No roads lead to Juneau.
Flanked by mountains peaks and the Gastineau Channel, Alaska’s capital is one of numerous cities and towns in the state that can be reached only by air or water. We flew in from Anchorage and departed by boat, the first leg of our trip along a portion of the Inside Passage, a waterway extending from Alaska to Puget Sound.
Our ride wasn’t one of the fancy, massive cruise ships docked in downtown Juneau’s harbor. Instead we made like locals and hopped aboard a more modest mode of transport to cruise the remote waters. A public ferry system operates along what is known as the Alaska Marine Highway, the only marine route in the U.S. to be dubbed a “National Scenic Byway” and “All American Road.”
For the nearly five-hour trip from Juneau to Sitka, we staked out comfy seats in front of broad glass windows to watch the show—glacier-carved fjords, islands, rain forest, and fog-shrouded mountains. Other than the occasional elk or sea lion sighting, or a passing boat, not a creature was stirring. Beyond our ferry, nature appeared untouched, silence reigned, and civilization had never seemed so far away.
Unlike airplanes and trains, where passengers are largely confined to their seats, on the ferry we were free to roam, walking the outdoor decks and then warming up with tea from a cafeteria. For a little extra cash you can even bring a car along on one of these surprisingly large ferries. Whether you take the ferry or a cruise ship, the scenery along the Inside Passage is the same, and getting from town to town was an enjoyable experience rather than something to be endured.
If you have more time than money, the Alaska Marine Highway system offers some of the benefits of cruising without the rigorous structure. An 8-day Royal Caribbean Cruise through the Inside Passage cost $874 per person at the time we were booking our schedule. Meanwhile, our Alaska Marine Highway tickets covering roughly the same ground over 13 days ran us $181 each. That may, or may not, be a huge savings. Our price didn’t include any meals and only one night’s sleeping berth. Depending on how you eat and where you sleep, you could still end up spending more following our do-it-yourself route.
Even so, no cruise can compete with the flexibility we enjoyed. We constructed our own itinerary, choosing which of the Highway’s 35 different ports to disembark at as we made our way from Juneau to colorfully historic Ketchikan. And, mostly, we got to choose how long to stay, but only mostly. The Alaska Marine Highway doesn’t run as frequently as New York subway service. In some places, boats come by once every two or three days. It’s certainly a more leisurely way to travel. And that suits us just fine.
Although the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system is more water taxi than hotel, we slept overnight on a ship while en route from Sitka to Petersburg, a sleepy town off the cruise ship route. Dozing in deck chairs or pitching a tent comes at no extra cost, but we sprung for an outside room with bunk beds, a private bathroom, and a window. Who needs that fancy cruise?