Riding the Alaska Marine Highway

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A low-cost approach to the 49th state, cruising the Inside Passage the way the Alaskans do

Here's a travel delay you don't expect: whale jams. One day, in southeast Alaska's Inside Passage, a ship of the Alaska Marine Highway-or just call it "the ferry" like Alaskans do-got stopped by a whale jam. The Wrangell Narrows are, like the name says, narrow. They're so narrow, in fact, that cruise ships can't get through them. The Alaska Marine Highway's pride, the Columbia, at 418 feet, is the biggest ship to navigate them.

Problem was, that day, nearly 200 humpback whales had chosen the same time to stop in the Narrows to feed.

Whales always have the right of way. The ship stopped, and a jazz quartet set up on the Columbia 's deck to play while the whales went about their business of being whales. Not a single passenger complained about the six-hour delay.

Meet the seagoing bus

The Alaska Marine Highway serves as coastal Alaska's bus system. It runs nine ships to 33 ports, from Bellingham, Washington, to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, and it's the longest ferry system in the world-its listing as a National Scenic Byway (the first waterway so honored; scenicbyways.org) tripled the total length of the byway program.

Now for the deal: The ferry goes to exactly the same places as the cruise ships in Alaska do-and more-at a fraction of the price. You can spend a full day on the ferry, seeing the best the state has to offer, for under $50. You can travel the length of southeast Alaska for as little as $152 (Prince Rupert to Skagway).

The Alaska Marine Highway's main run is in the calm, sheltered waters of the Inside Passage, where clouds and mist cover waterfalls that splash down hundreds of f eet. This is a 1,500-mile stretch of fjord, glacier, and mirror-still inlets framed by thickly treed mountains that come right to the water's edge. Bald eagles are the white spots on the highest branches.

Riding on the Alaska Marine Highway is completely flexible. Most southeast towns have daily ferry service, sometimes two a day, so you can make the trip on your own schedule, stopping to walk in the rain forest or just soaking up local culture in the lively, friendly towns along the way. You can hop off, stay a few days, and then hop on the next ferry coming through.

It's also a more intimate experience on the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway. The biggest of them only holds about 600 passengers. If you're looking for a little solitude with your scenery, this is the way to go.

Even the crews love the ferry. They'll all turn out for whale sightings, and I've been on Alaska Marine Highway ships that have turned around to give passengers another look at a grizzly bear and her cubs fishing.

Best of all, the ferry is how Alaskans themselves travel. Onboard, you're surrounded by Alaskans, and you become part of Alaskan life. There's no better way to get to know the state.

Setting sail

Every Friday evening (and Tuesday evenings from early June to mid-September), an Alaska Marine Highway ship pulls out of its southern terminus at Bellingham, Washington, headed for points north. Behind the ship is the giant cone of Mount Baker; ahead is the famed Inside Passage of Alaska.

The first step to any voyage on the Alaska Marine Highway is to get the sailing schedule (800/642-0066, alaska.gov/ferry). In addition to the trunk run starting in Bellingham, there are dozens of shorter routes, ships constantly running to link Alaska's towns.

The schedule is broken down by month, and by north- or southbound ships. Pick your city and departure day, then see what the possibilities are. Book tickets by phone or online. It's the most customizable cruise you coul d ever take. Once you're on the ship, all you have to do is sit back and be amazed.

Home onboard

The ships of the Alaska Marine Highway are working ships; they're comfortable but basic. There are coin lockers ($1, quarters only), as well as public showers, rest rooms, and vending machines for quick snacks.

Although you won't get the endless buffet of a cruise ship, there's cafeteria-style dining on all ships, with meals for under $10. And the bigger ships also have full restaurants where the entr?es start around $15 (but the quality is better than at most onshore eateries). Try one of the seafood dishes on the Columbia-in season, the shrimp, bought from local fishermen, were in the ocean only hours before serving.

There are cheaper options. Passengers can't cook onboard, but there's always piping-hot water available, perfect for instant soups and hot drinks, and there's nothing quite like a picnic on deck. Pick up some bread and cheese from Mercato Italiano (1006 Harris Av e., right by the Alaska Marine Highway terminal in Bellingham), and live the good life.

There's plenty of time between stops to explore the ship. Follow the route by checking out the GPS display near the purser's counter, or listen to a Forest Service naturalist presentation. There's an artist-onboard program in the works, which will feature native dances, carvers, and more.

But in the end, although travelers come prepared with games and books to pass the time, most people simply end up looking out the windows. In addition to the whales-more than 500 humpbacks migrate along the ferry route-there are Dall porpoises, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, minke whales, orcas, black bears, and grizzly bears. Bald eagles are so common in Alaska that until 1952 there was actually a bounty on them. More than a quarter of a century of traveling on the ferry has left me with this as the best description: The scenery unrolls like a classic Chinese landscape painting, with brush strokes by Tarzan.

