Please help with Alaskan Cruise Itinerary
March 31, 2017 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Specifically wondering about self-guided ports of call exploration versus signing up for excursions; also wondering about dry suit snorkeling and zip lines in particular, or recommendations for HAL excursions in general.

It's my partner's and my first trip to Alaska, and first and probably only cruise. It's a relatively short one: departing from Seattle, and returning a week later after stopping at:
*Hubbard Glacier

We're not moneyed people, but we could pick an excursion or two to enjoy, probably, if it comes highly recommended. I'm considering snorkeling in Sitka because my partner once loved SCUBA diving, and the snorkeling option happens to fall on his birthday, so it could be a neat surprise(?). There's a zip line excursion that looks totally fun, but is zip lining in AK far superior to other zip line opportunities? (We've never zip lined, but plan to experience it at a closer location or on a different vacation.)

In general we're pretty laid back and easy to please, but as first-timers we're not sure how fulfilled we will be just enjoying the on-board activities and showing ourselves around the ports of call. I know we'll love taking in the scenery and enjoying the nightly shows. I'm counting on playing shuffle board, swimming, window shopping, relaxing...

If you have any tips for fun things to do at the ports of call or have feelings one way or another about excursions being "worth it," I'd really appreciate your thoughts. Also, I can't guess our odds of seeing Northern Lights in early May? Extra details: he's a meat eater; I'm veg. We both can handle moderate exercise (he has some physical issues so... moderate as opposed to strenuous).

Any suggestions or advice is much appreciated! Thanks!
posted by little_dog_laughing to Travel & Transportation around Alaska (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously it will depend on how you feel about the sport, but I loved visiting a dogsled camp in Juneau--in the offseason the dogs will pull you in a glorified golf cart, and if there are puppies you'll get to cuddle them! It seemed like they keep a bunch of young, friendly mushers on hand who need the cash/socialization/exercise for their dogs... I'd recommend it.

Depending on how much time you have, just walking around Sitka can take a while (see the totem poles!) and was wonderful. Generally, I guess my philosophy was that it was probably my first and only trip to Alaska so I wanted to see more of the landscape/towns (and dogs) and stuff like ziplining I could do in a national park much closer to home...
posted by TwoStride at 3:23 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Excursions are definitely an important part of an Alaska cruise. I've done the following in the cities you're going to:
  • Flight in a small plane over the glaciers in Juneau. Awesome but expensive.
  • Rain Forest walk in Ketchikan. Surprisingly interesting.
  • River rafting trip in Juneau. Interesting, fun, and fairly mild, no real rapids. Fun if the weather cooperates, it was sunny for mine. The water is coming right off of a glacier and so is very cold. Rain would have made it unpleasant. Probably right on the edge of "moderate" activity.
  • Butterfly and Butchart Gardens in Victoria. It was dark when we got to the flower garden. May have been better during the day.

I booked all of those through the cruise line. You can book them somewhat cheaper on the dock, or even separately before your cruise. I'd recommend any of them except the Butchart Gardens.
posted by Hatashran at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2017

Flying in a DeHavilland Beaver is awesome. It was my favorite excursion when we took our Alaskan cruise. We had a great pilot and it was super fun/scary flying between mountains.
posted by Grumpy old geek at 4:20 PM on March 31, 2017

I'm a Juneau local, so I don't have a ton of experience with cruise related activities per se, but I have thoughts about some of the more popular local attractions. For some of the these things, your enjoyment may be affected by the number of other cruises in town at the same time. For example, taking a bus excursion to see the Mendenhall Glacier on a day when there are five ships in town can feel kind of like a cattle call. Here's the port schedule for Juneau to give you an idea of what to expect in that regard.

Going to the Mendenhall Glacier can be a really nice thing to do. There are plenty of short to medium length trails that are mostly flat. The hike out to Nugget Falls in particular is really nice (two miles round-trip), and it gives you great views of the glacier and a big waterfall. Also, a small proportion of cruise visitors venture far from the visitor center, so you can escape the crowds pretty quickly. There are bear viewing platforms on a stream near the visitor center, too, but in early May the salmon aren't really running yet, so the bears probably will be pretty scarce.

The Mt. Roberts Tram is right by the docks downtown, so it's very easy to access and it quickly takes you up to 1800 feet. On a clear day the views are incredible and even if it's overcast it can still be very nice. There are short hikes that take you up to different viewing platforms and you get to see some of the beautiful alpine tundra we have here. But the weather in Southeast Alaska can get pretty socked in, so on some days it wouldn't be so pleasant. If you can't see the top terminal of the tram from the bottom, that might not be a good day to go up. Also, I wouldn't really recommend the restaurant at the top of the tram. There are better food options on the main drag downtown.

A lot of people like to do whale watching charters. You will almost always see humpback whales and rarely orca. Also sea lions, seals, and birds. Sometimes you get to see humpbacks bubble-net feeding or breaching, which is amazing. Most times they're just cruising from one point to another and you get to see some whale backs and flukes before they dive. I've had friends who worked for Allen Marine Tours and my impression of them is that they're a well-run operation that is generally respectful of the wildlife. Some charters are definitely not.

