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Feb 4, 2020

7 min. read

Explore America's last frontier by land and sea.

"Alaska is wild and unpredictable," warns our guide, Dave. "We don't know what we'll see or where we'll see it."

We've just boarded a boat in Juneau, along the state's rugged southern panhandle, and our hearts are set on spotting a whale. We cross our fingers and allow ourselves to be hopeful.

After all, we've come a long way to partake in an Alaskan cruise tour, and with an itinerary including Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau and Anchorage—as well as the Inside Passage—the potential for adventure is huge.

It's also a big reason why so many visitors to Alaska choose to see the state via cruise tours—combination cruise and land-holiday packages. Cruise tours pack in all the expected cruise ship amenities, including myriad activities at each port of call. But what can't be accomplished during single-day port excursions is made up for with an extended, land-based tour before or after the cruise portion of your trip.

Many travellers do extensive cruise tours with itineraries that include such iconic sites as Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias and Denali national parks. They search for Denali's "Big Five"—grizzly bears, caribou, moose, gray wolves and Dall sheep—learn to dogsled, fly fish and much more. Some tours even head for points farther east in the Yukon to explore historic gold rush sites. Whether you're a nature enthusiast, hardcore hiker or even a foodie, you're sure to find something that fascinates.

Travelling by bus and enjoying the convenience of pre-booked restaurants and hotels—and having luggage managed for you—makes cruise tour packages ideal for everyone, from young families to older solo travellers. They're particularly great for those who travel long distances to get to Alaska and want to ensure they do a thorough job of exploring the "last frontier."

A cruise ship in front of a large glacier.

Our own cruise tour is loaded with day trips—like whale watching out of Juneau. And if guide Dave was trying to temper our expectations, he needn't have worried. The first humpback blows just as our boat leaves the harbour; its mammoth back bursts through the surface of the water, its massive tail rises into the air. Before we've even grabbed our cameras there's another blow, and another, and another, as a pod of whales begins to circle.

"They're bubble netting!" Dave shouts, clearly as thrilled as we are. A specialized humpback hunting strategy, bubble netting sees the pack surround its fishy prey while blowing streams of air underwater. The air bubbles trap the fish in a maelstrom from which there's no escape. Soon they float to the surface, and the whales feast. It's a sight that few ever witness, but incredibly, it's only the beginning of our adventure.

Black dorsal fins appear next: A dozen sleek orcas all dip and rise, asserting their dominance as we stare in unbelieving silence. All this, and it isn't even noon!

Every moment in Alaska is memorable because nature is always making a statement. One afternoon, we kayak in a brightly coloured flotilla near the small but vibrant harbour town of Ketchikan, which is otherwise known for hosting the world's largest collection of standing totem poles. A fresh breeze blows as Alaska's famous liquid sunshine showers down from above, and we gaze into the shallows to see tiny, tenacious starfish clinging to the rocks. Cue ball-like floating kelp bulbs thump lightly against our kayaks; bald eagles wheel in silent circles overhead.

Another sunlit afternoon has us challenging wild rapids near Juneau in a bright yellow Zodiac. Our guide cheers our crazed paddling skills as the boat lurches and bucks through the churning gauntlet of water. On yet another occasion, we pan for gold in an icy creek and hear stories of the miners who risked their lives for the shimmering stuff.

A totem pole stands in the middle of a forest.

Nature rules in Alaska, but the history of her people is important too, as we discover on our visit to Skagway, a town bursting with gold rush-era lore and old-timey charm. It's here that we meet street-savvy Essie X. (To get the joke, say it out loud.) Decked out in sassy saloon-girl red and black, Essie sashays us back to a time when prospectors blew into town with romance in their hearts and gold nuggets in their pockets. The price of a fling with one of the ladies of the evening? A dollar for a dance, or five dollars for fifteen minutes in the cramped rooms of the Red Onion Saloon. A full night between the sheets with Diamond Lil, the brothel owner, is said to have cost a cool grand.

Every time we step ashore, we find a different and fascinating way to experience Alaska. But the most exciting moment actually takes place on board the cruise ship.

Our Glacier Bay morning begins swathed in grey fog, but when the mist lifts and the sun burns through the clouds, we find ourselves surrounded by towering walls of white. As we gape, a thunderous crack obliterates the silence and a chunk of ice as tall as a skyscraper falls from an ancient glacial wall. The massive shard crashes into the water, sending spray a dozen metres in the air, the event now soundtracked by a frenzied clicking of camera shutters. Holding tight to the ship's railings, we stand transfixed by the power of the ice. We listen for hours as we sail, awestruck by the eerie growling of the ice as it readies itself to calve again.

Each night aboard the ship we share shore-leave stories with other guests, many of whom have enjoyed completely different excursions. Some have gone flightseeing over the glaciers (the airborne tours are pricey, but so popular that they often fill up well in advance), while others fished for salmon and had cookouts in rustic lodges.

Some tried ziplining high above the dense Alaskan forests, and still more rode the legendary White Pass and Yukon Route railroad, almost 900 metres above sea level, past the famous White Pass Summit. Every account is filled with excitement, and we soon realize that we'd need to sail up and down Alaska for months to cover all the activities we now want to do.

But since we're on a cruise tour, we do have one more opportunity for an extended adventure. When our stay on the ship ends, we hike the Exit Glacier—a stunning expanse of ice that's also a well-known haunt of both brown and black bears. Fortunately we don't draw any wild admirers; we trek across the vast tracts of grey-blue ice alone…we think.

Words hardly do justice to the whales' tails, skyscrapers of ice and first-class accommodations—both afloat and ashore—that made up our Alaskan cruisetour. But Rob Scheer, the plaid-shirted, axe-toting lumberjack champion we meet on board, does a pretty good job of it: "Alaska isn't the kind of girl who's going to meet you on the porch," he says. "You have to go right out and get to know her."

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