Icy Strait Point – Hoonah Whale Watching

May 31, 2016

The cruise lines call this port Icy Strait Point, but as soon as you leave the port you are technically in the native village called Hoonah. This is one of our favorite stops on an Alaska cruise and offers arguably the best whale watching opportunity of any Alaskan cruise port.

Icy Strait Point is the only privately owned cruise destination in Alaska, but unlike the “private islands” in the Bahamas which are owned by the cruise lines, Icy Strait Point is owned by the Huna Totem Corporation. This company is owned by a group of 1,350 Alaskan natives and Tlingit people. The intent of the privately owned port was to preserve the native character and culture of the village, while still allowing the economic growth that would accompany cruise ships.

Rather than booking an excursion through the cruise company, we opted to directly support a local business. As an added bonus, we were able to save a good bit of money by booking direct. On our first Alaskan cruise we booked with Misty Bay Lodge, and on this visit we opted for Icy Strait Whale Adventures.

We opted for a three hour morning tour with Captain Duane, a lifelong Hoonah resident and member of the Tlingit people. The sight seeing tour guarantees that you will see humpback whales, and we were definitely not disappointed. Aside from a wide number of whales, we were also able to see a couple otters, seals, sea lions, and even a brown bear. 

Really, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the local tour companies. The local people know their waters and they know where the whales come to feed and how to make sure you have the best experience possible.

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Selection of excursions in Icy Strait Point from our partners

Skagway – Alaskan Hikes

May 30, 2016

Today was our second port day in Alaska as we docked in Skagway. Skagway is famous for the role that the port city played in the Alaska gold rush. The city is filled with free museums and old shops and it really is like taking a step back in time. Probably the most famous activity in Skagway is the White Pass railway, although it is rather pricey.

We were traveling on a bit of a budget, and Skagway also has a lot of great activities that are completely free. One of our favorite things to do here is to hike along any number of the great nature trails. On our first Alaskan cruise we did the Lower Dewey Lake trail, so this time we wanted to do something different. First, we did the hike to Yakutania Point with a slight detour to Smuggler’s Cove. Once we finished that hike we had plenty of time left in port so we decided to do the Lower Reid Falls and Gold Rush Cemetery as well.

Yakutania Point and Smuggler’s Cove

Rock Outcroppings at Yakutania Point

Our first hike was to Yakutania Point which offers some excellent views of the water and the docked cruise ships. The hike itself was relatively easy, although it did have some narrow paths and uneven rock steps. The trail head starts just behind the Skagway airport with a footbridge across the Skagway River. We were feeling a little adventurous, so we also climbed on the rock outcroppings at the end of the trail. These gave us an excellent vantage point to see the Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Mountains.

Just past the halfway mark for the Yakutania Point trail is the turnoff for the Smugglers Cove trail. While we were on our way back we decided to take the turn off and hike out to Smugglers Cove. This added an additional 2-3 miles round trip, but the trail itself was easy with almost no elevation gain. The Smuggler’s Cove trail winds through mixed coastal forests before opening up to a sheltered tidal inlet. This appeared to be a bit less well known than Yakutania point, but the views were absolutely breathtaking.

Gold Rush Cemetery and Lower Reid Falls

At the base of Lower Reid Falls

After we hiked back to the airport we walked through the city to see some of the shops and then continued along the main road until we reached the railroad tracks. Here was the start of the trail to Lower Reid Falls which also goes through the Gold Rush Cemetery. The cemetery itself is just past the parking lot, so much of the walking to reach it is paved and smooth. This is the oldest cemetery in Skagway and is the final resting place for a number of the most famous gold prospectors to come to Skagway in search of their fortune.

From the cemetery it’s just a short forest hike to Reid Falls. The falls are about 300 feet in total and cascade down the mountain in an absolutely picturesque scene. These hikes are amazing because they provide a great contrast to each other. You can see the ocean and the forests, waterfalls and gravestones, history and nature. And best of all? We did it all for free.

