Yes, you can see coastal Alaska WITHOUT a cruise ship. This is a review of my 2016 vacation using the Alaska Marine Highway to travel to different towns along the Inside Passage in Alaska.
Three years ago, I took an Alaskan cruise from Seattle on the Celebrity Solstice and had a great time. Ever since, I’ve wanted to return to the Inside Passage. The Inside Passage weaves through the islands of the Pacific Coast of North America — the islands act as a buffer, protecting ships from the rough waters of the open ocean. The passage starts in Seattle, follows the coast of British Columbia, and then winds through the Alaskan Panhandle.
I considered taking another cruise, but I couldn’t find one that included the towns I wanted to see – not all on the same trip. It’s frustrating. Alaskan cruises from Seattle typically make just three ports of call in Alaska. Enter the Alaska Marine Highway – which is what the Alaskan ferry system is called. The towns along the Inside Passage are largely inaccessible by car, but you certainly don’t need a cruise ship to get around. Ferries, small planes, and Alaska Air are the ways locals get around.
It’s hot in Houston in the summer, and the Inside Passage sounded like just the ticket. What follows is an in-depth look at my 2016 trip around Alaska’s Inside Passage, using ferries — without a cruise ship.
Alaska Marine Highway
I used the Alaska Marine Highway to get from Juneau to Skagway, then Skagway to Haines, and finally Haines to Sitka. It is possible to take the Marine Highway all the way from Seattle (Bellingham), but that is a three day trip one way. I chose to fly into Juneau and out of Sitka, and found very reasonable fares with Alaska Air.
Two of my ferry trips were overnight: Juneau/Skagway and Haines/Sitka.
What do I think about the Alaskan Marine Highway? It’s pretty damned cool. For the overnight trips on the ferries Matanuska and Columbia I had cabins. The cabins onboard the ferries in Alaska are rudimentary, but very clean, and the beds and pillows were comfortable.
I’ve had several friends ask what the Alaskan ferries cost. Here’s what I spent using the Marine Highway to get around:
|Trip||Ferry||Adult Fare||2 Berth Cabin||Total Cost||Time|
|Juneau to Skagway||Matanuska||$57||$77||$134||7.5 hours|
|Skagway to Haines||Le Conte||$32||—||$32||1 hour|
|Haines to Sitka||Columbia||$80||$106||$186||15.5 hours|
There are cafeterias onboard all the ferries, and the Columbia also has a full-service dining room. I found the food to be solid, but nothing special. Oh, and in a boneheaded move in 2015, Alaska closed the cocktail lounges on all of its ferries. If you would like to have drink, bring it on with you. You are only supposed to drink in your own cabin, but if you have a covered cup and are discreet, I doubt there would be a problem if you had a drink and watched the amazing scenery.
Two of my three ferry trips ran late by an hour. These ferries carry many vehicles: regular cars and trucks, motor homes, and commercial trucks. It takes time to load and unload. Add fog, and it’s is not unusual for a ferry to run a bit late.
Next trip, I plan to use “fast ferries” between Juneau, Haines and Skagway, and save the Alaskan Marine Highway for longer hauls. Fast ferry service is provided by private companies for passengers only — you can bring bicycles and pets, but no vehicles. Here are links: The Haines Skagway Fast Ferry and Alaska Fjordlines. Cost is 2 – 3 times more than the state ferries, but it cuts travel time in half.
What about flying, you ask? When the weather is good, small air services are a great way to get around. When it’s foggy, the small planes are grounded. I would use them for flightseeing, but not transport. The risk of screwing up a trip is too great. Alaska Air is another option.
On this journey, I wanted to embrace the Alaska Marine Highway system. I enjoyed it. Booking passage on the ferries is easy, but takes a little planning because the ferry schedule differs depending on the town. Between Skagway, Haines and Juneau, its daily. To many other towns, ferries do not run everyday.
The easiest way to plan your Alaska ferry adventure, start by looking at the Alaskan ferry system map is to do a “Sailing Search” for your desired Inside Passage towns. The search returns ferry arrival dates closest to when you want to go. Get out your trip dates, your desired itinerary, and make notes about when it’s possible to travel between the various towns. It’s important to have a booking portal, like Expedia open at the same time, to look at hotel availability.
Even when there is poor visibility, Alaska Air can still fly. As you plan your Inside Passage trip, explore their schedule and fares. It could be a smart alternative to the ferry. Alaska Air flies the following Inside Passage towns, and of course to many other towns and cities in the state.
|Inside Passage Towns:||Glacier Bay/Gustavus||Ketchikan||Juneau||Sitka||Wrangell|
Air service into Gustavus is limited. At this time, Alaska Air only flies there on Saturdays in the summer time. This trip was my first experience with Alaska Air, and it was great. I look forward to flying with them again.
