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Alaska by passenger ferry: cruising like a local

Mention to people that you’re going to Alaska and their immediate assumption is that you’re going on a cruise. This happened to me dozens of times before I left for my Alaskan Odyssey last summer. The conversations went something like this.

Me: “I’m going to visit Alaska”
Other Person: Cool, you’re going on a cruise. That should be fun”.
Me: “No, I’m going on the Alaska Marine Highway”
Other Person: “Oh, you’re driving up the Alaska Highway. That’ll be a long haul”.
Me: “No, I’m taking the Ferries on the Alaska Marine Highway System”.
Other Person (with blank look): “Huh?”

Photographs by Linda Popovich

The fleet of long, comfortable State run ferries that ply the 3,500-mile long Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) provides a marvelous opportunity for the independent traveler to explore Alaska’s magnificent bounty of nature’s finest scenes: Mile upon mile of soaring snow capped mountains with enormous glass blue glaciers creeping down their canyons; mysterious mist shrouded islands with the occasional picture perfect white-painted lighthouse plunked squarely atop their craggy cliffs; peaceful coastal towns and villages alive with fishermen, hunters, and whoever else is bold enough to live in Alaska.

A never-ending 360-degree panorama of nature unfolds around you on the AMHS ferries as you cruise peacefully along at 16 knots. I had to keep reminding myself of this incredible beauty so I wouldn’t become inured to it—that would be a crime. One night, standing alone on the deck, I saw a breathtaking sunset that I’ll never forget. It was just when the mountainsides had lost their color, changing to a shadowy deep black, and the far sky was afire with the orange and crimson last gasps of the sun’s descent. Later, I see a behemoth cruise ship pass by like a ghost in the night, lights shining brilliantly, an outdoor movie showing on the top deck.

The scenery, in fact, is so spectacular that the AMHS is the first water-based highway in the United States to be designated a National Scenic Byway. And, as everyone should know, Alaska teems with an abundance of wildlife, all visible from the ferries: whales breaching from the sea like prehistoric monsters, eagles hovering majestically overhead, barking sea lions, basking seals, graceful sea otters, diving porpoises—and if you’re lucky, the occasional bear or moose wandering idly along the coastline.

The AMHS sea route serves 33 ports, starting from the lovely town of Bellingham, Washington, a few minutes south of the Canadian border, and 1.5 hours drive north of Seattle. The marine highway extends from the villages and cities in S.E. Alaska north to the Gulf of Alaska, Kodiak Island, the Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound, and the Aleutians.

Why such an extensive marine highway network? Alaska has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined. Half of its coastal cities are unreachable by conventional roads—hence the need for the eleven-ship AMHS fleet that regularly provides a lifeline of people and supplies to these small towns and cities.

Photographs by Linda Popovich

The AMHS vessels are not cruise ships—nor do they pretend to be. Although the on board services are more basic than those of the behemoth cruise liners, from my recent journey around S.E. Alaska, they certainly lack no vital amenities. You can still travel in comfort, see the same sights and visit the same places as the cruise passengers, without the 6-hour “plunder and pillage” shore visit time limitations placed upon the cruise passengers. You won’t find a swimming pool, beauty salon, or casino on an AMHS vessel, but then again, who cares?

Cruise line passengers float away from each Alaskan town with heavy suitcases crammed with tacky souvenirs made in China, and much lighter wallets, while the AMHS traveler meets real Alaskans and walks away much enriched from the experience. The cruise line passenger sits down to an over-the-top, belt-loosening five-course meal every day, while the AMHS traveler shares breakfast in friendly local diners, listening to flannel shirted fishermen, hunters—even gold miners—boast about their catch, trophy buck, or strike, each getting progressively bigger as the meal continues; or discussing when the next supply barge is due in from Seattle.

