The Alaska Marine Highway

I love that there is an official highway in North America with no tar, no traffic, and no roadkill. North from Bellingham in Washington state, you can cruise up to the USA’s most northern state, but not in a car.  Passing through crystal clear Canadian waters, between tiny islands and all the way to Unalaska in the far western reaches of um… Alaska, you can take a ride. It’s called the Alaska Marine Highway.

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It’s wild, beautiful and importantly, it’s accessible to people like us. You see, it’s not all cruise ships, charter boats and seafood trawlers in this pristine part of the world. There’s also this ferry system run by the government, for the people. It’s a bloody good ride, and I got in on it. I think you should too so here’s the low down.

My Uncle Rick and Aunt Karen used to live in Alaska back in the day, so they know a thing or two. Spending time with them in their home in Colorado gave us a chance to look ahead at our undecided path, and man, am I glad they set us up with this bright idea. Take an affordable trip to Alaska, see the sights from the water, and then soak up the vibes from on top of the world.

It seemed to me that this longstanding ferry system was almost unheard of by most Americans. Lovingly known as the poor man’s cruise ship, the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system offers folk like you and me a chance to cruise, in relative style, alongside the whales through a coastal paradise.

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Witty, young Atlas and I boarded the MV Kennicott in Bellingham on a crisp, sunny day. For a few hundred bucks, we had purchased our passage through to Alaska’s state capital, Juneau, and with that, we included a “roomette” for us to tuck Finn away in for sleeps while we meandered up the marine highway for three days. A lot of people don’t get roomettes, or cabins of any kind. On the Alaska Marine Highway ferries, there are designated areas where you can sleep in reclining chairs or lay out your sleeping bag, binoculars and toothbrush. Other vagabonds we met had possied themselves in some pretty sweet spots around the boat. From their makeshift beds they had great views, ample privacy and bathrooms all to themselves!

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Incredibly, you’re even welcome to set up your tent on the sun deck or in the solarium if it takes your fancy! We didn’t see anyone do this on our trip though, which might have been because the weather was so bizarrely warm. You would have roasted, sleeping up there!

As we heaved our way onto the ferry with all of our gear that day, a decky by the name of Craig gave us a hand with our bags. Craig was a wise guy from New York. I give him this description as I want you to imagine it said with his thick New Yorker accent. And we later found out he was a fantastic smart arse. So it fits. We made mates with the wise guy that day, and the rough sweetheart took us under his wing. Throughout the boat trip we caught up for a yarn regularly, got the low down on where we were headed and what to look out for. We were even plied with pizzas from the crew’s mess. This newfound friendship later led to a few (or many) drinking jaunts when we finally arrived his home base, Juneau… but I digress. More on those shenanigans another time.

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Craig helped lug our gear via the Purser’s office who took one look at us, our cumbersome bags, and our charming, smile-baby. Melting under the grin of Finn, she said, “Hm, you booked the roomette, hey? I think you’ll need more than a broom closet with that lot.” Within moments, Purser Debby had upgraded us to the disabled suite, complete with sink, porthole (so maybe we really had booked a broom closet!), ample space to lay out a makeshift baby bed, and free linen! Score!! Suffice to say, Debby got a lot of chocolate dropped at the Purser’s office that day. And we basked in the joy of an upgrade! Thanks Finn!

For those considering taking the ferry, I recommend the cabins. Mostly because we are ridiculously messy and we try to hide that from the world (except when I put it online). I peeked my head into quite a few cabins, and while I never saw the broom closet ‘roomette’, all the others looked good. You can go super lush if you are cabining up, and get your own bathroom. Nonetheless, we used the shared bathrooms and quite honestly, I never came across one person sharing them! The water was hot and the pressure was great. Everything was squeaky clean and worked perfectly. Of course, you can get by without the room at all and sleep safely in the boat’s common areas, but if you can afford the extra cash (or have a kid), it’s a comfy choice.

There were other great features on the ferry too. Besides sun decks and spacious lounge areas with huge windows to the great outdoors, there were games rooms for kids, play mats and toys for toddlebods, and a cinema room that played a swag of PG movies and a few interesting documentaries about Alaska and the towns along the marine highway route.

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Of course, it’s not a complete tip-off without a review of the gastronomical entertainment. And let’s face it, food is high on the entertainment barometer for us Wittys. There was a diner offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus vino and cerveza for the over 21ers. The food was bain-marie style and sometimes the pasta was a bit gluggy after sitting too long, but the fish was fresh, the salads were crisp and my favourite was simply a bowl of chilli con carne with a few croutons and cheese. Deliciously warming after a cool walk around the deck in the evening breeze.

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You can also BYO your food, which we did using an eski (cooler box) that my cousin Sean donated. There’s a microwave, a supply of condiments, hot water for drinks, and an ice machine to fill up your eski. It is only a quarter for a bucket of ice, but if you hold the ice button down you can fill up 4 buckets and pass them off as treats to the next people in line: a great way to make friends for a quarter of a quarter, I reckon.

If you don’t like the beer or wine selection, you can BYO your own booze but you have to promise to drink it in the privacy of your own cabin, or subtly carry around thermoses of tea with chunks of ice tinkering cheekily in them. Ahem.

Remember, it’s NOT a cruise ship so don’t get all hoity toity on the crew. I read a lot of online reviews before buying these tickets and I was surprised at how many people ignorantly whined about the lack of cruise-shippy-ness. Get a grip! Expect a ferry, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the quality. Clean white linen, tidy cabins and very friendly crew. And then there’s the views. Unparalleled beauty, whales slapping their tails on glassy seas, late-night vibrant sunsets and bald eagles soaring overhead, waiting to see if you might drop your baby.

Our MV Kennicott took a breathtaking route through the inland passage. While many of the vessels running on the Alaska Marine Highway stop often, ours only pulled in at Ketchikan. It was brief, but fun. We chewed through an oversized 3-egg breakfast, wandered with the cruise ship tourists through the infamous Creek Street, and found time to embarrass our son by purchasing a Davy Crockett hat. Then, we were back on board, and onward to our final destination. We thoroughly enjoyed the journey and would recommend it in a heart beat. On on, Alaska!