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How to Experience Alaska’s Real Essence on a Cruise

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Humpback whales can be spotted in Alaska from mid-May through September.

Photo by Alexey Suloev

Humpback whales can be spotted in Alaska from mid-May through September.

From cuddling sled-dog puppies to hiking Denali National Park, these cruise lines offer some of the best ways to see Alaska right now.

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The 49th state satisfies all types of travelers’ cravings for adventure. By ship, you can glide through the Inside Passage and watch humpback whales breach in spectacular settings like Glacier Bay National Park. On land, you can partake in classic Alaskan activities such as heli-hiking and dogsled mushing, or you can catch your own salmon in a glacier-fed stream. There are many ways to check out the Last Frontier’s vast wilderness, but embarking on a cruise is a great option for those who want access to both land and sea offerings in Alaska.

Bookings for Alaskan ship expeditions have skyrocketed over the past few years with cruise lines offering more in-depth itineraries centered around the state’s scenic landscapes, majestic wildlife, and distinctive local culture. Here are five experiences you can (and should) have on an Alaskan cruise.

Support Alaskan-owned businesses

Cruise lines such as Seabourn, Holland America, PrincessCarnival, Oceania, and Celebrity feature Alaska itineraries that stop at Icy Strait Point, a native-owned and operated cruise port. This gives passengers the opportunity to explore Hoonah, Alaska’s largest Tlingit town, with its restored 1912 salmon cannery and museum, nature trails, and 100 percent Alaskan-owned shops. At the Adventure Center, travelers can choose the activity of their choice, including day trips to  nearby Point Adolphus (one of Alaska’s richest whale grounds). Those who stick around Hoonah can see bald eagles wheel overhead, sip a local beer at the Duck Point Smokehouse, or fly down North America’s longest and highest ZipRider. 

Princess Cruises allows its passengers to cuddle with sled-dog puppies.

Meet sled-dog puppies

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As part of the award-winning “North to Alaska” program from Princess Cruises, onboard activities on Alaskan expeditions include hanging out with some of Skagway’s newest sled dogs. When the cuddly puppies visit the ship’s central atrium, you can snap a picture and talk with the handlers who train them for a life of mushing.

Other cruise lines, such as Carnival, offer on-land visits to Alaska’s sled-dog and musher’s camps. And with Azamara Club Cruises, a dog-sledding day trip even includes a helicopter trip to the vast Mendenhall Glacier.

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Cook your catch

During certain Princess Cruises shore excursions in Alaska, if you land a salmon or halibut, the ship’s chefs will prepare it to your specifications to enjoy onboard. The exclusive “Cook My Catch” offering is available during port calls at Juneau and Ketchikan. As passengers return from their fishing trip tour, they select their preferred preparation and accompaniments, and then the culinary team takes it from there. 

If the fish aren’t biting, you can still dine on fresh Alaskan king crab, king salmon, and halibut in Princess ships’ main dining rooms. Plus, the top deck grills feature specialties from popular shore-side eateries, including crab cakes from Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau, fish tacos from The Alaska Fish House in Ketchikan, and seafood chowder from Bonanza Bar and Grill in Skagway.

Denali is the tallest mountain peak in North America.

Delve deeper into Denali

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Travelers on Holland America’s “Land + Sea Journeys” can go further into Denali National Park than those on excursions with any other cruise line. A six- to eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour (included in all Holland America “Double” and “Triple” Denali journeys) ventures 62 miles into the national park’s unspoiled wilderness, offering up-close views of Denali and the chance to see Alaskan wildlife, including grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves.

After the tour, guests can gather around fire pits and toast marshmallows for s’mores, visit an artist-in-residence cabin where Alaskan native and local artists display and discuss their works, and hike trails along the Nenana River before spending the night at McKinley Chalet Resort, a 60-acre property just outside the park’s entrance.

Caribou herds migrate north as summer approaches.

Travel at the whim of the wilderness

For those craving a sense of spontaneity, the small-ship specialist UnCruise Adventures takes a unique approach to the classic cruise in Alaska: All expeditions have flexible itineraries driven by differing weather and wildlife patterns. The 7- to 14-day Alaska programs feature remote wilderness hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, and whale-watching excursions—but the activities that passengers participate in depend on what the given season dictates. That’s the true essence of an Alaskan adventure.

This article originally appeared online in June 2016; it was updated on March 6, 2019, to include current information.

>>Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Alaska

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