In a state not over-endowed with smooth asphalt, it is no surprise to find that one of Alaska’s main ‘highways’ runs across water rather than land—from the sheltered inlets of the Inside Passage all the way to the open seas of the choppy North Pacific.
The so-called Alaska Marine Highway is so iconic that it’s been designated both an ‘All-American Road’ and a ‘National Scenic Byway.’ As the only non-air route connecting many of Alaska’s coastal towns, its ferries join the dots between an assortment of charismatic ports starting in Bellingham, WA, in the Lower 48 and pitching as far west as Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands—a total distance of 5,630 kilometres (3,500 miles).
The ‘highway’ is a vital link for over 30 settlements that, by trick of geography or history, are unconnected to North America’s main road network—everywhere from Juneau (the state capital with a population of 32,000) to the tiny outpost of Cold Bay (population 50) on the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. Some towns, such as Ketchikan, Petersburg and Sitka, are located on lightly inhabited islands. Others, such as Juneau and Cordova, reside on the mainland but are cut off by impenetrable mountains and glaciers.
Ferries Versus Cruise Ships
A complex network of ferries operates up and down the coast year-round and riding on one of them is a unique Alaskan experience that every adventurous visitor to the state should aim to try at least once. As the ferries are deemed a transportation service as opposed to an arm of the tourist or leisure industry, the facilities are radically different to those on the humongous cruise ships that bring over one million tourists to Alaska every year.
Getting seemingly bigger by the year, cruise liners, many of them operated by companies such as Princess, Disney and Royal Caribbean, can accommodate up to 4,900 people. Docking at downtown cruise terminals, they resemble mobile skyscrapers towering over the surrounding buildings and frequently offload enough passengers to outnumber the inhabitants of the towns they visit.
Then there’s the onboard experience. The busiest room on a cruise ship is often the casino, closely followed by the karaoke lounge. Enthusiastic exercisers fill the gyms, and life-sized entertainers dressed as Donald Duck and Pluto roam the decks. You might be floating through pristine wilderness but, in reality, the bear-prowling, glacier-grinding essence of Alaska can seem a million miles away.
Ferries: The Onboard Experience
In contrast, Alaska’s state ferries offer a more authentic adventure. Designed for between 125 and 499 passengers and up to 133 vehicles, the boats are smaller and more utilitarian, while many of their ports of call are quiet, diminutive places inaccessible to big cruise ships. More often than not the passengers are everyday Alaskans traveling for work, or hardy adventurers off to fish for salmon in a little-known river on an off-the-grid island.
Four of Alaska’s fleet of state ferries offer overnight cabins. Comfortable if rather basic rooms, some with private bathrooms, come with bed linens, pull-down tables, electrical sockets and reading lights. Alternatively, you can sleep more economically in a seat in the communal lounge or on a deck-side sun-lounger. Food is cafeteria-style but relatively cheap (lasagne and fish n chip meals cost around US$12), while the unscripted entertainment is mainly left to breaching whales, diving eagles and distant views of glaciers.
Ferries usually have at least two lounges and a sundeck with overhead heaters. Bigger boats have a bar, public showers and a wide selection of brochures imparting local information. The 450-capactiy MV Matanuska even has a piano!
Unlike the big cruise ships, state ferries can deposit you in small, shallow ports like Petersburg, a hard-working fishing community dubbed Alaska’s ‘Little Norway’; Wrangell, a rough-hewn gold rush town with a long Indigenous history; and Gustavus, a friendly frontier village on the cusp of Glacier Bay National Park.
The World’s Best Boat Journey?
The ultimate blue-collar cruise is undoubtedly a three-day voyage on the legendary MV Tustumena, a 50-year-old ocean-worthy ferry, dubbed the ‘Trusty Tusty,’ that sails along the south shore of the Alaskan Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain amid an ethereal backdrop of smoking volcanoes and emerald-green landfalls. Gliding past hunting communities and fishing villages, the boat docks at tiny ports with names like Chignik, Sand Point and False Pass.
The Tustumena is one of the Alaskan fleet’s smaller vessels, with room for only 160 passengers and approximately 34 cars. There are 23 basic overnight cabins, although unfussy passengers often opt to pitch a tent on the sundeck. Tackling the stormier waters of the Pacific on its summer-only voyages, the Tusty plies a route well beyond the itineraries of standard cruise ships starting in Homer on the Kenai Peninsula and concluding in Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island on the cusp of the Bering Sea. In the minds of many travel vets, the three-day extravaganza of wild whale-watching framed by distant brooding mountains and onion-domed Russian churches ranks as one of the world’s finest boat journeys.
Other Classic Routes
Further south, the calmer waters of the Alaskan panhandle are frequented by ferries and full of things to see and do, from glacier hiking near Juneau to gold rush history in Skagway. Compact day-ferries negotiate shorter routes between the myriad ports that dot the Alexander Archipelago, the jigsaw of over 1,000 forested islands that rim Alaska’s southeastern coast. At least once a week, a long-distance car ferry chugs south to Prince Rupert, BC, and Bellingham, WA, through Canada’s gorgeous Inside Passage. Bellingham is over 30 hours from Alaska’s southern border by sea.
A recommended short hop from Juneau is the three-hour journey to the Tlingit community of Hoonah and its adjacent cruise port, Icy Strait Point, the only Indigenous-run cruise port in Alaska. Icy Strait Point has one of the world’s largest ziplines and is an excellent place to partake in saltwater kayaking. You’ll enjoy fine views of the Mendenhall Glacier and the humpbacked islands of the Lynn Canal en route.
Further north, another classic but little heralded trip is the ferry between the surreal Cold War citadel of Whittier (connected to Anchorage by train and road) and the rugged outdoor adventure town of Valdez through the glacier-encrusted wilderness of Prince William Sound.