Alaska Marine Ferry

So you want to take a cruise through the Inside Passage, but you're concerned that the fast-paced schedule won't allow you much freedom to explore its romantic frontier towns. Then consider an alternative: the Alaska Marine Ferry.

Don't get me wrong–I have nothing against cruises. But my husband and I recently used the ferry to poke around the Passage, and it was one of the most exciting trips we ever took.

Even though we were traveling by water, we had our trusty sport utility vehicle with us at all times, providing us with ready transportation in every port of call. And since we weren't tied down to a tour schedule, we browsed to our heart's content in places like Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Haines and Skagway.

We elected to sail from Bellingham, Washington all the way to Skagway, which is as far north as the ferry travels. The first leg of our journey involved a 36-hour ride to Ketchikan, which required two overnight stays on the ferry.

Floating Hotel
That was no problem, since the ferry offers comfortable staterooms and a cafeteria with great food. We relaxed on deck, enjoyed the scenery and made friends with fellow passengers.

Ketchikan itself was worth the long boat ride. We drove off the ferry at 8 a.m. and immediately started exploring. Restaurants, galleries and gift shops lined the streets, but our first stop was historic Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk that winds along the shores of Ketchikan Creek.

We spent 3 days here, and one of our favorite places was the Totem Heritage Center, which boasts the world's largest collection of totem poles. Our hotel, the Westmark, was located on a hillside above Creek Street. We had to take a chairlift from the street to the hotel and vice versa–talk about unique!

Our next stop was Sitka, considered Alaska's most beautiful seaside town. It features an interesting blend of Russian and Tlingit Indian cultures.

We spent 6 days here. That sounds like a lot, but the time really flew by. Since there are only 15 miles of road in the area, we spent a considerable amount of time shopping. A lot of incredulous people questioned us about our Florida license plates!

We also watched Tlingit Indians demonstrate their traditional dances and arts, and we stopped at the marvelous St. Michael's Cathedral, built by Russians more than 150 years ago.

On to Juneau
Next on our agenda was a 3-day stay in Juneau, where we met our son, Bob, and his wife, who flew in from Florida. Alaska's capital city, Juneau is nestled at the base of towering snowcapped mountains.

We visited the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the state's top attractions, and frequented the Cookhouse Restaurant, which bills itself as the home of Alaska's largest hamburger. The 1-pound burger is served on a 10-inch-wide bun. It's not as big as the Mendenhall Glacier, but it's still a good-sized burger nonetheless!

Our next stop was Haines, a 4-hour ferry ride away. Situated on the shore of North America's longest fjord, Haines is surrounded by spectacular peaks, glaciers, rivers and lakes as well as abundant wildlife. It's a photographer's paradise. Two highlights of our stay here were fishing for king salmon and attending an Alaskan salmon bake. If you're ever in Alaska, don't miss a salmon bake–it's delicious!

After 4 days in Haines, we took a 1-hour ferry ride to Skagway, our final stop. With its wooden sidewalks and false storefronts (all part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park), the main street looks much as it did when prospectors made this town a stop on their way to the Yukon in 1898.

During our 3-day stay, we shopped, visited the Trail of '98 Museum and rode the narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon Railway to the fabled White Pass and back. Our favorite restaurant was the Red Onion, which featured a Gold Rush motif. The menu ranged from pizza to delicious Alaskan salmon and halibut.

Then our 24-day excursion was suddenly over. You can take the ferry back to where you started, but we had different plans. We drove through White Pass to Whitehorse, where we connected with the Alaska Highway and traveled on to Fairbanks, Anchorage and Valdez.

After 2 months of traveling, we finally returned home with hundreds of photos and uncountable memories. We also put 12,000 miles on our vehicle–and we couldn't have done it without the Alaska Marine Ferry!

Before You Visit

The Alaska Marine Ferry operates nine vessels year-round. For more information, call 1-800-526-6731.

For detailed information about the various towns mentioned in this story, use these phone numbers:

Ketchikan: 1-800-770-3300
Sitka: 1-907/747-5940
Juneau: 1-800-587-2201
Haines: 1-800-458-3579
Skagway: 1-907/983-2854

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