On a recent trip to Alaska, I booked a cabin on an overnight ferry to see the Inside Passage.
Unlike cruise ships on the same route, it's far cheaper, is no frills, and serves mostly locals.
I paid $282 for a private cabin on the 19-hour ride from Juneau to Ketchikan. Here's how it went.
On a recent trip to Alaska, I booked a cabin on a state overnight ferry to navigate the Inside Passage rather than board a traditional cruise.
While cruise ships may have opened up Alaska's wilderness to millions, the thought of frittering away my vacation time and dollars at an onboard casino, or posing for a selfie with Mickey Mouse just doesn't quite match up with my idea of a dream holiday.
So on a recent trip to Alaska where I wanted to see the scenic Inside Passage, I decided to book a cabin on the diminutive MV Matanuska, a public ferry that zigzags through the same route as larger cruise ships.
Rather than serving solely leisure travel, the ferry is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, which is the state's main public transportation system.
In the absence of any interconnecting roads in remote parts of Alaska, the ferry serves as a vital water link between the panhandle's widely scattered towns and communities.
As a result, I knew I was more likely to bump into locals onboard than vacationing families. In my case, many of my fellow passengers were Alaskans traveling to work, visiting family, or people on their way to an off-grid fishing adventure.
Launched in 1962, the MV Matanuska is one of nine public ferries operating on the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The 60-year-old ship operates for passengers and cars on a 19-hour overnight route between Juneau and Ketchikan, with brief stops in Petersburg and Wrangell, Alaska.
While it's possible to purchase a ticket to sleep in a chair on one of the various decks (there are public showers and reclining sun-loungers onboard), I wanted the comfort of a proper bed.
Cabins onboard the ship were bunk-style with two, three, or four-berth options. I reserved a two-berth space online a week in advance, and found the booking process to be quick and simple.
I paid $138 for a standard ticket to board the ferry, plus an extra $144 for my own two-berth cabin with a private bathroom.
I started my journey in Juneau, the state capital of Alaska. It's a city with no road connections to the rest of North America.
Unlike the big cruise liners that dock in downtown Juneau, state ferries depart from the Auke Bay terminal located 12 miles out of town.
To get there, I hopped on a public bus that meandered around several suburban neighborhoods before dropping me a little over a mile from the ferry terminal. I arrived at the terminal just before 11 p.m. and was allowed to walk directly onto the ship nearly two hours before departure.
I was immediately struck by the vast size difference between the MV Matanuska and traditional cruise ships.
Size-wise, the Matanuska is dwarfed by the modern cruise ships that frequent Alaska's Inside Passage.
It can carry up to 83 vehicles and 450 passengers and has the capacity to accommodate 240 guests in the combination of two, three, and four-berth cabins.
Cruise ships, meanwhile, resemble mobile skyscrapers, in my opinion. The world's largest cruise ship can carry up to 7,000 passengers. Even smaller cruise ships that navigate Alaska's Inside Passage still can carry 4,900 passengers.
In comparison, Skagway, Alaska, a town where such a cruise stops, only has a local population of 1,132 people, according to the US Census Bureau.
Unlike a cruise ship, the Matanuska's cabins were small and utilitarian, but I thought they had all the necessities for a comfortable night's sleep.
My overnight ferry was scheduled to depart Auke Bay at 12:45 a.m., by which time I had picked up my room key and headed to my cabin to go straight to sleep. Some ferries do leave earlier, depending on the route.
My private cabin came equipped with bed linens, a reading light, a pull down table, power outlets, and a private bathroom with a toilet, sink, towels, soap, and a hot shower. That was pretty much it. There was no Wi-Fi, although some might consider that a blessing. I had no window, though porthole cabins were available for an extra $65.
I slept quite well thanks to the gentle motion of the waves, and found the room to be nice and quiet.
Outside, in the corridor, I found a water fountain, an ice machine, and reams of information about the ship and the regions it passes through.
I awoke at 7:30 a.m. ready to explore the ship. I found the cafeteria to be practically deserted.
According to a crew member I spoke with, the boat was less than a quarter full carrying only 78 passengers, though they did not cite a reason why.
With no queues for breakfast, I found myself served and seated within five minutes.
Unlike large cruises, meals were not included with my ticket.
