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

Port of Call: Ketchikan, Alaska

After leaving Sitka, we traveled through the night down the coast until we docked at the town of Ketchikan bright and early in the morning. We decided to traipse around the town and see what it was like. There were several funny stories my sister told me about her first trip to the seaside town. There was a bar with a risque picture that we just had to get a shot  with us standing in front. There is nothing funnier than two women of a certain age trying to stand in front of a couple of mating bears.  I will spare you the picture because this is a family-friendly blog, but if you are curious you can look up the Artic Bar in Ketchikan where you can see their happy bears.

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Pay attention to this pier, it will become a main player in the story in a moment.

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My sister and I spent the morning walking through the last stores available in Alaska thus, the last chance for souvenirs. How can anyone resist gathering up shopping bags full of trinkets all labeled Alaska before leaving the great state? We were unable to resist. Needless to say, the kids all had a very Alaskan Christmas. With tired feet that were only rushing to get back on the ship we turned around and headed back to the dock. Once on board, we went to the Lido deck. I mean it was lunch time, and there is all that food.  What’s a girl to do?

 

This is where the activity started. The time to be back on the ship was getting close and as you can see, people were scurrying to get back on the ship. They make the return time very clear at each dock. In our comfy window seats, we watched the passengers lining up and returning to the ship. The Westerdam was about to head out to Victoria British Columbia for its last stop of the trip. We see the line thinning.  The last passengers trickling up the gangplank.

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Once the dock was empty, the overhead speaker starts paging two passengers.  Asking them to make their presence know. The page is repeated several times, imploring the two people to make contact.  After a few moments, we begin the sideways trip away from the pier. Now, until this trip, I did not know that a ship could go sideways, but when it leaves port, it slides into position then moves forward. It is an incredible process to watch. Still at our window seats we see two shoppers loaded down with bags come running across the street straight for the now folded away gangplank.

The couple is immediately approached by an official looking man who confers with them and begins to walk them over to two little white vans. He loads them up and they drive off the pier. The Westerdam continues to pull away from the dock and we all look at each other and grimace.  People start talking about the great fines and fees for remaining over your allotted time at the pier. The ship had no recourse but to leave at its scheduled time. The captain did wait on them almost fifteen minutes. Who knows how much that cost the Holland America cruise line.  There were titters of nervous laughter and great sighs of relief that it had not been us that had been carted away in that little white van. A few moments later a seaplane takes off. Was that our mystery couple? I am not positive, but in my mind it was.

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The green-roofed building is the most astounding and reasonably priced souvenir shop ever. Plus they give you these amazing totes for your purchases. It was lovely! I still have my tote, it is red and it screams Alaska in bold print.  I love it just as much today as the day I got it.

Several hours later we attend the Captain’s get to know more about me event in the showroom. We were excited to be going and seeing that sweet Captain again. Once he gets comfortable in his chair and begins to tell us about the wonderful ship that we are sailing on, it gets time for the questions and answers.

The first question. What happened to that couple that missed the ship?

Captain assured us that they had been whisked away to Victoria British Columbia where they could meet up with the ship or go on to Seattle.  All their belongings would be safe and secure.  This would, however, be on their own dime.  They would be put up in a hotel by the cruise line, but the other expenses like the flight home, they would have to pay.  Ouch what an expensive  lesson to learn, never miss your ship’s scheduled departure time.  They must keep to their schedules.

Next port of call, Victoria, British Columbia