Many Alaska cruises tend to explore the same southeastern ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka. Yet to immerse yourself in the land of sled dog and Arctic tundra (and a chance to see the northern lights), requires a trip to Alaska's northwest interior. Cruise lines have the answer: the cruise tour.
The cruise tour is a land tour of interior destinations before or after a cruise. In conjunction with seven-night Alaska cruises, three- to eight-night land programs extend each trip with visits to interior destinations, such as Anchorage, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. Cruise lines with the most established cruise tour programs in Alaska include Holland America, Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean, each with its own hallmarks.
It's hardly a cruise on wheels. The go-go-go pace might have you putting luggage outside your doors at 6 a.m., leaving the hotel an hour later and not arriving at the next destination until the evening. But, that's not all you need to know about Alaskan cruise tours -- here are six other aspects of the best Alaska cruise tours...and the worst.
1. It Pays to Tune Into Your Wild Side
Visiting Alaska is all about wildlife. Spotting orca whales, caribou and grizzly bears requires cameras and binoculars at the ready while staring at scenery all day. The trick is to look for movement. If it's not moving, it's often a "spruce moose" or "rock bear." Using this advice in Denali National Park, you might find a mama and baby bear along one slope, Dall sheep next to a sheer cliff drop and caribou with huge antlers among the shrubbery. Also be on the lookout for lesser-known creatures like the spotted lynx or red-tailed fox.
In Seward, a five-hour cruise through Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords might at first yield only jellyfish and seagulls -- not to mention some salmon in warming trays at lunchtime. But, when the boat reaches the Gulf of Alaska, be on the lookout for whales. Returning to the bay, you might cruise past horned puffins floating serenely in the water or a brown, furry island that's actually a sea lion-covered rock when viewed through binoculars. And those white spots on the hills? Mountain goats!
2. Expect Rustic Surroundings for Creature Comforts
Cruise tours tend to favor Alaskan lodges over chain hotels. The lodges typically feature a carefully created rustic look with exposed-log exteriors and blond-wood interiors. Lobbies are homey with cozy seating, fireplaces and "dead animal chic" decor -- lopped off noggins of moose and bear locked in eternal staring contests over the heads of visitors (or life-size dioramas). Even in remote areas, Wi-Fi is often available, but amenities can be scarce. Few lodges have pools, and primarily you will find teeny-tiny workout rooms and maybe a sauna.
Guest rooms are either in wings off the main lobby or in out-buildings. Be prepared to walk, though golf carts might be provided for those with mobility issues. In Seward, you might walk along wooded trails to get from your room to the restaurant or lobby, and in Denali, there's a bit of a hike through some properties in order to get to the shuttle bus stop. And, yes, animals do frequent the premises -- from a seat on the back patio of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, you could just see a black bear wandering down a walking trail behind the hotel.
3. You'll Learn About Culture Now, and Then
A cruise tour offers a myriad opportunities to learn about Alaskan culture, but know that presentations range from sophisticated, interactive exhibits to canned, touristy attractions.
The Anchorage Museum has an excellent exhibit on Alaska native cultures, in a partnership with the Smithsonian, with fascinating items like a jacket made of seal intestines and a helmet with a human face on it. There are also art galleries, where rotating modern art exhibits showcase a range of media, from a beautiful multicolor quilt to a bizarre video that combines images of a native dancer, a cruise ship and a floating Sarah Palin head. Kids will love the interactive Imaginarium that explores volcanoes, marine life and the aurora borealis.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a short drive from downtown Anchorage, and fare is included in a culture pass, along with the Anchorage Museum. It's an eye-opening look -- complete with a walkable "village" -- at all of the Last Frontier's native cultures, and how they balance tradition and modernity today.
A visit to Fairbanks could include some cheesy Alaskiana, particularly the El Dorado Gold Mine. Visitors climb into an amusement park-style mini-train, where an old-timey conductor sings Johnny Cash songs as they chug through replicas of mining operations. Teenage boys, dressed like Gold Rush miners, hand out bags of dirt so you could pan for gold, which has the potential to be fun, but the atmosphere is tourist-trap tacky. (The hostess has been known to wear a giant gold nugget on a chain around her neck.)
A paddlewheel boat river tour in Fairbanks also offers a float plane demonstration followed by a sled-dog demo at the home and training camp of an Iditarod champ. Debark in a mock Athabascan village, and receive a culinary demonstration (how to best prepare a salmon for dog food), fashion show (someone models an elaborate fur coat) and open house (a peek inside a typical trapper's cabin).
