Our recent 7-day Alaska Hubbard Glacier cruise was the best trip of my life. There! I’ve said it. It’s a big statement for a big State. Almost twice the size of Texas and with a population of just 720,000 (World Population Review) this State packs a punch. Every day on an Alaska cruise brings incredible highs and awe inducing moments which can reduce you to tears in an instant. Prepare to gasp with delight as you watch humpbacks and orcas blowing spray high into the air while you sip on a glass of wine in the Sunset Bar. Or enjoy the mesmerising dance of dolphins darting through the wake of the ship, chuckle at the antics of seals lazing in the sun or marvel at bears hunting on the shore.
Then there’s the incredible natural wonders that Alaska is home to – glittering glaciers, snow covered peaks, pristine forest and entirely unspoiled coastline. There is a staggering 47,000 miles plus of coast on the endless islands, inlets and shoreline. What’s equally perplexing is that more people are not talking about this western wilderness. So, if you have yet to consider a trip to Alaska, here’s 10 reasons to make an Alaska cruise your next adventure.
We booked a week Hubbard Glacier cruise on the Celebrity Eclipse. You can find the full cruise itinerary here. The ship is jam packed with food and drink venues, plentiful entertainment choices (so many I complained my diary was double booked!) and some more unusual ship activities (more on that shortly). The fantastic thing about this cruise is that there are highlights both onshore and offshore as you will see.
Our Hubbard Glacier experience
I wake to the gentle rocking of the boat and sunlight peeping through the gaps in the curtains. As I step onto the balcony, I can see distant snow-covered peaks rising dramatically from the coastline and wisps of cloud nestled on the water. Towering above the coastal mountains are even more dramatic mountains. All jagged edges, soaring peaks and no sign of civilisation.
I glance left and gasp as I spot my first glimpse of the Hubbard Glacier. Visible from over 30 miles away, it looks like a tiny glistening sliver of ice hovering above the bay. As we advance, its true glory gradually reveals. A melee of vivid blues, turquoise, grey and white, the glacier glitters beneath the mountains hypnotising those who visit. Beneath its terminus, giant slabs of ice carve into the sea creating mini sunbathing platforms for seals. Orcas and humpbacks grace the bay alerting passengers to their presence with plumes of spray, tail slaps and the occasional breach.
Getting to the Hubbard Glacier for non cruisers
To visit the Hubbard Glacier is a feast for the eyes, a truly spectacular scene that few will be fortunate enough to visit. It is only accessible by cruise ship, or on guided tours from nearby Yakutat. Note, Yakutat itself is remote with no roads connecting the town to other cities in Alaska. Access is by plane or boat and you can find more details on 3 amazing reasons to visit the Hubbard Glacier. This truly is one of the last remaining wildernesses and quite possibly the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Yes, the icy breeze brings tears to my eyes but so does the magnitude of this incredible spot. Hopefully the photos demonstrate exactly why the Hubbard Glacier alone is a reason to book an Alaska Cruise.
Clearly the Hubbard Glacier is not an onboard attraction however as you do not disembark here (unless you have booked a boat trip!) I have put it under onboard highlights.
The Inside Passage
The Inside Passage is another natural highlight of an Alaska cruise.
As you leave behind the bright lights and bustle of Vancouver, you enter a different world. An area of scarce population, densely forested islands and miles of protected waterways. The Inside Passage stretches over 1,000 miles along the Pacific Ocean from Washington State to Skagway in Alaska. It boasts incredible wildlife, misty fjords, thousands of emerald islands, snowcapped mountains and memserising glaciers in vivid shades of blue. It is also home to the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the United States. Cruising through the narrow inlets of the Inside Passage rewards visitors with sublime views and access to picturesque fishing towns snuggled between mountain ranges and untouched forest.
The islands of the Inside Passage are surprisingly mountainous with the peaks of Vancouver Island peeping out from the misty lowlands like a series of camel humps. The occasional road snakes up forested slopes but mostly there is little sign of life. We pass empty slivers of beach, rocky outcrops and quiet coves as we glide through the narrows.
