With or Without You, Southeast Alaska Edition

By Jenna Schnuer

There’s a great and odd divide between those who favor cruises and those who don’t. All too often, there’s some serious snottiness that gets lobbed at cruise-goers by solo travelers. I find it strange to take issue with the way somebody else travels. (Though, don’t count me too nice: while I don’t like to sneer at people for their travel method of choice, I find plenty of reasons to give people the stinkeye.) Anyway, though I’m usually a solo-traveling type, I took a cruise four or so years ago to see what the experience was like. Granted, it was to Alaska and I’ll take Alaska any old way I can get it, but once I gave myself over to the cruise way—slot machine tournament? Sign me up! Mountain views from a moving hot tub? Yes, please—I counted myself lucky to watch people immerse themselves in the beauty of the Inside Passage and, yes, talk to people on deck (or during excursions) about their big trip of a lifetime. They reminded me how lucky I am to get to travel. They smacked me over the head with the joy. So, in their honor, the final installment of my happy-in-SE Alaska series. (Want to read the rest? Part one. Part two.)

Suit up

No matter your taste in comedy—from The Three Stooges to Seinfeld to Sarah Silverman—there’s one experience that guarantees guffaws for all: being in a room where 15 people are putting on wetsuits. Most, for the first time. After grabbing my gear from a Snorkel Alaska staffer in Ketchikan, I slipped through the curtain into the women’s dressing area. There was super-thick neoprene all over the place. And giggling. So much giggling. Though it was just my third time suiting up, I was one of the most experienced wetsuit wearers in the bunch. After a bus ride down to the water, we all, slowly, walked backwards into the water. After a few seconds of cool seeping through, the suit started to do its job. I was warm. I was in Alaska. I was snorkeling. And, with my first dive down through the bull kelp to the bright purple starfish below, I wanted to stay in the water forever.

Go: Travel to Ketchikan by cruise ship, plane (commercial carrier or float), or the Alaska Marine Highway ferry.

Guessing games

The icebergs—at times shot through with blue, others practically translucent—would bob just enough to remind me that they were far from steady. They could roll. They could take the kayak out. But it was ever so tempting to paddle that much closer. Luckily, my paddling companion was a local who kept me realistic, and handled the boat’s steering. Some icebergs dripped dripped dripped as the summer sun warmed their edges but the glacier-cooled water of Juneau’s Mendenhall Lake was far from dip-worthy. A hand in the water made that clear. And, as we paddled around the massive nature sculptures, a game was afoot: forget naming the clouds, instead find forms in the icebergs. That one was a shark rising out of the water. The other one a playground slide. Each changing in our eyes as we paddled the bright red kayak around to the other side.

Go: The state capital isn’t on any road system. Get there by cruise ship, plane (commercial carrier or float), or the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. And rent your kayak—with or without a guide—from the Alaska Boat & Kayak Shop.

Up up and…climb on in

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Unless there’s something wrong with you, climbing 367 steps isn’t usually considered good times. But the steps up to the mouth of El Capitan Cave on Prince of Wales Island wind through layers of forest, with leaves and grasses and trees so lush and gorgeous that the Stairmaster-esque walk just fades from thoughts. And, along the way, the U.S. Forest Service guides—who make the climb several times a day—talk of ancient black bear skeletons and old-growth forests and rock formations. And, just when I started to get warm, when the climb had gotten just a little annoying, we stepped into the mouth of the cave…and the cool interior focused my attention once more.

Go: The Island isn’t a cruise ship destination, but worth adding to an itinerary. It’s an out-of-the-way place that even many Alaskans don’t take the chance to visit. Go by ferry or float plane. Make a reservation to visit El Capitan Cave.

Jenna Schnuer is a freelance writer and editor. Her essays appeared in the magazine’s April 2011 feature, “New Yorkers’ New York.” Read more of her work here and see her photos here. Follow her on Twitter here.

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