Cruise along the coast of the 49th state, teeming with wildlife and stunning landscapes, for an adventure to remember.
By Sharon Stello
Alaska’s abundant wildlife captures the hearts of its visitors—and for good reason. Imagine pods of orcas spouting in front of your boat, humpbacks flipping their flukes toward the sky as they dive into the sea, along with playful seals and otters, and bald eagles soaring overhead. Amid verdant forests, vigilant observers might even see a bear during the salmon run.
The wild creatures of this country’s 49th state are only rivaled by the jaw-dropping scenery, from snow-capped mountains to waterfalls and turquoise-colored lakes as well as breathtaking glaciers that groan and pop as pieces of ice calve and fall into the water.
Not only is Alaska stunning, but it’s immense. The largest state in the union, it’s bigger than California, Texas and Montana combined. Given this impressive expanse, cruising is one of the best ways to visit the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Award-winning Celebrity Cruises is a great option for seeing the coast between Seward and Vancouver, British Columbia, with both northbound and southbound routes including inside passage offered from May through early September. Alaska sailings this summer are aboard one of three ships: the Solstice, Eclipse and Millennium. The latter is a Forbes Travel Guide Four Star-rated resort at sea, among five of the brand’s ships recognized by Forbes this year; in fact, Celebrity is the first ocean cruise line to earn the travel guide’s star awards. And this is the last season to ride on the Millennium in Alaska as the ship will soon depart for Asia. Next year, the Alaska cruises will be on Solstice, Summit and Edge.
The midsized Millennium, which accommodates approximately 2,200 passengers and was modernized in 2019 as part of a $500 million upgrade to the fleet, is big enough to offer numerous amenities without feeling overwhelming. It’s jam-packed with activities, live shows, music and impressive restaurants from a casual buffet to fine dining options with menus by a Michelin-starred chef.
Plenty of land excursions are offered on this seven-night trip as well as nonstop onboard activities for those at-sea days and in between exploring port cities like Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point and Ketchikan; passengers who opt not to leave the ship won’t be bored either, with everything from trivia to ping-pong and cornhole tournaments, silent disco dances, art sessions, an art gallery, casino, high-end shopping, a spa, fitness center, swimming pools, hot tubs and an adults-only solarium.
Those seeking to extend their vacation can tack on a land-based tour with options before or after the cruise. These nine- to 13-day Cruisetours incorporate luxury train rides, deluxe motorcoaches and authentic lodges to visit destinations like Anchorage, Talkeetna and Denali National Park & Preserve.
Home Away From Home
When it comes to choosing a stateroom on the ship, several options are available, from interior to ocean view spaces and those with a private veranda—which is great for enjoying the views while sipping coffee in the morning or watching for whales.
Upgrade to Concierge Class, which adds personalized concierge service, special bedding, twice daily housekeeping and more. The wellness-focused AquaClass builds on those offerings with an expanded room service breakfast menu; the use of yoga mats, blocks and other fitness equipment during the cruise as well as exclusive dining at Blu restaurant, which has plant-based options, and unlimited access to the Persian Garden, a rejuvenating aquatherapy series with an aromatic steam room, sauna and rain shower at the spa. Or choose The Retreat for a Royal Suite, private sundeck with dedicated attendants, exclusive access to special restaurant Luminae, complimentary 24-hour room service, onboard and shore excursion credits, and more. The Retreat suites and AquaClass staterooms automatically include on-board drinks, Wi-Fi and tips, but for other room types, guests may add on a package that bundles these.
Known for its dining options that rival top, land-based resorts—the Millennium’s main restaurant, Metropolitan, has received Wine Spectator magazine’s Restaurant Award of Excellence since 2013—this ship’s restaurants leave passengers wanting for nothing. Any palate can be satiated with the onboard options. The Oceanview Cafe serves up an international buffet of dishes from pizza and pasta to burgers, salads, Mexican and Indian fare, plus desserts that would tempt even the most health-conscious diner. The main restaurant keeps it classic with dishes like shrimp cocktail, escargots, French onion soup, grilled steak, prime rib and broiled salmon. Blu (for AquaClass guests only) offers a plant-based Beyond Burger, zucchini carpaccio, pan-seared red snapper, dijon-glazed salmon salad, filet mignon and more. Luminae (for The Retreat guests) ups the ante with cold smoked salmon, roasted pork belly, seared duck breast and Moroccan chicken tangine with saffron couscous. Notably, acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud, whose land-based restaurants have received Michelin stars, has designed signature dishes for Luminae.
Specialty dining includes the Tuscan Grille, an Italian restaurant with a contemporary twist; Sushi on Five for a modern approach to traditional Japanese cuisine; and Le Petit Chef at Qsine, which presents an immersive display of animated projections involving a little chef who takes diners on a culinary journey.
When it comes to libations, choose from nine bars and lounges, including a pool bar and Sunset Bar on the back deck of the ship. The Martini Bar is a must-visit spot where bartenders become entertainers, dazzling guests as they juggle bottles and fill stacked glasses from a long chain of shakers without spilling a drop. Drinks are served on an ice-covered bar top.
Another go-to place is the Sky Lounge, a large space at the front of the ship with a stage, dance area, bar and floor-to-ceiling windows for the best views from inside the ship. Come here to sip cocktails including signature drinks named after horoscope signs, take part in a trivia game or magic show, dance to late-night DJ beats or just kick back and enjoy the view.
