In Part Three I talked about our approach to planning port days and excursions including three different strategies for different types of trips and travellers. Below I’ll chronicle our itineraries in each port and share the details of the fantastic excursions we went on while in Alaska so you can take our recommendations when planning your own trip.
Port One: Sitka
This was our least structured port day, which I think would have been fine if it wasn’t also our first port day. The totally self-guided route can be stressful and it really requires a lot of going with the flow and keeping expectations low, which was a lot to ask from the first stop on Phil and my first big trip together. Phil had been excited to see Sitka because of its Russian history but it quickly became clear that, even though it’s one of the state’s most historically interesting locations, it’s not really all THAT historically interesting and the appeal of “seeing the sights” was pretty quickly lost beyond the natural beauty of the place.
The National Historical Park made for a lovely wander but it’s only so big, especially when a significant loop is closed due to bear activity. A precarious dash across the highway technically makes the Raptor Center within walking distance and it’s a great spot if you hate birds less than I do. The Fortress of the Bear, on the other hand, is much less accessible than GoogleMaps would have you believe, and this is where it all started to fall apart. I love bears. If we’re being honest, bears were probably about 60% of the reason I wanted to visit Alaska. And I was very concerned that I wouldn’t get to see one. So Sitka’s bear sanctuary was a high priority because, if I couldn’t guarantee a wild bear sighting, at least I could guarantee some bear action of some kind on the trip. I spent days meticulously planning our perfectly timed itinerary that would allow us to fit in everything that could possibly be worth seeing in Sitka, complete with estimated travel times. Maybe because it was our first port and I was just too excited to plan or maybe because of the “bunch of small stuff, nothing too flashy” style of Sitka attractions, I was too ambitious. I made the timeline a little too tight so when Google’s assertion that there absolutely was Uber in town turned out to be a brazen lie, we were faced with a crisis.
Having walked through the park up to the Raptor Center, we found ourselves in an Uber deadzone and unable to reach any of the town’s three taxis (not taxi companies, literally three taxis total), and a car was necessary to get to the Fortress of the Bear, which is really much further away than Google says. I’m a hyper-practical traveller who’d always rather settle for a simple, stress-free solution than try to force an itinerary to work so I wanted to just backtrack on foot and turn our elaborate self-guided Sitka day into just a calm park-based meander. But Phil’s a stickler for a plan so he insisted we keep trying the taxi companies until I finally found one that would take us to Fortress of the Bear then, and this is the real key, wait for 40 minutes or so to take us back into town in time for our early dinner reservation. We got really lucky that Martin’s Taxi & Tours was not only available (on about our fourth call) but was amenable to waiting so we didn’t have to risk getting stuck where we couldn’t make it back to the dock. Fortress of the Bear was fine, it’s always great to see bears, but in retrospect this was the biggest mistake of the trip. Maybe I’m saying this because, spoiler alert, we did end up getting to see wild bears later in the trip, but Fortress of the Bear was absolutely not worth the huge expense of the waiting taxi and the added stress of fitting in an activity that was harder to access than expected in an already tight itinerary (over-scheduling is a great idea so you have lots of options and don’t have to research as you go but you have to be willing to make cuts when there are delays or unexpected challenges).
The day was salvaged by Beak, an unassuming local restaurant that was one of the only breaks with with our “meals are included, wait to eat on the ship” budgeting policy. Other than a silly tourist trap we wanted to check out in Juneau and a few places selected specifically for their views that we didn’t end up actually visiting, Beak was the only proper restaurant on our entire Alaska itinerary, selected because its menu felt genuinely local and free of gimmicks. I had a perfectly cooked cedar plank salmon filet with mac & cheese and rich chowder as we sat frigid on the rainy patio, finishing with a caramel latte in one of Alaska’s ubiquitous hearty mugs to try to keep warm.
Sitka isn’t on all Alaskan cruise itineraries and it’s easy to see why. Though it offers a few quintessential Alaskan experiences (bears! raptors! parks!), I’d be lying if I said any of it was unmissable. Beak is absolutely worth a visit if you do find yourself in Sitka one day but, apart from being the home of my one taste of great Alaskan salmon, Sitka generally underwhelmed. We did a lot wrong in planning and executing our first port day; just the park and Beak would have suited us far better than our ambitious itinerary for such an unassuming town.