In addition to spectacular scenery, however, visitors can learn more about the local Tlingit and Kaigani Haida indigenous people. They stamp a unique personality onto the area and totem poles are a common sight in these parts.
Astonishingly, Celebrity Eclipse offers guests the chance to participate in a glass blowing class. Budding artists can create their own glass masterpiece at the dedicated open air studio onboard. It’s a delicate dance of heating molten glass, shaping and colouring and I watch fascinated as David tries to direct me. Over the course of a half hour, we shape and mould a plain piece of glass into a colourful bowl that now stands proudly in our lounge. Yes, amazingly it made it home unscathed!
It is fascinating to see David turn the glassware upside down and watch as twirls appear around the edge created simply by gravity. I was convinced my creation would be utter garbage but with the help of David, we twirl, shape and tease the glass into something pretty stunning. Impressed right??
Each evening onboard Celebrity Eclipse, the sky lights up in various shades of molten red, vivid orange and sunny yellows. As you sip on a cold beer from the aft deck of the Sunset Bar, you can snuggle under your tartan blankets whilst marvelling at the magical descent of the sun. Keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins who often make an appearance at this time.
It is difficult to pick our best sunset as each had a backdrop of different scenery and towns. Here is a selection for you to enjoy and decide for yourself.
You can visit the following destinations without booking a cruise as Alaska Air serves many of the towns throughout Alaska. It is also possible to visit the Inside Passage on the Alaska Marine Highway System, which stops in 35 ports of call between Bellingham in Washington State and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.
It is not however possible to drive to these destinations. Whilst there are roads in town, these do not extend much beyond city limits. A quick look at the Juneau Road map highlights the novelty of roads to nowhere as you can see below.
Should you wish to do a tour of the coastal towns of Alaska, you will therefore need to either fly, cruise or take the ferry.
Entering the Port of Juneau is enchanting. Beneath emerald, snow capped mountains lies a vibrant boardwalk of tourist shacks and rainbow coloured, clapboard stores and restaurants. Walking the streets of downtown feels like being an extra in a wild west movie with western style saloons, charming storefronts and the occasional totem pole. Although Juneau is the capital of Alaska, it feels like a small town and with a population of just 32,000 (Source: World Population Review), it has to be one of the tiniest capitals I’ve visited.
Wandering through downtown, you will encounter merchants advertising giant crab, jewels and the usual tourist paraphernalia. You can easily spend a few hours wandering around and sampling local seafood from inviting fresh air shacks, but if you only have a day, do not miss the Mendenhall Glacier.
Note, if you visit Juneau by plane, do allow a few days to explore the surrounding area more thoroughly. There are several glaciers around town, hiking routes galore and the charms of downtown to keep you entertained for at least a few days. You can check out all the things to do in Juneau on this dedicated Get Your Guide page.
The Mendenhall glacier is a huge swathe of ice that stretches over 1,500 square metres of Alaskan wilderness 13 miles North of Juneau. The Icefield is a fascinating jumble of dirty greys and vivid blues as it spills down the valley into Mendenhall Lake.
There are many ways to visit the glacier. You can hop on a helicopter to get a bird’s eye views of jagged blocks of ice that tumble down the mountain. Or opt for one of the many tourist shuttle guided tours that you can book at quaint stalls on the dock. A less expensive option is to take the city bus from downtown to the Mendenhall Glacier stop then walk the 1.5 miles to the Visitor Centre. But, if you prefer to get up close and personal with the glacier, opt for the helicopter trip or kayaking on the lake.
From the visitor centre, you can enjoy several hiking trails around the glacier. Gaze in awe at icebergs floating in the lake beneath stunning reflections of Alaska’s lofty peaks. Feel the mist from cascading waterfalls, stroll through untouched rainforest and watch out for wildlife encounters.
Helicopter trip to Mendenhall Glacier
We visited the Mendenhall Glacier on a helicopter trip and you can read more about our helicopter and ice walk here. Stepping gingerly onto the ice, knowing that it shifts and groans continually and is riddled with crevasses sure gets the adrenaline pumping!!