I flew into Juneau on Alaska Air in early August 2016, checked into my B&B, and immediately headed out on a whale watching tour with Dolphin Jet Boat Tours. Light mist and low clouds, but after nearly 100 degrees in Houston, it was heaven. I was a lazy photographer that afternoon, just relaxed and watched, but we did see plenty of whales — two different groups, one with a dozen whales engaged in bubble net feeding. I thought the Dolphin Jet Boat folks did a good job, but I would have preferred a smaller boat with fewer people.
The Beachside Villa on Douglas Island is a lovely bed and breakfast right on the water, just across from the city of Juneau. Susan the innkeeper acted as concierge for me. A couple of weeks before my arrival, she made arrangements for the whale watching, a full day excursion to Tracy Arm Fjord, and a flight to Taku Lodge for a big salmon roast. Susan is a kind and thoughtful hostess, and the room was very comfortable — super bed. One caveat: there are a LOT of stairs; the building hangs on the side of steep hill — hence the great views, but you need to be physically fit. Taxi drivers helped with the luggage, so I didn’t find the stairs a problem.
You will need taxis into town. I liked the quiet nature of the location, and the taxi service was reliable. If you want to walk right out of your hotel and wander around town, then you might want to make a different lodging choice.
When I was in Juneau three years ago, there were two large cruise ships in port. This year, there were three to four big ones in every day. Wow! Juneau has a population of 31,000. Four big cruise ships: adds 16,000 0r more people!
So you are asking: should I go to Juneau? With so many tourists? YES. Why? Great whale watching, excursions to Tracy Arm Fjord, and the two glaciers near Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier, and Sawyer Glacier (in Tracy Arm). Fly out adventures doing many things. Sea kayaking. I would say this — once you are out doing these things — you aren’t around the bajillion people on those ships. Tracy Arm Fjord may be one of the most stunning places I have ever been in my life.
Cruise ships advertise that they will take you to Tracy Arm. Guess what? Quite often they can’t get in because there is too much ice for a large ship to get close to Sawyer Glacier. The night before, there will likely be an announcement on your ship — something about icebergs. Our ship did this three years ago, and from talking to people in Juneau, it’s pretty common. So the cruise ships go to Endicott Arm instead, and while lovely, Tracy Arm is the better of the two, because it is more winding — presenting more interesting photographic opportunities.
Tracy Arm Fjord
Adventure Bound took me to Tracy Arm, and it was an amazing day. The Captain Cook left Juneau around 8:00 AM with another boat, Endeavor. Each vessel carried around 45 people. It was very foggy, and at one point I could barely see 50 feet in front of the boat. Thank goodness for radar. As we neared the opening to Tracy Arm Fjord around 10:00 AM, the fog began lifting. We reached the terminal end of Tracy Arm, Sawyer Glacier, around noon. Along the way, our captain motored close to shore on the lookout for bear and other wildlife.
As we approached Sawyer Glacier, the boats progressed slowly, pushing through pieces of ice. Then engines off, we floated. For 45 minutes we watched and listened. Crack, then quiet. CRACK!! Whooshing splashes, often huge sounds, as the glacier calved.
Cloud breaks allowed beams of light to touch here and there. Sunlight hit the top of Sawyer Glacier, and oh, what an amazing world is ours!
We returned to Juneau around 6:00 PM. On the way, we stopped for whales. While it was a long day, I loved it — and I will do it again when I return to Juneau.
On my last day in town, the float plane trip to Taku Glacier Lodge for a salmon roast was canceled — too foggy for the small planes to fly. Instead, I had lunch in town at a hip, upscale restaurant called Salt, which bills itself as “modern Alaskan cuisine” (liked it, and I’d go back), and then retreated to the Beachside Villa to write and edit photos.
Other places I ate in Juneau were the Red Dog Saloon and McGivney’s Sports Bar and Grill. The Red Dog Saloon is a tourist trap. Locals will go in and drink after the cruise crowds have left for the day, but the kitchen quits serving super early. Why? The food is not great, and the locals know it. McGivney’s was fine. It’s not that interesting, but they served very good King Crab for $26 bucks — much less than I’d pay for it later in Skagway. Salt was higher end, creative, and had a solid wine menu – particularly for Juneau; it is the only restaurant I’d make a point of returning to on my next trip.
Once of the great things about seeing Alaska without a cruise ship is that evening in busy ports of call, the cruise ships pack up and leave — and you have the town all to yourself and the local population.
