How to Choose Your Cruise: Alaska

For anyone who loves wilderness at its most epic, Alaska is America’s fantasyland — the place where dreams of a wild, limitless frontier thrive magnificently, even well into the 21st century.

When the Scottish naturalist John Muir first visited Alaska, in 1879, the land had been in American possession for barely a decade, having been purchased from Russia for $7.2 million.  So vast was this forbidding possession, a nuisance to the Russians, really, that the sale worked out to a mere two cents an acre.  But before gold was discovered, and long before Alaska’s oil reserves were known, Muir saw something more in this prodigious, forbidding land.

“To the lover of wilderness,” Muir wrote, “Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”

Photographing glaciers in Alaska
The Dawes Glacier, Tracy Arm-Fjords/Lucia Griggi

Muir made seven trips to Alaska, venturing as far west as Unalaska, halfway across the Aleutian chain that reaches for Russia’s Far East, and to Barrow, the northernmost point of America today.  Perhaps most importantly, he was a member of the first Euro-American expedition to visit Glacier Bay, where he studied how glaciers could carve the dramatic landscape that created his beloved Yosemite Valley.  Muir’s passionate writings led to the creation of the National Park Service, the grand vision writer and historian Wallace Stegner later called “the best idea we ever had.”

On my repeated trips to Alaska, by land and by sea, I have been inspired — no, astonished — by not just the wildlife and majestic backdrops that unfold with unceasing spontaneity, but also by the history, people and culture of America’s most distant frontier.  That culture includes the Tlingit and other indigenous peoples who have lived in Alaska for centuries, and the Russians who used Sitka as a trading hub reaching to California and Hawaii.  In addition to Muir, Alaska’s cast of characters features people like Wyatt Earp, the gunfighter who moved to Nome for the Gold Rush and opened a saloon, and Jack London, the celebrated San Francisco novelist who came to the territory and wrote “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” both set amid the Klondike Gold Rush. 

There is no one way to experience Alaska for the first time, but as so many areas of the state are inaccessible by road, a cruise is surely one of the best routes to explore the coastal regions.  In fact, Alaska’s coastline is almost 34,000 miles in length, far exceeding that of any other U.S. state (and no, this won’t be the last time I tell you how large Alaska is!).  A cruise definitely eases most of the logistical challenges of point-to-point travel in the state, and it’s a journey even John Muir experienced (albeit without most of today’s creature comforts).

“Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description,” Muir wrote, following his 1879 trip through Inside Passage.  “The whole is so tender, so fine, so ethereal, any penwork seems coarse and unavailing.”

Bear Sighting, Alaska / Lucia Griggi

Alaska in 2021: The Antidote to a Year of Lockdown

In a Nutshell: Coming out of the pandemic, epic vistas of the Juneau Icefield and quiet coastal corridors of the Inside Passage seem to me an ideal way of reintroducing the natural world into our lives.

What You’ll See: It looked like Alaska’s 2021 cruise season was going to be shuttered — for the second year in a row.  The economic fallout for the state was so severe that Alaska’s representatives in Washington DC worked with Congress and the White House to pass a bill in May that allowed Alaskan cruises to resume this year.  Seven cruise lines announced they would launch voyages for this summer, and Silversea is the only luxury line to be sailing there this year.

There are some necessary adjustments to the operation.  Most notably, the CDC gave its green light to operating cruises from US ports for ships with fully vaccinated crew and passengers (get jabbed!).  Also, because Canada has shut down all its cruise ports into next year, ships will be operating solely out of Seattle, instead of using Silversea’s usual Seward-Vancouver homeports,

No matter: Seattle has one of North America’s best connected airports, and the cruise port is located conveniently close to downtown.  The city’s connection to Alaska is not just geographical: In addition to being the home base for Alaska Airlines, in 1897, the steamship Portland carried 68 prospectors and “a ton of gold” from a remote river in the Yukon Territory to Seattle.  Miners followed in droves to a tiny, boom-bust port called Skagway, at the north end of Alaska’s Lynn Canal.  

Wrangell Alaska /Lucia Griggi

How This Year is Different: The 10- and 11-day journeys for 2021 allow us to experience the Inside Passage at a more leisurely pace, with a couple extra port days thrown in for good measure.  In perusing the itineraries, here are some of the exciting activities that stood out to me.

