The Inside Passage is the most popular destination in Alaska for cruise ships. The island communities, beautiful landscape, and great whale watching are all custom-made for travel by sea. But not everybody is cut out for cruise ship life. Independent travelers can take the Alaska Marine Highway System ferries through Southeast instead.
Here’s a sample of what a (mostly) ferry-based Southeast itinerary might look like, starting with your arrival in Ketchikan after either a short plane ride from Seattle, Washington or a two-day ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington.
Check into your hotel in Ketchikan and spend the day touring the town’s more than 80 totem poles, including the lovely Totem Bight State Historical Park (almost 10 miles northwest of downtown—you can get there on the bus). You can also take a short drive or bus ride to nearby Saxman and watch master carvers at work. Take your lunch break at The Point, a lovely waterside café/art gallery with light fare like sandwiches, quiches, and cookies, and stop in at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center on Main Street before it closes in the late afternoon, then snag dinner in the Heen Kahidi Dining Room and Lounge at the Cape Fox Lodge. Ask for a table with a view.
Start your second day in Ketchikan with a couple of adventures. Your options include a saltwater or freshwater fishing trip, sea kayaking, day hiking, ziplining, flightseeing over spectacular Misty Fjords National Monument, or, believe it or not, snorkeling. You’ll have time for two shorter adventures or one long day trip for kayaking or fishing. If you’re a reality-TV buff, book a half-day Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour aboard the Aleutian Ballad, which you may recognize from the early seasons of the Discovery Channel reality TV show The Deadliest Catch. Once the excitement is over, kick back and relax: You can get a good seafood dinner in the cozy little New York Café, which has an old-timey speakeasy feel, or snag casual Asian-American food with a waterfront view at the Waterfront Restaurant, then head for the Sourdough Bar & Liquor Store to scope out the shipwreck photos or play a game of pool.
Before leaving Ketchikan, take a stroll along historic Creek Street, set on pilings above the creek, and prepare for your six-hour ferry trip to Wrangell. The ferry schedule varies so much, it’s hard to say when you’ll be arriving in Wrangell, so it’s best to call your travel day a rest day, too. Day hiking or walking near the harbor or strolling along Creek Street are both great ways to fill your day until it’s time to leave Ketchikan. Don’t forget to shop for a few souvenirs, too; Ketchikan, Juneau, and Sitka offer the best shopping in Southeast.
On your first full day in Wrangell, snag an early breakfast at the Diamond C Cafe and then head for the city docks—right in the middle of town—where you can hop on a boat bound for the remarkable Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory. The observatory allows you to watch and photograph black bears—and sometimes brown bears, too—feeding on salmon. That’s not the brown stream bottom you’re seeing; that’s the backs of thousands of salmon massing to make their run upstream. Restaurants close early in Wrangell, so grab dinner early. Zak’s Cafe, which offers at least one seafood option in its rotating menu every day, is a favorite.
Make the easy one-mile stroll (or drive) from downtown Wrangell to Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, where you can see ancient rock petroglyphs still lying in the open on the beach. On the far end of town, you’ll find the historic Chief Shakes Tribal House, which you can enter for a fee and with advance notice. Then hop on the ferry for a three-hour ride to Petersburg through the winding Wrangell Narrows. If the ferry comes early in the day, you’ll have time to snag dinner at the Joan Mei restaurant, a local favorite just across from the ferry terminal that serves Chinese food. From there, it’s a pleasant one-mile walk, drive, or cab ride into Petersburg, where, if it’s still early, you can wander the surprisingly picturesque streets and take pictures in front of the totem poles outside city hall. If you’re feeling tired, turn in early to rest up before your whale watching tour the next day.
In Petersburg, book an all-day whale watching tour to Frederick Sound, which boasts an unbelievable profusion of humpback whales feeding and playing. The small boat harbor, which is where you’ll board your tour, sits right up against downtown Petersburg. Some day trips also include kayaking and a short hike. Once the tour’s over, you should still have time to snag dinner at Inga’s Galley (it’s a modest setting, but the seafood is great), then stroll Petersburg’s main street, fittingly called Nordic Drive, and do a little shopping.
While you’re still in Petersburg, be sure to visit the magnificent tidewater LeConte Glacier; it’s a half-day tour by small boat out of the Petersburg harbor. Once you’re back in town you’ll have plenty of time to visit the Sons of Norway hall and the fishermen’s monument and dragonboat Valhalla, both of which are very close to the harbor, then walk up the hill to the Clausen Memorial Museum, which documents the early days of this Norwegian-founded settlement. Tomorrow’s ferry ride to Juneau often comes at odd hours, so don’t be shy about turning in early to rest up.
Make the eight-hour ferry trip north to Juneau. Keep your eye out for more humpback whales as you pass through Frederick Sound again! If your ferry gets in early, you’ll have time to get a head start on browsing some of downtown Juneau’s many excellent gift shops. (Watch out for Franklin Street near the cruise shop docks—there are a few local shops there, but most are not locally owned.) You also have several great dinner options along Seward Street, including Mexican fusion cuisine at V’s Cellar Door or fusion cuisine built on locally harvested seasonal ingredients at The Rookery.
