Finding the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise for singles, couples, and the whole family.
When you’re planning an Alaskan vacation, the first thing you have to decide is your means of travel. Car? Bus? Train? Boat? A few of the best towns to visit in Alaska are reachable by boat. Cruise ships are floating cities with plenty to do. And some of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise will be the most memorable things you’ll ever experience.
As my first cruise, it opened a door to a whole new way of traveling. It was one of the best Alaska vacation ideas I could think of that would let me relax plus find adventure. Cruises don’t mean you stare out the window all day and watch the ocean pass by. There’s a ton of stuff to do! I also discovered that the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise aren’t actually on the ship.
Planning an Alaskan Vacation
Planning an Alaskan vacation can be done several different ways. Traveling by car takes longer, but you’re in control of where you go and how fast you get there. A train is just a really fast bus that makes pit stops. A cruise is water bound.
Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world because so much of it hasn’t been spoiled yet. There isn’t a wrong way to experience it. Road trips are wonderful if you enjoy driving at your own pace. Trains cover more ground at faster speeds. But a cruise offers a bit more – it combines land and sea. No driving, no scheduled bathroom breaks, no stress.
It’s not all winter and heavy coats in Alaska. On my cruise, I packed a hoodie, jeans, tank tops, and t-shirts. My cruise departed from Seattle in the beginning of May. Some places were chilly, yes, but in others I left my hoodie behind. The best things to do on an Alaskan cruise are exploring the different ports. The weather varies in each port, so varying your wardrobe is important.
Some of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise happen during the land excursions. This is an important part of planning an Alaskan vacation if you’re taking a cruise. I booked the ones that I knew I’d probably never have a chance to do again. Because room is limited, I booked them at the same time I booked the cruise. You can book during the cruise, but it may be full by then. They’re refundable up to 24 hours beforehand. If you decide you want to raid the buffet all day instead of leave the boat, just ask for a refund.
Best Things To Do On an Alaskan Cruise
I found some of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise are to relax, sleep, and eat. There are scheduled meal times, but the buffet is available 24 hours a day. So are tea, coffee, and the dessert bar. But there’s more to life on a cruise than eating. When you’re planning an Alaskan vacation, be adventurous and take advantage of the port calls. You never know what you may find.
Deciding to book the whale watching tour was the absolute best Alaska vacation idea imaginable. Seeing humpback whales and killer whales swim next to you in the open ocean is a beautiful experience. This is, by far, the absolute best thing to do on an Alaskan cruise. If you do nothing else, go whale watching in Juneau. There’s nothing else like it.
We docked and took a shuttle boat to the mainland. Our guides were waiting for us and piled us into a comfortable mini-bus. Fifteen minutes later, we boarded what I thought of as a larger version of a speedboat.
A few minutes out to sea in Auke Bay, the captain slowed the engines and we stopped. A pod of four Orcas was nearby. As we floated, they came up to the boat to investigate. With a camcorder in one hand and my digital camera in the other, I captured every second of that encounter.
The captain explained the logistics, but I was engrossed in watching the mamma and baby orca play. Their dorsal fins slice through the water. They blew water out of their blowholes. They crisscrossed one anothers path and always stayed watchful of the baby. This was so much better than watching them swim in circles at Sea World.
Another port visit was to the northern town of Ketchikan. It drizzled rain the entire time, but a drizzle won’t kill you. We docked, got to land, met our tour guides, and climbed into a comfy mini-van. A quick drive out of town, and we were at the visitor center of Southeast Exposure.
Our guide was one of the coolest guys I’ve met. He knew everything about the Alaskan outdoors. We got in our rain ponchos and vests and headed to the docks. Sharing a kayak with him, I didn’t have to do much paddling. So I had the camcorder and camera going full speed.
Eagle Island is the home to a mass of bald eagles that nest there. They flew all around and paid no attention to us. The air was so free of noise pollution that we could hear the flapping of their wings as they soared above us.