Silversea is the only major cruise line to call on Wrangell this year.  The rough-and-tumble Tlinget settlement has Russian influences running through its veins and totems dotting the community.  But the hiking, through rainforest and marsh, lured naturalist John Muir to visit Wrangell in 1879, and we can follow in his footsteps along the Dewey Trail, or use the Rainbow Falls trail to access a 100-foot waterfall.  The Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory is one of the state’s top sites for up-close bear-viewing, the omnivores drawn to the site by a pink salmon run that peaks in July and August.  Wrangell is also gateway to the Stikine River, and a trip up the boggy river delta reaches the Shakes Glacier, which calves icebergs throughout the summer months.

Ketchikan is perhaps best known for the float-plane trip through Misty Fjords National Monument, a 2.3-million-acre wilderness defined by 3,000-foot glacier-carved cliffs and towering waterfalls.  The quietude I experienced after landing at a dock on a pristine glacial lake was awesome.  With nothing beyond the plane and dock to connect me with humankind, I was truly, magically planted in the most remote wilderness.  I also love a wander up Ketchikan’s Creek Street, a creaky boardwalk through the town’s historic red-light district, and a fresh salmon burger or sandwich in this town of fisher-folk is a treat I spring for on every visit.

Sitka is one of Alaska’s most charming towns, flush with Russian influences, most notably at the onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House.  On the Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest, a half-day cruise through the waters of placid Sitka Sound, sea otters, whale or bear sightings are guaranteed, while kayaking on Sitka Sound took me across kelp forests to uninhabited islands, where up-close encounters with sea life were also frequent.  Or take a Zodiac boat to explore the shallow-water areas of Sitka’s coastline and wind up at Fin Island Lodge, where a feast of Alaska king crab, salmon and prime rib is cooked over an alder wood-fired grill.

Although the year-round population of Skagway is little more than 1,000 residents, the town’s Gold Rush history is robust, and the activities on offer are extensive. Hiking, cycling, glass-blowing, dog-sledding, and gold-panning are abundant, or simply stay back to explore Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, which includes the nearby ghost town of Dyea, start of the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon goldfields.  The White Pass Scenic Railway, built starting in 1898 to connect Skagway with the Yukon, offers a scenic, 20-mile ride to the pass, 2,888 feet above sea level.  In nearby Haines, I reveled in a gentle float trip down the Chilkat River, landing me in the thick of the world-renowned Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, rich with nesting bald eagles — the world’s largest concentration of the majestic birds.

A swing through iceberg-loaded Tracy Arm, a 30-mile-long fjord, leads Silver Muse to the twin Sawyer Glaciers.  Here, a day tour option invites Silversea guests to transfer to a smaller boat for a three-hour, up-close exploration of the glaciers, wildlife and towering waterfalls streaming down the fjord’s 4,000-foot cliffs.

Cut off from the rest of Alaska by sea and ice, Juneau is the only U.S. capital that is inaccessible by road, with the giant Juneau Icefield looming just beyond the mountains that tower above the city.  One of my most memorable Alaska excursions ever was a helicopter flight landing on the icefield, its sprawling carpet of white spiked by jagged peaks in all directions.  Although there are more than 100 named glaciers spilling from the icefield, the Mendenhall Glacier flows close to Juneau, and its base is accessed by trails and canoe tours.  Or, settle into a two-seat kayak to explore the Mendenhall Wetlands and Fritz Cove, where bald eagles, porpoise and even humpback whales may emerge for a photo.

Choose Your Cruise: In summer 2021, Silversea will operate five cruises, 10 or 11 nights, aboard Silver Muse, beginning July 29.

Alaska’s Southeast: The Perfect 7-day Itinerary for 2022

In a Nutshell: In 2022, what I love about Silversea’s Vancouver/Seward7-day itineraries because the route takes you deeper into Alaska than the usual roundtrip cruise.

What You’ll See: Also known as a Gulf Crossing, this cruise visits Alaska’s top four ports and does a drive-by to view North America’s largest glacier.  It’s a one-way routing between Vancouver and Seward (outside Anchorage), or vice versa, meaning you’ll also have access, pre- or post-cruise, to Alaska’s interior, including Denali National Park.

I love departing from, or returning to, Vancouver as the lush Inside Passage scenery afforded in the narrow channel between northern Vancouver Island and the Canadian mainland feels almost like sailing through a fjord — around the summer solstice, dusk will illuminate the shoreline well into the evening.  Then it’s a sea day across the Queen Charlotte Sound, with the Haida Gwaii archipelago looming to the west, before crossing from Canada into Alaskan waters.

