Last year, the Alaska Marine Highway was named one of 23 new National Scenic Byways—the only one consisting entirely of water. Established in 1963, four years after Alaska became a state, the Alaska Marine Highway System celebrates 40 years of ferry service along the byway. A fleet of nine ferries, equipped with cabins and cafeterias, serves 33 coastal communities and offers a nontouristy, no-frills way to cruise our 49th state. You'll meet real Alaskans and view the same dramatic scenery and wildlife that draw cruise ships to the Inside Passage. A U.S. forest ranger is often onboard, offering daily free naturalist programs. Ferry rates vary, depending on how far you travel and whether you bring a vehicle. Sample fare: A three-night voyage (no vehicle) with cabin from Bellingham, Wash., the ferry's southern terminus, to Juneau runs about $750 for two people. (Note that hardy, budget-minded travelers often set up tents in the ship's solarium and dine picnic style.) Information on rates and schedule: (800) 642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us .
Where it is — Runs for 8,834 miles from Bellingham north to Skagway, across the Gulf of Alaska, into Prince William Sound, and out to Dutch Harbor, the tip of the Aleutians.
Who will like it — Travelers who love nature, native cultures, history, and life at sea.
What's there — Endless sea and sky, indigenous peoples, historic waterfronts, glaciers, fjords, rain forest, rugged snowcapped mountain peaks, Pacific Ring of Fire volcanoes, seals, sea lions, whales, porpoises, otters, eagles, brown and black bears, mountain goats, 35 to 40 species of birds, and nine wildlife preserves and national parks.
When to go — Summer, for its lingering light, or spring and fall, when the ferries are less crowded and the fares are lower.
Illustration by Michael Klein
This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.