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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Blue Ice vs. Blue Water—is an Alaskan Cruise for You?

Say after a slew of cruises to the Caribbean, you’ve done and seen it all. When you pull into port, you hardly ever leave the ship any more. Little by little, the prospect of Alaska is creeping up on you. But you can’t quite get yourself to book one.

We know. We were there.

Then we took the plunge. It was a singular experience. Do it. You won’t regret it.

There were a number of surprises, however, that you might want to know about, so if you do take the plunge, you’ll know what to expect:

Same but different. Is there anything the same about a Caribbean cruise and an Alaskan one? Well, for starters, of course, they’re both cruises. And often the same ships, since the cruise lines scramble their vessels. While both vacations revolve around the water, though, one of them you won’t be swimming in.

The show is outdoors. Alaska is all about the scenery, and what scenery it is! Glaciers in blue hue, floating ice, wildlife, snow-topped mountains, misty fjords, along with a spooky, unworldly silence. You’ll fill your suitcases with binoculars and cameras, instead of sunscreen and sun hats. In fact, with all there is to see outdoors, you’ll find yourself using a lot less of the ship.
Blue spires of ice in Glacier Bay

The remote and ghostly Inside Passage

The short story. Unless you go in the summer and luck out with a warm spell, you can forget about shorts and flip-flops. We went over Memorial Day and the temps in the towns peaked in the 60s. Glacier Bay was a toasty 48. And what they tell you about the weather? Be wary and be ready for anything. Particularly rain.

Dressing down. The dress overall on an Alaskan cruise is more informal. After seeing jeans in the Main Dining Room at dinner, I did it too.

Learning instead of lounging. Caribbean cruises are big on party vibe, calypso around the pool and soaking in the sun. Alaskan cruises are about learning—the environment, wildlife and culture—so expect talks and presentations. Our Princess trip featured a fabulous naturalist, who narrated our journey through Glacier Bay, and a female winner of the famously grueling Iditarod dog-sled race.

Wild thing. While the iguanas on the rocks in St. Thomas’ Crown Bay or Aruba’s Wilhelmina Park will entertain you in the Caribbean, in Alaska, your eyes will be glued to the sea and sky, scanning for breaching whales and eagles in flight. Be forewarned—you might see them—and then you might not. We saw several whales, but from very far away and then only a glimpse of tail.
The cruise ships come to town; downtown Skagway in May

Frontier facades dwarfed by Juneau's backdrop
Part frontier, part Russia, always gorgeous. You’ll want to get off the ship in these stops—Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. These frontier-style towns with their Russian influence, surrounded by snowy mountains, are a scene right out of Disney. Each has its own interesting history and personality. Take Ketchikan—the city that always rains. There are totem poles everywhere, salmon is sold in nearly every shop—from smoked and sliced, to frozen and jerked—and souvenirs are cheap and fun.
Fishing for salmon in Ketchikan
Crafts not by way of China. Unlike the Caribbean, Alaska is where you’ll find real crafts, but the cost can be dear. Stores are filled with all types of Eskimo and local art, from small scrimshaw items to take-home totems that can cost up to the thousands. But if you just want some trinkets to remind you of your trip, you can load up on them for almost nothing in Ketchikan’s Tongass Trading Co. Think dolls in Eskimo clothing, moose magnets and totem ornaments for your Christmas tree.
Moose and more...
...and take-home totems from the Ketchikan shops
If after all this, you’re still missing the Caribbean, believe it or not, you don’t have to look far for a Diamonds International. Try Juneau. Or Skagway. Or Ketchikan.

Still on the fence? Here’s a thought: if you’ve been shunning the blue water during hurricane season, hurricane season is actually the in-season for seeing the blue ice. Go. Enjoy. 

For more postings on Alaska, see Cruising Alaska 101 and Quaint and Quirky: Alaska’s Cruise Ports.

Musing’s Top Tip: For obvious reasons, the cruising season is short in Alaska—late spring to early fall. What part of this timeframe you choose has its upsides and downsides, so do plenty of research to make sure you get the trip you’ve always wanted.