As far as northern lights go, it's not impossible to see them that time of year, but not super likely. The night sky in the spring/summer gets a tinge of twilight that time of year, so if they do occur, the colors will be hard to see. And Southeast Alaska is pretty rainy, so clear nights can be rare. I've seen aurora in July before, but the effect was more like ghostly moving clouds, rather than the bright colors you normally think of. Here's a regularly updated aurora forecast you can check while you're up there, to see if any given night might be worth getting up in the wee hours to take a look.

That's stuff off the top of my head. I'd be happy to give you more suggestions about hikes in the area if you're interested, since hiking is what I'm all about. Feel free to memail me if you want more info or have particular questions about Juneau.
posted by otolith at 4:21 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to an Alaska cruise on my honeymoon and we liked it so much we returned 5 years later with my husband's family. The "nature" excursions are the best, and definitely worth it to save up for them. We went kayaking in ketchikan (probably got super lucky with the weather because it supposedly rains most days there), we also went "white water rafting" which was more of a scenic river boat tour with a few little speedy batches of water (cant remember the port, maybe Skagway?) whale watching in Juneau was AMAZING. One of my best memories of both trips. Getting on a helicopter and flying over a glacier then landing and walking around for a while is also super exciting but also the most pricey excursion.

There's a couple of hikes you can do for yourself, for free, one in Juneau and the other I can't remember but I can check. Memail me if you want more details or if you want to send me the excursion catalog and I can give you some comments in what's what.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 4:32 PM on March 31, 2017

Go to the website Cruise Critic. There are message boards for Alaska, for HAL, for your ship, for first-time cruisers. The people who post there are informed about everything down to the tiniest details.

I've done an Alaska cruise four times and will do the fifth in June. My opinion: In Ketchikan, do not miss an excursion to Misty Fjords - you can do seaplane, boat, or a combination of the two, but it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Do a whale watching boat trip at one of the ports. Hubbard Glacier is usually observed from the ship - there isn't a dock or a town there.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Daily Alice at 4:59 PM on March 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

In Sitka, I'd probably just wander around, rather than signing up for specific excursions.

#1: Definitely go walk around Sitka National Historic Park to see the totem poles & enjoy the views from the beach.

If you have more time, the Raptor Center is interesting (if you like eagles and owls).

The Fortress of the Bears is probably my third choice of those options, but I prefer birds to bears. My kids enjoyed learning about how they rescued the bear cubs. We got to watch them feeding the bears (and eagles), which was cool. One thing the photos on the website don't really show is that the bears are house in giant concrete rings (repurposed wood pulp tanks).

We also enjoyed the Sitka Sea Life Center. Most people would probably do it as a short visit, on the way to see the totem poles. There's a large room with a giant touch-and-see tank where you can get close to sea urchins and sea stars. Many of them are purple or orange!

Go window shopping downtown & visit the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

I didn't hear anyone mention snorkeling in Sitka, so I can't comment on that activity.

As far as food goes, there weren't tons of vegetarian options at most restaurants. We enjoyed the Larkspur Cafe. The Backdoor Cafe (downtown, behind the bookstore) has yummy baked goods and decent coffee.
posted by belladonna at 6:23 PM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Kayaking in the Southeast is absolutely beautiful if you are up to it.

You absolutely should go whale watching out of Juneau. The whales there are plentiful and if you happen to catch them bubble net feeding you will never, ever forget it.
posted by charmedimsure at 7:20 PM on March 31, 2017

We were in Alaska last August on our first ever cruise. I research the hell out of everything, so I felt comfortable not booking through our cruise line. Our itineraries are different, but I can't speak highly enough of Harv & Marv in Juneau for whale watching, we did a morning trip (eagles, seals & sea lions too) and then explored downtown Juneau & the Mt Roberts Tramway on our own in the afternoon. And we ate lunch at Tracey's Crab Shack & holy cow was the bisque amazing.

In Ketchikan, we did the above mentioned DeHavilland Beaver tour, because it was my husband's only request on the cruise. Actually we did two, a morning trip over to see bears along the Margaret Creek Spillway, which was amazing. Truly. And in the afternoon we went on a fjords tour through the mountains and that was breathtaking. If I had to pick one to do again it would be the bears, because we spent more time on foot in nature, but that is just personal preference. They were both stellar.

To balance out the two excursions, we didn't book anything in our other ports & explored on our own, though our ports don't match up. That said, I think those days were just as amazing. Alaska is gorgeous. Have an amazing time. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
posted by librarianamy at 8:44 PM on March 31, 2017

I live in Ketchikan. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to discuss our local options.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:47 AM on April 1, 2017

It was expensive (very), but the most intense hiking and clinging on the glacier (Juneau) was REALLY worth it to my wife and me.
posted by JMOZ at 5:31 AM on April 1, 2017

Climbing, not clinging. (Well, maybe a bit of both)

Also, HAL's strenuous isn't all that strenuous. You could do the glacier walk instead of hike and climb if you'd prefer.
posted by JMOZ at 5:44 AM on April 1, 2017

You absolutely should go whale watching out of Juneau. The whales there are plentiful and if you happen to catch them bubble net feeding you will never, ever forget it.