Arrived in Skagway a little after 6:00 in the morning, dumped my luggage at my hotel, and headed off of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway up to Lake Bennett and Carcross in the Yukon.
Skagway calls itself the gateway to the Klondike. To get to the gold fields, prospectors either hiked over the White Pass at Skagway, or Chilkoot Pass near Dyea. Canadian officials required prospectors to bring a year’s worth of supplies with them — so each man hauled nearly a ton of goods over one of the passes.
The White Pass and Yukon Route railway was completed in 1900, replacing the Chilkoot and White Pass trails as main ways into the Yukon. I spent the day with the WP&YR — and had a fabulous time. I did the Bennett Lake excursion, the full day with a box lunch. Two thumbs up. For those who would like to ride the narrow gage railroad, but think a full day would be too much, there is the Summit Excursion that lasts about three hours.
The morning started socked in — with low visibility, but once we cleared the summit, the weather turned sunny with dramatic clouds.
What about Skagway as a town? Frankly, it looks Disneyfied. The buildings really are largely original, but have a new feeling because the cruise business has over-restored many of them. Broadway is the main street. Strolling Broadway feels like walking into the gift store after a ride at Disney World.
I stayed at the Westmark Inn (owned by Holland America cruise line). It was a motel: clean, with comfortable beds, well-managed, but nothing special. It’s staffed by a college-aged crew. They are enthusiastic and did a solid job. The restaurant served a good buffet, and their barista makes lattes and espresso with Starbucks coffee. The Westmark does have a shuttle for ferry terminal pick-ups and drop-offs. Wifi warning: my room was across the street from the main building, and I did not have wifi access there.
After an hour long trip from Skagway, I arrived in Haines. The ferry terminal is 4 – 5 miles out of town, so I planned to take a taxi to the Aspen Hotel. Um, right. You remember Northern Exposure? I felt liked I’d been dropped into an episode.
I approached an employee inside the ferry terminal. “Hello, I’m not getting cell service, and I need to call a cab to get into town.”
“We don’t have taxis in Haines.”
“Okay, so how do people get into town?”
“Bed and breakfasts generally do pick-ups. Where are you staying – I’ll call them for you.”
“The Aspen Hotel.”
“Oh, they don’t have a shuttle.”
“So, how do I get there?”
“You could walk.”
“What? Like five miles with a suitcase?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of a problem.”
She then walked outside and asked this seemingly random man in an old Toyota Land Cruiser if he would give me a lift to my hotel. A minute later I was on my way into town thinking about how I was too old to be hitchhiking.
As it turned out, the gentleman was a engineer with the Marine Highway, and of course someone the lady knew. I couldn’t have been luckier — he not only brought me to town, he gave me a tour, pointed out the best and worst restaurants, and gave me his contact info in case I needed help while I was in town. The kindness of strangers . . .
I liked Haines — a lot. More than Juneau, and way more than Skagway. Why? It’s real. It’s small. And okay, perhaps comparing Haines to Cicely, Alaska (the fictitious town where Northern Exposure took place), isn’t quite fair — Cicely had a population of 200, and Haines has 1,713. But frankly, the comparison feels valid to me.
One large cruise ship visits Haines, and only one day a week (Holland America on Wednesdays, in case you like to avoid it). The residents of Haines are friendly, and there are several very good restaurants, a local brewery, as well as an amazing distillery. I also want to assure you that there is good cell phone service in Haines — just not outside of town. The Chilkat Eagle Preserve is here: 400 Bald Eagles call it home all year round, and once a year, in November, that number swells to 4,000 during the late chum salmon run. — Oh, I would love to come back for that! It’s also a great place to sightseeing flights into Glacier Bay National Park.
The U.S. established Fort Seward in Haines in 1902 during a period of border disagreements between Canada and America. Fort Seward was the only U.S. military site in Alaska during World War II, and it was deactivated in 1945. The buildings were saved by a group of five WWII veterans who bought the 85 buildings and 400 acres. The area is now an art colony, with galleries and accommodations for travelers. My favorite restaurants in Haines are all located on or near Fort Seward, so I would choose to stay in this part of Haines the next time.
I ate in four different restaurants while in Haines. My favorite meal was the salmon bisque at the Pilot Light, but I also enjoyed Fireweed (building was originally the quartermaster’s at Fort Seward) and the restaurant at the Halsingland hotel — which is in another one of the historic Fort Seward buildings.