Nights on the ship

Alaska is the land of the midnight sun. But when the dark does come, Alaska's beauty deepens to moonlight glinting off glaciers, more stars than you ever knew existed, and the glowing-green, flowing curtain of the northern lights.

You have several options for sleeping onboard. The cheapest-it's free-is simply to camp out. On the Columbia and Matanuska, you can pitch a tent right out on deck (use duct tape for tent stakes-and with a big roll of duct tape, you'll make fast friends among other, less prepared campers).

Each ship also has a solarium with lounge chairs, popular for longer runs. The solariums are heated and protected on three sides. I've spent perfectly comfortable nights there, wrapped in my sleeping bag, while the ships have gone through major winter storms.

The last camping option is the indoor forward lounge, with airplane-style chairs. Technically it's against the rules to stake out spots in the forward lounges, but claims are usually respected.

If you want some privacy, all of the Alaska Marine Highway ships (except the Aurora, Bartlett, and LeConte) have staterooms, comparable in comfort to budget-cruise staterooms.

When you book the cabin, you're booking the whole thing-in other words, it costs the same for one person to sleep in a two-berth (bunk beds) cabin as it does for two. Rates change by the number of nights, as well as cabin size (two- or four-berth), facilities (private bath or no), and location (inside or outside). For example, a two-berth, outside cabin with bath, Bellingham to Skagway, runs $320; two-berth, inside cabin, no bath, is $276, saving you $44. And remember again that those rates are for the entire cabin and stay the same even if more than one person occupies it.

If you like the idea of sleeping inside in a private room but want something cheaper, book trips on the Kennicott, which has "roomettes" (only $63 for an inside, two-berth roomette from Prince Rupert to Seward, for example). They're absolutely basic: a bed that folds down, and a chair/table combination that converts into another bed. That's it. But they are a space to call home. You can rent bedding from the purser for $7, or bring your own.

It's best to book staterooms as soon as you have your travel dates set. However, if the ship's rooms are booked, don't despair: Just go on the standby list. A lot of people get accommodated this way.

Must-see stops

Port calls along the route aren't really long enough to see much-a two-hour stop is a long one-so you need to choose ahead of time where you want to stop and get off. That's the best thing about the frequent ships of the Alaska Marine Highway: Get off one ship, get on another a day (or a few days) later. They give you time to linger.

Here are a few of the highlights along the way.

Ketchikan, the first stop in Alaska, has the best totem-pole collection anywhere. Start at the Totem Heritage Center (907/225-5900; buy the $10.95 combo tic ket, which also includes admission to the fish hatchery), with its tremendous collection of century-old poles. One more great thing about Ketchikan: There's a grocery store directly across the street from the ferry terminal, so you can stock up for the onward trip.

Most cruise ships pass by the small southeastern towns, but the ferry makes them accessible. Wrangell, near the mouth of the Stikine River, is southeast's playground. Use it as a base for river trips (a quarter billion migrating birds use the Stikine) and for days at Anan Bear Reserve, a rare spot where black and brown bears share a stream so clogged with salmon in July and August that you see more fish fins than water. Alaska Vistas (907/874-3006, alaskavistas.com) has the best deals on river and bear trips.

Juneau, the state capital, has an inconvenient ferry dock-13 miles from town, a $30 taxi ride. But it's only half that far to Mendenhall Glacier, the most accessible chunk of ice in southeast Alaska, a ti ny finger of the Juneau Icefields (which are a bit larger than Rhode Island). There's a free, daily guided hike, starting from the visitors center, that will give you great views of the glacial face.

In Sitka, don't miss the beautifully restored Bishop's House (admission $3), the oldest original Russian structure in Alaska. Each June, the town hosts the famous Sitka Summer Music Festival (907/747-6774, sitkamusicfestival.org).

Haines and Skagway are only a few miles apart by sea, but because of the mountains, they are more than 300 miles apart by road. Go to Haines for the Chilkat River and easy access to the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that puts Glacier Bay to shame. Skagway, only 23 blocks long and four blocks wide, was the starting point for the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. It still has that boomtown vibe.

Other popular stops include Petersburg, a busy fishing port that's home to hundreds of bald eagles, and the tiny town of Tenakee S prings, a weekend hotspot for Juneauites, who come to soak in the hot springs (free; but because of the minerals, take off all your jewelry before getting in). Catch the ferry from Juneau on Friday, overnight in Tenakee, and be back in Juneau on Saturday.

Options

Most passengers who get on the ships in Bellingham are headed for the interior of Alaska via the road links at Skagway and Haines. However, if you're not continuing on north or staying on the Alaska Marine Highway for the weeklong round trip, you're in for a very expensive one-way flight back home.