In short, the AMHS is ideal for travelers wanting to experience the “real” Alaska by spending more time in her coastal towns and villages. And having experienced the “real” Alaska after visiting these fascinating little towns and meeting her genuinely friendly people (no plastic cruise line waiter’s smiles here) for one month this past summer, this suddenly seems very important to me. Interestingly, a whopping 40% of cruise line passengers who visit Alaska will return, so intrigued are they by the brief glimpses they get of her real self.

The great beauty of the AMHS is that you can ride its ferries to any of its destination stops, get off the ferry, and stay in the town for as long as you like without being herded back to your cruise ship by loud, rude blasts on the ship’s horn.

The AMHS vessels and crews are infinitely more personal than cruise liners. I have had pleasant, unhurried conversations with the officers, crew, pursers, and galley staff on my AMHS excursions. One cook showed me how to make the perfect folding omelet.

Photographs by Linda Popovich

Invited up on the bridge to meet the Captain and ship’s officers, I learned more about nautical navigation, depth soundings, and maritime law than I will ever be able to remember. The bridge is preternaturally quiet. I’m so glad the officers are cool and collected, because it must be a heavy responsibility, running these large ships that range from 181 to 418 feet long. I’m amazed at the extensive experience, education, and training of the ship’s officers and crew. The captains, especially, are an interesting lot. Some have done time in the Navy or on cruise liners; others have attended marine officer’s schools sprinkled around the country.

But they’re not stern and solemn all the time, either. On the Juneau-Petersburg leg of my AMHS odyssey we stop at the small Indian village of Kake, on Kupreanoff Island. The captain, Thomas Moore, a short, flint-eyed man with square shoulders and a ramrod straight back, watches the first officer carefully dock the boat. After the cars have exited the vehicle deck, he says, “Right, let’s go, follow me”. We descend down to the vehicle deck and jump into the AMHS van, used to transport disabled people to and from the dock. After a few minutes’ drive through this tiny Tlingit Indian fishing and logging village, with the locals smiling and waving at us, we’re watching three lumbering brown grizzly bears catch spawning salmon in a swiftly flowing river. Captain Moore wears his love of Alaska and its inhabitants on his sleeve.

Next he drives me to the top of a scrub covered bluff, and we stand in front of the tallest totem pole in the world, towering 132-feet above us. We’re overlooking one of the most spectacular Alaskan scenes you can imagine: low growth Cedars and firs in the foreground, small islands in the mid distance, surrounded by a glistening, absolutely deep blue sea, and a long line of immense snow capped peaks stretching across the horizon in the far distance. Giggling like 12-year-old girls, we snap each other in front of the Totem and jump back in the van.

A few minutes later he snaps into his portable radio “Captain here, we’ll be on board in three, stand by”. As we enter the cavernous vehicle deck, the officers are standing tall, waiting for his instructions. “What are you waiting for”, he says, “Let’s get this show on the road”. Less than five minutes later we’re pulling out from Kake, carefully avoiding the small rocky islands that loom nearby. Later, to cap off a great day, I dine with the ship’s officers in their galley, reveling in the steward’s fussing over me.

What facilities can be expected on an AMHS ship? The forward semi circular, enclosed viewing deck is the most popular room, for its unfolding panorama of fjords and mountains. Upstairs though, is my favorite: the Recliner Lounge, with well-spaced reclining seats and quiet—no screaming kids here. On some trips, the rear lounge, with a semicircular view over the stern can be a very private place—one evening, I had the entire lounge to myself while writing my notes.

The Video Room is the ship’s theater, showing family friendly movies; also doubling as a sleeping room for the overnight haulers who don’t need a stateroom. Each ship has staterooms, or passenger cabins for those who prefer a good bed. Somewhat like stripped down hotel rooms with bunks; you can enjoy a good night’s rest in these cabins.

The AMHS ships, although varying in size and types of rooms, all have private little nooks and crannies where you can find privacy. I spent a few pleasant hours with an older couple of retirees from Colorado, working on a jigsaw puzzle and talking quietly in a small side annex.