We didn’t explore the island – I think that’s illegal – but we circled it to get the full view. A family of minks came to shore and chased one another. As they played hide and seek, they’d stop and stare at us every now and again before going back to their antics.
As I slacked in my paddling duties, I was able to really focus on my surroundings. I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Sometimes whales come into the bay, and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some more Orcas. But the movement kept disappearing until I thought I’d imagined it.
Watching an eagle glide across the water and snatch a fish out of the water on my left, something bumped the right side near my legs. I just about peed my pants when I turned and looked straight into the eyes of a baby seal.
Stunned, I didn’t move. He balanced halfway out of the water, leaning casually on my boat as he checked me out. His nose twitched and I desperately wanted to rub his little whiskers. I slowly reached my hand towards him and came within centimeters of touching him. But he pushed off and disappeared into the black water. He stayed near us the rest of the time, staying just out of my reach. Splashing, swimming, and I swear he was smiling; he just had a fun time following along on our tour.
Glaciers, glaciers, and more glaciers
Some of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise are free. Like sipping complimentary hot cocoa as your ship parks directly in front of a world-famous glacier.
This is the only time I actually needed my hoodie. The change in temperature was drastic as we neared Hubbard Glacier. We went from enjoying the sun on the Lido deck in the open air to huddling around cups of hot cocoa as we slowly entered the bay.
Feeling like I was having a Titanic moment, I stood on the bow of the ship and braved the cold. Moving only inches at a time, our view of the glacier was amazing. I took photos of it and the iceberg children bobbing past us from every angle imaginable. There was also plenty of time to pose with the glacier behind us for a few family pictures.
A slow rumbling began and as we searched the horizon. A giant piece of the glacier broke off and splashed into the ocean. Known as “calving”, it’s how the smaller icebergs are created. The current carries them along as the blue of the water reflects off of them.
When you’re planning an Alaskan vacation, make sure you include visiting the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. Juneau Tours picks up passengers at the docks and shuttles you to a Visitor’s Center. The Center sits on the edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. From the road, you can see it. It looks like a raging river suddenly froze and stayed that way.
The Center is full of information and pamphlets about the glacier’s history, but I bypassed that. I headed straight down the long wooden walkway that leads to the glacier. As it melts, the ice creates a lake of sorts with a shoreline. We walked right up to the lake and got closer to the Mendenhall Glacier than we did to the Hubbard Glacier. I scooped up some water and drank it. It was sparkling clean, refreshing, and probably the best water I’ve ever had.
There’s also a spectacular waterfall near the glacier. It sprouts from the rock and feeds into the lake of melted ice. No matter the weather, this was a truly beautiful sight to behold.
If you’re planning an Alaskan vacation that gives you more flexibility and freedom, hop on a helicopter and head to Canada. Mendenhall Glacier is only about 40 miles away from British Columbia. Or hike the numerous trails encircling the glacier.
Best Towns to Visit in Alaska
Cruises to Alaska incorporate port calls to coastal towns that thrive and cater to tourists. Most cruise lines research the best towns to visit in Alaska and include it in their itinerary. You can shop, eat, explore, and pick up those coveted trinkets and souvenir from each town.
There’s a scavenger hunt we played, courtesy of the cruise line. At each town, we visited the specified store and received a free gift. Each port had the next part of that gift. By the end of the cruise, I had collected a four-piece set of porcelain coasters and a set of crystal Christmas ornaments.
Kayaking to Eagles Island and whale watching were the best Alaska vacation ideas I could have had. Ever. There are other things to do if you don’t want to purchase the kayak tour in Ketchikan. It rains a lot, but that doesn’t dampen the outdoor adventures.
Ketchikan has the largest number of totem poles in Alaska! Explore some of the native culture that pops up everywhere. Art galleries and museums house carvings, weavings, sculptures and lots more. We saw some ancient totems that were true works of art.
Off-roading, zip lines, helicopter and floatplane tours are everywhere. Use your vacation as an excuse to do something you thought you never would. The next time I go, I’ll be zip lining through the wilds of Alaska.
