Alaska Cruise or Authentic Alaska? The Choice is Yours

Wendy Worrall Redal February 29, 2012 0

What kind of Alaska tour are you looking for? Legendary wildlife and wilderness, or crowds and commercialism? How you choose to see Alaska — and who you choose to take you there — makes all the difference.

Lynn Canal

Lynn Canal, a natural fjord that is part of the Inside Passage route between Juneau and Skagway.

That was then…

My career in the tourism industry began when I boarded an Alaska State Ferry as a 19-year-old college kid, bound for the hamlet of Skagway at the head of the Inside Passage, a thousand miles and three days north of my home in Seattle.

There beneath the jagged peaks that embraced historic trails to the Klondike gold fields, I worked a summer job on a sightseeing boat. Each day we made a 120-mile round trip down the Lynn Canal to Juneau and back to Skagway. When the work day was over, we’d hike, fish and hang out on the harbor, which was a pretty quiet place unless we had a “ship day.”

Typically Skagway would see two or three small cruise ships each week, plus a state ferry and maybe a freighter or two. The passenger ships held 600-700 people, enough to keep the tour buses and narrow-gauge railroad and vaudeville shows prosperous for the summer season, while still preserving Skagway’s authentic, rough-around-the-edges feel.

This is now…

What a difference a quarter-century makes. In the 1990s things began to change big-time as industrial tourism exploded in Alaska. No longer “The Last Frontier,” Alaska was discovered by droves of would-be adventurers taking advantage of a booming cruise industry and new hotels sprouting up along the legendary “Alcan Highway” and the outskirts of Denali National Park.

Today, Skagway frequently sees five or six cruise ships a day, and they are behemoths, carrying 2,000-3,000 or more passengers each. Ports like Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau are overrun by throngs from the ships that disgorge their human cargo to step ashore for a few hours of shopping for T-shirts and gold jewelry, much of which you can find from the same purveyors in the Caribbean or Mexico. Many will queue up for bus excursions to see historic totem poles or helicopter flights over glaciers, or a tram ride to the top of Juneau’s Mount Roberts, which was only accessible via a long, steep hike prior to 1996.

Ships in Skagway

Cruise ships docked in Skagway. As many as five ships a day may call here at the height of the tourist season. Photo credit: Wendy Worrall Redal

Sadly, this has become most visitors’ experience of Alaska. The explorer’s land of legend, the fabled wilderness and  wildlife, the challenge of encountering the North on its own terms – few travelers know this Alaska anymore.

While some adventurers are keen to fly north on their own, rent a car or RV and explore little-known highways, or set up their own backpacking and kayaking journeys, what options exist for travelers who’d like the ease and comfort of an outfitted tour, yet have no desire to experience a highly commercialized version of Alaska alongside thousands of other people?

Humpback WhaleThe answer is Nat Hab’s Alaska adventures. Handcrafted and exclusive small-group journeys like our Ultimate Alaska Wildife Safari take travelers far away from crowds and into close proximity to wildlife. Get away from the big ships yet see the same extraordinary scenery on our Whales and Bears of Alaska’s Southeast trip. As we kayak in Glacier Bay, the only sounds are the drip of water from a paddle, the splash of an incoming tide on the rocks, and the hollow hum of wind in the spruce forest.

Rather than jockeying for a spot at the rail on a deck with a few thousand others, you’ll share space with bald eagles, black bears, sea lions and whales. And while you’ll find spectacular ice carvings in a shipboard dining room, nothing tops nature’s ice sculptures that are created as blue bergs calve from the faces of tidewater glaciers into the frigid gray waters of the bay.

Cubs

Grizzly bears fishing in Katmai National Park. Photo credit: National Park Service.

Want to see Alaska’s famous coastal grizzlies, the largest bears in the world? You won’t see them from a giant cruise ship, either. You’ve got to get to the remote coastline of Katmai National Park, or follow the shores of Kodiak Island as your resident small-boat skipper and naturalist guide tell you all about the bears’ riveting behavior, which you’re witnessing just yards away. You won’t get closer than on Nat Hab’s Grizzlies: Kodiak to Katmai expedition.

So while the shipboard throngs dress for dinner and thrill to a host of singing waiters hoisting flaming Baked Alaska, nature adventurers throw on an anorak and and thrill to the howl of a wolf as pale dusk settles in, deep in the heart of the Denali wilderness. That’s Alaska travel, Nat Hab-style.

Yours for the Real Wild,

Wendy

P.S. Check out our Alaska photography expeditions, too, while you’re at it: if taking incredible nature and wildlife pictures is a big part of your travel focus, you’ll love these new trips!

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