Because I’m going to Alaska…without flying!
4,254.81 miles. That’s the distance from Orlando, near where I live, to Juneau Alaska, where I’ll begin my Alaska cruise with Alaskan Dream Cruises. More miles than crossing the Atlantic aboard Queen Mary 2. That’s probably why I haven’t been to the Great State yet.
To get to Alaska, I’ll take six Amtrak trains, stay at four hotels and board 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!
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.
As I cobbled together this awesome adventure, (“A Laskin Adventure”), I learned one big fact: Alaska is made up of 2,670 islands. And 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.
But first, there are the 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 arrive pretty early, around 7am but Washington’s Union Station will already be bustling with commuters. I’ll have a continental breakfast at either Le Pain Quotidien, 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’ll stow 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.
Next Amtrak train – eight hours later. I’ll board 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 meal. Actually, two; dinner and breakfast. Coffee will be hot and I’ll be in my own room. Maybe I’ll buy an extra croissant in Washington for this train.
Sweet home Chicago
I’m spending four days in Chicago, in between Amtrak segments. One of my two close high school friends will be in town and it’s also my daughter’s birthday so this should be a nice break. Then the cross-country race begins again. Not sure where I’m going to stay yet in Chicago, though. I might use the Hotel Tonight app to find a last minute rate. As long as the bed isn’t on wheels going 80 mph, I’ll be happy anywhere.
Hello California Zephyr
Two nights and 50 hours later, I’ll leave the California Zephyr in Sacramento, California. Since my connecting northbound train, the famous Coast Starlight, doesn’t leave until 11:59pm I’ll have 10 hours to wait. To pass the time, I’ll head over for my third visit to the California State Railway Museum. They close at 5pm so I have to quickly check my luggage at the station but it’s only 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. Tomorrow morning I’ll leave this train in southern Oregon to visit some friends and do a day trip to Crater Lake. The next day it’s back on the Coast Starlight to Portland. Why? The Coast Starlight only goes as far as Seattle. I’ve got to go further north to Bellingham, Washington for the ferry to Juneau. So it’s one overnight at a hotel in Portland and the next day onward aboard Amtrak Cascades to Bellingham. One last hotel night in Bellingham and then…
For the last leg of this exhaustive cross-country marathon, I’ll board the 499-passenger MV Columbia in Bellingham, Washington, 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 actually accessible by roads.
Alaska is so huge that it takes three days to cruise along the Alaska Marine Highway system to reach my first stop in Ketchikan. Granted we don’t go very fast and the ship makes several stops along the way. I’ll spend two nights and barely two days exploring my first city in Alaska. Finally!
To get from Ketchikan to Juneau, I’ll board the 450-passenger MV Malaspina, relax in my little en suite sleeping compartment until 18 hours later. I will arrive at Juneau – 6:15am! I hope there’s a hotel with an available room at that hour.
It seems logical to spend a few days there, seeing how Juneau is the state capital and surrounded by incredible wilderness. Again, this is another roadless community, a ferry boat is needed to get to the mainland.
Alaskan Dream Cruises Chichagof Dream
After a land and sea trek of at least 4,254.81 miles, I will board Chichagof Dream. Our Alaska cruise itinerary is scheduled to visit six ports, involves hiking, kayaking, an outdoor BBQ, cultural enrichment and of course, Alaskan fish and seafood.
How to pack for an Alaska cruise
I wish I knew. Suggestions are welcome. I mean, I know warm clothes, gloves, hat etc. 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 resulted in buying a few puffy down coats 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.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this article. They are all products that I bought and use when I travel. If you follow the link and purchase something, I receive a very small commission on the sale. Thank you.
Read Next: Day 2 – Getting to Alaska from Florida