Port Two: Icy Strait Point
The important thing to understand about Icy Strait Point is that it isn’t really a place at all. It’s a tourist destination specifically designed as a cruise port. It’s got a little shopping centre but that’s really it. Our ship stopped there for just a couple hours in the evening after spending the morning sailing by the glaciers of Endicott Arm. If you absolutely insist on approaching every other port independently with no tours or excursions (which is a questionable choice but it’s yours to make), at least promise me that you’ll book something to do at Icy Strait Point. It’s the perfect location for whale watching and it’s the perfect location for very little else, so just go whale watching, ok?
Phil took the lead on selecting this excursion and he prioritized finding a small boat with lots of outdoor viewing area. We ended up with Icy Strait Whale Adventures on an ideal little vessel that offered a warm, covered area for the choppy beginning and ending parts of the trip and for older/colder passengers who were happy to whale watch through windows. But there was also a great viewing area at the front of the boat where we stood for nearly the entire excursion even though it was brutally cold and wet (this is where I sing the praises of the life-saving compact puffy coat I bought specially for this trip. It fit in my mini backpack so it was never a burden to carry and it was far warmer than it had any business being. A wool toque and Hot Hands warmers were also key on this excursion).
The boat’s captain Duane was fantastic at maneuvering with the movement of whales to make sure we had the best view possible and he knew exactly when to call out for us to look right before something surfaced. Crew member Asa stayed out on deck with us the entire time even though you could tell he wished we’d go back inside with the rest of the passengers to keep warm. I’d never been whale watching and had been led to believe it was very possible to see nothing but we saw tons of orcas and humpbacks as well as plenty of other boats out on the water, all of them far more crowded than ours, so we really felt like we hit the jackpot with Duane.
That’s a strong recommendation for Icy Strait Whale Adventures if your ship is doing the half day at Icy Strait. The tour cost about $225 Canadian per person, which is pretty steep, but we were out there for a long time and it worked out to a pretty good per-whale deal. They turned a nothing port into one of the standouts of the whole trip.
Port Three: Juneau
Hot take: Juneau is kind of terrible. It’s a truly bleh city that’s a little too big to be cute and a little too small to be interesting. The main drag is packed with tourist trap jewelry stores and a few steps off the main drag things get rundown pretty quickly. We arrived in port a few hours before our scheduled excursion so we wandered a bit and ate some falsely advertised local fare at the kitschy Red Dog Saloon while listening to a grumpy old man play piano and tell off colour jokes (if the “reindeer sausage” is so supplemented with pork that it just takes like straight pork, you can’t call it a reindeer sausage). Our non-excursion itinerary was completely shot when we discovered the tram up Mt. Roberts cost $50 so we ended up playing a lot by ear. Eventually we would discover a cute little outdoor food court where we met some truly delightful non-cruise tourists and Griz Bar where you can sip beers by a firepit but otherwise Juneau proper left us pretty cold.
But luckily we weren’t really in Juneau for Juneau, we were there to meet a man named Tarek from Coastal Helicopters who would take us on a stunning flight over the most beautiful sights we’d ever seen and down onto Herbert Glacier where we could stomp around on untouched snow and drink pure melted glacier water. Tarek was a great guide who generously stretched our time on the glacier and peppered in fun tidbits like a cool iphone trick he picked up from a National Geographic photographer. He was incredibly relaxed and confident, which made me feel so much more relaxed and confident during my first helicopter flight, which was a lot scarier than I thought it’d be. My weight meant I had to pay $100 extra for what’s called a “comfort seat” but I never once felt judged, unsafe, or unwelcome during the prep process that involves a scale, gear, and weight-based seating assignments, all of which can easily be a fat girl nightmare. This was our big ticket excursion and, at nearly $1000 Canadian for the two of us, it was a big chunk of change for a pretty short trip but it was truly unforgettable. If you’re keeping track, that’s an enthusiastic 2/2 on excursions. Hard yes on Alaska Shore Tours‘ “Icefield Helicopter Excursion”, if it’s in the budget.
