Why My First Alaska Cruise Took So Much Time to Plan

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4,254.81 miles. That’s the distance from Orlando, Florida to Juneau, Alaska for my first Alaska cruise.  More miles than crossing the Atlantic aboard Queen Mary 2.  That’s probably why I hadn’t been to the Last Frontier.

Alaska cruise
Photo credit: Alaskan Dream Cruises

I had to get to Alaska…without flying!

To get to Alaska, I took six Amtrak trains, stayed at four hotels and boarded two very large ferry boats to finally get to Juneau. I think it was easier for Gold Rush prospectors to get there than for me!  In the late 1890s, there was a weekly steamboat from San Francisco straight north all the way to Nome.

All of this for one magical week on an Alaska cruise to explore hidden coves and magnificent glaciers aboard Alaskan Dream Cruises and their 74-passenger expedition ship, Chichagof Dream.

Read next:  My Chichagof Dream review

As I cobbled together this awesome adventure, (“A Laskin Adventure”), I learned one big fact:  Alaska is made up of 2,670 islands.  Almost all of the major cities in Southeast Alaska are called “roadless communities”.  Meaning, you can’t get to Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and many more, by car.   Thus, the Alaska Marine Highway System was created.

What’s the Alaska Marine Highway

I think of the Alaska Marine Highway as something similar to Norway’s marine transportation system.  A fleet of heavy-duty vessels that ply the coastline, delivering mail and goods, transporting residents and tourists.  In the lower 48, there are five Alaska Marine Highway ships that depart from Bellingham Washington.  From Bellingham the route follows some 3,500 miles of coastline to remote Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Chain.  The route is so unique that is has been designated a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road.  It’s the only marine route with this designation.

Map of the Alaska Marine HIghway System
Graphic credit: Alaska Marine Highway System

But first, there were trains.

In order of appearance:  Amtrak Silver Meteor, Capitol Limited, California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, another Coast Starlight, and the Cascades into Bellingham, Washington.

As you can sort of guess, the first Amtrak leg is Orlando, Florida to Washington, DC.  We arrived very early, around 7am. But Washington’s Union Station was already bustling with commuters.  I had a continental breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, but there’s also a Prêt à Manger or Au Bon Pain.  Decent croissants, bagels and coffee at all of them.

The nice thing about traveling in a sleeping compartment is having access to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge or Acela Lounge, depending on the city.  While you’re not supposed to bring outside food into the Lounge (smell factor more than litter, I’d guess), I have no problem bringing a coffee and pastry or a yogurt.

I stowed my luggage in the Acela lounge, using my nifty little cable lock to tie the handles of my suitcases together.  While it’s not steal-proof, it would surely slow down a potential thief.  There’s plenty of time in-between trains for me to walk around Washington and stop in a one of the Smithsonian Museums.  Last time, I bolted from the station straight away to a perfect replica of Julia Child’s kitchen in Boston, at the American History Museum.

There’s no dining car on the Capitol Limited

Next Amtrak train – eight hours later.  I boarded the Capitol Limited, overnight to Chicago, my hometown. Until last month, there was a real dining car with table service.  The new Amtrak president (a former airline exec) cut the dining cars on two Chicago-bound trains.  The replacement is a cold, boxed, chemically-treated meal.  Actually, two meals; dinner and breakfast.  Coffee will be hot and I’ll be in my own room.  Next time, I’ll buy an extra croissant in Washington if I take the Capitol Limited.

View across the pond in Lincoln Park, Chicago.
A beautiful late summer night at the pond in Lincoln Park.

Sweet home Chicago

I spent four days in Chicago at my daughter’s apartment in Lincoln Park.  There was time to meet up with my high school girl friends, eat at a couple of my favorite Chicago restaurants and do a load of wash.  Then, another cross-country race began.

California Zephyr winds along the Colorado river.
To get this shot, I had to go to the back of the train in the coach cars to capture all these train cars. Those are the sleeping cars at the front.

Aboard the California Zephyr

Two nights and 50 hours later, my California Zephyr train arrived in Sacramento, California.  Since my connecting northbound train, the famous Coast Starlight, didn’t leave until 11:59pm, I’ll have 10 hours to wait.

This was the third time I reserved a hotel room at the Vagabond Inn across the street from the train station.  Even though I wasn’t spending an overnight, to have a place to relax, take a shower and have dinner (and not be traveling 80 mph!) is worth it.

To pass the time, I went for my third visit to the California State Railway Museum.  They close at 5pm so I had to quickly drop my luggage at the hotel, and hurry along for a 10 minute walk to the museum.  If you’re a train buff, this is an incredible museum.  How they managed to get some of these old, old, old engines indoors is beyond imagination.

All aboard at midnight on the Coast Starlight.  The hotel will arrange a ride to the station – it’s not a safe walk late at night for a solo female traveler. The next morning I left the train in southern Oregon to visit some friends for two nights.  Then it was back on the Coast Starlight to Portland.  Why not all the way to Bellingham for the ferry?  The Coast Starlight only goes as far as Seattle not further north to Bellingham, Washington.  So it’s one overnight at a hotel in Portland and the next day board Amtrak Cascades to Bellingham.

One more hotel night in Bellingham and then…

MV Columbia to Alaska

For the last leg of this exhaustive cross-country marathon, I boarded the 499-passenger MV Columbia in Bellingham, just south of our border with Canada.  MV Columbia travels the entire 3,500 miles of the Alaska Marine Highway mainline route, whose beginning and end ports are the only ports actually accessible by roads.

Alaska Marine Highway ferry, MV Columbia
This is a ferry? The MV Columbia is more like a cruise ship.

Alaska is so huge that it takes three days to cruise along the Alaska Marine Highway system to reach my first Alaska port stop in Ketchikan.  Granted we don’t go very fast and the ship makes several stops along the way.  I arranged an AirBnB for two nights in Ketchikan.  That was just enough time to get out and explore.

To get from Ketchikan to Juneau, I took the 450-passenger MV Malaspina and relaxed in my little en suite sleeping compartment for a whole 18 hours!  Finally, I arrived at Juneau at 6:15am!  Again, I had arranged for an AirBnB but this time for an entire week.

It seemed logical to spend a few days there, seeing how Juneau is the state capital and surrounded by incredible wilderness.

Alaskan Dream Cruises Chichagof Dream

After a land and sea trek of more than 4,254.81 miles, I finally set foot aboard the Chichagof Dream.  Our Alaska cruise itinerary was scheduled to visit six ports, involved milk hiking, gently kayaking, an outdoor BBQ, cultural enrichment and of course, Alaskan fish and seafood.

And finally, how I packed for an Alaska cruise

I wish I had known.  I mean, I knew to pack warm clothes, gloves, hat etc.  But who knew it would be 80 degrees!  Even Chicago was cooler than Alaska.

I bought a new 300mm Nikkor lens, funny-looking wool blend socks and my first-ever hiking shoes, with Alaska Blue trim. Even though I live in Florida, my winter river cruises in Europe always resulted in buying a new puffy down coat over there. It’s the little obscure things to pack for an Alaska cruise that only someone who’s been on an Alaska cruise would know to bring.  I’m putting a checklist together now.

Was all this worth the nearly two-weeks of travel to get here?  Yes!  In fact, I loved Alaska so much that I ended up staying for six weeks.  Then I repeated almost the same route to get home.

Read Next: How I Almost Missed the Train to Get to Alaska from Florida

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