Seeing Alaska by Ferry - The Alaska Marine Highway

Aug 24 14:31 2008 Ursula and Eldrid Retief Print This Article

Ursula and Eldrid Retief  take the alternative cruise to Alaska with the Alaska Marine Highway aboard the "Matanuska" from Bellingham, Washington State for an eight-day return trip along the Inside Passage wending along the coast through more than 1,000 islands. . .

The Alaska Marine Highway is without doubt the most unique highway in the world. Its scenery is certainly mesmerizing.

How many other highways can you drive along and see,Guest Posting often at the same moment, snowcapped mountain peaks, ice-age glaciers, hillsides blanketed with spruce and hemlock, tranquil fjords, beaches and streams?

Where else could you see otters feeding on kelp beds, fur seals, killer whales breaching almost within touching distance, sea birds and bald eagles perched on their nests gazing into the distance?

The Alaska Marine Highway System has ferried cars and passengers to some 32 communities in Alaska, British Columbia and the state of Washington for nigh on 50 years. The 11 ferries are a lifeline for the isolated fishing and logging communities along the south-eastern Alaskan shoreline. Other popular destinations visited by many Alaska Marine Highway travelers include Anchorage, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

But the route is more than that. It is a cheaper alternative to the expensive cruises in these waters. The ferry service gives passengers greater freedom than they would have on a cruise ship. The Matanuska carries 499 passengers, and provides 4 four-berth, 21 three-berth, and 80 two-berth cabins. The cabins may not be as luxurious as a cruise liner's, but it's a lot cheaper, although meals are extra.

The ferry car deck holds about 88 vehicles (these numbers vary from ferry to ferry). Drivers can plan their own itinerary and connect with other ferries to explore off the beaten track. Take your car to Skagway, Alaska, for example, and drive home via the Alaska Highway.

So come aboard the "Matanuska", named for an Alaskan glacier, at Bellingham, Washington State, about 80 kilometers south of Vancouver, British Columbia, for the eight-day return trip along the Inside Passage, stretching 1,700 kilometers and wending its way along the coast through more than 1,000 islands.

The first voyage of discovery is the ferry itself: a cocktail lounge, a gift shop, a cafeteria, and a huge forward observation lounge.

The upper deck has a glassed solarium and a lounge with reclining seats used by travelers who don't want to spend their money on a cabin, or by those doing a short hop. The airline-style chairs are comfortable enough for a night's sleep. and there are showers in the washrooms. (Public showers are available on all vessels except the Lituya, Chenega and Fairweather.) In summer, campers even pitch their tents on the upper deck.

The Matanuska does not have dining room service but the self-service lineup in the cafeteria moves quickly (the M/Vs Columbia and Tustumena have full-service dining rooms). The menu is vast and reasonably priced; portions are also large (for size, try the omelettes for breakfast). There are at least three main dishes every lunch and dinner, often the freshest of locally caught salmon, halibut or red snapper, as well as fresh salads, sandwiches, soup and fast-food orders such as burgers and French fries.

We're at sea for 36 hours before touching on the first port of call - Ketchikan, Alaska's southernmost city. It is strung out for kilometers along a waterfront, most of it supported on pilings above Tongass Narrows. The cross streets are often simply wooden steps climbing the steep hillside.

If the ferries are running a bit late, you might not have more than an hour or two ar each stop. Keep this in mind. The ferry does not wait on slowpoke passengers.

Ketchikan tourist sights include wonderful shopping, Dolly's house on Creek street, the home and working place of the town's last "madam" and a museum. Along the waterfront are seaplanes and boats serving the logging camps and other settlements.

Most of Sunday is spent at sea relaxing and sightseeing - often with calls from the bridge to alert you to the occasional killer whale or other sights.

The next stop is Wrangell, the only community to have the flag of three nations flying over it. Wrangell began as a stockade built by the Russians in 1834, was leased six years later to the British Hudson's Bay Company, and finally bought by the US in 1867. Gold miners headed from there for the Klondike and Cassiars. One stop worth making is at the beach to see the petroglyphs carved by prehistoric Indians.

Later the ferry stops at Petersburg, home of the largest halibut fleet in Alaska and proud of its Scandinavian heritage. Early next day it's Juneau, capital of Alaska - and you can see the Mendenhall glacier as the ferry approaches the terminal.

The terminal is 22 kilometers north of Juneau, but there is a good minibus and taxi service to town, a bustling community long before gold was discovered in 1881. A walking tour will take you past many historic sites; you can stock up on gold nuggets and fossilized walrus tusk jewelry. The world's largest concentration of brown bear lives on Admiralty Island, located just 10 minutes from Juneau.

Later in the morning the ferry heads to Haines, originally a trading post. From here, it's only an hour to Skagway which, wonderfully preserved and restored, today still resembles the gold-rush town it was at the turn of the century - the main gateway to the Klondike, 800 kilometers to the north.

From Skagway, the ferry retraces its route to Haines and Juneau, then detours to Sitka, once the Russian capital of Alaska. Mount Edgecombe, an extinct volcano, towers in the background. The Russian influence can be seen everywhere in Sitka: Visit the onion-domed St. Michael's Cathedral, for instance, a fine example of rural Russian church architecture.

Many of the Alaska Marine Highway's ferries have theater areas that show films of general interest and documentaries on Alaska and the outdoors and often provide special educational and entertainment programs.

As though there isn't enough to see and do on the way.

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Ursula and Eldrid Retief
Ursula and Eldrid Retief

Extensive news freelancers for many years, Ursula and Eldrid Retief are now Editors-in-Chief of several travel web sites, including Travel Tidings Alaska a free Alaska travel guide about Alaska tourism and Alaska vacations with travel information on everything from Alaskan cruises to cheap hotel rates, maps and weather.

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