Alaska Inside Passage Cruise: The Good, the Bad, and the Amazing

Please don’t judge. For my final travel hurrah for a while, I went on a cruise. I can plead that it wasn’t my idea, but I did have a great time, regardless, and am thankful that my family members prompted me to visit such an amazing region.

I went with my son, daughter in law, and her parents on a week long cruise through the inside passage of Alaska, and enjoyed it immensely. The scenery was fantastic, and being on a cruise ship wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. Gambling, formal events and drinking alcohol are not on my lists of ‘fun things to do’, so I had imagined I’d feel quite out of place (on the ship, not with family members). But being in nature, spending time with family, and learning about new places are quite enjoyable, and that’s definitely what happened.

I arrived separately in Vancouver, BC, and had time to explore the huge ship on my own before we set sail. A city in miniature; the ship had fifteen floors, several dining rooms, a gym, pools, hot tubs, a casino, a theater, and more, with a capacity to house 2600 passengers and 1100 crew members. One could get lost, and occasionally I did.

Inside the ship

Setting sail introduced a peculiar sensation of gentle rocking which took some getting used to, but with acupressure wrist bands, nothing that produced sea-sickness. We stayed at sea for that evening and the next day, and after 24 hours the bands weren’t even necessary. So I was able to enjoy the delicious food, and comfortably spend time with family on board. While drinking and gambling were the agenda for some, there were plenty of other things for us to do on board. Our group attended trivia contests (winning twice) and enjoyed lectures from Libby Riddles (first woman to win the Iditarod) and Susan Marie Conrad, who kayaked solo for 1000 miles along the inside passage. I also enjoyed walking around the promenade deck, absorbing the scenery and the salty sea air.

Our first port was Ketchikan. Its name, derived from Kich-xaan, comes from the first Tlingit inhabitants. It’s located on Revillagigedo Island, and is only accessible by sea or air. The climate is temperate rainforest, although we had no rain during our visit. I started out early to see a bit of the town and was not disappointed. Taking the City Walk, I traipsed through historical areas of Creek St. (formerly the location of the city brothels, now a shopper’s haven) and the harbor, and then slogged uphill to the Totem Museum to view traditional carved totem poles from the native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures.

Houses near Creek Street


Walking back downhill I visited the peaceful city park and the salmon ladder next to waterfalls of Ketchikan Creek. Hundreds of salmon waited their turn at the bottom of the falls, summoning the energy to make successive leaps up to the top, and back to their spawning grounds.

Watch salmon jump up the waterfall

I would have loved to spend more time meandering, but we were scheduled for a kayaking trip. We boarded a bus to Clover Pass, north of the town, and were given gear and instruction, then loaded into kayaks. Setting off for a trip around the Eagle Islands, we saw tidal sea life, eagles, and a brief glimpse of a whale. The waters were calm, and the trip was enjoyable. All the kayaking practice I had in Desolation Sound was rewarded: my son and I were doubled, and we often found ourselves ahead of the group. A fast stroke pace gave us time to take lots of pictures while waiting.

Starfish on the rocks

We had just enough time to get back to the ship before departing for the next port of call, and we arrived in the state capital of Juneau the next morning. This time we started off the day with a trip to a dog mushers’ camp. These camps provide food and exercise for the dogs during off season, and a learning experience for the visitors, and a chance to snuggle with puppies as well. We learned about the life of an Iditarod racer (not easy!) and about the dogs themselves. Most visitors to Alaska think of the sled dogs as being fluffy dogs like Malamutes or Siberian Huskies. These are a different breed; leaner, and while somewhat fluffy, not as much as one expects. They love to work. The teams would howl and bark whenever they weren’t pulling the wheeled “sleds” that pulled the tourists, and we learned that they had to be trained not to wear themselves out.

Ready to go


Alaskan Rainforest


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And they called it…puppy luuuuuv

I had heard that the Mendenhall Glacier was a “don’t miss” experience. While there are buses happy to take tourists there for a limited time and $40, one can take the public bus for $4 round trip, be dropped off 1.5 miles from the visitor center, and take as long as one wants to walk the trails and view the glacier. There are no trails that go directly to the glacier from the visitor center, so I opted for the trail to Nugget Falls that offered spectacular views and a lovely walk.

Mendenhall Glacier
Nugget Falls with Mendenhall in the background

Our last port of call was Skagway, an historic town with a year-round population of under 1200 people. Judging by the amount of stores in town, its main source of income appears to be tourism. There’s the historic Red Onion Saloon and the Skagway Museum, which tell the story of Skagway’s involvement with the Gold Rush era, and then there are more shops than you can shake a stick at. We walked around for a bit, but I found nothing that I, or anyone I know truly needed. So after lunch I found the Dewey Lake Trail, and hiked to Reid Falls and around Dewey Lake through a quiet forest. Heaven.

Dewey Lake
The harbor from above

Staying on the ship, we visited Glacier National Park and College Fjord, watching glaciers calve and marveling at the scenery.

Watching a glacier calve is a bittersweet experience; it’s an amazing scene to watch a mighty chunk of ice break off into the water, yet knowing that the glaciers are shrinking, it’s tough to watch that process occur before one’s very eyes.

Which leads to…the bad.

A minor annoyance were the sales pitches. To badly paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that any passenger in possession of a cruise ticket must be in want of some jewelry. At least that’s how it seemed. There were several jewelry shops on board the ship, onboard announcements of jewelry sales, and presentations and advertisements of stores at ports of call. Apparently someone is buying it though, as I’m sure they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t such a money generator for them.

More serious though, are the negative effects of cruise travel. I had heard of the environmental impact that cruise ships impart onto the places they visit. After returning home, I was hoping that I could find some information that would tell me that this wasn’t as bad as I had heard. If all of these 2600 passengers took plane flights to these places, wouldn’t it be worse environmentally than being together on a ship? Sort of like a floating bus? Sadly, no. By carbon emissions alone, a cruise passenger releases roughly twice as much carbon per mile as an air passenger (Data from this article). In addition, there are other issues with wastewater release, sulfur emissions, ship noise, and bilge water as well. While many cruise lines are working to lessen the damage which their ships cause, they’ve still got a long way to go.

The other issue I found was the working conditions for employees on board. Those in the service sectors are often hired from developing countries and paid less for long hours and minimal time off. While they may earn more than they would in their own country, and there is no shortage of applicants, it still appears to be a “sweat shop at sea” in many cases.

I realize that it’s rather hypocritical of me to spout these statistics after I’ve gone on the cruise. I’m sorry. Would I go on another one? No, probably not. One of the things taking the cruise has done is to create a greater interest in the environment of the places I visited. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to visit this beautiful landscape, and hope to do a better job of protecting it in the future. This region is amazing, and I hope it will remain so for generations to come.