That's what we saw! I had forgotten how it was called, and yeah it was quite the spectacle.

My sister in law claims to have also seen a swimming deer, haha.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:59 AM on April 1, 2017

My sister in law claims to have also seen a swimming deer, haha.
That's entirely possible, they can sometimes be found swimming from island to island. It's how they arrived on all of these islands in the first place.

I've seen a black bear swimming from island to island as well, though only once.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:01 PM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I re-read your question and see that you are planning on visiting in early May. Based on that I would probably dis-recommend bear viewing in most places -- in May the larger salmon runs haven't really hit full swing in most places, so bears are still generally scattered throughout the woods and haven't been drawn yet to the mouths of salmon streams where they're much easier to find and view under (somewhat-)predictable circumstances.

Whale viewing will probably be better towards the Juneau end of your route, though you may well see migrating whales anywhere along the way from your cruise ship.

Weather will likely be very good by Southeast Alaska standards but this still means that you should expect rain showers to be possible at any time, however they will most likely be brief and isolated and the rest of the day will be delightful.

We've had a lot of snow this season even at low altitude, so I think that it's likely that alpine meadows won't be clear of snow yet by early May, which unfortunately eliminates a few spectacular hikes I might have recommended -- but depending on what you consider "strenuous" they might not be your choice anyway. However, you will probably be arriving at a good time to see wildflowers all over the place at lower elevations.

If you have time to do it and money to splurge a bit, I highly recommend the Tracy Arm cruise out of Juneau -- it will take you back by excursion boat to a fjord with spectacular tidewater glaciers. It may not work with your cruise ship's port schedule but I would be willing to do this just about every time I visited Juneau. However, Mendenhall is nice, too, and can be fairly easily reached by public transportation. A visit to the Mendenhall visitor's center, followed by a walk on one of the trails -- the East Glacier Loop fits your "moderate but not strenuous" criteria -- is also a good choice. If shopping in downtown Juneau look for the staircase that leads to William Spear Design for an interesting shop that most tourists miss (because of the stairs and unobtrusive signage.) The brightly colored enameled pins and zipper pulls in hundreds of different designs are affordable, portable, and popular trinkets to take back as gifts.

In Sitka, whether or not you go SCUBA diving, I would not skip the National Historical Park and its lovely collection of totems. And if you have extra time in Sitka, definitely call in at the Sheldon Jackson Museum and view its amazing collection of Alaska Native artifacts; most of them are from parts of Alaska you won't be visiting but the collection is world class. It's within easy walking distance from the National Historical Park, on the grounds of the former bible college founded by the museum's namesake.

May is an excellent time to enjoy Misty Fiords National Monument near Ketchikan, as the snow melt in the high country is still feeding hundreds of ribbon-like waterfalls that tumble thousands of feet down the cliffs surrounding the fjords -- later in the season they are greatly reduced but in May there will be tumbling cascades plunging down every cliff. But if you have spent your excursion dollars elsewhere on the trip and want to economize on your Ketchikan port call I can make recommendations and you can still put together a very fun day for comparatively little money visiting one of our local totem parks, wandering the historic district downtown, and possibly getting out for a short hike to experience the forest on one of our easier trails.

Outside of Victoria, Butchart Gardens is spectacular and a major tourist draw, but you can also have a wonderful day wandering around the Inner Harbour and downtown Victoria. The Royal BC Museum is worth a visit, otherwise just let your feet take you where they will while wandering around the lovely city center.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:42 PM on April 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I live in Juneau. There are some 90 hikes off of the road system and some of them are very easy and some of my favorites are right downtown. Bears may be hard to find that time of year as the salmon aren't really running. Snorkeling may also be a bit of a bust as low light, deep water, and painfully cold water will make it way hard. However, Sitka is beautiful and I don't think you will miss it.

The time of year to plan on visiting is my favorite season in Alaska, the snow will still be on the Chilkats and below, the forest will be brilliantly green. I've got tons of suggestions for hikes in Juneau and good veggie options, just send me a note. The only suggestion I will drop in here is Alaska JUST finished the new State Museum, Library, and Archives complex and it is amazing. If you visit any museum while in Alaska, hit this brand new facility while in Juneau. You will not be disappointed.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:11 PM on April 1, 2017

Oh yeah, definitely try to get to the Sheldon Jackson museum in Sitka! I'm not sure how it slipped my mind, but that would be my #2 pick after visiting the National Historic Park.

If you decide not to do any formal excursions, feel free to message me the date you'll be in Sitka and I'll ask my dad if he wants to play tour guide for the day.
posted by belladonna at 4:03 PM on April 1, 2017

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