Cruise Alaska – and get off, take good look
07/14/2013 12:00 AM
07/12/2013 1:03 PM
JUNEAU, Alaska – It's cruise season in Alaska, with more than 1 million passengers expected between April and September in port towns from Ketchikan to Seward.
Passengers who sign up for shore excursions can spend hundreds of dollars, more in the case of families, in each port. Taking a helicopter to see Juneau-area ice fields can run $1,000 for a family of four for a one-hour trip. A nature tour near tiny Ketchikan can run $89 for adults, $50 for kids.
But there are many low-cost and even free things to do in Alaska port towns, from hiking to exploring glaciers to learning about Alaska and native culture. Here are some ideas from some of Alaska's most-visited ports.
Just remember: Your ship won't wait for you if you run late from an outing you've organized on your own, so allow plenty of time to get back to port for departure.
This southeast Alaska town is today known more for tourism than for its once-thriving timber industry. But timber workers' skills can still be admired at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, $35 (kids 3-12, $17.50) plus tax.
Historic Creek Street, once a red-light district, houses shops, galleries, restaurants and Dolly's House Museum, former home of madam Dolly Arthur, where visitors can learn about Ketchikan's bawdy past for a $5 fee.
Off Creek Street along Married Man's Trail, you can catch the salmon running in the creek from mid-July into September.
Free downtown shuttle buses stop near the docks.
A must-see in this stunning town is the Sitka National Historical Park. It commemorates the 1804 Battle of Sitka between the Tlingit Indians and Russians. Totems – many of them replicas – are scattered along the park's two-mile wooded trail. There's also a visitor center, where you can see Native Alaskan artists working, and the Russian Bishop's House, which the park service says is one of the last surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America.
The house tour is $4, free under age 16.
Alaska's capital has a walkable downtown with museums, shops, easy access to trails and the state Capitol, which offers free tours.
The popular three-mile Perseverance Trail is within walking distance from the port, though it requires a jaunt up steep streets. The trail, which forms a spine for a network of trails, features scattered exhibits on the region's mining history, along with stunning views of rushing water, waterfalls and mountains.
You'll likely see birds – possibly a bald eagle – and maybe a mountain goat, black bear or porcupine. The trail is steep and narrow in sections and can be hot in the sun; bring water.
Hikers also can try the Mount Roberts Trail, though it's an uphill trudge, muddy and mucky in spots. You can take the Mount Roberts Tram down for $10, or $31 round-trip; $15.50 for ages 6-12.
Another popular destination is Mendenhall Glacier, reachable by bus. The $16 round-trip rides, offered by MGT Blue Glacier Express, run every half-hour, 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. most days in summer season. Hikes near the glacier include an easy stroll to Nugget Falls.
Seward is a final stop for some Alaska cruises, and many disembarking passengers head straight to Anchorage, 110 miles away, by bus or train. But there are plenty of reasons to spend a day or more here.
A free shuttle runs every day in summer, taking people along a circuit from the cruise ship terminal to the chamber of commerce office to downtown. If you have time, rent a car or hire a taxi to take you a few miles outside town to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, for spectacular up-close views of the glacier.
The downtown historic area offers shops, cafes, the Seward Community Library and Museum in a new building, and the Alaska SeaLife Center, which is Alaska's only aquarium ($20; $15 for ages 12-17; $10 for ages 4-11).
Chamber officials don't recommend hiking the city's famed Mount Marathon, site of an annual July 4 mad scramble up and down the 3,022-foot mountain. A runner disappeared during last year's race and several were injured. Instead, if you want to hike, try Jeep Trail. Locals say it's not too strenuous, and offers a view of the Anchorage Bowl.
Chances are you won't spend much time in Whittier. Chamber officials say 90 percent of cruise passengers leaving their ships immediately head to Anchorage, about 40 miles north.
But passengers beginning Alaska cruises here arrive about 1 p.m. and have a few hours before departure. One company is making a port call here every other Monday, giving passengers a chance to look around.
It's probably unlike any other town they've seen. The U.S. Army saw another purpose: Whittier's almost constant cloud cover was a perfect way to hide an almost ice-free port.
The Army left in 1960.
There are a couple of souvenir shops, a few restaurants and cafes, a hot dog stand when lots of people are in town, and a museum. Several fantastic hikes can be done in two or three hours. The Horsetail Falls hike doesn't disappoint, and offers views of waterfalls above the tree line. The Portage Pass hike affords views of Portage Glacier.
No cruise ships are to sail to Anchorage this year, but many passengers wind up there by bus or train, if for nothing else than to fly home.
With nearly 300,000 residents, Anchorage offers attractions found in many big cities, as well as some that aren't. Think wildlife. Moose and bear coexist throughout the city.
Downtown, you can rent bikes and enjoy the city's 135-mile trail system. That includes the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, good for a bike ride, hike or run. It's accessible from many points downtown, but parts are closed for renovation this summer. Too much work? Rent a Segway.
And if you prefer to see wildlife in a more secured setting, a free shuttle at Fourth and E streets downtown goes to the Alaska Zoo ($12 general; $6 ages 3-17).
The shuttle also stops at the Alaska Native Heritage Center ($25; $17 ages 7-16).
The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center downtown features art, history and science ($15; $7 ages 3-12). An exhibit of Alaska history includes a cross- section of the trans-Alaska pipeline and a twisted beam from the 1964 earthquake. The magnitude-9.2 quake was the biggest ever recorded in North America.
If you want to go fishing, there's no need for a charter. You don't even have to leave town. A downtown bait shop at Ship Creek will rent you the equipment.
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