Ferries plying the Inside Passage  from Bellingham to Skagway  cruise up an inland waterway and through fjords far wilder than Norway’s, surpassing even a trip down the coast of Chile to Punta Arenas. One difference is that the North American journey is cheaper and more easily arranged than its South American or Scandinavian counterparts.
Another difference is the variety of services, routes, and destinations for this 1,000-mile historic cruise. Ferries operated by the Alaska Marine Highway (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs ) are the core of Inside Passage travel.
There are two primary state ferry networks: one from Bellingham, Washington , or Prince Rupert, British Columbia , and throughout Southeast Alaska; the other through Southcentral Alaska from Cordova  all the way to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. In addition, a ferry sails between Whittier  and Juneau  twice monthly in the summer, linking the two regions.
British Columbia Ferries (250/386-3431 or 888/223-3779, www.bcferries.com ) sails Canada’s Inside Passage from Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island  to Prince Rupert  on the B.C. mainland’s north coast.
One of the first actions of the newly created Alaska State government in 1959 was to establish a state ferry system. Originally it consisted of just a single boat, but after passage of a 1960 state bond, three new ships were built and more have been added over the years. The newest additions are two high-speed ferries (high-speed when they are operating, which can be half the time): the Fairweather in Southeast Alaska  and the Chenega for Prince William Sound . All state ferries carry both passengers and vehicles, and offer food service. The larger ferries also have cabins, showers, storage lockers, gift shops, pay phones, and cocktail lounges.
Ferries generally stop for 1–2 hours in the larger towns, but less than 1 hour in the smaller villages. You can usually go ashore while the vessel is in port. Most ferry terminals open only 1–2 hours before ship arrivals, closing upon their departure. A baggage cart transports luggage from the terminal to the ship if you want to save your back a bit. There is a limit of 100 pounds of luggage per person, but this is only enforced if you are way over the limit and the ship is full.
The ferries have a relaxed and slow-paced atmosphere; it’s impossible to be in a hurry here. Many travelers think of the ferry as a floating motel—a place to dry off, wash up, rest up, sleep, and meet other travelers while at the same time moving on to new sights and new adventures. Ferry food is reasonably priced and quite good, but many budget travelers stock up on groceries before they board. The hot water is free in the cafeteria if you’re trying to save bucks by bringing along Cup-O-Noodles and instant oatmeal.
Most ferries have Forest Service or Fish & Wildlife Service interpreters on board in the summer, showing videos, giving talks, and answering questions about trails and campgrounds. Feature movies are shown on the video monitors every day.
Staterooms offer privacy, as well as a chance to get away from the hectic crowding of midsummer. These cabins have two or four bunk beds, and some also include private baths; other folks use the baths and showers down the hall.
If you don’t mind hearing others snoring or talking nearby, you can save a bundle and make new friends with fellow voyagers. There’s generally space to stretch out a sleeping bag in the recliner lounge (an inside area with airline-type seats), as well as in the solarium—a covered and heated area high atop the ship’s rear deck.
The solarium has several dozen deck chairs to sit and sleep on, and it can get so popular that at some embarkation points there’s a mad dash to grab a place. To be assured of a deck chair, get in line five hours ahead of time if you’re coming aboard in Bellingham  in midsummer. When the weather is good you’re also likely to see the rapid development of a tent city on the rear deck, often held down with duct tape (sold in gift shops on board).
The ferries operate year-round. Get schedules and make reservations by calling 907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066 or online at www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs . Reservations for the summer can be made as early as December, and travelers taking a vehicle should book as early as possible to be sure of a space. Before you get ready to board, call the local ferry terminal to make sure the ferry is on schedule; often they are running behind, and the too-frequent breakdowns can totally change departure times.
Although there is usually space for walk-on passengers, it’s a smart idea to make advance reservations for ferries out of Bellingham, especially for cabins. Reservations are required for anyone with a vehicle and are generally available six months in advance. The ferry system charges an extra fee to carry bicycles, canoes, kayaks, and inflatable boats.