Deep inside the Alexander Archipelago, a chain of over 300 islands in the Alaskan Inside Passage, Ketchikan is a gem of a town. As you enter the port, you will spot vibrant clapboard buildings that hug a harbour side boardwalk. Walk further into town and explore Creek Street, home to more quaint tourist shops in rainbow colours. Here you will discover the earthier side of Ketchikan’s past with a visit to Dolly’s. The cute mint walls of the preserved brothel hide a rambunctious past where ladies of the night entertained weary miners and sailors and stashed contraband liquor in secret closets.
Alternatively head into town for the Ketchikan lumberjack show or just a short ride out of town you can visit pristine wilderness where the air is so clean it is like a detox for the lungs. Jump on a cruise onto the George Inlet to hear tales of salmon canneries and crab farming. Watch out for wildlife including bears, seals and birds of prey. I highly recommend a crab feast. It is a great opportunity to learn more about crab farming and get your hands dirty feasting on succulent crab legs washed down with draft beer.
Icy Strait Memorial Walk
Icy strait point is a dedicated cruise ship port on Chichagof Island, 1.5 miles from the hamlet of Hoonah. Visitors flock into the port and town to guzzle salmon and crab whilst admiring views of mountains, water and wildlife. The island is home to more brown bears than people and boasts more bears than Yellowstone National Park. On the day of our visit, rangers close the coastal trail due to a bear sighting. They do not want to risk clueless hikers like us encountering bears. If you would like to be ‘bear aware’ this post explains what to do in the event of a bear encounter.
When you disembark at Icy Strait Point, you can walk or run the Icy Strait Memorial Sea Walk into town. It is a gorgeous coastal pathway with stunning views of the inlet on one side and towering rainforest clad slopes on the other. Distant mist shrouded mountains hog your attention as you wander but keep your eyes peeled. It is common to spot humpbacks breaching in the inlet and sea lions basking and belching in the bay whilst eagles regularly soar overhead.
There is a wealth of activities to enjoy at Icy Strait including whale watching and ziplining. If you would prefer to shop, a bunch of warehouses house quaint tourist shops. Here are a few other popular options you may like to consider or explore more Icy Strait Point activities here.
The Gondola skyline whizzes passengers 1,500 feet to the top of Hoonah Mountain for spectacular views of the bay and surrounding area. Whilst, the views from the top are undoubtedly stunning (but the views in Alaska are stunning from anywhere) the trails from the top are mediocre at best. We found the Gondola somewhat underwhelming and recommend you save the $49 ticket price. Instead, spend the money on crab legs at the Crab House on the dock. Now that really is a spectacle!
Feast on crab at the Crab Station
Huge Alaska king crabs with foot long spindly legs rest atop a giant tray with succulent pink flesh oozing from the shell. If you have the time, order some legs (two costs $39.99), grab your tools and crack the shell to release the juicy meat. Eek out every last morsel from the shell and groan with satisfaction as you sip on craft beer and watch for whales through one of the harbour front windows.
There are plenty of whale watching options at Icy Strait Point and these often guarantee sightings. Conveniently, you can board the boats directly from the dock where the ship moors and head out into the bay. We spotted orcas and humpbacks on our tour not to mention seals lazing on the buoys in the harbour.
As you may have gathered by now, on our Alaska cruise we were extremely fortunate to witness multiple wildlife encounters. We gasped in awe at orca and humpback whale sightings, were dazzled by dolphins skimming across the water and amused by lazy sea lions sunbathing. I would like to be able to claim this photo as my own, but sadly, all I managed to capture on film was rather unimpressive splashes.
Alaska’s low population and lack of road infrastructure is a haven for marine life and onshore wildlife. If you love the idea of cruising past icebergs whilst admiring whales breaching, do not hesitate to book an Alaska Cruise..
How amazing is an Alaska cruise
Admittedly, I wondered whether a summer cruise to a ‘cold destination’ might be something of a washout. Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong. Our Alaska Cruise. was the pinnacle of all my overseas travel to date and I do not say this lightly. Alaska is a state that packs a punch with sublime scenery, warm welcomes, stunning sunsets and beautiful wilderness. I am already planning my next visit!
If you have been, I would love to know what you thought. Were you as blown away as me? What did you love or loathe? (Surely nothing!!)