When we were planning our Alaska Inside Passage trip, I wasn't sure I wanted to be trapped on a cruise ship with a fattening buffet for a week (my self-discipline NEVER would have held out that long). I also wanted more time exploring Alaska than would have been possible with the sailing schedules of typical cruise ships. So, we chose to take a more bohemian approach: ride the Alaska Marine Highway System (public transportation) ferries between cities.
One of the ferries docked at Juneau.
This definitely took a lot more planning than going on a typical cruise ship, because there are some cities where a ferry only comes by every two weeks. (In those towns, the ferry's arrival is such a big event that all the townsfolk like to board the ferry just to eat at its cafeteria, disembarking just before the ferry leaves). It took quite a bit of thinking to figure out how we could ride the ferries to see the places we wanted within our time constraints, but all the planning was WELL WORTH the effort. It was a very comfortable, fun, inexpensive experience.
Speaking of expense: many of the ferry riders sleep on lawn chairs on the top deck of the boat, rather than booking a cabin. Here's where they sleep, in an area which is protected from the weather and has overhead heaters:
Families traveling together setup tents in this helicopter landing pad area. Because we were on shorter trips, I didn't see any tents myself, but saw a photo where this area of the deck was covered with them.
The ships have very nice public restrooms, including some that have showers, to accommodate those who do not book a cabin:
Since this was our first time and we were unsure if we wanted to sleep on lawnchairs or camp on the deck, my parents and I booked a three-berth cabin for our longest 20-hour trip aboard the Matanuska between Juneau and Ketchikan. I've never been on a typical cruise ship before, but my parents have and said that our cabin and bathroom was roomier than the one they had on a traditional cruise ship. Here's a photo of my mom on the top bunk of the cabin.
Not that we spent much time in the cabin. There were all sorts of fun things to do and see around the ship. We ate delicious food at the cafeteria, we browsed through the gift shop, we watched movies in the recliner lounge, we listened to several presentations given by a National Park Service ranger who was on board to educate and entertain us, and we made friends with our fellow travelers in the various public areas around the boat. Oh, and we gazed contentedly at the beautiful, amazing scenery going by. It was a delightful way to travel...to relax while beautiful vistas and breaching humpback whales go by. Here's a photo of my mom in the recliner lounge:
One of the unique things about the experience is that the ferry is not only used to transport people, but also to ship cargo, cars, RVs, and even road graters. Here's a little video of us boarding the Fairweather ferry at the same time a road grater was boarding. Where else would you ever get such a unique experience as that?! (Definitely not on a luxury cruise ship!)
Here's another little video, showing a large RV disembarking:
Our trip on the Fairweather was a four-hour ride between Sitka and Juneau. Fairweather is a fast katamaran, so it can cover that distance in 4 hours, while the other standard ships take 8 or 9 hours for the trip. Here's a little video showing the water shooting out of the back of the katamaran, along with my parents and our new friend AJ, who worked on the boat and took us on a tour.
We met AJ in the recliner lounge, where we were watching the latest Star Trek movie. After the movie and after he'd done his work, he offered to show us around the ship, including going up to see the captain, which we LOVED! (Thanks AJ!) While we were at the bridge, the chief engineer kindly let me sit in his seat for this photo. (The captain and first mate are in the front--you see them on the left of the photo).
They mentioned that one of the individuals on the bridge has the job to look through powerful binoculars, looking for debris on the horizon so they can avoid it, as the debris causes problems if it gets caught between the two hulls of the katamaran. As a side benefit, that helps them spot whales, which they can then announce to all the passengers. They said they have automated systems to help them do that, but that the most effective tool is a human being looking through binoculars. I asked them, "What do you do at night?" and the captain confidently said "Debris doesn't exist at night", which made me smile.
Here are some of my favorite photos from the experience:
My parents on board the Fairweather:
The ferries all have the Big Dipper (which is also on the Alaska State Flag) painted on them. I thought it was cool.
Here's a photo of the ship making it's way through the Wrangell Narrows. The guidebook said that it gets so narrow, that you could reach out from the deck of the ship and touch the trees on the side. Because of that, I got up at 4 a.m. to observe this part of the trip, but it didn't ever get THAT narrow, which was a disappointment. But, it was fun to see all the buoys that keep the ship traveling in the deep places...you can see some of them here. And, I also enjoyed seeing all the folks sleeping on couches and recliners and lawnchairs all around the boat, which I wouldn't have observed if I hadn't gotten up at that hour.
Here's another photo, where you can see a guy at the front of the ship, guiding it through the narrows.
I did enjoy seeing this wavy wake from the side of the ship in the Wrangell Narrows area.
Traveling this way was a great experience...I loved the fact that it gave us more time to explore Alaska than a cruise ship would have, and that it helped us visit the cities during times when the cruise ship crowds weren't in town. Plus, it was a comfortable, relaxing way to travel. I hope I have the opportunity to ride the Alaska Marine Highway System again, and next time, I'll bring my sleeping bag and enjoy the adventure of sleeping in a lawn chair on deck!