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 get 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. Wildlife Is a Highlight
Visiting Alaska is all about wildlife, but you have to know where to look. Spotting orca whales, caribou and grizzly bears requires cameras and binoculars at the ready while staring at scenery all day.
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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.
On a half-day cruise through Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords out of Seward, 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! Bonus: When the boat reaches the Gulf of Alaska, be on the lookout for whales.
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 fitness centers might be tiny.
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 see a black bear wandering down a walking trail behind the hotel.
3. You'll Learn About Alaska Culture
A cruise tour offers myriad opportunities to learn about Alaskan culture, but know that presentations range from sophisticated, interactive exhibits to more touristy attractions.
The Anchorage Museum has an excellent exhibit on Alaska Native cultures, in 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. Kids will love the interactive Discovery Center where they can explore science, art and history.
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 paddlewheel boat river tour in Fairbanks also offers a floatplane 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).
You can also learn about the Gold Rush and mining with a visit to Gold Dredge No. 8. Your tour includes a ride on a replica of the narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad and the opportunity to try panning for gold.
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 can't-miss experience, but be sure you know what you're getting.
You'll pass some beautiful scenery, most notably Hurricane Gulch Bridge, 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 be included.
5. Dining is Uneven, and Sometimes Additional
One of the biggest surprises about the cruise tour is that meals might not be included. Some cruise tour programs don't include meals in the price 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, especially if you're in a more remote lodge. (For example, Princess' Denali Wilderness Lodge is much closer to the restaurants of "downtown" Denali than the lodge Royal Caribbean uses.) However, it's likely to be more expensive with limited options.
On the other hand, shuttle service between out-of-the-way hotels and the restaurant area are not always reliable, especially if you're eating later at night due to your tour schedule. 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 each 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.
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 seem 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 the state at its best.