Photographs by Linda Popovich

But the accommodation I was most fascinated with was the Solarium on the rear of the top deck. Covered over by an enclosed canopy except for the rear, and toasty warm from the overhead grid of heaters, the Solariums are a mix between a tent city and a beach community sleeping on plastic deck chairs.

Some passengers sleep sprawled out on deck chairs, bundled in sleeping bags or covered in piles of blankets, and the “campers” pitch their tents and live in them for the duration of the trip. Voila! Instant DIY staterooms! The tent ropes are taped to the ground with duct tape. This makes for a unique experience for the campers. Imagine looking out of your tent to see a spectacular moving Northwest panorama of forest, mountains, and glaciers unfolding before your eyes.

Other AMHS ship amenities include laundry facilities, showers and heads, gift shops crammed with interesting books and souvenirs, and a galley and restaurant. The food, to be honest, is not cruise ship gourmet, but I found it to be worthy of a good Seattle restaurant, so had no complaints at all with the food or service. The galley serves up enormous breakfast helpings of eggs, hash browns, thick toast, and whatever else the cook feels like tossing into the mix—enough for two people, at very reasonable prices.

What, then, is there to do aboard AMHS ferries? As little or as much as you want. Explore the ship. Hear Forest Rangers give presentations on the attractions in the next town and Alaskan flora and fauna. Watch movies in the Video Room, snooze, read. Work on jigsaw puzzles. Discover Alaska’s fascinating history on the reader boards lining the ship’s hallways. Catch up on your computer work and emails. Decompress and relax. Watch the view from the side or rear of the ship. It’s all good.

But to me, the most rewarding aspect of traveling on the AMHS was meeting the people on the boat, especially the locals. I treasure my memories of enjoyable conversations with a hard core fisherman who has braved heaving 40-foot ocean swells to catch King Crab, a native Indian who enthusiastically invited me to a large intertribal powwow next year, two dedicated young women on a several thousand mile bike trip across the U.S. to raise funds for a women’s shelter, and an ex-Navy SEAL, who regaled me with some rather hair-raising stories of his service in the Vietnam War over lunch.

Photographs by Linda Popovich

Alas, describing the lovely little towns where the AMHS stops are beyond the purview of this story, but suffice it to say that each little town or city is very different from the last, making them all well worth visiting. Juneau, with its buildings set on old gold mine tailings and steep vertical backdrop of mountains, draped with Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, contrasts superbly with the sleepy little town of Haines, that packs a surprising punch for its weight in tourist attractions and stunning natural beauty. Here you’ll see bears and eagles aplenty, rivers clogged with spawning salmon, kayakable lakes, cycling tours, gold panning, and as a bonus, the world’s only Hammer Museum.

A short, hour-long ferry ride across the fjord to the honkey-tonk gold mining town of Skagway, with cruise ships seemingly moored right at the end of main street, contrasts with the immaculately kept and thriving fishing town of Petersburg, where there were once more millionaires per capita than any other place in the U.S.A. (and even today, they’re doing just fine thank you).

Then there’s the grandfather of them all, Ketchikan, which seems to have elements of all of the above: massive cruise ships lined up along the dock disgorging thousands of obnoxious, pampered tourists, fishermen, a plethora of tourist attractions (over 250 different tours!), and excellent museums and visitors centers.

Perhaps I’ve been too hard on the cruise ships. Many tourists wouldn’t have it any other way than cruising in luxury. But for the independent traveler, the ultimate way to experience Alaska in her rugged glory is by hopping off at whim to explore the small towns. The AMHS offers an inexpensive, convenient, and relaxing way to get to Alaska’s main tourist attractions, and promises a depth of poignant experiences that will stay with you for life, for a fraction of the price. And you can even bring your own vehicle.

Roy Stevenson is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Seattle, Washington. He’s had more than 600 articles published in 160 regional national, and international magazines, newspapers, in-flights and online travel magazines. To view more of Roy Stevenson’s travel articles go to

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