Cruising Alaska on a Budget by Melinda Brasher: Special Guest Post

I have been lucky enough to take several cruises to Alaska, and I hope to take more. It’s a fantastic place to visit, especially by water, and especially if you love nature. Though I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything, here are some of the highlights of my experiences.

Glaciers

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Marjerie Glacier, Glacier Bay. Photo by Melinda Brasher

The first time I heard the “white thunder” of a glacier calving, the first time a seal looked up at me from an iceberg, the first time our ship broke the ice in front of us to get closer to the glacier–all those moments were magical, but so was the fifth time I sailed into Glacier Bay and so will be the next time. The magic never dies. Be sure to bundle up and spend plenty of time on the outer decks enjoying the magnificence of nature.

Skagway

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Tall facades on Skagway buildings. Photo by Melinda Brasher

I grew up in a mining town, so when my first Alaskan cruise didn’t go to Skagway, I was like, “Oh well. Mining…yawn.” Not yawn. My second (and all subsequent) cruises have stopped in Skagway, and it’s probably my favorite of all the common ports. Buildings: cute. History: fascinating. Free walking tours from the Park Service: awesome. Hiking: spectacular. Surrounding mountains: massive. The cruise in through Lynn Canal’s blue-green water: gorgeous. Then there’s White Pass and the famous railroad. The whole place is magical. Just be prepared for literally thousands of other tourists and you’ll love it.

Marine Mammals

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Seal on an iceberg. Photo by Melinda Brasher

I love the humpback whales spouting in the distance, surfacing gently every once in a while near the ship, showing their unique tails as they dive. Perhaps my favorites are the sea otters floating on their backs and rough-housing with each other. I get a thrill watching seals, sea lions, porpoises, and orcas. And I’ll never forget the time, late at night, those dolphins played in the dark alongside our ship, jumping in the wake and racing us. No one else was around. Just me and the dolphins. I felt indescribably blessed.

Salmon

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Sockeye Salmon at Steep Creek, Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau. Photo by Melinda Brasher

I’m not talking about eating salmon—though most cruise lines will give you at least one chance to indulge in the delicious Alaskan specialty. I’m talking about the actual fish. Their life cycle is awe-inspiring. Born in fresh water, sometimes far inland, they move out to sea to spend most of their lives until instinct drives them back to the place of their birth to spawn and die. The journey home can be a long and rigorous one, swimming against rapids, jumping up cascades. Some species have been found 200 miles upstream in the Yukon. And after this epic journey, they die, sacrificing their lives for the next generation. It’s tragic and beautiful at the same time, and you can see some of it first hand on an Alaskan cruise, especially if you go late in July or August.

Creek Street in Ketchikan during the height of a salmon run is like a freeway at rush hour, and watching them struggle to the top of the little falls always humbles me. I’ve seen the water froth with tiny shark-like fins outside a hatchery in Sitka. At Mendenhall Glacier, we watched a beautiful red and green female sockeye scooping out a nice egg-laying spot while a male defended her from his competition. In Anchorage, you can watch people “combat fishing” for them. It’s a huge part of not just the nature of Alaska, but the culture.

Hiking

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Upper Dewey Lake, Skagway. Photo by Melinda Brasher

I love hiking, and by “hiking” I mean getting out in nature and walking, be it short and easy or long and steep. Alaska’s a great place to do it, even if you’re only in port for a few hours. Here are some of my favorites. The often-wet and mysterious Deer Mountain Trail in Ketchikan takes you to some nice views of the islands in the strait. You can play in and around the blue-green waters of Lynn Canal on the easy stroll to Yakutania Point in Skagway. Portage Glacier Pass Trail in Whitter takes 45 minutes to get from the ship to the tree line on a trail that may still have patches of snow in late summer. At the top, miniature alpine plants, dwarf trees, and tiny pools of clear water compete in glory only with stark-white Portage Glacier in the distance. The hike above Exit Glacier to sprawling Harding Icefield in Seward is nothing short of spectacular. Plan enough time to do it justice.

Perhaps my favorite is the steep and rigorous climb to Upper Dewey Lake from Skagway. The lake is serene, the views breathtaking, and part of the trail follows a waterfall-like section of stream. I went on a sunny day, and I really don’t know if anything could be more beautiful.

Your Highlights

If you’ve been on an Alaska cruise, share your highlights below. If you haven’t, I encourage you to go and see some of this beautiful land for yourself. Only then will you know what your highlights will be.

Alaska Cruising on a budget MarchFor more details on affordable things to see and do in Alaska, read my book, “Cruising Alaska on a Budget; A Cruise and Port Guide.” Available at a budget price on Amazon, or free to download with Amazon Prime.

For more pictures, check my website.

Happy Cruising!