The town of Ketchikan, in Alaska /Lucia Griggi

Ketchikan is your first port, and the town of about 8,000 residents rises abruptly from the dock, with quaint wooden homes built on the steep slopes.  Ketchikan Creek passes alongside Creek Street, a wooden walkway transiting the town’s former red light district.  Ketchikan is renowned for fishing, especially salmon, and I’ve enjoyed excursions on small skiffs for fishing in the calm waters surrounding Revillagigedo Island — a beach barbecue with your catch follows, amid the still of the rainforest.  Totem poles are Ketchikan’s icon — there are said to be more here than any other place on earth, and you’ll find them at several parks on the outskirts of town, some of them standing for more than a century.

The other must-see in Ketchikan is Misty Fjords National Monument, a spellbinding, 2.3-million-acre wilderness, where 3,000-foot glacier-carved cliffs are riven by waterfalls.  John Muir compared Misty Fjords to the glacial morphology of Yosemite Valley, the major difference being that, in Alaska, the “valley floor” is flooded.  With no roads, a two-hour flightseeing trip by float-plane is the best way to see Misty Fjords, and typically includes a landing on a hidden lake or ocean inlet (be sure to book this in advance).

Hubbard Glacier, Disenchantment Bay, Alaska / Lucia Griggi
Landing on a hidden lake, Misty Fjords, Alaska /Lucia Griggi

Juneau is the Alaska State Capital, but don’t expect a bustling metropolis: The town of 32,000 is literally cut off from the rest of the state, by the sea on one side and the immense Juneau Icefield on the other (it’s the only capital of a U.S. state that you can’t actually drive to).  The ice straddles the border with Canada and, if you didn’t get your fill of aerial views in Ketchikan, a helicopter flight over this frozen sea is unforgettable. 

More than 100 glaciers spill from the Rhode Island-sized icefield, while sheer granite peaks pierce the ice like canines.  Other heli options in Juneau will take you to a dog sled camp, where you can mush with huskies high up on the icefield.  There’s also a hike on the Mendenhall Glacier, accessed by helicopter — you’ll stroll across the frozen blue river, passing crevasses and free-flowing streams and within eyesight of climbers tackling ice falls.  Or visit Mendenhall from below — a kayak trip in the lake at the foot of the immense glacier is an exciting encounter with nature’s grandeur.

A favorite Juneau excursion of mine is the floatplane trip to Taku Lodge, a fishing and hunting camp built in 1923.  The scenic flight visits five of the glaciers sitting between Juneau and the lodge, and after landing at the riverside camp a salmon bake is prepared.  The fish is bathed in brown sugar, butter and wine, and roughly midway through the meal one or more bears reliably descend on the camp to lick the grills clean.

Skagway is your next port, and don’t be misled by its small size (less than 1,200 year-round residents), for as the “Gateway to the Klondike,” Skagway’s history is robust.  Surrounded by spectacular wilderness, the town itself is part of a National Historic Park dedicated to the story of Alaska’s Gold Rush.  The gold was actually discovered in the western Yukon, Canada, in 1896, and once prospectors arrived by boat to Skagway, they trekked more than 400 miles on the Chilkoot Trail to the goldfields.  Some of Skagway’s buildings date to the gold rush, and the six-block historic district is worth exploring.

The White Pass Scenic Railway is an isolated rail line, built starting in 1898, connecting Skagway with Whitehorse, 110 miles into the Yukon.  It’s a fun trip, operated daily for cruise visitors.  Most go as far as White Pass, a 40-mile roundtrip that covers the most scenic part of the journey.  You can also do the train trip one way, up to the 2,888-foot pass and cycle back down, or combine the train with a kayak trip on an alpine lake. 

Sea kayaking out of Skagway through the Lynn Canal can be memorable — my experience kayaking here rewarded with a visit by a humpback whale and calf, one of the most thrilling moments of my life. On my first trip to Alaska, I was in a group kayaking along the center of the serene, mile-wide Lynn Canal, the longest and deepest fjord in North America, and the artery between Skagway and Juneau.  Between splashes of the paddle we heard a whoosh sound that seemed to echo through the channel and, a few seconds later, another quieter, briefer whoosh.  We looked around for a moment to see what might have produced the sound, and suddenly a humpback whale and her calf surfaced gently, less than a hundred feet in front of us.  It’s a moment that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck — followed by my own deep, satisfied, exhale.

Alaska’s Russian connection comes together in Sitka. The Russians settled here, on Baranof Island, eventually transferring the capitol of Russian America from Kodiak Island to Sitka in 1808, using it for lumber, fur, and shipbuilding. They even exported ice from nearby Swan Lake.  You can take in the Russian history easily on foot, including the onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House, but otherwise Sitka is a place you’ll probably want to take to the water.  Unlike most other Alaskan ports, Sitka faces the open Pacific Ocean, with volcanic Mt. Edgecumbe floating on the near horizon — it’s a beautiful setting.

