Cruise Alaska for Less!

Explore Alaska's glaciers, orcas, humpbacks, grizzlies and tons of mouthwatering seafood on America's only all-water National Scenic Byway -- aka the Alaska Marine Highway System. You can take ships to some of Alaska's coolest corners for as little as $37 a leg. Click on to choose your own adventure and get on board!
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Explore Alaska's glaciers, orcas, humpbacks, grizzlies and tons of mouthwatering seafood on America's only all-water National Scenic Byway -- aka the Alaska Marine Highway System. You can take ships to some of Alaska's coolest corners for as little as $37 a leg. Click on to choose your own adventure and get on board!

Navigation How-To

You'll carry your own bags. You'll never see a chocolate on your pillow. And you won't be whisked off the docks by guides. But with that independence comes freedom: to spend all the time you want at each ferry stop (we're focusing on four in the awe-packed southeast corridor) doing what you enjoy most. You'll find three kinds of offerings so you can seek out grizzlies, totem poles, glaciers -- or all of the above!

Alaskan highway

Juneau

There's a lot about Alaska that's just different from everyplace else -- not least, a state capital that's off the road system. Yes, even legislators have to fly or ferry in! But Juneau is also, you'll find, the capital city of hiking, with more than 250 miles of trails in and around town.

STAY: Alaska's Capital Inn Bed & Breakfast In all of two seconds, you'll feel seriously at home at the Capital Inn (if your home had been built by a gold-rusher in 1906 and featured a stunning deck, garden and hot tub). Breakfasts here feel like family gatherings -- with the cool branch of the family. (From $250 -- mention this article for a 10 percent discount; alaskacapitalinn.com)

Juneau

Where to Eat

A longtime Juneau favorite, Hot Bite stays true to its name with steaming halibut-cheek sandwiches. And if you go for lunch, pick up a couple of other essentials: a creamy milk shake for dessert and fresh-from-the-tank Dungeness crab (to go) for dinner. Locals do the same. Back at the Capital Inn (our Juneau hotel pick), co-owner Linda Wendeborn will gamely steam your souvenir that night.

11465 Auke Bay Harbor Rd., 907-790-2483

Hot Bite

What to Do

The Mendenhall Glacier Trek is your chance for serious back-home bragging rights: You're about to hike eight miles (round-trip), stomp across a glacier and -- if conditions are declared safe for the day -- wander into a 50-shades-of- blue ice cave, where the indoor waterfalls and ice formations will make you question whether you're hallucinating. Go ahead, be taken aback. The guides -- and strap- on ice cleats -- will help keep you upright.

Above & Beyond Alaska, Auke Bay Harbor, Juneau ($209; beyondak.com)

Mendenhall Glacier Trek

What to Do

Can't get enough of that glacier? Take it in from another vantage point: the seat of a kayak on chilly (bundle up!) Mendenhall Lake. Paddle past bobbing icebergs -- most of their epic mass hangs below the waterline and looks eerily beautiful submerged -- as you make your way toward the glacier. Then take a well-deserved break on the stretch of land between the lake and the impressively loud Nugget Falls.

($115; juneaukayak.com) Alaska Boat & Kayak Shop, Auke Bay Harbor, Juneau

Mendenhall Glacier Lake

Sitka

One word comes up more often than not in the same breath as Sitka: magic. There's a something-about-this-place feeling that blankets every last inch of the city, from the rainy day -- perfect Old Harbor Books shop, which specializes in Alaska titles, to the path that meanders through the totem poles and spruces at Sitka National Historical Park.

STAY: Westmark Sitka Hotel Your days in Sitka are going to be all hiking and kayaking and post-chowder naps (as you may be gathering, chowder is a thing in Alaska). Rest your head in this central, down-by-the-harbor hotel, where the beds are especially comfy. (From $219; westmarkhotels.com)

Sitka

Where to Eat

Even if there were nothing else to do in Sitka (ha!), you'd want to ferry that way just for Ludvig's Bistro. Chef-owner Colette Nelson, who used to fish on the Gulf of Alaska, now sends locally caught seafood on an amazing flavor trip to the Mediterranean. Don't miss her seared local scallops with squid-ink pappardelle, preserved lemon-butter sauce, grape tomatoes and fried basil.