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Melinda Brasher fell in love with Alaska on her first cruise there. She spends her time hiking, writing, traveling, and teaching English as a second language in places like Poland, Mexico, Arizona, and the Czech Republic (Czechia). You can find links to her travel writing and plenty of posts about Alaska on her blog: www.melindabrasher.com

First Port of Call, Juneau​ Alaska

After a day at sea, we docked bright and early on Sunday morning in Juneau, Alaska and here I was about to step foot on my most distant destination to date. I had been to the shore of Washington before, as a small child, but this, this was a huge step.

 

The clouds lay on the tops of the mountains winding down to the shore. The waterfalls streaming down the mountainside. The vividly painted buildings that lined the dock. It was a spectacular welcome to the 49th state. The last 24 hours had been filled with one new experience after another. Whale spouts, spinner dolphins, endless sea, dinner at the Captain’s table, and now, the historic dock of Juneau. I watched the machinery on the  dock preparing the gangplank for the cruisers to disembark and wander into the town. My sister and I ran up to the Lido Deck and chose a few muffins to tide us over while we spent the day sightseeing and exploring. I actually think my sister had a nice healthy breakfast, I was into carbs like there was no tomorrow during this cruise. I tend to limit them every day as a rule, but I refused to resist them while on vacation.

We had two expeditions planned for the day and we watched as the buses pulled up to take us away.  today, we were taking one of those buses to the whale watching excursion and afterward we were heading to Mendenhall glacier.  The announcement came that it was time to head out. we were so excited.  We grabbed our camera’s raincoats and got in line to leave the Westerdam.

Getting neighboring seats we started off on the wet, twisting roads out of town and along the shoreline before heading into the dense treeline on our way to a bay where the whale watching touring company was located. While heading out of town, we were given interesting and in-depth information about the first settlers of this historic town. The tour guide on the bus regaled us with the difficulties of getting products into this isolated area. The prices were amazing to hear and the fact that everything had to be brought in on ships, was hard to imagine. I found there are only three ways to enter Juneau, by ship, by plane, and by the birth canal.  🙂  Now you have heard the best joke of the day.

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Once we boarded the double decker boat we were offered refreshments as we quickly sped across the bay and out into the open sea once again.  The captain and crew kept us informed about whale activity and assured us that the whales were out there and we would make some memories today. It was such an exciting time. The large boat slowed and we began to see the little black dots that were in fact whale backs silently breaking the surface of the choppy water. The  IMG_1915

And then, they showed up, close! A mother and her baby. Swimming close to the boat so that we could make a memory that would never leave us.  We watched the mother and calf as they bobbed up and over then back down into the water.  Graceful and magical, I had seen something so wonderous on my first day in Alaska. We were fortunate as the migration to Hawaii had begun and the mothers and calves left first. Over the moon, just doesn’t capture my emotion.

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The boat left this area once the two slowed their surfacing and the captain got notification of another sighting. Again we zoomed across the churning water. Once again we were rewarded by a brave and daring whale that was curious enough to come close.

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One of my most prized possessions, this cameo of a killer whale.  The captain believed this to be a male that had not yet begun his migration. He slipped into the water easily yet, there was no breaching. That would have been amazing, but I was thrilled with the contact I had been given.  After several hours seeking and viewing killer whales, we returned to the dock and began the second leg of our excursion.

Back on the bus, we headed deeper into the woods, winding our way to the Mendenhall Glacier.

 

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Nearing the Glacier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mendenhall glacier was a chance to get closer to a glacier than I would have believed.  As we pulled into the parking area, we  left the bus and were able to walk down to the lake that was right in front of the glacier.  12132379_10208078479699000_5911783375735850511_o

Above on the right, the observation area and museum sat towering over us. First, we went to the edge of the lake and took a few special pictures.  There is a man standing closer than we were. He is wearing a blue shirt. I never figured out how he got there. There is a waterfall hidden off to one side. The size and beauty of this glacier, simply overwhelming. That is a constant theme in Alaska, everything is larger than anything I have ever seen before.

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After spending the hours on shore, we were exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. It was the most amazing feeling. We still had dinner before we would call the evening done.  That was where I saw the most amazing and unique sight.

MYSKY

This is the yacht, My Sky. It has been traveling all around the northern hemisphere since I saw it one year ago in Juneau. I keep up with it on MarineTraffic.com. I shared this picture last year on the MarineTraffic website, so others could see what a beautiful ship she is.  We were dining when I saw this outside the dining room window. I raced to get a picture of it. It was massive and beautiful. It touched me with its starkness and modernness. This ship was impeccable. I am in love. My Sky is now on the Eastern Shore of America, slowly moving up and down the coast, from New York to Baltimore.

Next stop, Glacier Bay!