When filling out your cruise itinerary, excursions are an important consideration. Some excursions are leisurely, others are active. But all contribute to the depth of experience that you will have. For an Alaskan cruise, nature and culture predominate. From learning about First Nation totems to fishing or glacier and bear encounters, these side trips will create lasting memories and add a spark to your trip.
For my first cruise to Alaska, I chose Windstar’s Alaskan Splendors itinerary on their newly renovated, all-suite Star Breeze to have a mix of sailing and exploring. The small ship was able to negotiate narrow channels, affording fabulous up-close views of America’s “last frontier” even from onboard.
Pro Tip: Windstar offers excursions with varying degrees of exertion from easy to strenuous. Be sure to ask for guidance when selecting the ones that best suit you. In case you decide to forego leaving the ship to while away the time from the top deck, you’re still likely to see humpback whales and orcas breaching nearby.
Here are my five favorite excursions that brought me deep into the culture and wild beauty of Alaska.
Windstar hosted me on this cruise, but all opinions are my own.
1. Tracking Bears
Tongass National Forest
From the port of Wrangell, we set sail on a frisky speedboat which took us to the Anan Wildlife Observatory in Tongass National Forest, a guaranteed spot for bear and eagle sightings. As I seldom experience seasickness, I sat next to the captain up front — the bumpiest of seats — as we zipped and slammed across the water. The rewards were great. Not only did I have the first mate’s sightlines, but I enjoyed a personal dialogue with the captain about what to expect when we arrived at the landing.
Spotting bears and even being around bears requires concentration and caution. We were instructed to walk single file remaining close together in a silent procession with the rifle-toting ranger, our leader and protector. Bears are serious business, and we definitely didn’t want to become fodder for their lunch. After the half-mile hike, we arrived at the viewing deck where we enjoyed a prelude of bald eagle sightings. We learned to distinguish the juvenile birds with their dark heads and mottled wings from the adults who evinced a yellow beak and a white head and tail. They soared so close that we didn’t need binoculars to view them.
Our quest, however, was to see the bears, and we had multiple ways to do so. Sometimes the black and brown bears simply strolled near the platform, triggering a mad rush as we crowded to the side to catch a glimpse. Other times, we gathered along the rail over Anan Creek to watch the hungry guys catch runs of pink salmon.
The true gift of this excursion was the chance to shelter in the intimate photo blind at stream level with salmon and bears in full view. Watching the bears’ varying degrees of success diving for, catching, and devouring their prey provided endless entertainment and awe. It was the circle of life coming full circle.
Pro Tip: You should be physically fit for this excursion. The boat ride takes about an hour and can be uncomfortable for those prone to motion sickness. The trail to the observatory is gravel and dirt with some roots and is muddy and slippery in places. To reach the photo blind, you must descend a long stairway. Also note that this is a rainforest, so dress and pack your gear appropriately.
2. Kayaking To The Glaciers
Windstar offers two ways to experience the mighty fjords and icefields of Alaska’s Inside Passage from the water. You can join a zodiac tour, where the leader takes care of paddling and steering, and all you do is sit back and take in the breathtaking scenery. Or, as I preferred, snuggle into a two-person kayak, relying on coordination with your fellow boater to navigate alongside blue-tinged drift ice. We watched lazing harbor seals and bobbing otters as we made our way toward the magnificence of the glaciers and waterfalls.
Kayaking with your spouse (or with any partner for that matter) can be a challenge, but done correctly, you move serenely yet swiftly toward your goal. In the kayak, you can position yourself horizontally under waterfalls and close to the glaciers to see not only the ice but also the mountain goats that impossibly make their home high on the cliffs.
Silence is occasionally broken by the sounds of water cascading down cliffs and the thunder of calving glaciers, dripping icebergs in their wake. I felt privileged to watch the unfolding renewal of the glaciers and caught my breath each time I heard a thud.
Windstar has several excursions by kayak — one by the high waterfalls of Misty Fjords, a second to Kenai Fjords’ Harding icefield, and another to Tracy Arm-Endicott Arm’s twin glaciers. Icy water conditions often determine the destination, and we were directed to Endicott Arm on my excursion. Bordered by steep rock walls and glacier-covered mountains, this teal-sapphire blue passage afforded a front-row seat to the impressive Dawes Glacier. I left feeling very small, smaller than usual in this amazing landscape.
