21 Slices
Medium 9781588438188

Less-Visited Inside Passage Ports

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub
Medium 9781588438188

Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS)

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

For travelers who are adventurous, budget-minded, free-wheeling and prefer flexible itineraries - but don't require the luxury or convenience of a cruise ship - the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) provides an informal year-round public transportation alternative to taking a cruise. Dubbed the "poor man's cruise ships," the 11 state-owned ferries of the AMHS ply the waters of the Inside Passage, southcentral Alaska and southwestern Alaska, reaching the same ports - and more - that cruise ships do. Its coastal routes cover more than 8,000 miles, from Washington State north to ports near Anchorage and west to the Aleutian Islands. Though called a Marine Highway, it's like no other "highway" in the country, traveled by ship rather than by car. You can, however, take your car (if you have one) aboard any of the ferries for additional land touring along the way or after you disembark at your last stop. 


Alaska Marine Highway ferries

From the southern terminus in Bellingham, Washington, some 90 milesnorth of the Seattle airport, or from the Canadian departure point in Prince Rupert, B.C., the ferries pass by the lush, green rainforests of British Columbia and the glaciers, fjords and snow-capped peaks of Alaska's Inside Passage. Northbound travelers can make the journey from Bellingham (leaving on Fridays in summer) to Haines or Skagway at the northern end of the Inside Passage in a bit less than three days, not including any stopovers you choose to make. You can then connect to similarly beautiful Prince William Sound to the north and then west via Kodiak to the remote Aleutian Islands, though those ferry schedules are much more occasional. Along the way, you may choose to stop in tiny fishing communities and native villages as well as well known ports such as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, Valdez, Whittier, Seward and Kodiak. There are some 15 potential stops alone along the Inside Passage, and another 15 to the north and west. The Alaska Marine Highway System has been designated both a national Scenic Byway and, more recently, an All-American Road, one of just 27 "roads" - and only two in Alaska, the Seward Highway being the other - so honored in America. (To qualify, an All-American Road must have both national significance and one-of-a-kind features not existing elsewhere. Besides being the only maritime "road" in the national highway system, the AMHS is the longest byway in the United States.) Besides mountains, fjords and glaciers, wildlife are an integral part of the scenery on this highly scenic route: In the sea and air, watch for whales, orcas, otters, sea lions, harbor seals, Dall porpoises, bald eagles and seabirds. On land, watch for bears prowling on shore or mountain goats perched high on the cliffsides. 

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Inside Passage Ports

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

Most Inside Passage cruises include at least three of what we'll call The Big Four ports: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Skagway, so we'll look at these first. Later we'll look at lesser-visited ports in the Inside Passage region, and then turn to ports in the Gulf of Alaska and British Columbia.  

Ketchikan is the first city you come to when traveling north into Alaska by ship, and most cruise ships and ferries sailing Alaska's Inside Passage make it their first port of call, earning it the sobriquet "Alaska's First City." Located along Tongass Narrows on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan boasts other self-anointed titles as well, among them "Canned Salmon Capital of the World." The latter title pays homage to the town's founding as a fishing camp and its history as a canning town dating back to the turn of the 20th century. (Alaskan native peoples had lived and fished on the banks of the Ketchikan River for thousands of years, however.) With a population of around 8,000 (and 15,000 in the area), Ketchikan is now Alaska's fifth largest city, yet the downtown is compact and fun to walk around, especially along its colorful wooden boardwalks that cross creeks and evoke the town's early frontier atmosphere.  Built at the foot of and into the sides of steep green hills and mountains, Ketchikan is also suited to grabbing high-up views - if you can see through the mists, that is. It's one of the nation's wettest cities, receiving a drenching of 162 inches of rain a year. That's 13.5 feet of annual precipitation - making it the rainiest town in Southeast Alaska (no small feat in itself) and much rainier than famously wet Seattle, Washington. Ketchikan residents soak it all in with good cheer and seem to take perverse pride in not using umbrellas - though they do at least like to keep their feet dry, favoring the ubiquitous high boots dubbed "Ketchikan sneakers." 

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Settling on a Stateroom

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

No matter which cruise line you take or what the level of luxury, fares often vary dramatically within the same ship. The number one reason for that is which type of stateroom or cabin (the names are used interchangeably) you pick. 

The least expensive staterooms are almost always "inside," that is, they have no windows. The next higher category is "outside" cabins, which do have windows, of varying sizes and shapes. Next up the ladder in expense is the balcony cabin - an outside cabin with a veranda. The fourth and highest category is the balcony suite - a multi-room cabin with veranda.  

Within those four major categories, you'll also find a number of sub-categories that can affect the price. For instance, an outside cabin may have an "obstructed" view, usually meaning that a lifeboat or other object at least partially blocks your scenery. Those cabins are usually somewhat cheaper than other outside cabins (and certainly should be; always check to make sure whether your outside cabin has an obstructed view). Most subcategories, though, are based on where the cabin is located on the ship. For various reasons, cabins that are higher up on the ship are usually more expensive; similarly, the lower a cabin is on the ship, the less pricey it tends to be. Cabins midway between the fore (front area) of the ship and the aft (rear area) of the ship also tend to be more expensive, on the theory that they offer a smoother ride. Unless you're particularly prone to seasickness (the type who gets queasy in a bathtub), however, this should be less of a consideration in Alaska, especially in the relatively calm waters of the Inside Passage, than in most other cruising regions of the world. 

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Bus Tours

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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