4. Riding the Rails Could Be Exciting ... or Not
The Alaska Railroad -- which traverses the long distance between Anchorage and Talkeetna, and on to Denali -- is a don't-miss experience, but be sure you know what you're getting.
You'll pass some beautiful scenery, most notably Hurricane Gulch, where the train crosses a 918-foot bridge poised some 296 feet above a creek. Unfortunately, the viewing platform can be crowded with other travelers blocking views and viewfinders. You'll see crazy, colorful homestead cabins in the middle of nowhere, in addition to a stunning natural palette.
Cruise lines tend to hype the rail portion: double-decker, glass-domed cars with 360-degree views, outdoor viewing platforms, a dining room with regional specialties. Instead, you could spend four hours at a stretch with carry-on bags squashed at your feet watching a bunch of trees go by, hoping that one of them was a moose. Train hosts provide commentary about Alaska and the railroad's route, which can be enriching (or sleep-inducing). And depending on your ticket, a spiked coffee to sip while you listen might just be included.
5. Dining is Uneven, and Sometimes Additional
One of the biggest surprises about the cruise tour is that most meals might not be included. Some lines don't include meals in the price of cruise tours to give travelers the freedom to try local restaurants of their own choosing.
Yet, you might often be compelled to eat at certain times and in certain places. On the Alaska Railroad train rides, you might not be allowed to eat your own food up in the seating area, but since the ride typically takes place smack in the middle of a meal time (the train from Talkeetna to Denali, for example, leaves at 11 a.m. and arrives at 3 p.m.), you are basically forced to eat in the dining car. And, because the dining car can't accommodate all the passengers at once, you'll have to eat in shifts as dictated by the train host.
Eating dinner at the hotel each night will likely be the most convenient option, which you might discover if you take a trip into "downtown" Denali for dinner. Due to jam-packed tour schedules, you might not arrive at the Salmon Bake restaurant until after 8 p.m., and finish too late to catch the last hotel shuttle. The restaurant shuttle (many out-of-the-way Alaska restaurants and attractions have them), can be full of young hotel employees returning from their night out on the town. So, if you eat dinner out, be prepared: getting back to the hotel is part of the adventure.
6. The Knockout Scenery Might Be at Midnight
Only in Alaska can you choose from an array of interesting wake-up calls. The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge offers a Mount Denali wake-up call. The hotel staff will ring you if the skies clear, providing a view of the majestic mountain from the hotel's back deck. If your trip is blessed with clear skies and sunny weather, you might actually see the mountain several times, say, during a jet boat tour on Talkeetna's three rivers or on the way to board the bus in the morning.
In Denali and Fairbanks, you can request a northern lights wake-up call, and the front desk will alert you in the middle of the night should the aurora borealis be especially active. The heavenly phenomenon is not common during the summer months of cruise season, but don't count out a phone call at 11:30 p.m. to view a ghostly arc of green, shimmering across the night sky. (Your best bet is in Fairbanks, way up north, in late August or September.)
The wake-up call opportunities show just how much scenery is a part of an Alaskan vacation -- in addition to many hours riding buses, trains and boats. One of the most scenic rides is from Seward to Anchorage, along the Turnagain Arm, where snow-capped mountains and rolling hills rise on either side of the bay. On a clear day in Anchorage, you can see the volcanic peaks of the Aleutians and the faint outlines of Denali before watching a dramatic sunset from your 15th-floor hotel room. And, if you really want to immerse yourself in the beauty of Alaska, you can book a flightseeing trip, offered in most destinations, to see the glaciers and mountain peaks up-close.
The Bottom Line
After a week on the road in Alaska, there might be mixed feelings about the cruise tour experience. Some feel a bit trapped by the heavily scheduled tour, long train rides and restrictive meal offerings. Although the lodges are well appointed, they are often off the beaten path, leaving sightseers at the mercy of shuttle buses. In these ways, the tours are very unlike an Alaska cruise, where you travel at night and have full days in port, free to choose activities and time meals that suit you.
However, a majority of the activities on a cruise tour are quite good -- a Resurrection Bay cruise and visit to a wildlife center, for example. While some tours might strike as too touristy, one can appreciate the overview to the Alaska experience. The cruise lines do a good job of condensing Alaskan highlights into a relatively short tour, covering an amazing amount of ground in just a week with a nice assortment of urban and wilderness destinations, famous locales and hidden gems.
The biggest impression you can come away with is that Alaska is a beautiful and interesting state and well worth exploring -- and that the cruise lines have expertly put together a variety of tours to showcase it at its best.