Carribean cruises are sometimes criticized for being overly passive, inauthentic, and borderline-boring for more outgoing travelers. Enter the famous Alaskan cruise, which promises passengers a front-row seat to some of the wildest maritime encounters, shore excursions, and natural mystic available to seafarers.
So is the reputation deserved? After traveling last month aboard Celebrity Solstice highest-rated 7-day Alaskan ship (according to Cruise Critic), my answer is a resounding “yes.” Whereas the Carribean focuses on relaxation and European cruises on culture, the Alaskan cruise accentuates not only big adventure, but unique opportunities within six degrees of the Arctic Circle.
Although christened nine years ago, Celebrity Solstice looks practically new. Big glass windows and “widescreen” balconies are everywhere. The cruiseline likes to describe itself as “modern luxury.” I think the moniker is fitting for this 1,000 foot and mostly middle-class passenger ship, which is neither gaudy, overly ornate, or chincy. Just beautiful and a pleasure to move about. That and the captain did donuts in the fjord so everyone could get a good look at the glacier—really!
On this particular cruise, we sailed the popular Inside Passage, which stretches from the Puget Sound into British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle. Doing so lets sailors avoid some of the bad weather associated with the open seas—although it was noticeably bumpier than the Caribbean—and it puts the many isolated communities and wildlife within reach.
While aboard I enjoyed the spacious showers, Silent Disco, lawn deck, and better than expected food, especially from the health cafe. I also appreciated the resident naturalist (if not Alaska “hype man”) that drew attention to special events over the intercom. My only qualms were the abnormally long safety drill, extremely expensive wifi, and underwhelming performing arts (with exception to an uncanny Beatles cover band).
The views, however, were undoubtedly the highlight. At nearly every turn I witnessed something spectacular, be it a silver sunset at sea or a uncommon occurrence at port.
On an Alaskan cruise, you don’t have to work hard to see “The Last Frontier.” Right from the ship, I observed breaching humpback, calving glaciers, misty fjords, iceberg-sized ice cubes, and wilderness that hasn’t been touched since dejected golddiggers last left it in the 1800s.
Photo courtesy of White Pass Railroad
To get an idea of how remote the area still is, three of the port cities we visited cannot be accessed by road. Amazon Prime deliveries can take up to two weeks (instead of two days). And there are fewer than two people per square mile in this state that is twice the size of Texas.
But while the sea experiences of the Inside Passage are remarkable on their own, the shore excursions are equally (if not more) impressive. After originating in Seattle, we explored Tracy Arm Fjord and Dawes Glacier, ported in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway (my favorite), then finished in Victoria before returning home.
While at port, I excitedly boarded and surveyed gnarly formations by float plane. I spotted a pod of Killer Whale and New Eddystone while boating through fjords with Allen Marine Tours. I tailed lunge-feeding Humpbacks in specialized whale-watching boats with Gastineau Guiding. And was totally bummed when my glacier hike, helicopter tour, seaplane sightseeing, and dogsled ride were all cancelled due to bad weather.
The good times didn’t end there, however. I was unexpectedly moved by the sanctity of Butchart Gardens. I was left speechless by the all-day Bennet Scenic Train (pictured) from Skagway into remote parts of British Columbia and The Yukon. And my family members who booked the Taku Lodge Seaplane Feast through the cruise had this to say: “Like traveling back in time,” and “One of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
However you slice it, the Alaska Panhandle is stunning with a capital s. Everything is bigger up there, something that can only be appreciated after seeing it with your own eyes.
The Final Word
Despite numerous weather cancellations, both Alaska and the shining ship that took me there exceeded my expectations. I finally understand why the experience is so revered among cruisers, travelers, families, and the elderly. The so-called “vacation of a lifetime” takes you to majestic places that are largely inaccessible. That you can endeavor such a journey with so many conveniences is the icing on the cake.
Is an Alaskan cruise right for everyone? Probably not, especially if you’re easily intimidated by idleness, which happens a lot on the ship. But for a good mix of outdoor adventure, rare wildlife, rejuvenating relaxation, social encounters, and modern comforts, it’s pretty darn appealing and a wonderful value to boot.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him @blakesnow