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Planning your Alaskan cruise can be daunting, but don’t let your shore excursions cause you to lose any sleep. My wife, Nancy, and I just returned June 4 from our first Alaskan cruise. It was a costly cruise, and the notion of sifting through the mounds of potential shore excursions was intimidating. I didn’t want Nancy’s first trip to Alaska to lack anything. I also didn’t want to take out a second mortgage on our home to enjoy the vacation.
I had traveled to Alaska several times with my family growing up. I knew the various ports of call were not very large. Once we determined the cruise line and route we would enjoy, I began researching the possible excursions offered. In most locations, the costly experiences appeared possible without the aid of the cruise line. I determined if we would break out of our comfort zones and engage the locals, we could enjoy many of the same things on our own.
Our cruise, the Celebrity Millennium, sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia on May 24, 2013, and headed north along the western seaboard. We wove in and out of the many islands that make up the Inside Passage like a drop of water navigating its way down the side of a tree. With a population of fewer than 10,000, the first port we docked at was the little town of Ketchikan, Alaska. The Celebrity excursion desk would have charged $198 per person to go sightseeing for bears; $49 per person to enjoy the Potlatch Totem Pole and historic city highlights like Creek Street; and $99 per person to hike through one of the local rainforests. Instead, we booked nothing.
When we got off the ship, we asked a few of the locals what suggestions they had. Following their directions, we walked four blocks to Creek Street and appreciated the shops and beautiful river that flowed some 30 feet below. We then rode the free historic red gondola 150 yards up to a hill-top hotel and tourist center. After browsing through their offerings, we were given another tip from a local to walk over to Totem Heritage Center Museum whose brochure says it exists to preserve endangered totem poles from the local village sites. We looked through the museum and appreciated the historical art on display while we learned more about the culture of the region.
Following the museum, and another piece of advice from a local, we walked a half mile up a curvy hill to the end of the street where we were met by trees flaring out like the open arms of a rainforest nature trail, which hosted us on a journey to a beautiful scenic overlook a mile up the mountain. When we got back down the mountain and began our journey back to the ship, fellow tourists informed us that two bears had been enjoying, what seemed to be, their daily snack at one of the local people’s home. We stopped by the house on our way back and spoke with the homeowner who told us that the bears ate out of their garbage cans every day. The homeowners had tried everything to deter the bears, but to no avail.
In total, our day’s journey incorporated portions of various excursions that would have cost $700. Instead, we may not have had the same experience but our full day of adventure only cost us $10. On our walk back to the boat, Nancy said, “I would do all of this again.” Certainly, our customized tour didn’t include flying in a float plane, but it was fulfilling to know we enjoyed the port without spending a bunch of money.
Ketchikan was just one of seven ports we visited on that cruise. At each port, we followed the same pattern of making friends and checking with the locals to plan our days. We saw whales as close as 20 feet from a small aluminum boat a local let us use for free. We enjoyed watching dozens of majestic bald eagles glide all around us as we walked the beach. We swam with the icebergs of Mendenhall Glacier, hiked atop the magnificent Exit Glacier and drove to the beautiful Emerald Lake in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Perhaps on a future cruise when money isn’t an issue, we‘ll attempt some of the costly shore excursions. However, thanks to the locals, we ended this particular Alaskan journey having spent less than $150 at the seven ports combined and have no regrets.