Spotting sea otters in Alaska/ Lucia Griggi

Activities I’ve enjoyed here include Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest, a half-day cruise through the waters of placid Sitka Sound.  Sea otters, whale or bear sightings are guaranteed, while kayaking on Sitka Sound will take you across kelp forests to uninhabited islands, with up-close encounters with sea life also frequent.  Hiking tours into the lush backcountry are also rewarding.

This cruise has one more “sea day”, and this one’s a bit different from the usual: Your ship spends a few hours in the spectacular Hubbard Glacier, the largest in North America, and one of the few in the world that has been advancing over the last century.  While the wall facing Disenchantment Bay is enormous — six miles wide — it is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: The glacier extends 76 miles north into Canada.

The cruise ends in Seward, a small town on the Kenai Peninsula.  From here, it’s a very scenic 2.5-hour ride to the Anchorage airport for your flight home. 

Choose Your Cruise: In summer 2022 Silversea will offer this seven night itinerary between Vancouver and Seward from May 19 – September 1 onboard both Silver Muse and Silver Shadow.

Discover Denali, America’s Safari

In a Nutshell: Denali is not just North America’s highest point — it is also one of the world’s great mountains, and one of the few where good viewpoints are relatively accessible.  Throw in great opportunities for wildlife encounters and a visit to Denali National Park is an essential part of the Alaskan experience.

Denali, North America’s highest peak / Lucia Griggi

What You’ll See: Once you disembark in Seward at the voyage’s end, you’ll join Silversea’s land tour and venture deep into Alaska’s Bush.   You’ll travel by train or coach for two hours to Girdwood, a mountain town dating to 1896, when a mini Gold Rush caught a few prospectors.  Today it’s home to the Alyeska Resort, and the short, mild summer is filled with wildflowers and vistas of snowy peaks.  The resort loans bikes for short rides around town, down to the Turnagain Arm (ask about timing of the daily Bore Tide) or tackle one of the steeper trails, easily accessed via the resort’s scenic tram ascending Mount Alyeska.

The next day you’ll travel by coach to Denali, or rather to the small settlement just outside the park entrance, where you’ll stay at a comfy lodge.  In the morning you’ll spend a full day traveling along the one road leading deep into the park.  Views of the mountain start about mile 9, but it often plays peak-a-boo with the clouds — your driver will keep an eye out for it as you continue, Alaska’s “big five”: grizzly bears, elk, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep (and I’ll add a sixth, moose!).  The road continues over the spectacular Polychrome Pass and on to Stony Hill Overlook, 62 miles inside the park, one of the best vantage points for the mountain.

On the fourth day, head back to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train, traveling in style in an airy dome car.  You’ll be aboard for the railway’s most remote section, following the snaking Indian River, passing the occasional wilderness cabin, and crossing Hurricane Gulch on a 296-foot-high bridge before landing at charming Talkeetna, the town said to have inspired “Northern Exposure.” 

The last night of this land tour is spent in Anchorage, and if you luck out with a hotel room on a high floor, keep your eyes out at dusk (which will be late) — Denali is so big that, on clear days, you can see it looming on the horizon, more than 130 miles away.  That’s one more piece of Alaskan memorabilia happily etched in my memories.

Choose Your Cruise: Denali is a four day add-on to Silversea’s Seward to Vancouver voyages on Silver Muse and Silver Shadow.

Remotest Alaska: Venturing Beyond to the Russian Far East

In a Nutshell: This expedition voyage is meant for true explorers who want to touch on Alaska’s most exotic places — including the Bering Strait, where wildlife, landscapes, and Aleut culture that still bind the Russian Far East and Alaska.

What You’ll See: One unusual option for an amazing Alaskan adventure straddles the shoulders of the Bering Strait, a region of the world that’s visited by just a few hardy travelers — and even fewer cruise ships.  This one-off, 18-day itinerary is ideal for those wanting to go deeper, into the westernmost lands of America and to easternmost Russia, a coastline that since 2012 has been closed to visitors without permits by the Russian military.  The Chukotka Peninsula is almost exclusively inhabited by the Chukchi and Eskimo (Siberian Yupik) peoples, with walrus rookeries and herds of reindeer leading the list of wildlife.

Siberian Yupik/ Lucia Griggi

Silver Wind is designed for just such a journey.  Refurbished in 2021, the ship has been strengthened with an ice-class hull for explorations of the polar regions, and with sea and land tours lead by the ship’s Expeditions Team aboard a fleet of sturdy Zodiac boats. 

