May is the start of Alaska season for cruise ships, and I have had the luxury of cruising to Alaska on three occasions with two different cruise lines, so I thought I’d like to reminisce a bit! Scenery, history, fun, nature and the midnight sun; Alaska is a true bucket list destination!
I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Alaska (well, I went three times right?!), simply because when I think of cruising, the first thing that usually comes to mind is sun, surf, palm trees and lying on the deck getting a tan. Well, Alaska certainly doesn’t serve that up, but it is about as special and diverse an experience as you can imagine and should be added to any globe trotter’s itinerary.
Lets go to Alaska! There are so many things that are fascinating about visiting the land of the midnight sun, so named because in some areas of the state, during the summer months, there may only be 3-4 hours of darkness during the earliest hours of the morning.
First off, nature, nature, nature! Alaska is home to the Tongass National Forest which is the largest forest in the United States, and is part of the temperate rainforest. It encompasses most of the Alaskan panhandle and is located north of the city of Ketchikan. Check out this link from the Alaska Wilderness League website for a taste of what it has to offer: Tongass National Forest.
Alaska celebrates all things wildlife whether it be land, sea or air, including bears, moose, foxes, reindeer, bald eagles, sea otters and seals, dolphins and whales, and if you are living in the city you simply don’t get to experience this. On one of my trips, my family and I experienced a nature walk and whale watching expedition, which offered us a great glimpse into the indigenous landscape that is Alaska.
The pinnacle nature experience in Alaska, is of course, the glaciers. The Mendenhall Glacier is a majestic (but shrinking!) natural wonder located near Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Our nature walk took us along a route which winds toward the glacier, and there are distance markers indicating where the glacier once was and how it has retreated since 1929 when the proglacial Mendenhall Lake first began to form from the runoff of the melting glacier. It is quite an experience to walk where a glacier once was – although I suppose it could be argued that we do that every day!
Glacier Bay is another great tourist spot as cruise ships have the ability to sail right up to the Margerie Glacier which is at the end of the Bay. It is a very serene and beautiful experience to slowly sail up to the glacier with chunks of ice floating past you.
Visiting Alaska is an experience rich in history as well as nature. The Klondike goldrush began in 1896 at Bonanza Creek in the Yukon Territory, and one of the entry points by sea, to begin the journey to what is now Dawson City, is Skagway, Alaska, and the stories this town tells are fascinating!
Skagway became a “hub” town for the arrival of prospectors whose plan was to continue their journey by land and river channels to Bonanza Creek. Skagway grew at a breakneck pace during the gold rush, both because many believed that this was the most accessible route, and also because many became stranded in Skagway for months at a time if weather conditions made the land trek impassible. It is a town full of history and romance with late 1800s-era storefronts and wooden sidewalks! Travel Alaska tells it better than I do here: Skagway.
One tour that is not to be missed in Skagway is “Ghosts and Goodtime Girls” which is a historic walking tour of the town. It highlights the many women who worked in Skagway during the goldrush. Many of them were daughters and sisters of prospectors who found themselves living alone in the town while their fathers and brothers tried to make their fortune at Bonanza Creek. This tour tells the stories of Diamond Lil and Klondike Kate, and offers a fascinating display of artifacts and clothing used by these women. The tour ends with a glass of champagne at the upstairs brothel area of the Red Onion Saloon. The passion of the ladies who run this tour and the stories they tell touched me unbelievably. Here’s the link! Ghosts and Good Time Girls.
Another not to be missed experience is the White Pass Summit train trip via the White Pass and Yukon Railway. Take a load off in a vintage passenger train which takes you round trip to the White Pass Summit and back. This relaxing train trip takes passengers along the original Klondike trail and offers breathtaking views and historic details from your guide. One of the fun parts of the trip is that you will sit in the same seat facing the direction the coach is going, both ways, but the coach will never turn around!
One of the things I find very enchanting about Alaska is the diverse culture that exists there. Of course, most people know that Alaska belonged to the Russian Empire until 1867 when it was purchased by the United States, and many Russian families still live there. Shops can be found in all of the tourist areas which sell traditional Russian items such as Matryoshka nesting dolls, Faberge-style eggs, Soviet memorabilia and amber jewellery (90% of the world’s amber comes from Russia).
A few things not to be missed when visiting Alaska via cruise line include the Alaska State Museum and the Red Dog Saloon (for a very authentic experience complete with sawdust floors!) in Juneau; the Red Onion Saloon and the Trail of ’98 museum in Skagway; Creek Street and Dolly’s House Museum in Ketchikan, and dog sledding in either Juneau or Skagway.
Wow, I’m feeling trip number 4 coming on!