Many of my friends and family seem to be discovering the Great Frontier that is Alaska this summer. Having spent two whole seasons and two partial seasons cruising in Southeast Alaska, they of course are coming to me with questions. So, I decided to save myself the trouble and write one definitive guide to Southeast Alaska Ports of Call. Hope you all find this helpful!
Most Alaskan cruises start in either Seattle, WA or Vancouver, BC. Being what is known on ships as “turnaround day“, I never have much time to explore either of these cities unless I am joining the ship or leaving the ship there. My first recommendation, however, would be to fly in a day or more before the cruise or stay a day or two after for some extra exploring time.
Stanley Park – one of the most popular and accessible things to see. This massive park contains an Aquarium, totem pole center, the famous Lion’s Gate Bridge, a couple beaches and a few concession stands. The most popular thing to do is bike around it. It’s just under 10km from the pier around the park and back and should take you 1-2 hours depending on how in shape you are and how often you stop. There are numerous bike rental shops right next to where the ship docks.
Gastown/Chinatown – both are majorly historical districts of downtown. Gastown is mostly a lot of shops and pubs now, but is very nice to walk around. In Chinatown, I recommend the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Traditional Chinese Garden. They have hour long tours included in the admission price which are very informative. You can also learn Tai Chi, Chinese calligraphy, and Chinese astrology here. Admission also includes a free cup of tea. I recommend a walking tour like this one, which will take you right from the port.
Granville Island – another popular must-see. You can take one of the water taxis across from downtown. There’s the amazing Granville market with all kinds of fresh produce and international goodies for sale. I recommend picking up a loaf of break and some accouterments and having a picnic in the large pier area outside the market. You can also rent kayaks/canoes here, check out some of the offbeat shops, or catch a play from one of the many local theater houses.
Capilano Suspension Bridge – This makes a nice outing because you can get a free shuttle right from the ship! The price is a bit expensive for what it is, but the views are quite breathtaking. You’re literally above the trees! It’s especially cool if you are travelling with kids as they can learn about the natives, conservation, and collect stamps from each area of the restaurant.
Seattle I’ve not done much, or really any, exploring here. The main things to see, however, are:
Pike Place Market – home to the most famous fish market and the first Starbucks.
Space Needle – Sleepless in Seattle, anyone? Or, you can go for significantly cheaper up the building across from it and get a nice view of the space needle.
Coffee/Chocolate/Beer/Wine Tours – There are numerous paid and self-guided tours you can do of Seattle’s many coffee shops, chocolate factories, microbreweries and wineries. I’m told the Theo Chocolate factory offers a great tour (and what can beat free chocolate?!)
Other than these two cities, most 7-day Alaska cruises visit some combination of the following ports: Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC. Below you will find lists of things to see/do in each port.
Mendenhall Glacier – this is a must see. You can take a tour from the ship or privately to the visitor center to see the glacier and follow a nature trail to a waterfall. Those who are more adventurous can follow a fairly difficult hike to ice caves at the back of the glacier (note: the park rangers do not recommend this and if you d undertake it, it is highly recommended you bring someone who knows the path well). Those with a bit more cash to burn should definitely consider a seaplane flight over the glaciers or a helicopter ride with stops on the glaciers to hike. You can also take a helicopter to the top of a glacier and sled down like a real dog musher. The flight to a crab feast at Taku lodge is very popular, but pricey.
Mount Roberts Tramway – Most ships dock right by the base tram station. You can hike up to the mountain tram station, have a meal/drink in the lodge and ride back down for free, or go ahead and buy a ticket that gives you unlimited rides up and down all day. You can hike additional trails from the tram station and see a free cultural show, buy local crafts, and see a bald eagle at the tram station. Most ships offer tours combining Mendenhall Glacier and Mount Roberts Tramway, a good way to guarantee you’ll have enough time for both.
Cope Park – A nice little park just past the Governor’s Mansion. It’s nothing special, but I like walking it on a sunny day. It’s along a river aqueduct between Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts. It’s not a difficult hike, though you do have to cross some streams. It’s usually pretty quiet which is nice.
Alaskan Brewing Company – If nature is not your thing, and/or it’s rainy day and you’re sick of shopping, you can take a shuttle from the Brewing Company’s retail store to the brewery just out of town. For a small fee, you get a shuttle there and back, a tour, and quite a few free samples. The brewery is small, but one of the most popular in the state. Their staple is the Alaskan Amber, but you can also try Alaskan Summer, Alaskan White and their two seasonal beers – Smoked Porter and Raspberry Wheat. All are excellent and also available for purchase!
There is also plenty of shopping in Juneau, including a Walmart and a Drug Store, but this blog is not about that.
Russian Church – this is one of the main things to see, and you can’t miss it’s green dome right in the middle of town. I personally don’t find it to be anything all that special, just a quick photo, but if you’re into history you might want to explore it.