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selected excursions in skagway from our partners

Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls

May 29, 2016

Our first actual port stop on this cruise was the capital of Alaska, Juneau. Visitors can only reach Juneau by plane or ship, even though it is a capital city. There are no roads connecting Juneau with the rest of the state. For many people, ourselves included, the only way to visit Juneau is on an Alaska cruise. There are a number of popular excursions in Juneau, but we decided to visit Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier is about a 20 minute drive outside the city and as soon as we got off the ship there were dozens of buses and taxis ready and waiting. The buses are the cheapest option, and we bought four tickets on the Big Blue Bus. We paid about $25 per person for a round trip ticket, so $100 for the four of us. Taxis were quoting $40-$50 each way. It is also worth noting that there is a $5 per person charge to enter the area; this is included with the bus fare but is an additional cost when taking a taxi.

From the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center there are 5 trails ranging from a quarter mile to three and a half miles. We opted to do all five hikes and spent a total of about 6 hours around the glacier. Our ship spent a total of 12 hours in the city, so there was plenty of additional time to explore the city itself. 

Pamphlet showing the trails available at Mendenhall Glacier
The Trails at Mendenhall Glacier

The first trails we took were the Photo Point and Nugget Falls trails. These offer the best viewing and photo opportunities of any of the trails and are both pretty relaxed and easy hikes. Photo Point gets you front and center to the glacier, while Nugget Falls goes right up to a waterfall that is another very popular photo opportunity.

The next trail we took was the Trail of Time, which has some excellent placards showing the regression of the glacier over the centuries. You can view photos showing what the area looked like in various years of the past. The Trail of Time also leads directly to the trail head for the East Glacier Trail which is the longest and most arduous trail as it goes up a bit in elevation.

After we had finished all the hikes we took the bus back to the city and decided to find a place to eat before heading back to the ship. We stopped by the Red Dog Saloon which holds the distinction as the oldest man-made tourist attraction in Juneau. The Red Dog Saloon has a number of really interesting items all around the restaurant, and it’s well worth a visit just to see their collection.

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selected excursions in juneau from our partners

Hubbard Glacier

May 28, 2016

Depending on the kind of traveler you are, sea days on a cruise can be very hit or miss. Generally speaking, we prefer port days, but there is so much to do on modern cruise ships that a few sea days are great. Even better, we were on an Alaska cruise where even the sea days have a destination.

Even though the ship never docked anywhere, today was a scheduled visit to Hubbard Glacier. Hubbard Glacier currently holds the record for the largest tidewater glacier in North America and is a very impressive sight. The night before we were told the time that the captain expected to arrive in Disenchantment Bay, and he also provided insight into the current ice conditions. Overall it was an excellent day to see the glacier and the captain expected to be able to get quite close.

While in the Bay the captain brought the ship as close as safely possible to the glacier to give everybody on board a great viewing opportunity. The ship did a small loop in front of the glacier to give passengers on both the port and starboard sides plenty of time to see the glacier.

Most impressive to me was the fact that Hubbard Glacier is nearly always calving, or breaking off chunks of ice into the bay. Sometimes it was just small pieces, but we also had a few times when there was a sound like the crack of thunder and a very impressive piece of the glacier broke off from the edge and fell into the water. 

Video showing some impressive calving at Hubbard Glacier

We opted to stand on the helicopter pad at the front of the ship while we were in the bay. This is another reason why I love doing Alaska cruises on the Radiance; on the bigger ships the helipad is closed to guests. It was fairly crowded, but not overly so and we were able to get several good photos and videos to really capture the experience. Royal Caribbean also had members of their photo staff stationed at the helipad to take pictures of us and other guests. These photos were then added to our portfolio and were available for purchase at the end of the cruise.

Royal Caribbean also stationed a mobile “bar” at the entrance to the helipad where you could buy cups of hot cocoa. The wind off the glacier was definitely cold (dress in layers!) and a steaming cup of hot chocolate was definitely welcome. They offered both alcoholic and regular versions of the hot chocolate, so we got one cup of each to enjoy.

There is quite a bit of debate between the cruising glacier options; Hubbard, Sawyer, and Glacier Bay, but I really enjoyed the experience we had at Hubbard Glacier. The size and calving are both extremely impressive and not something that you will reliably see from any other glaciers available on an Alaska cruise.

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