Cruising Alaska by Ferry by Mike Miller

Here’s an all-Alaskan suggestion for cruisers who would like to:

• travel at their own pace;

• choose their own ports-of-call;

• lay over in any port for as many days as they desire;

• share their travel with Alaskan locals;

• have the option to bring along the family RV or auto; and

• cruise to Alaska one way and drive home by highway.

If this sounds good to you, Alaska’s state-owned ferries may be just the ticket for one of life’s most memorable cruise vacations. The Alaska Marine Highway System, as it is called, is composed of 11 modern ferryliners, all with motor vehicle decks, observation lounges, and food service. Most have cabins and cocktail bars.

The ferries cruise Southeast Alaska’s protected Inside Passage waterways in a region speckled with more than a thousand big and tiny islands, alpine and sea-level glaciers, imposing snow-capped mountains, lush forests, and picturesque towns and villages. They serve, as well, the glacier-rich waters of southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Passengers with or without vehicles may embark from Bellingham, Washington for Alaska’s southernmost port, Ketchikan, or they can embark from Canada’s Prince Rupert, which is British Columbia’s northernmost port community. (Motorists can reach Prince Rupert via BC’s modern highway network or by BC Ferries; see below.) Once they arrive in Southeast Alaska passengers can lay over along the way as long as they wish in the panhandle’s major port cities — Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway– or they can connect via smaller off-line ferries to more remote towns and villages.

Larger stateroom-equipped vessels of the fleet are the Columbia (931 passengers), Matanuska (745), Malaspina (701), Taku (370), and Kennicott (748) — all of which serve the Southeast Alaska panhandle. Depending on the season, one or two ships extend their range on weekly schedules to/from Bellingham. The others turn around at Prince Rupert.

The Kennicott connects Southeast port cities to Southcentral Alaska destinations Cordova, Valdez, and Whittier via the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound. The 220-passenger Tustumena, another stateroom-equipped ferry, sails regularly from ports on the Kenai Peninsula to Kodiak and (less frequently) westward along the Aleutian Islands chain as far as Unalaska Dutch Harbor.

Smaller ships, operating “bush” routes from mainline ports to smaller towns and villages are Aurora (300), LeConte (300), and Lituya (149). Newest additions to the AMHS fleet are the Juneau-based sleek catamaran Fairweather (250) and a similar sized double-hulled sister ship, Chenega.

Here’s another option: If you want to mix a little “foreign” travel into your plans you can book passage from highway-accessible Port Hardy on the northern end of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and sail BC Ferries’ Queen of the North to Prince Rupert. More information and schedules at http://www.bcferries.com.

Family Travel by Ferry

If you’re interested in taking the whole family on a cruise through Inside Passage waters, the Alaska Marine Highway System is made-to-order. Depending on which vessel you’re aboard youngsters will find onboard play areas, casual meals and snack bars for any age, movies, and nature talks by U.S. Forest Service naturalists plus expansive glass-enclosed solariums. These are ideal for spotting orcas (killer whales), humpback whales, playful porpoises and sea lions in the water plus mountain goats on towering cliffsides. The fortunate observer may well observe black and brown (grizzly) bears on passing beaches. Everywhere you’ll see soaring eagles.

British Columbia’s provincial ferry system, BC Ferries, demonstrates its kid-friendliness even before a family boards ship. Computer-savvy children or their parents have only to surf the web to http://www.bcferries.bc.ca/kidzone/establishing_shot.html and they will meet cartoon characters Samantha (“Call me Sam”) and Cal, two seagoing canine characters who introduce young viewers to three online activities – an electronic coloring book, a “Match the Ferries” memory game, and a virtual bridge tour.

Alaska ferry schedules are posted at the system’s website (www.FerryAlaska.com). Printed schedules may be ordered from the website or by phone at the Reservations office 1-800-642-0066. Fares and schedules are posted on the internet and are usually available in mid-December of each year.

For a more comprehensive look at cruising by ferry in Alaska, plus information about all the cruiselines and cruiseships scheduled for the Alaska trade during 2006, visit www.AlaskaCruisingReport.com.

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Copyright (c) Mike Miller 2006 – All rights reserved

About The Author

Alaskan travel writer Mike Miller lives in Juneau where his current passion is publishing an information-packed website about Alaska cruising and ferry travel: http://www.AlaskaCruisingReport.com. Miller has authored a number of travel books (Fodors, Sierra Club Books, Globe Pequot, The Milepost and others), contributes to TravelAge West (for travel agents) and frequently writes for major newspapers and magazines.

muskegmike@gci.net