An Alaska Cruise… Not

When a friend asked about the Alaska cruise up the west coast, I suggested she consider taking the B.C. and Alaska ferries up the coast instead. Frances and two friends have now returned with glowing stories of their trip. You may want to consider doing what they did.

The basic itinerary is straightforward: Vancouver to Port Hardy at the north end of Vancouver Island, up the inside passage on the B.C. ferry to Prince Rupert, then on the Alaska State Ferry to Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, and Skagway, then on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad to Bennett Lake on the Alaska-Yukon border, by bus to Whitehorse, then by air back to Vancouver. 

Frances described several highlights of the trip: Their flight on the 17-passenger Pacific Coastal aircraft from the South Terminal of Vancouver Airport (YVR) to Port Hardy flew low and provided spectacular views of the island, Georgia, Johnstone and Queen Charlotte Straits (cost: $117.21 per person). Their super-hospitable hosts at the Telco House B & B in Port Hardy showed them the town, provided their ground transportation, and, over and above their usual practice, cooked them a fresh crab and salmon dinner “done to perfection” (cost for three guests including breakfast: $140; cost of shuttle bus to ferry terminal: $7.50). The B.C. Ferry from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert travels up the Inside Passage of the British Columbia coast, a channel that is too narrow for the large cruise ships and that provides intimate coastal views for ferry-goers. With a short stop at Bella Bella for the locals, the entire trip takes 15 hours. The ferry is fully equipped with all possible amenities including comfortable cabins (cost: $194.75 per person in a three-person cabin). Reservations for cabins should be made well in advance.

Frances and her friends spent two nights in Prince Rupert. Their accommodation over the water at the Eagle Bluff B & B in Cow Bay, and the sumptuous fresh breakfasts served by their hostess, were outstanding (cost: $189.75 for three guests, including “the best” breakfasts). Served family style, guests could exchange information about where to eat and what to see. Another highlight was their day-long tour on board a catamaran to the Khutzeymateen Valley. Conducted by Adventure Tours, they saw seals, small whales, porpoises, blue herons, and bald eagles and watched eleven grizzlies (including mothers and cubs) hunting for food near the water and playing nearby (cost: $230 per person, including lunch and binoculars for eight hours of touring. “Worth every penny” Frances said.).

From Prince Rupert, they broke up their trip aboard the Alaska State Ferry up the Alaskan coast. The first leg to Juneau took 30 hours. At Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg, passengers were allowed on shore if the stops were long enough. Again, cabins were available (although somewhat smaller than on the B.C. ferry) and the ferry was spacious, relaxed, and casual (cost: US$625. for three through to Skagway). They spent two nights in Juneau at the Auke Lake B & B, another well-appointed property overlooking a garden and lake, with animal trophies hanging in the common rooms. The capital of the state and a popular cruise ship stop, Juneau caters to tourists. Local sights include the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier, the Mt. Roberts cable car up from the city centre and St. Theresa’s church, with many whales in the nearby water. For the final five-and-a-half-hour trip to Skagway, they boarded another, smaller, Alaska ferry.

Skagway, 90 miles northeast of Juneau, was the northern port for gold seekers climbing the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush after 1897. Maintained in the style of the period, with historic walking tours available several times a day, and many shops, Skagway is the heart of a national park and host to thousands of visitors who arrive aboard the Alaska cruise ships. Frances stayed at the White House B & B (cost: $167.40 for a large room, including a cold breakfast), and used the SMART Bus (US$2. per person) from the ferry and to the train. The highlight of their visit was the historic narrow-gauge railway trip aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, nearly 3,000 feet up the narrow gorges to the Canada-US border. Frances reports that travellers should sit on the left side of the parlour cars to best see “the stupendous views.” At Bennett Lake, the train met a charter coach which drove them to Whitehorse (cost of rail and bus ticket: US$124. per person, available through Yukon Alaska Tourist Tours.

Whitehorse is a fresh, modern city nestled at the foot of the mountains beside the Yukon River. The capital of Yukon and home to over 27,800 people (more than 70% of the entire population of the Territory), it is replete with amenities and sights to see. Air North (owned by the people of the Yukon Territory), Air Canada and WestJet fly several flights every day to and from various destinations. Flights to Vancouver take about two and a half hours. Air North has, in the past, provided discounts to seniors (over 60).

Riding the ferries up the west coast is a different trip from that offered by the Alaska cruises. Travellers see the Inside Passage of the B.C. coast, they can spend time in several communities both in B.C. and Alaska, and they can get close and personal with the locals and with the fauna. Frances and her friends went in late May to early June and had splendid weather; even with rain, the coast is mystical and worth the visit. The one observation Frances had (“not a complaint,” she insisted) was how long they had to wait for taxis on arrival in Prince Rupert and Juneau. It’s strange that two cities so eager for tourism would not have ferry arrivals well-covered by local transport. Anyone have a solution for that? On the other hand, time goes more slowly on the west coast and there is much to take in.

My thanks to Frances Williams for the updated information and the photos of her recent trip.

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4 comments

  1. Skylar

    Wonderfully detailed information for a trip that Joel and I have often thought about doing…many thanks, Marion (and Frances).

  2. Steven

    …I am glad to see someone else comment on what I have always considered the less expensive Alaska cruise. Over the last 20 years I have taken the Alaska Marine Highway from Skagway to Prince Rupert and from Skagway to Bellingham (and reverse) many times. This has included a stop in Sitka, the old Russian capital of Alaska. Usually I or we (Meg and I) booked a cabin and also had a car on board so that we could travel from our destinations. Having seen humpback whales and orcas, this is a great alternative to life aboard one of the behemoth cruise ships…

  3. Marlene

    I read this post…last Fall and quickly passed it along to New Zealand friends who are planning a trip to Alaska this summer. I didn’t have time to comment at the time. But wanted to mention that we also enjoyed the ferry from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert (the 2nd time we have taken it). And the day-long Adventure Tour to the Khutzeymateen Valley to see the grizzlies was as spectacular as your friend Frances declared – even on a rainy day! As we had a vehicle, we then drove north in BC on the beautiful and almost unused Stewart-Cassier Hwy into the Yukon, camping on small beautiful lakes along the way.

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