Preserve being the most-visited one in the state. Most cruise lines offer passengers land-and-sea packages that combine all the sights and adventure of a cruise with a few days of deeper exploration in the state. A Denali package likely includes a stay in Talkeetna, the quaint town where adventurous climbers begin their ascension of Denali — the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. Other extensions might include stops in Fairbanks or British Columbia, with some time on a riverboat or train. For our Denali package, Princess provided a choice of motor coach transport, or a train ride (complete with a scenic viewing car) to get from Anchorage to the national park and back. We found the experience to be especially seamless given that the line owns two lodges in Denali (along with three others in the rest of Alaska).
Bonus: Great deals can help you save.
There are a number of sales going on for the summer 2016 cruising season and beyond, if you’re willing to book now. Among others, Princess Cruises is currently offering a 3 for Free promotion, which includes complimentary gratuities, a stateroom upgrade, and one specialty dining meal for two. The deal can be booked through October 29 and requires a $100 deposit.