Looking for the optimal way to explore Alaska and the Inside Passage? This handy best ports of call – Alaska cruise guide will get you started.
Rich in maritime culture and history, the area offers breathtaking scenery of the natural rugged west coast. The Alaska cruise season runs from the end of April until mid-October and provides a variety of options for departure ports from Vancouver, BC in Canada; Seattle, Washington; Seward (Anchorage) or Fairbanks, Alaska; and from San Francisco or San Diego, California.
There are a variety of cruise ships sailing these waters and each offer slightly different itineraries at varying price points. Many different cruise lines explore Alaska destinations. Here are the latest cruise offerings from: Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess Cruises, Oceania, Windstar, Silversea, Cunard and MSC.
You can also choose from a variety of cruising options.
Cruising options for Alaska
- Round trip; to and from your original departure point.
- One way; southbound or northbound.
- Cruise and Land/Land and Cruise tours that allow you to discover more of Alaska and the Yukon. Most include some travel by train.
- Cruise length is your choice and can be 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 21 days or more if you continue across to Japan.
Along the route, there are plenty of places to find fresh, abundant seafood, including Alaska King Crab and wild Alaska salmon.
Be sure to bring binoculars to use for spotting wildlife along the shoreline and spouting or breaching whales in the waters.
It does not matter when you plan to travel, always be prepared by dressing in layers, wearing windproof and rainproof clothing, as well as comfortable walking shoes.
Highlights of things to do in ports of call Alaska and Inside Passage
- Juneau is Alaska’s capital city and is only accessible by sea or air. See stunning Mendenhall Glacier located in Tongrass National Forest. You could spend hours here, walking or hiking around. Visit the well-known Red Dog Saloon with the swinging doors and sawdust covered floor, take a whale watching tour or ride up 1,800 feet on the Mount Roberts Tramway for sweeping views of snow-capped mountains, the city and Gastineau Channel. Find out more about Juneau.
- Ketchikan is a wonderfully walkable town to explore and is home to the world’s largest totem pole collection. You will find poles from the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian indigenous people scattered around Ketchikan; in the totem parks or by visiting Totem Heritage Centre in Saxman Village. The Tongass Historical Museum, the SE Alaska Discovery Center, Historic Creek Street district and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show are all worth a visit. Take a hike in the rainforest of the largest national forest of the USA or try whale watching or fishing. Sometimes whales come right into Ketchikan’s harbor. The famous historic red light district of Creek Street is not to be missed.
Sitka, once a Russian American capital, is rich in Russian and indigenous history. Sitka National Historical Park features 18 authentic Tlingit and Haida totems along Totem Trail. The Russian Bishop’s House, dating from 1842, is the oldest Russian building. See bald eagles at the Alaska Raptor Center or bears at the Fortress of the Bears Rescue Centre. Download a map of Sitka and its attractions.
Haines sits at the foot of majestic, chiseled mountains and its waterfront skirts the Lynn Canal, one of the deepest fjords in North America. Haines is also a terminal for the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, which runs from Bellingham, Washington to the Aleutian Chain. Go deep-sea fishing for halibut, take a whale watching tour or check out the work of many of the fine artists from the area.
Skagway is the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush Trail of ’98. It is also home to the world famous White Pass and Yukon railway, a designated International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It is also one of the most scenic rail routes in North America. Take a tour along the South Klondike Highway into Yukon, Canada. Ride on a dog sled. See the world’s smallest desert. Learn more about the history of the gold rush. Find out more about Skagway.
Most popular glaciers and fjords of Alaska
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park is a designation UNESCO World Heritage Site. The number of cruise ships entering the fjord are restricted and Holland America offers the most visits to this breathtaking area than any other cruise line. Glacier Bay is one of the largest mammal protection areas.
- Icy Strait, located opposite Glacier Bay provides a look at the history of fishing along the coast with a demonstration of a fully restored cannery, now a museum.
Hubbard Glacier is North America’s longest tidewater glacier. Icebergs are continually calving off this 70 mile/113 km long glacier. The icebergs, some up to 200 feet/61 metres high become a habitat for pupping and molting harbor seals. Pupping occurs in late spring. Molting generally happens annually in the summer.
- College Fjord in Prince William Sound offers views of eight glaciers all at once.
Endicott Arm Fjord
Endicott Arm Fjord offers views of spectacular Dawes Glacier at the end of the fjord. This glacier is actively calving. It is a half-mile/0.8 km wide and 600 feet/183 metres high. Endicott Arms has a large harbor seal population during breeding.
- Tracy Arm is a narrow, deep fjord with many waterfalls tumbling down its steep cliffs. The Twin Sawyer Glaciers, North and South Sawyer, are found here. Only smaller cruise ships can navigate this area, but you can also access this breathtaking wilderness though sightseeing tours from Juneau. Sometimes there is so much ice in the water that ships are unable to access the entire area. The ship I was travelling on at the end of May was unable to completely enter the area.
Top things to do in Alaska cruise departure ports
- Seattle, Washington is a vibrant city offering endless mountain and ocean views. Three top things to see: Pike Place Market with a visit to the original Starbucks, the Space Needle with views across Puget Sound to the west and all the way to Mt. Rainier to the east (the highest mountain in Washington) and the incredible Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit next to the Space Needle. If you have time, take a tour of Seattle’s Underground. You won’t be disappointed.
- Victoria, B.C. has an Olde English feel. It is the oldest city in the Pacific Northwest. Stroll along Victoria’s magnificent Inner Harbour and catch a small harbour ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf for fish and chips or be served afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress. Reservations must be made in advance for the afternoon tea. Take a tour to the beautiful world famous 100-year-old Butchard Gardens.
Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska after Anchorage. Visit Pioneer Park to explore a Gold Rush town of 35 restored buildings. Travel on a boat tour along the Tanana or Chena river or be lucky enough to see the aurora borealis, known as the northern nights. This astronomical phenomena can be spotted between August 21-April 21 in a clear night sky. Follow the aurora tracker.
San Francisco, California
- San Francisco, California is full of character and offers many different areas to explore. It is a wonderful walkable city. Ride the famous cable cars. Eat fresh seafood on Fisherman’s Wharf. Watch for sea lions near Pier 39, which is near Fisherman’s Wharf. Travel across the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Vancouver, B.C. is striking. Surrounded by majestic mountains and sea, it is a wonderful walkable city with great transportation. Ride a bike around the seawall of world-famous Stanley Park. Visit the Market at Granville Island, then hop on a harbour ferry for a little self-guided tour. Visit Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, and then consider taking the Skytrain to Surrey and back. If it’s a clear day, take the gondola up Grouse Mountain. The sweeping views of the mountains, city and water are breathtaking. Don’t miss the Grizzly Bear Habitat up on Grouse. Stay longer in Vancouver and take a drive up to Whistler, a world renowned ski resort. The drive to Whistler takes about two hours along one of the most scenic routes in North America. Visit three waterfalls in the area. Take a private tour. Get off your cruise ship just after 8 a.m. and visit spectacular Shannon Falls, BC’s third highest waterfall. The drive is 1 1/2 hours one way. Follow the Sea to Sky Highway offering sweeping views of fjords, mountains and islands. This trip can be done comfortably and would allow you to add a few more short stops in Vancouver and still get back to the cruise ship by 4 p.m.