Cruising the last frontier: top shore excursions in Alaska

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Cruising has made Alaska’s once-impenetrable wilderness accessible to millions. But to really get a feel for the unforgiving landscapes that made erstwhile gold rush ‘stampeders’ quiver in their boots, you need to get off the ship and stretch your legs a little. Here are a few very Alaskan things to do in some of the classic ports of call that dot the 49th state’s rugged shoreline.

Tracy Arm Fjord in AlaskaCruising in Alaska brings accessibility to the Last Frontier © toddmedia / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Totem poles in Ketchikan

Ketchikan – or Alaska’s First City, as it announces itself to visitors who’ve just cruised up from Canada – is a master of many things, rainy-day kayaking and boat trips through misty fiords among them. But, the city really excels in native totem poles. Totems are unique to the Pacific Northwest region, more specifically the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes who have inhabited these lands for millennia. For the best introduction to the art, proceed to the Totem Heritage Center in town which explains totem history with fascinating displays of bygone poles. Next, head several miles south to Saxman Village where you can see native carvers in action and peruse an outdoor cluster of more unusual poles. Finally, wander in an atmosphere of quiet contemplation through waterside Totem Bight State Park. To visit all three locations, consider renting a bicycle from Southeast Exposure near the cruise dock.

Totem Poles at Totem Bight State Park in KetchikanTotem poles often tell traditional stories and myths or chronicle the events experienced by recent ancestors © Brendan Sainsbury / Lonely Planet

Where to eat: Bar Harbor Restaurant
Coming to Alaska and not trying the fish is like going to Rome and eschewing the pizza. Start your pescetarian life on Ketchikan’s waterfront with inventive dishes involving salmon and halibut.

Ziplining in Juneau

If you’re intent on soaring like a bald eagle on a high-flying zipline, you might as well do it above the largest temperate rainforest in the world. Ziplines are a common lure for adventurous travelers these days, but few are as high, long or authentically wild as the nine cables and two suspension bridges that hang over the Eaglecrest Ski Area on Douglas Island close to Alaska’s diminutive capital, Juneau. Get lucky and you could be looking down on black bears or looking up at bald eagles as you glide faster than Usain Bolt through the misty green canopy. Alaska Zipline Adventures offers safe, family-appropriate excursions. Boat transport from Juneau’s cruise terminal over to the tall trees of Douglas Island is thrown in.

Riding a zipline through a coastal rainforest near JuneauRiding a zipline through a temperate rainforest © Kelsey Jensen / Alaska Zipline Adventures

Where to eat: The Rookery
This casually hip breakfast spot and bakery in downtown Juneau metamorphoses into a cool bistro at dinner time. Chances are you’ll be visiting at least twice.

Kayaking in Sitka

Sitka’s sheltered harbor is scattered with dozens of small islands, some inhabited, but most the sole domain of sea-lions, birds and, if you’re lucky, circling humpback whales. If you’ve never kayaked before, let this be your watery classroom. Calm waters ripple with dreamy tranquility and ebbing tides reveal rocky islets covered in scraggy seaweed and rust-red starfish. To add to the mystique, the distinctive cone of Mt Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano, guards the western horizon. You can rent kayaks or partake in three-hour guided paddles with Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, which operates out of an old blue bus on the dock.

Kayaks lined up on a shore near SitkaKayaks are the best way to get up close and personal with the marine life around Sitka © Brendan Sainsbury / Lonely Planet

Where to eat: Ludvig’s Bistro

One of Southeast Alaska’s few true gourmet restaurants serves rustic Mediterranean cuisine in a choice of two spaces: a small, seven-table downstairs dining room and an equally tiny upstairs tapas and wine bar. The seafood paella is legendary.

Gold Rush history in Skagway

Skagway stands as a giant memorial to the 1897-98 Klondike Gold Rush, the 19th century’s last great adventure when tens of thousands of half-deluded fortune-seekers went off in search of a precious metal most of them would never see. It’s an epic story and one that’s related with insight, accuracy and wit by the US National Park Service who manage several of the town’s most important buildings as a historical park. To get a tangible feel for the drama that caused 100,000 people to risk (and often lose) everything, join a free walking tour led by a National Park ranger as they take you on a historical journey through Skagway’s once debauched, but now beautifully restored streets.

Broadway in Skagway, AlaskaThe buildings of Broadway retain much of Skagway’s Gold Rush appeal © Brendan Sainsbury / Lonely Planet

Where to eat: Red Onion Saloon
Prop up the rambunctious bar of this one-time brothel turned theatrical restaurant with a glass of Alaskan beer and a slice of the local pizza.

Glaciers in Whittier

Whittier is bizarre. Conceived as a military base in WWII and later infused with an ugly array of Cold War architecture, it sits somewhat incongruously amid the majestic mountains of coastal Alaska. Overlooking Passage Inlet in Prince William Sound, it is also temptingly close to some of the world’s finest tidal glaciers, landscape-altering giants that spill violently into the sea where they deposit hundreds of bobbing icebergs. To get as close as you safely can to these calving behemoths and the marine wildlife they attract, sign up for a boat trip at Whittier’s cruise ship dock. Be prepared for spontaneity: glaciers and icebergs are forever changing. Handily positioned right next to the cruise terminal is Phillip’s Cruises & Tours offering comfortable five-hour boat excursions past 26 of the region’s finest ice-flows.

A view of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier from Portage Pass, Whittier, Alaska.Portage Glacier is one of the main glaciers near Whittier © SusanSerna / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Where to eat: Varly’s Swiftwater Seafood Café
Walk up to the window, order your fresh fish (the crab cakes are good) with an ice-cold local brew, then grab a stool overlooking the local fishing fleet and wait for the magic to appear.

Bears in Kodiak

There are numerous places to see bears in Alaska, but nowhere are they as large or noble as Kodiak. A deep green, lightly populated but hugely hospitable island, Kodiak is home to one of the largest bears on earth, giant ursine creatures who feast hungrily on southwest Alaska’s abundant supply of salmon. Bear-viewing excursions in Kodiak aren’t cheap, but they’re authentic, undertaken in small groups and, undoubtedly, worth every cent. With limited shore time, it’s best to partake in a flightseeing trip lasting around four hours with a couple of hours spent on the ground observing brown bears from a safe distance. Kingfisher Aviation is a good local operator.

Kodiak brown bear walking through a river facing the cameraA brown bear crossing a stream © Warren Metcalf / Shutterstock

Where to eat: Kodiak Hana Restaurant

The best fish in Kodiak are served up at this historic power plant that has been beautifully renovated into a Japanese seafood restaurant. Watch fishing boats glide right past while feasting on almost all-local sushi and seafood.

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