Why Travelers Who Visit Alaska Return Over and Over Again

October 18, 2018

Once in Alaska, it doesn’t take long to understand how the place can upend a person’s travel life. In a good way. Alaska either grabs your heart and your imagination, or it doesn’t. (When it doesn’t? Well, I don’t understand that, but it happens.) But if it does? There’s a good chance future vacation planning conversations will start with, “Well, we could go back to Alaska again.” 

The more you learn about Alaska, the more you want to see of it. A cruise is a great sampler platter, but don’t expect it’ll make you cross off Alaska from your “to see” list. It will rev up your hunger for more of this most dramatic, diverse state.

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Ask around when touring the state and you’re sure to meet other travelers who came to gaze out on a pod of orcas swimming around Prince William Sound or to see bears or a massive bull moose, the latter’s antlers weighing up to 80 pounds, from a cruise ship. They visited for the chance to step out on a glacier with a guide leading the way or to try their hand at salmon fishing, hoping to ship enough reds back home for an elaborate dinner party.

That all stuck with them when they got home. So, another Alaska trip. And then another. Visitors here return again and again because their fishing skill exceeds their expectations (and the taste of the salmon is even better). They want more of the quiet they experienced while hiking through the thick of an old growth forest, dense with more greens than one could ever imagine—from dark green spruce tips to bright green mosses. 

They return for the unexpected variety: The public art in Ketchikan; the lazy paddling around Sitka’s islands; the chance to learn about Alaska’s rich Native heritage in some of the finest small museums imaginable and the stories of the Tlingit and Haida people who have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years.

That all, of course, is both an endorsement and a warning. Your future may require more rain gear. I was a return tripper myself. Now? I still call myself a New Yorker, but I’m a full-time Alaska resident.

But first, the cruise, an introduction to one of Alaska’s many regions. Watch for a circle of bubbles rising up in the water—a sign that a group of humpbacks is feeding below. Bubbles. Bubbles. Bubbles. And then a massive burst of energy as the whales come to the surface to catch the fish caught in their “net.” It’s always surprising. Also keep watch for the state ferries, dressed up in blue and yellow. The Inside Passage doubles as the Alaska Marine Highway, the only all-water National Scenic Byway in the country. The ferry service—which started in 1949—shuttles nurses to their jobs, basketball teams to tournaments and cargo to the towns that dot the state’s shoreline.

Listen for the sound of giant blocks of ice calving off of Hubbard Glacier. Speed along on a Zodiac for an up-close (but not too close) look at icebergs and South Sawyer Glacier. Visit the wee fishing settlement of Elfin Cove—which blooms to 100 people during the busy summers. Once winter rolls in, making access to Elfin Cove challenging, the population drops somewhere south of 20 hearty souls. Wander the town’s boardwalks before going to visit the area’s other inhabitants by Zodiac—the sea lions and otters await. (And, yes, they really are as amusing as you imagine.)

Another warning: Alaska is both a photographer’s delight and greatest frustration. Even for pros. It doesn’t take long to realize that, despite the oohs and aahs your photos will garner back home, they don’t capture that the glacier stretching across the frame sits 1,800 inches thick and 32 miles long. Or the details of wildlife. Puffins in particular all too frequently end up as blurry blobs in images. These birds, which stand only 10 inches tall, jet past at speeds up to 55 mph.

No matter, memories both large and small will forever stay in your mind. And your urging of friends to make the trip themselves—“You can’t understand until you see Alaska for yourself ”—will probably include a follow-up sentence: “Hey, we should all go together.”