Australia has its Outback; Alaska has the Bush, the regions of the state that remain unconnected to the U.S. road network — that is, most of Alaska.  The cruise starts in Nome, a dusty and desolate one-time boomtown with a back-story that far exceeds its trifling name.  In 1898, after gold fever had lured prospectors to the Klondike, the ore was discovered in Anvil Creek, four miles outside Nome.  The following year gold was found in the beach sands lining the coast, and thousands poured into the town for one of the last great mining stampedes of the American West.  Overnight, Nome became Alaska’s most populous city.

Today, while most of Nome’s Gold Rush-era buildings are long gone, you’ll get a sense of the history along Golden Sands Beach, where recreational miners still try their luck panning for nuggets.  The finish-line arch for the Iditarod is here; it’s been the target for mushers and their dogsled teams every spring since 1949.  Each Labor Day, bathtubs on wheels are raced down Front Street, an amusing photo op.  In between, every evening Nome aims to shake off its frontier façade and have a good time.

Crossing the Bering Strait, Silver Wind will sail to Chukotka.  While the itinerary includes a stop at the former Soviet military outpost Provideniya, population 2,200, the five days in Russian waters will otherwise focus on Beringia, a Maryland-sized park established to protect the area’s natural ecosystems and historical heritage, along with the traditional economies of indigenous peoples.  

Tufted Puffin/ Lucia Griggi

Wet landings by Zodiac allow for encounters with Chukotka’s wildlife, which includes more than 200 bird species (most of them migratory), such as tufted penguins, lesser and crested auks, and the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.  Some of the Bering’s whale species frequent Lavrentiya Bay, while orcas, humpbacks, Dahl’s porpoise and seals can be spotted along the sheer cliffs of Cape Kuyvyveen, a dramatic bay that is rich with a variety of bird species.

At Proliv Senyavina guests can hike across tundra and rolling hills to reach a stream with a hot spring for bathing.  In Lorino Village you’ll be encouraged to participate in cultural activities, including a local show and dance, dog sledding and a local boat regatta, and at Enmelen, a settlement not connected by any road to other villages, the Chukchi and Yupik will invite you to experience their everyday village life.

Silver Wind heads back into U.S. waters with a visit to St. Paul Island, the largest of the quintet of treeless, volcanic Pribilof Islands.  With a population of about 500 today, it is said that when the U.S. acquired Alaska, these islands saw little change except for the flag.  The Aleut-Russian inhabitants are mostly descendants of slaves, and some still worship at the old Russian Orthodox church, built in 1907.  Wildlife includes horned and tufted puffins and the rare, red-legged kittiwake, but the star of the show is the largest northern fur seal herd, more than a half-million of them living in the waters around St. Paul.

Aleutian Islands/ Lucia Griggi

Unalaska is the hub of the Aleutian Islands, the string of remote outposts that, along with Pearl Harbor, was bombed during WWII.  Silver Wind will call on Dutch Harbor, one of the world’s richest fishing ports, thanks to the huge haul of cod, pollock, and king crab — the small town is the star of the TV show “Deadliest Catch.” 

The itinerary returns to mainland Alaska with a visit to Geographic Harbor, a hidden bay on the gulf side of Katmai National Park, where kayaking or a Zodiac cruise may reward with animals sightings, such as orcas, humpback whales, bears and the many species of birds.  Then it’s across the gulf to see the immense Hubbard Glacier, followed by a visit to Elfin Cove, the northernmost entrance to the Inside Passage.  It’s a safe harbor for side trips to the uninhabited Inian Islands, which are renowned for wildlife, especially whales on their way to nearby Glacier Bay National Park.

Geographic Harbour /Lucia Griggi

To bring the Russian theme full circle, Silver Wind calls on charming Sitka before heading to the southernmost areas of Alaska, including the Russian-founded community of Wrangell.  Here, guests will have options for animal viewing, for an ambitious hike by boardwalk to high meadows, or for simply exploring the quaint town.

The itinerary follows the Behm Canal north to access Misty Fjords National Monument, the uninhabited wilderness that is off-limits to larger cruise ships.  Guests can travel by Zodiac, by kayak or by floatplane to see the hideaway coves and spectacular granite cliffs sliced by towering waterfalls.  The itinerary follows the Inside Passage back south to land in Vancouver, the conclusion of a very special one-of-a-kind cruise.

Choose Your Cruise: There is just one cruise offered in 2022 and it travels from Nome to Vancouver on September 17. The 18 day voyage takes place onboard the 274 passenger Silver Wind, which is being converted to an ice-strengthened expedition ship in 2021.