The breakfast menu was basic but relatively cheap. My order of oatmeal, toast, cinnamon bun, and coffee cost me around $8.
After breakfast, I spent the next half-hour exploring the ship and its various facilities, which were scattered over three levels.
I kicked off in the cafeteria, which looked more like a worker's canteen than a gourmet restaurant.
The observation lounge, one of two communal seating areas on the Matanuska, seemed to be the most popular place for passengers to relax during the day.
Here, I spotted people congregating on comfortable seats and sofas to chat, playing cards, or falling asleep with their headphones glued to their ears.
Panoramic windows offered the chance for sporadic animal sightings and waving to passing cruise ships.
The other recliner lounge doubled up as a place to sleep for those who didn't pay extra for a cabin.
I didn't see many people sleeping here, but it's allowed, and for those that do, public showers and restrooms are available in the adjacent corridor. During the daytime, I noticed that the lounge was quiet.
Midship was a modest bar with purple lighting and an upright piano that I thought looked like it had been salvaged from a Skagway saloon.
I stopped into the bar where a bartender spun a good musical soundtrack, including "Take the Long Way Home" by Supertramp, which seemed to me an appropriate ditty considering my chosen method of transportation.
Outside, I found a sundeck, a helipad, and a covered solarium with overhead heaters for inclement weather.
I was told by crew that passengers who don't mind roughing it are actually allowed to pitch tents on the helipad, and often do, although I didn't see any takers on my trip.
With no onboard Wi-Fi or organized entertainment, I came ready with Alaska-themed literature.
I opted for "The Great Alone," which tells the story of a Lower 48 family who come to Alaska in the 1970s in a bold attempt to live off-grid with dramatic results.
At 9 a.m., the ferry docked briefly at the small fishing community of Petersburg, the first of two scheduled stops on the way to Ketchikan.
Because I was on a commuter ferry and not a leisure cruise, I only had a little over a half hour to explore town and absorb the sights, including a replica of a Viking ship.
Petersburg's harbor is too shallow for big ships, meaning only a handful of smaller vessels can stop there. Bereft of tour booths and jewelry shops, I thought the town retained an authentic local flavor that was markedly absent in major ports like Juneau and Ketchikan.
Leaving Petersburg, the Matanuska navigated its way through the Wrangell Narrows, a sinuous channel between Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands that, at times, was not much wider than a river.
In my opinion, the beauty of sailing through Alaska's Inside Passage is that you're never far from land. Alluring sights, from isolated cabins and lighthouses to glacier-encrusted mountains, were visible. I saw boats and seaplanes that dotted the horizon, and wildlife was everywhere. I spotted porpoises, killer whales, bald eagles, sea lions and elk during the course of my voyage.
Our second stop was Wrangell, Alaska.
As soon as we docked in the harbor, I undertook another mad dash around town to absorb a little dose of the local culture. Tlingit totem poles, quirky clapboard houses, and a clutch of typically gritty Alaskan bars stood out to me on the quiet streets.
South of Wrangell, the ferry continued to weave its way through the Alexander Archipelago, a cluster of over 1,100 islands speckling the jagged coast of the Alaskan panhandle.
The bulk of the archipelago is encased in the Tongass National Forest, a protected area the size of West Virginia that has little in the way of roads.
Scanning the shoreline, I got a true sense of the scale of Alaska's wilderness. I thought I might sail for hours without seeing any sign of human life on land.
We passed Zarembo Island and Etolin Island, which is reported to have more elk than people. I also saw enormous Prince of Wales Island, a land mass bigger than Delaware that is famed for its Tlingit and Haida totem poles.
We sailed into our final stop, Ketchikan on Revillagigedo Island at 7:15 p.m., right on schedule.
Ketchikan bills itself as Alaska's First City (it's the first port of call for cruise ships heading north from Canada) and the Totem pole capital of the world.
After disembarking, I checked into my hotel and later walked into town. With two large cruise ships in dock, Ketchikan was teeming with tourists who had arrived there in a wholly different way than I had.
To me, my journey on the Matanuska felt like a cruise with a difference, one that was less about the boat and its offerings, and more about the journey and showcasing Alaska's diverse and mystical landscapes.
I certainly hope to cruise again, but only on a vessel like the Matanuska.
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