From this point on, you have several options. You can continue exploring Southeast by catching an Alaska Airlines jet to Sitka or taking the ferry to Haines, Skagway, or Gustavus (which is the gateway to the spectacular, wild waters of Glacier Bay National Park). You can also reach Haines, Skagway, and Gustavus by small plane (there is no jet service in either community).
While in Juneau, book a bear-viewing day tour to nearby Admiralty Island, which has the highest concentration of brown bears on the planet. You’ll get there by floatplane, and the trip lasts 6-8 hours. If you still have energy once you get back, you can finish exploring the many wonderful shops that are just past “cruise ship alley” in downtown Juneau. Again, your nicest dinner options are on Seward Street, but if you’re feeling adventurous, hike up the hill to Gourmet Grub, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant with the best pelmeni (Russian dumplings/ravioli) I’ve ever had. Want some nightlife? Head to the turn-of-the-20th-century bar in the Alaskan Hotel for live music late on a weekend night, or hit the iconic Red Dog Saloon.
On your last day in Juneau, spend the morning at the lovely Mendenhall Glacier. If you drive yourself, there’s a $5 admission fee; if you take one of the shuttle buses from the cruise docks, admission is included in the price of your ticket. If you enjoy the adrenaline rush of heights, Juneau also has a very popular zipline.
What to See with More Time
If you’re lucky enough to have an extra day or two after traversing the Southeast, consider adding these nearby attractions to your Alaskan adventure.
Excursion: Haines or Skagway
Take a four-hour ferry ride to Haines, where you can take a day or two to soak up some of Alaska’s most beautiful scenery in a laid-back small-town setting. You can also take a cultural tour in the nearby Chilkat Indian village of Klukwan, and if you’re here between October and February, you can see thousands of eagles congregating in the open waters of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
If you want a little more excitement than Haines has to offer, head to Skagway instead, which is a one-hour ferry ride from Haines or a five-hour ferry ride from Juneau. (The ferry often stops in Haines on the way, but it isn’t there long enough for you to get out and explore.) The biggest attractions in Skagway are the bustling boardwalks of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and a scenic ride on the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. If the ferry times line up just right, you can do both activities with a one-night stay in Skagway. If you’re in a real rush, you can also catch a small plane back to Juneau.
Once you’re done in either town, the ferry can take you back to Juneau where you can continue onward (or home). Or, if you’ve brought your vehicle with you on the ferry, you can make the long drive north across the border into Canada, then west to cross the border back into Alaska. Haines and Skagway are the only two Southeast communities connected to the continental road system, and the distance is nothing to sneeze at: It’s 440 miles of beautiful scenery from Haines to Tok, and 495 miles from Skagway to Tok.
Excursion: Gustavus and Glacier Bay National Park
Hop a small plane to the small community of Gustavus, or take a five-hour ferry ride, and spend a few days lounging in a wilderness lodge and taking boat or kayak tours into the wild and remote waters of Glacier Bay National Park. Be warned that there are no ATMs or banks in Gustavus, and you’ll get most of your food from your hotel or lodge. You’ll have just a few tour companies to choose from, but the offerings, including half-day whale watching cruises and half- or full-day trips for kayaking and fishing, are all phenomenal.
When you’re ready, head back to Juneau aboard a ferry or small plane and plan your travels (or trip home) from there.
There are three ways to get to Sitka. Many cruise ships stop here, and you can also get here by ferry from Juneau, although it’s about a 10-hour ride aboard a regular ferry. Fast ferry service is only sometimes available from Juneau to Sitka, so the easiest way to get here is often by plane.
Once you reach Sitka you can easily spend half a day exploring Sitka National Historical Park, which has three parts: outdoor trails through the forest with totem poles at intervals; a visitor center that houses a museum and educational exhibits about totem poles; and the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center, where you can watch master crafters demonstrate their traditional arts. The setting is small and intimate, so you can also ask them questions or get a close-up look at what they’re doing. Your other activity for the day should be a 2.5-hour cultural tour led by Sitka Tribal Tours, which might come with an opportunity to watch traditional Tlingit dancing at the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahídi Community House (“The community house for the people of Sitka”). Get a weekday dinner at the Larkspur Cafe or snag pizza, wings, and salad at the new local favorite Mean Queen.
If you have a second day to spend in Sitka, consider making a morning trip to the Fortress of the Bear, a nonprofit educational center that houses orphaned bear cubs until they can be transferred to another sanctuary. There are also historical Russian buildings in town that are maintained as mini museums, including the Russian Bishop’s House and the 1848 St. Michael the Archangel Cathedral. As you’re waiting on your flight out of the Sitka airport, grab a slice of pie at The Nugget restaurant (it’s in the airport, before security). The cream pies are very good.
You can either fly back to Juneau or Ketchikan to continue your adventures in Southeast, fly to Anchorage or Fairbanks to explore Southcentral or the Interior, or catch one of the two nonstop flights from Sitka to Seattle as you work your way back home.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Alaska.