While the onboard amenities are impressive, most people cruise in Alaska to marvel at the natural wonders and experience the historic towns. Each port offers plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the local culture and landscape. But the trip begins before stepping foot on the boat. For those on a southbound cruise, most people fly into Anchorage and then drive or take a train or bus to Seward, where the ship departs. The Seward Highway is an incredible introduction to Alaska with stunning scenery around every turn. This two-hour route passes by the Turnagain Arm’s dramatic shoreline and the striking Chugach Mountains and Kenai Peninsula.
For those with extra time, several stops along the way can add to the experience, including Potter Marsh at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge to see migratory birds, beavers and moose; Beluga Point lookout to try to spot the white whales; the 200-acre Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which cares for injured and orphaned animals including moose, bears, wolves and reindeer in fenced natural habitats; several parking lots to view the majestic blue-green Kenai Lake, which was formed out of glacier water; and numerous hiking areas to explore.
Once on the ship, Hubbard Glacier is the destination during the first full at-sea day. As the ship approaches Disenchantment Bay, chunks of ice can be seen floating in the water. Keep an eye out for harbor seals and sea lions, too. The air is decidedly colder as the ship approaches the awe-inspiring glacier, which has a bluish hue because the ice absorbs the light’s red or long wavelengths while the blue or short wavelengths are scattered. Head to the helicopter landing pad on the boat’s bow for a prime lookout or simply have a seat on your private balcony, the pool deck or in the solarium. Windows here can open for an unobstructed view for photos and close to keep you warmer; grab one of the throw blankets available to bundle up. As a naturalist narrates over the speaker system, the ship will spin in a circle to give everyone a good view no matter what side they’re on. Or, opt for an excursion on a smaller vessel to get a closer look at the glacier, which stretches about 7 miles wide and 76 miles long. Surprisingly, Hubbard Glacier is actually growing thicker while most glaciers around the globe are retreating.
After visiting the glacier, the ship continues south overnight and then pulls into its first port city, Juneau, which offers plenty of shopping and dining as well as seaplane tours and more. For incredible panoramic views, take the Goldbelt Tram, which rises 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts from the dock through the rain forest—one of the most vertical tramways in the world—to the Mountain House with a gift shop and the Timberline Bar & Grill to enjoy lunch and a beer. Once at the top, optional hiking trails take visitors through a forest dotted with totem poles and vistas of a waterfall in the distance. Notably, the aerial tram is owned by Goldbelt Inc., an urban Alaska Native business that seeks to honor and preserve the Tlingit culture.
Another must-try place in Juneau is the Alaskan Fudge Co. with more than 22 creative flavors like Inside Passage (chocolate filled with peanut butter) and Mount Juneau Mint. Visitors can watch the fudge being made in the shop. Tracy’s King Crab Shack is also popular for locally caught crab legs, bisque and crabcakes, but the line can get long. Another option is The Hangar on The Wharf with over 20 beers on tap, Alaskan seafood, burgers, steaks and pasta in a converted airplane hangar with views of the water.
The next stop on the cruise is Skagway, where visitors can stroll through the historic downtown, visit the Red Onion Saloon and Brothel Museum, sign up for a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, try panning for gold or spend time at a musher’s camp to learn about the Iditarod and hold a sled dog puppy at Alaska 360’s Dredge Town. The train, with old-fashioned rail cars that clatter over trestles and through tunnels, follows the trail trekked by gold prospectors in the 1800s. Remain seated in the car to enjoy views of Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point and Dead Horse Gulch through the window or step onto the platform to feel the wind in your hair as the train chugs up to the 2,865-foot White Pass summit.
The following day, the ship arrives at Icy Strait Point, a tourist stop that includes more than 20 tours, a restored 1912 salmon cannery and museum, Alaskan-owned shops, eateries, nature trails and a beach in the state’s largest Native Tlingit village of Hoonah. For those seeking an adrenaline rush, this destination features a zip line billed as the world’s largest: Soar 300 feet above the rainforest on one of six lines accelerating to speeds over 60 mph. Or, set out on a whale watching trip: Boats head to an area just south of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. These nutrient-rich waters are home to the largest summer population of humpback whales in Alaska. Visitors might also spot orcas, porpoises, Steller sea lions, seals and otters. Upon your return, try the salmon chowder or reindeer chili at The Cookhouse Restaurant.
Then reembark to continue cruising south. The ship drops anchor at Ketchikan, known as the Salmon Capital of the World and also the ancestral home of the Native Tlingit people. Tours here include a walk through part of the Tongass National Forest where visitors might see bears catch salmon in the rushing streams during spawning season from May through October. For more adventurous visitors, take a guided sea kayak trip around the Tatoosh Islands. Or sign up for the Best of Ketchikan by Land and Sea: Take a boat ride for the chance to see wildlife, tour the restored George Inlet Cannery and then board a motorcoach to Saxman Native Village to view a park of towering totem poles and learn about their creation before returning to downtown Ketchikan. Take in a lumberjack show or stroll along Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk on stilts, where salmon can often be seen in the water below.
After seeing the sights, return to the ship to unwind for the final at-sea day and then arrival in Vancouver. There’s plenty to keep you entertained onboard, from shows by aerial acrobats or Broadway musical performances, or opt for a massage as you reminisce over all of your adventures in Alaska. It’s truly a trip of a lifetime that will leave you longing to return.