Alaska's wildlife and landscapes make it one of the most popular cruise destinations. Credit: Shutterstock

How to cruise Alaska like an expert

Author: Nicole Carmichael

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With its jaw-dropping scenery, spectacular wildlife and a vast range of outdoor activities, it's no wonder Alaska is one of the world's favourite cruise destinations

John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist, once wrote in his journal: ‘You should never go to Alaska as a young man, because you’ll never be satisfied with any other place.’

Ask anyone who has spent time in America’s largest state and they are sure to agree – Alaska is an absolute banquet for the senses, brimming with things to see, do and experience.

Nicknamed America’s Last Frontier, Alaska occupies the northwest corner of the US, where it borders the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and the Yukon. It also shares a maritime border with Russia, whose far eastern coast lies just a few ocean miles away.

In fact, Alaska was Russian territory until 1867, when it was bought by the US for $7.2 million (about £120 million in today’s money) and did not become a fully incorporated US state until 1959.

Today this pristine wilderness, with its vast national parks and incredible wildlife, draws more than two million visitors every year.

Half of these arrive by cruise ship, and there’s a very good reason for that. Alaska has little transport infrastructure – the city of Juneau is the only US capital that is not accessible by road – but all its great attractions can be reached by sea.

Summer (May to September) is the best time to visit, with long hours of daylight for wildlife-watching and exhilarating excursions.

Most Alaska cruises are round trips from Vancouver or Seattle, or one-way voyages from the north to the south (or vice versa), but almost all will include a port stop at Juneau.

Visit Alaska in the summer months to see its lush landscapes during the longer days. Credit: Shutterstock

Alaska’s colourful capital offers 103 miles of walking trails, plus easy access to stunning sights such as Tracy Arm fjord and the jaw-dropping Mendenhall Glacier – a 1.5 mile-wide ice sheet that’s a magnet for climbers, hikers, cavers and kayak fans (unusually among the state’s 600 or so glaciers, it’s also reachable by road).

First stop for cruise ships sailing north is usually the town of Ketchikan, nestled at the base of spectacular Deer Mountain and known for the native American totem poles at Totem Bight State Park.

Then, having called at Juneau, you’ll visit Skagway, made famous by the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, when thousands of prospectors flocked here to seek their fortunes.

Most left disappointed, but many Wild West-style wooden buildings remain to tell their stories.

If you’re a history buff, you can also get an amazing insight into Alaska’s past on the White Pass Scenic Railway, a traditional pioneering railroad that takes you through vast canyons, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers.

Further north still, you’ll come to Anchorage, Alaska’s best-known and largest city, and home to a third of its population.

As well as offering cultural sites such as the Alaska Heritage Centre, Anchorage is another gateway to fantastic trails, glaciers and forests.

The cherry on your slice of Alaskan adventure is, or course, the chance to see some of the world’s most incredible wildlife in its natural environment.

Admire Alaska's stunning glaciers. Credit: Shutterstock

You’ll have countless options for spotting Alaska’s Big Five land animals – bear, moose, mountain sheep, wolf and caribou – and if you happen to be visiting Katmai National Park during the salmon run (June to August) you might see brown bears snatching fish in their jaws as they leap upstream (those who prefer to catch for themselves can head to Homer, the angling capital of Alaska).

At Denali, the state’s most famous national park, jagged forests, vast tundra and crystal-clear lakes are home to caribou, moose, grizzly bears and wolves.

Further south, the Kenai Fjords National Park is superb for spotting humpback whales, sea lions and orcas, as well as a rich variety of colourful bird life.

So while some holidays might leave you with a handful of wildlife anecdotes, on a trip to Alaska you’ll need to keep a log book.

And it’s a good job that cameras no longer need film.

But while this is an unbeatable destination for animal lovers, it’s perhaps not so great for vegetarians.

The local diet is very much based on what’s hunted, hearty and handy, so you’re more likely to find reindeer sausage and yak steaks than tofu and alfalfa.

But that’s not to say the cuisine is unrefined – you can look forward to sourdough pancakes, fresh salmon and monster king crab.

And if you’re hiking the tundra, stock up on jerky (dried meat – a traditional Alaskan snack) for sustained-release energy.

Spot a moose in the wild, one of Alaska's Big Five land animals. Credit: Shutterstock

It’s unlikely that Alaska would be your choice if you don’t already have a passion for the great outdoors, but do give some thought to your wardrobe.

It will rain – quite often – and a glacier hike can be chilly and hot by turns, so pack a heavy-duty waterproof jacket and lots of layers.

And don’t forget your sunglasses.

To really make the most of your Alaskan experience, consider a one or two-night pre-cruise stay in Vancouver or Seattle (both fantastic destinations in their own right) so you can shake off any jet lag before you sail.

Then, prepare yourself for one of the world’s great journeys.

Alaska’s landscapes are like nowhere else on earth, its wildlife is thrilling and majestic, and you can try kayaking, dog-sledding or pretty much any other outdoor adventure that takes your fancy.

No, this isn’t a cheap holiday.

But the memories you’ll bring home will last a lifetime.

Get onboard

Holland America Line seven-night ‘Alaskan Inside Passage’ cruise aboard Noordam, round trip from Vancouver via Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan, departing May 5, 2024, from £1,079. Click here to view this voyage.

Oceania Cruises 11-night ‘Seattle to Seattle’ cruise aboard Regatta, round trip from Seattle via Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point, Sitka, Prince Rupert and Victoria, departing June 28, 2024, from £4,189. Click here to view this voyage.

Board HAL's ship Noordam and sail along the Alaskan coast. Credit: HAL

Why you should go

Wonderful wildlife

You’ll see Alaska’s Big Five land animals - bear, moose, mountain sheep, wolf and caribou – as well as eagles, humpback whales and orcas

Colourful history

Native Americans, gold-rush prospectors and Russian fur traders all played a part in Alaska’s rich cultural heritage

Natural beauty

In one cruise you’ll see mountains, glaciers, fjords, stunning waterfalls, rapids, rainforests and mile after mile of unspoiled wilderness

Fantastic light

Alaska has almost endless daylight in the summer, and in darker night skies you may glimpse the Northern Lights

Once-in-a-lifetime experience

Fancy sea-kayaking among icebergs, dog-sledding or helicopter flights across the tundra? Alaska offers them all.

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