Some people cruise for the onboard experience; I cruise for the ports-of-call. Alaska cruises, such as the one I’m on, are a bit of an exception because cruising past breathtaking mountain scenery and calving glaciers is as fascinating as a shore excursion. And most of the Alaskan ports are simply jumping-off points for hiking, flying, fishing, or sightseeing trips—the towns themselves are often not much to speak of.
This cruise called at four Alaska ports. Here’s my take on these port stops:
Ketchikan: Ketchikan gets more interesting the farther you get from the ship and the nearby jewelry stores. Up by Creek Street, you can often see salmon running in the water below and can take a short hike on Married Man’s Trail. As I have no need to buy diamonds, I skipped town on a canopy tour excursion. My group of seven brave souls swung from tree to tree on zip lines 135 feet above the ground. From up high, we also had great views of bald eagles. I can’t recommend the Canopy Tour highly enough.
Juneau: This city must be the lamest state capital in the union. It’s a charmless port town, and through the years Alaskan voters have toyed with the idea of moving the capital elsewhere, a decision I would wholeheartedly support. Many tourists spend time at the Red Dog Saloon, but I opted for a four-hour hike to see the Mendenhall Glacier. The hike through the temperate rainforest was refreshing, and the guides could identify all kinds of plants and animal tracks. I also heard that it was worth the splurge to take a helicopter out to the glacier and hike on the vast ice fields.
Skagway: During the gold rush, Skagway was a town that got rich cheating would-be miners out of their hard-earned cash. Today, Skagway gets rich taking the money of cruise ship passengers on their way through town. Sense a connection? I chose to do a short hike on the Chilkoot Trail—one of two trails actually used by the stampeders on their way to the Klondike—followed by a short float trip. The trip wasn’t as spectacular as the first two, but it sure beat shopping in town. Afterward, I took the National Park Service’s free tour of historic Skagway.
Sitka: Unlike the first three stops, Sitka is a real town with real history. It was home to Tlingit tribespeople, then the Russian capital of North America, and finally American Alaska. I opted out of shore excursions (though I heard the sea otter tour is fabulous for wildlife viewing) and toured the Russian Bishop’s House and National Historical Park with its trail of totem poles. The shopping in town is slightly less touristy than in the other three ports, but it’s best to go before a second cruise ship arrives.