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Alaska Marine Highway--This Isn't a Love Boat!

Jan 3, 2000 (Updated Jul 18, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Scenery, whales

Cons:Utilitarian accommodations, terrible food choices, no shore leaves, parking garage doubles as litter box, boring

In Summer 1997, my wife and I drove from San Francisco to Anchorage. On the return segment, we drove from Anchorage to Haines and then put our car on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and cruised to Bellingham, WA. It was about a 3 1/2 day trip.

The rap on the Alaska Marine Highway is that it is utilitarian, and boy, that's the truth! This is a working ferry, and there aren't any luxury touches--"functional" is the watch word.

Let's start with the lodging. Some travelers were audacious enough to skip getting a stateroom, which meant that they either (a) set up a tent on the back end of the boat, or (b) crashed every night in one of the lounges. Either way, I'm way too old for such accommodations, so we got a stateroom. The room was OK, but it was small and very spartan. We did have a private bath, which was a plus, but the bath reeked of seawater, cleaners and chemicals and was not particularly inviting. Because of the odor and claustrophobia, we spent all of our awake time in the lounges.

Let's move to the food. There is a single cafeteria and an overpriced fishy restaurant on the boat, and those are your "choices." And when I say cafeteria, I mean CAFETERIA. It was like what I expect in state office building or at elementary schools. For vegetarians, it was particularly dire. They actually listed garden burgers on the menu, but looking at the grill, we could easily see that what started out vegetarian would not be vegetarian at the end of the cooking process. When we finally got up the nerve to order one, they told us they were stocked out! The remainder of the vegetarian options were pretty skimpy and unappealing. You can't use a propane stove on the boat (for obvious reasons), and the few stops were too short to get a meal. So the food situation is a pretty serious problem. Fortunately, we packed a pretty good cooler in Haines, but we were still pretty hungry when we got off the boat!

Then, there's the pet situation. Passengers can bring their pets, but there's no special place for the pets to take care of personal business. Instead, the parking deck doubles as the litter box. So you can imagine how foul this gets after a few days. You're only allowed to access your car during the ride a few times, but since these coincide with pet latrine hours, you definitely DON'T want to go down there.

There were a few stops along the way, but they were optimized for moving people and cars on and off the boat, not tourism. We had a layover in Juneau that was long enough to take a 2 hour tour of a glacier; otherwise, the stops were long enough only for several hundred people to hit the local convenience shop near the harbor. So we definitely didn't see any of the towns along the way.

Otherwise, there was just about nothing to do on the boat. I'm not the kind of person who enjoys just sitting around doing nothing, so I definitely started going stir crazy after a few days. There were a few naturalist talks, but they were less than an hour a day, and otherwise--nothing. Mostly I just zoned out by looking out the window, which was OK except when there was zero visibility.

Finally, for the privilege of all this, we paid about $1,500 for 2 people and the car. While this saved us a few days of tedious driving, it was probably twice as much as the gas/hotel expenses of driving. So there's a definite premium, and I'm not sure it was worth it.

There were only a few neat aspects of the ferry. First, the scenery was great, although we had good weather for only 1.5 of the days; the rest were raining/foggy/no visibility. Second, we saw tons of marine mammals--especially large groups of humpback whales--very cool.

Having done the ferry once, if I had to do it over again, I'd skip the ferry and drive back, or I'd take a tourist-oriented cruise of the Inside Passage and see it more in-depth.

June 26, 2000 update: I've noticed that some users are misinterpreting my critical travel reviews as disparaging the residents of the locale. I write my travel opinions to explain why I liked and didn't like a destination AS A TOURIST. I do not judge why people choose where to live or assess their personal worth based on those choices. I hope you find the review helpful in determining whether this destination is a good tourist destination for you.

Recommend this product? No

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