Pro Tip: If the trip turns inclement, you always have a choice to return to the ship by zodiac. On the other hand, I completed a 2-hour kayak in a downpour, counting on the many rain-resistant layers I wore to protect me. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
3. Dogsledding On The Glacier
In Juneau, Alaska’s state capital, we met our pilot for a dogsledding adventure on Mendenhall Glacier. We watched a short instructional film and were given special boots for walking on ice and snow, a noise-blocking headset with a microphone for the helicopter flight, and guidance on how to best enjoy the view of the massive blue-tinged icefield from above.
Our chopper ride was even more adventurous than anticipated. The fog (and wind) had started rolling in, and we were the last flight allowed to the glacier that day. First there were green mountains, then snow-covered ones, and finally glaciers appearing through almost whiteout conditions. Had the weather worsened, we might have spent the night at the dog camp with the mushers rather than returning to the Star Breeze. I felt like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.
The dogsled ride was thrilling. We zipped through the all-white setting, led by a spirited team of canines. I alternated sitting in the sled or standing in the back with the musher. With the weather turning nastier by the minute, we started to fantasize about camping with the pups and their very special trainers, some of whom had participated in the Iditarod race. We had just enough time after our glide across the glacier to meet the dogs up close, pet them and learn a little about life on Mendenhall before boarding our chopper in the thickening mist.
Pro Tip: Does it take a bit of courage to do this trip? Well, yes. Especially if you’ve never been in a helicopter before. And once you land, you have a couple of choices to make: sitting in the sleigh as you careen across the snow, or taking a big sip of courage and standing on the wooden ski-like pedals at the back where you join with the dogs and musher in controlling speed and braking.
4. A Wildlife Safari
Taking to the water allowed for another type of animal encounter. This time, on a small ferry-like boat from Sitka and narrated and guided by a naturalist, we searched for sea otters, eagles, and the very lazy harbor seals that seem to enjoy cuddling as much as hunting for fish.
This quest is hit-or-miss. You can circle and circle and see nothing for significant periods of time. You might distinguish more cloud shapes than animal silhouettes for a while, but when the animals appear, it’s magical. Bald eagles sit perched in treetops. Otters pop their furry heads up for a moment, diving back underwater almost as quickly as they appear. It occurred to me for a brief moment that I could have seen more marine life at my city aquarium. But what set this apart are the majesty of the setting and the unpredictability of nature as it reveals itself like the tease of the humpbacks we could only see at a distance.
5. A Vintage Locomotive Trip
Listed as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, the White Pass & Yukon Railroad in the gold rush town of Skagway dates from 1898. Tracing the steep route followed by Klondike Gold Rush Stampeders, a vintage railcar leaves Skagway depot traveling on a narrow-gauge railway overlooking gorges and scenic landmarks with evocative names like Bridal Veil Falls and Dead Horse Gulch. If you’re adventurous, this is a great excursion, and if you’re a photographer, it’s a real winner.
Between the cars, a moving platform beckons the daring to stand in the outdoors, caressed by the wind and protected from falling only by waist-high, wrought-iron railings. It’s pretty chilly out there, but the views make up for it as you ascend 2,888 feet. The “money shot,” from a photographic point-of-view, is a curve of the train’s front or back end, showing the cars in crescent formation as they round a bend.
There were many more “Kodak moments,” like when you traverse a wooden bridge high over the valley or enter a long tunnel and emerge from the dark to a burst of sunlight. White Pass Summit gave me a shiver as well — both U.S. and Canadian flags fly at the boundary between the two countries.
Pro Tip: Restored gold-rush town Skagway is a vivid historical immersion with museums focusing on the challenges (and lawlessness) of the prospectors, a saloon with a kitschy bordello tour (yes, it really was a brothel), and a 19th-century brewery updated slightly for today’s visitors. Don’t forget to look down — Skagway’s sidewalks are made of wood.
Windstar’s Alaskan Splendors Cruise
The 11-day itinerary from Alaska to Vancouver left from Seward, a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from Anchorage along Seward Highway, a designated National Forest Scenic Byway. While this wasn’t a scheduled excursion, it might well have been, passing along mountain-rimmed Turnagain Arm with non-stop, stunning vistas.