What You Need to Know Before Cruising to Alaska

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When you think of cruises, you’re probably picturing sun-kissed decks, scorching heat and lounging around in swimwear. In stark contrast, Alaska’s chilly climes don’t tend to make for your typical cruise destination, but its unbelievable glacial landscapes, vast array of wildlife, and deep blue waters mean it’s a must-see for budding explorers and adventurous types looking to expand their horizons.

For those unfamiliar with cruising this part of the world, there are essentially two areas that ships weave through: the narrow waterways of the Inside Passage or further north through the Gulf of Alaska. Which way is the one for you? Both afford incredible opportunities to see a part of the world you might not have experienced before, but are different in their own spectacular ways.

As well as delving into these two areas and their respective itineraries, we’ll highlight the finest sights to be found in this extraordinary corner of the globe, as well as what you should pack for this unique type of cruise.

Inside Passage

Consisting of more than 1,000 islands, the Inside Passage lines the south-eastern point of Alaska, gilded with an assortment of idyllic coves and bays that guests can admire as ships pass through. Queasy travellers are in luck too, the plentiful amount of land means there’s very little room for choppy waters while you’re on the move.

In this neck of the woods, Cruise1st’s Inside Passage itineraries pass through Skagway, Ketchikan and Alaska’s capital Juneau, as well as Sitka and Vancouver, British Colombia too. The Tracy Arm Fjord, a huge fjord south of the capital, is even touched upon on some itineraries, while the Ketchikan zipline is a real treat for thrill seekers. It’s a 5330-foot long – the longest in the world of its kind – it lets the fearless explore a rainforest canopy from high above the ground.

Zip line in Alaska

In this part of the world, cruisers can see all manner of fjords and forest-dotted mountaintops, along with a host of glaciers populated with sea lions, porpoises and whales. If you’re looking to see as much of Alaska’s wildlife as possible, then the Inside Passage has perhaps more fauna than any other part of the state. It should come as no surprise then that the seafood here is some of the freshest you’ll find, and its wares are a must-try while you’re here. Alaskan king crab, chowder, fish tacos make up many a menu in this neck of the woods, so be sure to make some time to dine while you’re here.

In port, the Inside Passage’s picture-perfect grace is brought into sharp relief and guests can fully appreciate its spectacular landscapes up close. Depending on your cruise line, you’ll be afforded a range of excursions to fully explore the lands before you. On the more serene side of things, your itinerary will have plenty of guided tours on foot and by bus, but if you’re looking to kick it up a gear, there are some more unusual modes of transport too. Take to the waters with a spot of sea-kayaking, saddle up with some mountain-biking or see the Passage from up high in a helicopter. Fancy something even more immersive? Make a splash as part of a scuba diving or snorkelling session and see the sights of the ocean floor!

For those who like their cruises relaxed and comparatively tranquil, guests on Inside Passage itineraries tend to stay on board for longer stretches, which means less hopping on and off the ship. Despite the relaxed pace, there’s still plenty of chances to explore and see what its ports of call have to offer.

Gulf of Alaska

Horseshoe Lake in Alaska

For those looking to see more of Alaska, the itineraries that traverse the Gulf of Alaska present more diverse, varied routes for cruisers to check out. Although you’ll still visit similar Island Passage locations, there’ll also be major stop-offs in Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. Here, there’s plenty of attractions to check out, including the Denali National Park and the fairy-tale-style charm of the Alaska Railroad.

Here, travellers can gaze at the awe-inspiring sight of the Hubbard Glacier. At six miles, it’s Alaska’s longest glacier and is an extraordinary natural beauty. Huge icebergs frequently fall off the glacier itself and into the water below; these 10-storey chunks smash into the seas beneath and create huge explosions of water, which are a must-see while you’re here.

The Denali National Park, meanwhile, is a six-million-acre swathe of greenery that visitors are welcome to explore either by bus, on foot, or down its white-water rapids if they’re feeling adventurous. Many cruisers argue that the Gulf of Alaska offers so much more compared to the Inside Passage; if seeing as much of your new surroundings as possible is for you, then the Gulf is a dream for the budding adventurer.

The good thing about Alaska is that it’s rarely a one-time-only deal. Whichever route you choose to go for, many cruisers often come back for more, such is its otherworldly beauty. With so many sights, attractions and wildlife to see, there’s always something you’ll have missed the first time around.

Breath-Taking Sights to See

Alaska is a freezing wild, with amazing sights to enjoy and places to experience. Here are just a handful of our favourites.