The other place I have to mention is the Port Chilkoot Distillery. What gorgeous bourbon! They have a tasting room next to the Fireweed restaurant, and part of the Fort Seward complex. You can have cocktails in the Port Chilkoot tasting room, and then choose go to Fireweed, Pilotlight, or the Commander’s Room at Halsingland Hotel. On my second night in Haines, I went to the Port Chilkoot Distillery for a drink, and encountered an informal memorial gathering for someone who had recently passed away, and had a wonderful time visiting with a number of Haines residents. What great people . . . it’s easy to see why many folks return to here every summer.
While I was in Haines, I used Chilkat Guides to do a raft float in the Chilkat Eagle Preserve. While the weather wasn’t wonderful, the rafting was great, and we saw 15 – 20 eagles — along with a coastal brown bear who came charging towards us on the river bank — quite exciting. I also did glacier flight-seeing with Mountain Flying Service run by Paul Swanstrom and his wife Amy. Paul is the pilot and Amy handles customers. What a great team they are! My first flight was canceled due to weather, but the next morning we managed an hour flight in the 1956 DeHavilland Beaver. My initial plan had been to do Flight #3 — but the weather would only allow the shortest of the flights they offer. Ah, well . . . I’m already planning to return to Haines next summer.
I stayed at the Aspen Hotel, which is new and comfortable, has good wifi, but doesn’t have much personality. Given my transportation problem, the next time I come, I’ll be looking for a bed and breakfast with ferry pick-up service. The first place I would start is with the Fort Seward Condos — officers’ quarters on the parade grounds. Annette Smith is the innkeeper, and I was fortunate to meet her at a dinner party given by Audrey Burns and Tresham Gregg while I was in Haines. The next evening, I also met travelers who were staying at the Fort Seward condos; they were highly complimentary of their accommodations, and they visit Haines every summer. In case there is no availability there, here is a listing of bed and breakfasts on the official Haines website. Tresham Gregg and his sister Annette Smith grew up in one of the officer’s houses on Fort Seward and have wonderful tales to tell. Gregg is respected local artist, his carving work is beautiful and available in his gallery, The Sea Wolf, which is in the Trapper’s Cabin on the Fort Seward parade ground.
Staying at the Aspen Hotel meant 1.5 mile round-trip walk to dinner in the Fort Seward part of town. This wasn’t a problem for me — I needed the exercise. For someone with mobility problems, rental cars are available — Avis operates out of the Halsingland Hotel.
My final stop was Sitka. I arrived around lunch after a comfortable trip on the ferry Columbia. Hey, there’s taxi service in Sitka!
The Tlingit people settled in Sitka over 10,000 years ago and were in control of the area until Russian settlers with the Russian-American Company arrived in 1799. The Tlingits didn’t give up without a fight, and succeeded in driving the Russians out of the area in 1802. In 1804, Alexander Baranov returned and permanently wrested control of Sitka from the Tlingit, naming the settlement New Archangel. It became the capital of Russian America. On October 18, 1867, the USA’s purchase of Alaska from Russia was signed in Sitka.
Sitka has a population of 8,863 and offers travelers a variety of attractions and activities. I was only here for two nights, and I could easily have spent another day or two.
Like Haines, Sitka is only visited by one major cruise line — Holland America. The smaller Oceana Regatta was also in town during my visit. Sitka doesn’t feel overwhelmed by cruise tourists like Skagway and Juneau do.
I enjoyed walking in the Sitka National Historical Park (free admission); there are paths through the woods with totem poles. Very beautiful place. The Indian River runs through the park, and while I was there the pink salmon and dog salmon were running — the river was full of them. What a treat to see these amazing fish!
My final day in Alaska, the weather was gorgeous and I had a great morning wildlife tour with Gallant Adventures. Paul Davis is the owner/captain of this company, and my experience could not have been better. He has a small boat and only takes five passengers — it’s SO wonderful not to be crowded by forty or more people when shooting pictures. We saw so many humpback whales that I lost count. Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, bald eagles, and a coastal brown bear — it was an amazing morning.
I stayed at the Westmark Hotel in Sitka, which is really a hotel, not a motel like the Westmark in Skagway. I had a pleasant stay; the room and bed were very comfortable, the restaurant was good, and I would return to the Westmark on my next trip.
Alaska is one of the most beautiful parts of America. The cruise industry spends big bucks to make itself synonymous with the idea of the Alaskan vacation, and while cruises are wonderful, it’s easy to see Alaska on your own. The upside to a cruise is unpacking only once — one of the things I love about cruising. The downside is that you will see more of the ship than you will of Alaska. On this trip, I found seeing Alaska without a cruise ship to be a really fun alternative. If you have questions about anything, feel free to contact me.
On my next Alaskan trip, I’m thinking about Gustavus (to see Glacier Bay National Park), Haines and Sitka.
I invite you to share your thoughts and Alaskan experiences in the comment section below. . .
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