256 Katlian St., Sitka ludvigsbistro.com

Ludvig’s Bistro

What to Do

Established in 1890, the national monument known as Sitka National Historical Park commemorates the battle between the Tlingit and the Russian traders who stole their lands -- and is also one of the state's best places to stroll. The paths are lined with towering totem pole replicas -- most of the original ones have decayed -- that Native Alaskan leaders throughout the region donated to the park. You can also step into the Russian colonial period via one of the few remaining buildings from that time, the 1843 Bishop's House.

106 Metlakatla St., Sitka (Free; nps.gov/sitk)

Sitka National Historical Park

Wrangell

At first glance, you'll think, "Hmm, could use a coat of paint." But Wrangell's weathered looks are part of the tiny town's huge charm. Here, in one of Alaska's least cruise-y ports, you often feel like it's just you, the locals and Wrangell's rich Tlingit history. Doesn't hurt that some of the best bear viewing in the state is just a speedboat ride away.

STAY: Stikine Inn The rooms here may be simple, but with waterfront views like these, who needs great art on the walls? A two- minute walk from the ferry and pretty much everything else, the inn is a convenient place to stay and home to heavenly halibut-heaped fry-bread pizza. (From $143; stikineinn.com)

Wrangell

What to Do

Don't hang your toes over the viewing platform at Anan Wildlife Observatory. There are bears down there! And in the trees. And eating salmon in the creek. In fact, there are bears everywhere. And that's the point. The ride over to the observatory is also part of the fun if you go on Brenda Schwartz-Yeager's power boat. A guide who was raised on these waterways, she knew the observatory before there was an observatory, thanks to her dad's game warden gig.

Alaska Charters and Adventures, 5 Front St., Wrangell ($314; alaskaupclose.com)

Anan Wildlife Observatory

What to Do

Explore Wrangell's rich Native culture -- the Tlingit people have fished, traded and created striking visual histories of their time here for hundreds of years -- with a guided tour of the Alaska Waters Highlights & Culture Tour, which showcases their cultural hot spots. You'll see everything from the ancient art at Petroglyph Beach to the newly restored and rededicated Chief Shakes Tribal House, where, all summer long, you can also catch Tlingit dance and storytelling performances and even take a traditional beading or weaving class.

107 Stikine Ave., Wrangell ($45; alaskawaters.com)

Alaska Waters Highlights & Culture Tour

Ketchikan

Stretched along the coast of the gorgeously mountainous and highly unpronounceable Revillagigedo Island, this city serves up equal parts history, adventure and eye- catching public art. Listen in on your neighbors at a local coffee shop and you're liable to hear fishermen discussing murals in progress as well as the day's catch.

STAY: Black Bear Inn Turning the traditional B&B on its head (spa? sure! mandatory group breakfast? nope), Black Bear Inn starts your day with a tray of fresh baked goods and a well- stocked kitchen. But dinner is easily the best meal here if you cook your own catch on the waterfront grill. (From $170; stayinalaska.com)

Ketchikan

Where to Eat

Though the menu at The Halibut Hole is great, don't look at it: Proceed directly to the fried halibut and chips. If the outdoor seating area at this waterside joint is full, grab a stack of napkins and order your meal to go -- but don't go too far. You'll want to eat the crispy-on-the-outside, juicy fresh fillet while it's hot. Pick a spot. Lean. Eat.

7 Creek St., 907-225-5162

Halibut Hole

What to Do

There's no faster way to make friends with a room full of strangers than to gear up in the wet suits, hoods, boots and gloves you'll need to snorkel at Mountain Point. Divers will help you back-step into the icy water and then -- as you paddle around tide pools and rock walls -- point out sea stars in sunset orange and Grape Ape purple, plus quillback rockfish and totally tubular sea cucumbers.

4031 South Tongass Hwy.,Ketchikan ($110; snorkelalaska.com)

Snorkel Alaska

What to Do

Mother Nature did everyone a solid when, thousands of years ago, she turned glaciers into carving tools at the Orcas Cove and Misty Fjords National Monument. As you kayak through the resulting fjords, don't be surprised if an orca joins your guided group. (OK, there's no way not to be surprised. Just enjoy.) If you feel like going luxe, book a float plane for a tour of Misty Fjords' 3,000-foot granite walls.

Southeast Sea Kayaks 3 Salmon Landing, Ketchikan ($169 for kayaking, $409 if you add flight-seeing; kayakketchikan.com)

Orcas Cove and Misty Fjords National Monument