But there is a fantastic option. Do what the boutique cruise ships do: Start your journey in Juneau (by flying to Juneau from Seattle), and then travel a loop around the northern end of the Inside Passage, utilizing a number of ships passing through that service different stops along the way. You can spend a week or a month on this route-it's up to you-hopping various Alaska Marine Highway ships. One itinerary is to go f rom Juneau to Sitka ($32); from there, head north to Haines ($50) and continue on to Skagway ($21 more). Then, take a southbound ship as far as Wrangell ($96) before finishing the loop with a ride to Petersburg through the Wrangell Narrows ($22) and a final trip to Juneau ($50). Check the ferry schedules for other options.

By starting the trips in Juneau, you also save on the ferry ride, as you skip the expensive Bellingham-Ketchikan section.

A daily loop ferry leaves Juneau at 7 a.m., headed for Haines and Skagway ($74, as long as you stay on the same vessel round trip). This lets you see both towns, as well as the Lynn Canal, a prime whale feeding ground and home to a colony of Steller sea lions. It's like a Cliffs Notes on Alaska: all the good stuff in no time at all.

There are a lot of whale-watching trips out of Juneau; most of them go to Icy Strait. But the ferry has its own, much cheaper trip through Icy Strait: the one-day round trip to Pelican (every other Sunday, $74). I've seen upward of 20 whales in a day on this trip-including humpbacks breaching, their entire 40-foot bodies coming out of the water in a movement that seems impossibly slow. Quite simply, there is no more scenic ferry ride in all of southeast Alaska. Pelican itself is the quintessential one-street town: There's a bar, a public shower, a store, and the fish cannery. It's more like a movie set than real life, but then you see the dramatic views of Lisianski Inlet and the towering Fairweather Range, and you know Hollywood could never make anything this beautiful.

Bargains

The ferry does the bulk of its business during the summer months. If you're willing to travel off-season, there are some fantastic deals. In October, the Alaska Marine Highway offers a $500 unlimited travel pass valid for travel from Nov. 1 to Mar. 31; you can also get 25 percent off cabin rates in the colder months. As if that weren't enough, from Oct. 1 to Apr. 30, drivers who accompany a vehicle tr avel free. Don't let the idea of Alaska in winter put you off: The state is quiet and incredibly beautiful at that time, returned to itself after the tourist rush of summer. If all you're after is a gorgeous boat ride, this can be the best time to go.

Passengers with disabilities can get a pass that allows discounted travel on all ships. However, you must apply in advance for the pass, and the application fee is $25. There are a number of rules and regulations that go along with this fare, so call the Alaska Marine Highway for details. All the ships have elevators except the Bartlett, which has a stair-climber. Passengers over the age of 65 and those with an Alaska Marine Highway disability pass can travel year-round on the LeConte, Bartlett, Aurora, and Tustemena for 50 percent off the regular adult fare. This rate is good for passage only, and only in Alaska ports, but these four ships make some interesting short-hop runs.

Prices quoted in this article are for adult passag e; kids under 12 go at half fare.

Connections

For those on the trunk run, it's cheaper to fly into Seattle, where all major carriers stop, than Bellingham. Catch the Airporter bus (360/380-8800) from the Seattle airport to Bellingham for $34 one way, $59 round trip.

Alaska Airlines (800/252-7522, alaskaair.com) is your only choice for flying into the Alaska Marine Highway's ports, such as Juneau. Plan ahead-their fares change almost minute by minute-and check their Web site for special offers.

The Alaska Marine Highway has a secondary southern terminus in the Canadian town of Prince Rupert, at the mouth of the Skeena River. The town has a road link to British Columbia's interior and is also a terminus for BC Ferries (250/386-3431, bcferries.com), which runs 38 ships to 47 Canadian ports, including Victoria and Vancouver. You can bypass Bellingham by catching northbound Alaska Marine Highway ferries from Prince Rupert.

Only two Alaskan Inside Passage towns have ro ads out: Haines and Skagway connect to the Alaska Highway. Both are beautiful towns, but the Haines Highway may be the most perfect stretch of road ever made-wide, gently curved, running between glaciers and mountain peaks. It's fairly expensive to take a car onboard the Alaska Marine Highway, and it requires planning, especially in the summer. Spaces can fill up, although you can often get accommodated on standby. Just as an example, the rate for a compact car, Bellingham to Skagway, is $736.

Another option is just to stay on the Alaska Marine Highway for the run back south. The weeklong round-trip run does not repeat all the same scenery-south-bound ships stop at Sitka, on the outer edge of the Alexander Archipelago.

For travel to other points in Alaska, there's a twice-monthly Alaska Marine Highway run from Juneau to Seward, across the Gulf of Alaska ($177). Once you're in Seward board the Alaska Railroad (800/544-0552, akrr.com) for trips to Anchorage ($98 round trip ) and Denali ($125 one way from Anchorage), or link up to more Alaska Marine Highway ships to points west-including Kodiak Island, home of the world's largest bears, and Dutch Harbor, so far out in the Aleutians that it's on roughly the same longitude as Tonga.

The Alaska Marine Highway opens up more scenery than all of the state's roads combined. If you want to see the real Alaska, the best of Alaska, this is the only way to go.

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