Since wildlife outnumbers humans, just walk around or take a hike to see an abundance of forest friends. Other cruise tours are available in town that involves seeing porpoises, sea lions, whales, otters, and more.
While some of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise involve experiencing the beauty and wilderness, we can’t forget shopping and eating. I did lots of both in Sitka.
The mildest weather we had during the cruise was here. With jeans and t-shirts, we soaked up the warm sunny weather. Shops abound on the strip. Every souvenir you can think of is sold here. I bought a few things made by local natives rather than cheapy trinkets.
Once owned by Russia, you’ll find lots of Russian history and heritage proudly displayed in Sitka. I found a fabulous set of nesting dolls (made locally) for only a few dollars. It’s been the topic for famous novels including one written by Louis L’Amour as well as the setting for many classic films.
After hitting every single shop on the strip, we needed food. Grabbing an outdoor patio table at The Dock Shack, I ordered fish ‘n chips. The food, service, and view of the bay were incomparable to any other seaside town I’ve been to. Sitka has to be one of the best towns to visit in Alaska simply because of its amazing history, outstanding shopping, and limitless locally made items.
I think that two of the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise are whale watching in Auke Bay and tasting water from the Mendenhall Glacier. Riding a catamaran through Auke Bay and witnessing a pod of Orcas playing was amazing. Add tasting water directly from a melting glacier, and there’s no topping that.
I recommend stopping by the Red Dog Saloon for a beer and a bite to eat. A relic of Alaska’s mining heyday, it brings you back to the days of the gold rush.
So I took a little stroll to the Red Dog sea-loon.
As I walked in the door, the music was clear.
The purtiest voice I had heard in two years.
The song she was singin’ made a man’s blood run cold.
When its springtime in Alaska it’s forty below.
Pizza, salads, burgers populate the menu while hats, sweatshirts, and other unique souvenirs can be found for sale. It’s like the Alaskan version of the Hard Rock Café but more affordable.
The final stop for us was in Victoria, British Columbia. A tiny island off the western coast of Canada, it’s caters to tourists and cruises. T-shirt shops, souvenir shops, food on the go, you name it and it was there.
The main attraction for me was the Empress Hotel. Facing the Inner Harbor, it’s the first thing we saw pulling into port. It’s one of the oldest hotels in Victoria and looks more like a palace than a hotel. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and even Shirley Temple paid a visit to the chateau. Victoria may be one of the best towns to visit in Alaska if you love history and old world charm.
I ventured inside (for free) and gave myself a self-guided tour. It was too late for the infamous Afternoon Tea service, but I still wanted to explore this world heritage site. My entire home town could have fit inside the Empress. It was like stepping back in time. The ornate carvings, wood work, furniture, high ceilings – all made me feel like I was a member of the royals.
As the sun set, the entire town lit up like a Christmas tree even though it was only May. The Empress was outlined with white lights that made it the center of attention. Running short on time, we hopped in a pedicab and were pedaled back to the dock. We only had a few hours in Victoria but it was an amazing visit.
Finding the best Alaska vacation ideas for your budget
Planning an Alaskan vacation can include as much or as little as you want. Choose from seeing wildlife, skiing, helicopter rides, shopping, and tons more. But if figuring out what the best Alaska vacation ideas are is too hard, don’t worry. These things – and more – can all be enjoyed during a cruise to Alaska.
Once on board, you’ll find that the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise are at your fingertips. Food, shopping, raffles, gambling, dancing, sunbathing, dinner shows, and hot tubs are just a few things you can do onboard.
The cruise line will find the best towns to visit in Alaska so you don’t have to. Whale watching, glacier viewing, iceberg hunting, dolphin sightings, seal encounters, kayaking, shopping, restaurant diving, bargain hunting, and beer tasting are all on your Alaskan agenda.
Have you visited Alaska? Or been on a cruise? Leave a comment and share what you think are the best things to do on an Alaskan cruise.
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