The diverse sites, scenery of Alaska’s Inside Passage
Exploring Alaska’s Inside Passage
Story and photos
By Bob Lindsey
As we sat at poolside on the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Jewel dockside in Seattle, the pool was packed with young people, kids and older adults basking in the warm 75-degree sunshine. You would have thought the Jewel was heading for the Caribbean.
The destination was Ketchikan, Alaska, the first stop on our 7-day Alaskan cruise. I thought this was an anomaly; in a few days the top decks would be vacated while sailing in the cool northern Pacific. It turns out that was only the case in Ketchikan, the fourth wettest spot on earth, located in the southeast Alaska rain forest in the Inside Passage. The rest of the trip to Juneau, Skagway, along Tracy Arms, at sea and in Victoria, British Columbia, people still basked in the sunshine and swam in the 84-degree pools. After all, it was mid-August in Alaskan where highs can average 65-70 degrees and it felt pretty good after enduring one of the hottest St. Louis summers on record.
Ketchikan was the first stop on cruise, a day at sea from Seattle. When you first see the picturesque town with low lying clouds, green hills, overlooking the western looking buildings, you immediately knew this was the type of Alaskan town you pictured before sailing. The rainforest in this area is part of the massive Tongass National Forest, about the size of West Virginia.
We booked the Misty Fjords tour into the center of this rainforest, a 110-mile roundtrip from Ketchikan. As we sailed down the waterways, we saw bald eagles and the guide gave us the histroy and ecology of the fjords. While this was interesting at $179 each, I expected more. We weren’t disappointed at we approached the misty walls of vegetation as the excitement aboard increased. Several waterfalls tricked down at 90-egree angles from the 200-300-foof cliffs above the misty clouds. We thought this has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. Waterfalls cascade straight down 3 sides of the lush vegetation.
It was drizzling and 55 degrees in Ketchikan and a little cooler at Misty Fjords, but it was the perfect first day for an Alaskan cruise. The rest of the cruise it would be sunny and 65-70 degrees and the scenery would change dramatically.
Juneau is the state capital and is only reachable by air or boat. There are no highways that connect the city to other Alaskan or Canadian towns. Thus cruise ships in the summer months are a major part of the city’s business, as on any given day from late May to mid-September, there are 3-5 ships in port.
Our time in the state capital just wasn’t enough to explore much of the downtown area or visit the state government buildings, museums or Sarah Palin’s old home at the governor’s mansion. (There are plenty of Palin cutouts throughout the Inside Passage of you want a take a photo with her)
With a 2:30 p.m. sailing from Juneau, like most cruisers, we opted to see the Mendenhall Glacier, known as one of the fastest melting glaciers on earth. There are chunks of ice visible in the lake below, which itself was once part of the glacier. You can walk down a 1.5-mile trail to the massive waterfall that comes from the melting glacier and it’s about as close as you can get for good photos of Mendenhall.
The Visitor’s Center high above the shrinking glacier is another great spot for photo opps—not quite as picturesque as Yellowstone or Yosemite, but still offer astonishing views. The Visitor’s Center has an informative film about the glacier that shows how much more there was here less than a century ago. The difference is eye-opening and a rallying cry for all Global Warming advocates.
Sharing a taxi van with other passengers for the 12-mile ride to Mendenhall proved to offer a substantial savings over the ship arranged excursion and gave us more time at the glacier. However—not to my wife’s liking— we (she) had less time for checking out the shops and stores in Juneau. We did have time to stop in to the dirt-floor Red Garter for an Alaskan beer and soft drinks. This is a Juneau institution and located right along the main street near the ship’s port.
Sawyer Twin Glaciers was the next stop on the cruise and one of the reasons the NCL Jewel left Juneau so early. We traveled down Tracy Arms and the ice chunks intensified in size and scope as we approached the glaciers. Unfortunately, we did not get as close as we hoped because the captain thought the ice chunks were too large to maneuver around and could damage the rudders. However, from the bow the ship and some of the upper decks, the view was spectacular and another good photo opp of a glacier. The other NCL cruises to Alaska take you into Glacier Bay, which we imagine would have been more up close and personal. (continued on page 10)
A view looking towards the back bay from the beautiful Boschert Gardens near Victoria British Columiba, the last port on the Jewel’s Alaskan summer cruise. Bob Lindsey photo
An itinerary that includes Glacier Bay would be something to consider on any Inside Passage cruise.
That evening when it was still light at 10 p.m. the sailing from Juneau to Skayway resulted in some of the most spectacular scenery. From the windows and decks of the Jewel, on both sides of the ship you could see the lower clouds over the mountains with glaciers in the background. Another bonus that night at dinner, we were seated next to large windows and we actually saw a whale while dining on salmon and Cioppino. What a sight!
Skagway was our last stop on the Alaskan part of the cruise. This northern most town on the Inside Passage was the stopping off point for the 1880s Gold Rush in the Yukon, about 80 miles north and several days from the town. Skagway still reflects the days of the Gold Rush with rustic buildings, stores, bars, even a brothel turned restaurant where you can tour the rooms ($5 for 15 minutes, same price it was back then) with the lovely ladies showing the way.
The most popular attraction here is a train ride on the White River-Yukon line that travels up through the timber and mountains, winding through tunnels and valleys giving passengers spectacular views. There are outside platforms between the rail cars offering hair-raising views down deep slopes and, of course, more great photo opportunities. The rail line is quite organized with several options and trains on certain summer days. Our ride (four hours round-trip) took us just inside the Canadian border, but some longer rides can be combined with bus rides into British Columbia and even to the Yukon Territory.
Leaving Skagway, we had a full day at sea as we headed back the 900 miles to Seattle. The sunsets around 9:30-10 p.m. with the mountains in the distance were still breathtaking. We still had one more stop on our cruise, but not in Alaska.
Victoria, British Columbia is known to be almost being in England. With a late afternoon arrival and our mindset on seeing the world famous Boschert Gardens , we didn’t get much time to explore the downtown area. Again, we saved considerable by taking a city bus out to the Gardens. Although it took nearly an hour to get there, the bus traveled the streets and neighborhoods giving us a local feel of the city. We learned that the Victoria metro area is much larger in size and population than we thought, with nearly a million residents.
The Boschert Gardens are a must see visit here with dense foliage, varieties of plants and flowers in bright and hue colors. It’s about 5 fives larger than our own Missouri Botonical Gardens and takes 2-3 hours to walk the entire area.
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