Port Four: Ketchikan
Ketchikan is the anti-Juneau. It’s so cute I didn’t even mind that almost everything was closed by the time we got back from our excursion and had time to explore. It stinks to high heaven by September at the end of the salmon run but, again, so cute, and you’re allowed to be stinky when you’re super cute.
The big attraction in town is the Lumberjack Show but we took a gamble and chose a Rainforest Tour instead since we didn’t have time for both (we were only in port 1-8pm, which is not ideal timing for seeing much in an early-to-bed city). Best decision ever. We were impressed with all of our excursions over the course of the whole trip but if I had to recommend one, it’d be the “Rainforest Sanctuary, Totem Park & Eagles” walking tour with Kawanti Adventures, especially if you can get Will as your guide.
We were picked up by the chattiest woman in history and driven pretty far out of town to get to a private property bordering on the National Park (again, excursions are really the way to go in Alaska; there’s no way we could have gotten out there on our own). There’s just enough infrastructure on the property to make the tour easy and accessible while still retaining the lost in nature feeling and Will struck the perfect balance of teaching and chatting, sharing stories and facts with infectious enthusiasm and approachable expertise. He asked everyone in our small group what we were most interested in so he could tailor the tour for us. He kindly didn’t laugh at the lady who said she was there to see mushrooms and he promised me we’d find some bears. And hoo boy were there bears! Wild ones, just out living their lives and passing within a couple feet of us, confirming once and for all what I have always suspected, that I am not even the tiniest little bit afraid of bears.
I am still, however, very afraid of all birds so was less than pleased to end the tour at yet another iteration of the Raptor Center, at least until we were regaled with the tale of Jake, a hawk who has fallen in love with one of his keepers and therefore has taken to squawking at Will every time he comes around since Will’s been flirting with said beloved keeper. I didn’t come on this rainforest tour for the tortured bird love triangle but now it’s the first story I tell about my trip to Alaska. At about $150cad per person, this was the cheapest of our Alaskan excursions and definitely my favourite.
Long story short: Will is great, bears are great, Kawanti Adventures is great, Ketchikan is great, Justice for Jake.
Base City: Seattle
Though of course it’s not in Alaska, Seattle was a key location on our trip as the point of both embarkation and debarkation for the cruise. One of the firm rules of cruising is to always fly in a day early so you never risk missing the boat on account of a delayed flight, so we stayed over night at the Belltown Inn before heading to the port. We got in very late because we misjudged whether it would be worth it to take an Uber from the airport and found ourselves stranded multiple times waiting for shuttle busses replacing Seattle’s iffy transit system. The Belltown Inn not being of particular note, there’s therefore very little to report from our one and only night in Seattle.
In the morning, we got up early to check out Pike Place Market before heading to port for our 1:30pm Wellness Check before boarding. We ate lumpy chowder from Jack’s Fish Spot and browsed the brilliant flower stands at the legendary market. We walked by but refused to stand in line to actually enter the original Starbucks, opting instead for lattes and delicious choux pastry from Le Panier.
On our return to Seattle a week later, we were able to see far more of the city with what oddly turned out to be our most successfully scheduled itinerary of the whole trip. We used the ingenious BagsAway app to stow our luggage for just $15 after leaving the cruise ship so we could explore the city freely between our early disembarkation and our late flight home. The early start meant a long day packed with activities. We bought fish and chips from Ivar’s Fishbar the second they opened and sat by the water being taunted by the seagulls. We cruised the harbour on Seattle’s Tall Ship ($100cad for 2) and took a fascinating tour of the city’s forgotten underground from a quirky woman named Lisa ($55cad for 2), the two final formal excursions of our trip and two activities we would 100% recommend to anyone visiting Seattle. The aquarium was a waste of money unless you’re really only in it for the sea otters but if an overpriced aquarium is the biggest letdown of packed day, you’re doing pretty well.
We wanted to sail from Vancouver for practical reasons but the land border closure turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it forced us to spend time in an extra city we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to see, the perfect sun-filled Washington finale to our week in Alaska.