Some travelers live for new destinations; others visit the same place time and again, making it their own. Sarah Blech falls squarely into the second camp. The Earlysville, Va., resident has already been to Alaska twice, and for her next vacation she’d like to go to — where else? — Alaska. This time around, she and her boyfriend, Doug Hammond, want to cruise the Inside Passage, the protected strip of sea that runs along the southeast border and past some of the most spectacular scenery in the state. Their budget is on the low side, so Blech asked for our help in planning a trip using the state ferry system.
Using ferries to navigate the Inside Passage is genius. For locals, the 3,500-mile Alaska Marine Highway System is a handy way to get from town to town when the roads are impassible (or nonexistent). For visitors, it’s a convenient and thrifty way to see the Pacific coastline, without the pricey trappings or set schedules of a fancy cruise ship. You can walk on or bring a car; stay on board and view the passing show, or hop on and off at whim; bunk down in a private cabin or sleep on deck under the stars (yep, that’s allowed).
A few points to keep in mind:
●Ferries can fill up fast during shoulder and high seasons (May through September), so reserve ahead (800-642-0066, dot.state.
●Some boats arrive or depart at ungodly hours, and others operate only once a week, so you might need a human to help you make sense of it all. The Alaska tourism site has a list of travel agents who have completed a training program to become Alaska Certified Experts: Go to www.travelalaska.com/Planning and click on the “Travel agents” link under “Planning resources.”
●Shop the specials. For example, summer walk-on passengers planning a one-way trip up or down the Inside Passage can save up to 25 percent on fares with a See Alaska pass. For $160 per person, you can make up to three stops (choose from Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau and Haines). Info: dot.state.ak.us/amhs/specials_summer.shtml.
Getting there: You can fly from Washington to Seattle or to your departure port in Alaska (Ketchikan or Juneau) round trip, but to avoid backtracking, arrive and depart from different airports. D.C. to Ketchikan, with a return from Juneau, runs about $780 per person in the summer.
Here’s an itinerary for a 10-day trip in early July, with ferries coordinated for a Saturday arrival in Ketchikan. You can mix and match ports, excursions and side trips according to whim or ferry schedule. Ferry prices are per person walk-ons, unless noted. For lodging, we’ve recommended low-budget hostels, but splurges at luxe wilderness lodges are always an option. See the Travel Alaska Web site, www.travelalaska.com, for more options.
Days 1-2: Fly from Washington to Ketchikan. Take a flightseeing or boat tour of Misty Fiords National Monument, with some of Alaska’s most spectacular scenery, or sign up for a half-day guided sport fishing trip. Lodging option: Eagle View Hostel, $28 per person (www.eagleviewhostel.com).
Days 3-4: Take the early-morning ferry to Sitka (24 hours; $255 for two people in a cabin with bathroom and shower). Highlights: Russian history; native artifacts and totem poles at Sitka National Historical Park; eagles and other raptors at the Alaska Raptor Center; humpback whales at Whale Park. Lodging option: Sitka International Hostel, $24 per person.
Days 5-6: Take the 1:30 p.m. ferry to Juneau, Alaska’s capital (41 / 2 hours, $45). Go sea kayaking, rafting, glacial trekking or hiking; view the Mendenhall Glacier; explore Tracy Arm Fjord on a full-day cruise tour. Lodging option: Juneau International Hostel, $10 plus one chore per person (www.juneauhostel.net).
Day 7: Take the 7 a.m. ferry from Juneau to Haines, on the shores of America’s longest fjord (41 / 2 hours, $37). Tour historic Fort Seward and the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Lodging option: Bear Creek Cabins and Hostel, $20 per person (www.bearcreekcabinsalaska.com). Or consider a splurge: Take the ferry from Juneau to Gustavus (61 / 2 hours, $33), gateway to Glacier Bay National Park, and stay at the Gustavus Inn ($205 per person, www.gustavusinn.com).
Days 8-9: Take the 12:45 p.m. ferry from Haines to Skagway (one hour, $31), the historic gold rush town. Take a scenic ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Stay at the Alaska Sojourn Hostel, $25 per person (www.alaskansojourn.net).
Day 10: Take the 7 a.m. ferry to Juneau (six hours, $50) and fly home.
Cost: Airfare, $1,560; ferries, about $580; lodging, about $340. Total: about $2,480 for two people.
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For two years in this space, we’ve helped readers plan their vacations — from family reunions to Tahitian honeymoons to regional B&B escapes. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading the feature as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it. But everything runs its course, and this will be the last Going Our Way column. Thanks for trusting us with your precious vacation time, and don’t worry, we’re still here for you: We’ll continue answering your questions in our weekly online chat (Mondays at noon at live.washingtonpost.com) and will publish excerpts of those regularly.