The Northern Lights

Northern lights Iceland

Localised entirely within Alaska from September to mid-April, a visit during this time will afford cruisers the unforgettable view of Aurora Borealis. Fluorescent greens light up the backdrop of purple sky, and with frequent tours through the Fairbanks area, you’ll be sharing in the sight with other explorers, a collective memory that nobody involved will likely forget.

Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau’s most popular attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier is a huge ice floe that can be viewed up close by raft and kayak or even trekked across if you feel like channelling your inner adventurer. From the purest of white to the deepest of blues, the ice here is an incredible sight, you might even be able to see bears feasting on the local salmon from one of several hiking trails.

Ketchikan

This tranquil fishing village has both global credentials and local charm in equal measure. The salmon capital of the world has brought Alaska international renown, but it’s the pastel-coloured buildings and the sloping greenery of nearby Deer Mountain that add a picture-postcard quality to your holiday. Dotted with museums and cultural hotspots, swing by to learn about this curious little village before sampling its salmon specialities.

Denali National Park and Preserve

Kachemak Bay

A sprawling six million acres, Denali National Park features North America’s highest mountain and a plethora of wildlife to seek out. Amidst the river valleys, open ranges and assorted flora and tundra, guests are invited to see its spectacular sights along the single road that weaves through the park.

With over 167 species of birds, as well as all manner of bear, wolves, reindeer and elk, there’s no shortage of life in the park, while the Sled Dog Kennel shows are a real treat for dog lovers.

Kenai Fjords National Park

If you’re looking to see Alaska’s nature at its finest, then the Kenai Fjords have long been considered as the place to go. Popular with all manner of hikers, wildlife fanatics and kayakers, ‘Alaska’s Playground’, as the park is known, is a veritable cornucopia for outdoor types. With sweeping views that take in the Harding Icefield and a remote, uninhabited coastline, the park is populated by huge brown bears, so your tour will take in the surrounding areas, but it’s still an incredible place to behold while you’re here.

What should I pack?

As we said before, this isn’t your typical cruise; it’s unlikely you’ll be sunning yourself on the top deck or going for a dip in the pool. Nevertheless, the weather can be unpredictable, and it’s likely you’ll experience a multitude of microclimates during your time here, so ensuring you’ve packed the correct gear is of the utmost importance.

The key to your Alaskan attire is layering. That way, you can take off items or put them on when the weather starts to change. Start with a base (or comfort) layer; a short sleeve t-shirt or something similar, follow this up with your warmth layer, like a hoody, fleece or jumper and finally add a protection layer. This should be an all-weather jacket, ideally with a hood. Something waterproof and breathable is advisable, and since it can get windy even on warm days, the cold can really do a number on you, so a nylon windbreaker probably won’t suffice.

A disposable poncho can work fairly well if you’re looking to pack light, plus they can be easily stored away when conditions clear up too. We’d recommend not taking an umbrella, not only do they take up space in your luggage, but they won’t cope too well in the rain when it’s especially windy. Leave it at home.

Walking or hiking boots are pretty much essential as you could well be traversing some tough terrains while you’re here. Bring two pairs if you have a lot of active excursions planned.

As for your lower half, jeans or long trousers will do the trick on long excursions when it’s cold, but consider getting some convertible pants that can be zipped off at the knee and made into shorts. These are especially useful if things start to heat up midway through a hike, or there’s an unexpected cold snap and you need to warm up as soon as possible.

Of course, things like thick socks, gloves, hats and scarves are worth bringing along for similar reasons. Make sure you have a lightweight, foldable backpack to store these layers safely on the move, too. Also, a pair of binoculars (or two) is recommended too, as you’ll definitely want to see the native wildlife in as much detail as possible – from a safe distance!

That said, since the weather can vary so much, make sure you don’t make the mistake of only packing for the cold. Many people think Alaska is cold all the time and learn the hard way. At least one day will be sunny and warm, so pack accordingly for days like that.

We hope this guide to cruising Alaska’s waters has got some inspiration going for your next cruise. To view Cruise1st’s full range of Alaskan cruises, check out our dedicated page here, or give our friendly team a call on 0808 274 6777.

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What You Need to Know Before Cruising to Alaska
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What You Need to Know Before Cruising to Alaska
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Alaska’s chilly climes don’t tend to make for your typical cruise destination, but its unbelievable glacial landscapes, vast array of wildlife, and deep blue waters mean it’s a must-see for budding explorers and adventurous types looking to expand their horizons.
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Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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