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12 Unexpected Things I Learned On My Alaska Cruise – On Shore

Oct. 11, 2014
9 min read
12 Unexpected Things I Learned On My Alaska Cruise – On Shore
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Lifestyle Editor Shayne Benowitz is back exploring 12 unexpected things she learned on shore in Alaska during her family cruise. For Part 1, detailing her impressions of the ship, click here.

During the course of our Alaska cruise, two words kept popping into mind to describe the incredible landscape we were witnessing: majestic and mystical. The majestic part came from the sheer vastness and height of the mountains surrounding us, crawling in lush evergreen trees. It came in the abundance of animals in the wild—orca whales, humpback whales, brown bears, sea otters—and the all-encompassing blue water shaping unlikely islands out of the wild shore. It came in glaciers, slowly carving through valleys, meeting the tide in shades of ice blue and purple, mixed with the earth’s sediment.

An ice field in Denali National Park, as seen from a "flightseeing" plane

The mystical part came in even quieter moments at sunrise and sunset, stratas of fog mingling beneath mountaintops, a lone fishing boat chugging through the water back to its slip at the end of the day, hanging glaciers halted along mountaintops and waterfalls streaming from unimaginable heights. Alaska is all about expanse—expanse, and majesty and mysticism.

Here are a few surprising things I learned about this wild land while I was there.

1. Most of southeast Alaska is actually a rainforest

And I thought rainforests were reserved for the tropics. The Tongass National Forest in Ketchikan is the largest national forest at 17 million acres, and it’s considered a temperate rainforest. Ketchikan itself is the rainfall capital of Alaska with an average of 153 inches per year. This part of the state also has a milder climate than the latitude suggests with average winter temperatures in the 30s and summers in the 60s.

2. Seaplanes are a regular means of transportation

A seaplane landing in Juneau

So much of Alaska’s economy is linked to the water and the fishing industry. With all of its wild land and waterways, seaplanes are abundant and a fairly common means of transportation. In Ketchikan, we took a “flightseeing” tour of Tongass National Forest on a seaplane to get a bird’s eye view.

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3. Not all cell service is created equally

While Alaska is, of course, part of the 50 United States, it doesn’t mean your cell phone is going to work while there. I had no problems with AT&T. However, the rest of my family is with Sprint and they had no service at any port of call. Check with your service provider if this is important to you.

4. Fishing isn’t the only water sport

Fishing boats at a marina in Ketchikan

Upon arriving in Ketchikan on a cold, rainy morning, we took shelter momentarily at the visitor’s center and I thumbed through a few brochures to find out that you could indeed go snorkeling in Ketchikan in spite of September’s average water temp of 54 degrees. Later that day, while enjoying an Alaskan Amber beer at the New York Café, I overheard my waitress say that she went diving that morning.

Alaska even has a surf pioneer, Scott Dickerson, who’s always on the quest for new surf breaks. Seriously, check out his website, the pictures are amazing. (I'm also mildly obsessed with fine arts photographer and commercial fisherman Corey Arnold who captures amazing images of Alaska on his Instagram feed at arni_coraldo.)

5. Hoonah at Icy Strait Point is one of the only places in the world that guarantees humpback whale sightings (and so much more)

A humpback whale's fluke in Hoonah

In Hoonah, we set sail with Captain Paul on a small vessel designed specifically for whale watching. It was an exciting and, yes, majestic experience. We saw these graceful creatures crest and dive and blow water into the air, and we learned about their migratory feeding and breeding habits. We also saw lazy sea lions snoozing on channel markers, playful sea otters, seals and even a rare brown bear sighting on the beach.

Sea lions chillin'
The "hump back" of a humpback whale
Marine biologists identify and study humpback whales based on the pattern on their flukes. This one has considerable white markings

6. Airboats aren’t just for the Everglades

Our airboat captain Brian by the Taku Glacier

In Juneau, we boarded a Coastal Helicopters chopper and flew to nearby Taku to view the Taku Glacier up close and personal. We landed on a dock in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by lush green mountains, a river and a massive glacier, to meet our guide Brian. He’s built a small home into the mountain where he lives a few days out of the week to take people touring. We hopped aboard an airboat that was actually built in Florida and traversed the river's shallow melt water for incredible views of the Taku Glacier.

The incredible Taku Glacier
Another view of the Taku Glacier
The beautiful formation and colors of the Taku Glacier

7. Alaska’s population is only 700,000

As Alaska’s capital, Juneau is the second most populous city in Alaska at 30,000 people. Anchorage is the largest at nearly 300,000. Beyond that, the state consists of small towns and homesteaders who actually live off the land isolated from the rest of society for an entire season.

8. Jewelry is big business in port

It’s really no secret that one of the draws of cruising is purchasing jewelry, often with deep discounts. You’ll notice that in every port of call, the same jewelry stores, like Diamonds International, have shops mere steps from the cruise ship terminal. Depending on your objective, this is either a great thing or it just means you need to walk a few blocks to get “off the beaten path” and into a more authentic side of town. For the true jewelry shopper, there’s even an onboard consultant that can guide your way and provide you with VIP shopping passes.

9. The Gold Rush helped put Alaska on the map

Skaguay still feels like an old gold mining town

I mentioned in Part 1 of my Alaska cruise story that this trip was partly inspired by Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild.” London’s book was inspired by his time reporting on early frontiersmen settling the state during the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the century. We learned about this history on a scenic tour of Skaguay.

10. Alaska and Hawaii have a seasonal relationship

From humpback whale’s migratory patterns (they feed in Alaska and breed in Hawaii) to many tour operators, Alaska and Hawaii seem to have a strong link. From our shipboard naturalist to a tour guide who took us from Seward to Anchorage after the cruise, we learned that many people summer in Alaska and winter in Hawaii. Not a bad gig.

11. Alaska also has “ski planes”

Notice the skis on the landing gear

We spent an extra night in Talkeetna after the cruise to see Mount McKinley with K2 Aviation. Their flightseeing tours are on planes with skis on their landing gear, allowing them to actually land on glaciers. Unfortunately, fog settled in during our flight, making it too dangerous to land, but the sights we saw were unreal.

A beautiful meandering river as we approach Denali
Glaciers crawling through the mountains
Unbelievable views of Denali National Park
The fall colors were starting to show in early September

12. I kind of want to be a wilderness girl

Look to the far left of the picture. See that small home and dock with a yellow helicopter on it? That's where Brian, our airboat captain, lives outside of Juneau. I'd like to give it a try!

Alaska is so wild and beautiful, and I couldn’t help but envy the rugged, pioneer lifestyle of those who live and work there. I think it would be an incredible experience to live like that for a stretch of time.

How We Booked

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, we booked our Celebrity Millennium cruise, shore excursions and flights all on with the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express in order to maximize our SkyMiles earnings. Booking the cruise through also earned us 3,000 SkyMiles per suite and a $200 resort credit per suite.

See Also: 12 Unexpected Things I Learned on my Alaska Cruise - On The Ship

Would we cruise again?

That’s the million dollar question, right? Without a doubt, an Alaska cruise is an unparalleled way to cover a lot of land and for first timers to get an overview of the majesty of Alaska. I think we all fell in love with Alaska more than the cruising experience itself, and if we were to return, I’d like to spend more time in one or two places rather than on a cruise ship. I’d love to see more of the Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park. Kodiak Island and the Arctic Circle also captured my imagination.

Have you been to Alaska or on an Alaska cruise? How was your experience?