Fort – there’s a nice fort right by one of the tender piers* that provides a nice walk on a sunny day and some nice views of the town and the harbor where you ship is anchored.
Tongass Rainforest, Totem Park, and the Raptor Center – This is my recommendation for a must-see in Sitka. You can actually walk through the Rainforest all the way out to the Raptor center, or book a tour. The rainforest is home to many totems and they even have numbers you can call from a US mobile phone for stories about each one. There is a small fee for the raptor center, but they provide many educational talks and you will see plenty of eagles and hawks.
Wildlife Catamaran Tour – There’s also a tour that takes you on a catamaran to see all kinds of wildlife (whales, otters, seals, etc).
*I definitely recommend booking a ship’s shore excursion tour in Sitka as it is a tender port (meaning the ship anchors and you take lifeboats the rest of the way to the shore). That way you will get off the ship before everyone else instead of having to wait up to 3 hours!
White Pass Railway – Ride the train! This is the number one thing to do in Skagway. I recommend a tour where you ride the train one way and take a bus the other way. It’s quicker and you get to get off in the Yukon, which is beautiful, especially if you go early in the season and there is still snow. The ships offer all kinds of tours combining the train and other things like biking, hiking, salmon bakes, gold panning, etc. It all depends on your fitness level and time frame.
Jewell Gardens – This is a little ways outside of town, but worth seeing if your into arts or gardening. They have a nice garden, glass blowing factory, restaurant and artisan shop. If you do the Glass Blowing tour, you get to blow your glass ornament to keep and then you get a little tea time snack as well. They also make their own in-house chocolate-mint lemonade. Yum!
Days of ’98 Show – a cute, kitschy show that tells you the history of Skagway and the Gold Rush or 1898. It’s funny and a good thing to do if stuck in the typical Alaska rain.
Hiking – My favorite thing to do in Skagway, besides eating (more about that later). There are many good trails to hike in Skagway ranging from short and easy to long and difficult. You can pick up a trail guide from any information center in town, or download it here. I recommend Lower Dewey Lake for those beginner hikers or if you don’t have much time.
Misty Fjords National Monument – one of the main attractions in Ketchikan. You can take boat tours through the fjords, or opt for the pricier but way cooler float plane trip through them. I’ve never actually been but it’s supposed to be really nice.
Tongass Rainforest – you can take a nature trail tour through the rainforest or, if you’re more daring, zip line. It’s supposed to be one of the nicest zip line courses in the world, up there with Costa Rica.
Creek Street – the old historical part of town, this is the picture you most often see on postcards from Ketchikan. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the ships and has some shops and, of course, an old brothel (Dolly’s House). If you’re there in July/August, you might even see the Salmon running. Definitely worth popping by, just in case.
Lumber Jack Show – A show where they throw axes and other lumberjacky stuff. They pit team Alaska against team Canada and split the audience. It’s lots of cheesy fun and can usually be added to any other tour.
‘Bering Sea’ tour – An excursion on one of the old ships from the show The Deadliest Catch. You go and see how they catch the King Crab, get to give it a try, and usually there are TONS of eagles circling. Definitely good for seeing wildlife. Highly recommended by just about everyone who has done it.
*Note: Only ships sailing to/from Seattle will stop here as a requirement of the Jones Act. Different ships itineraries will have different times here, but I think most are only in port at night.
Buchart Gardens – the number one thing to see in Victoria. Cabs are expensive, so it’s worth booking a tour from the ship. In the mid summer, they have an amazing fireworks display there (though it might only be on certain nights).
Empress Hotel – Fancy old hotel whose lawns are often host to major summer events. The most popular thing to do is book a tea here. You can however, go inside parts of it for free by entering on the left side of the façade.
Waterfront – you can walk a well marked path from the ship to the waterfront and downtown. It takes about 45 minutes, but if you are lucky enough to be in port on a Friday or Saturday night, they have a wonderful market with local crafts, artisan food, poutine trucks, live music, fire breathers, and other street performers. In fact, all over downtown you will find many street performers, my favorites include violin playing Darth Vader and the Marimba band.
Whale Watching – another popular thing to do as there are many Orcas in the harbor.
Downtown/Chinatown – if nothing else walk around downtown. There are many stores (though most close at 8pm, so you must hurry!) as well as plenty of pubs and restaurants. Most pubs will have live music as well, especially on weekends. There are plenty of Irish, English, and Scottish bars, as well as rooftop bars where you can even play sand volleyball! There are many great places to eat as well (more on that later). Victoria’s Chinatown also has one of the narrowest streets in the world!
I hope you have found this guide helpful. It’s not meant to be very detailed or extensive. It’s simply meant to highlight some of the things I think are best to see in each port. Your tastes may vary, so it is always recommended that you do your own research before your trip. This will at least give you ideas of what to look for!
Watch out for my guide on where to eat in all these ports of call!