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Alaska can be overwhelming (in the nicest possible way). To get the most out of an Inside Passage cruise you need to get off the beaten track and explore. Jocelyn Pride has some suggestions to help you plan your shore excursions.

Ride the rails

Steeped in gold rush history, the White Pass railroad trip tops the excursion popularity charts year after year. Following the trail of the 19th century gold prospectors (who did it on foot) from Skagway across the summit of White Pass into Yukon, Canada (take your passport), this narrow-gauge track crosses death-defying trestle bridges above stunning deep ravines and delves into tunnels cutting through mountainous and treacherous terrain.

Bear all

In Alaska, where there’s salmon, you’ll find bears. For a couple of bear viewing excursions that won’t break the bank (or involve a flight), Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is a black-bear hot spot as is the tiny village of Haines for brown bears. Many cruise companies have excursions at Icy Strait Point, part of Chichagof Island where there’s a high concentration of brown bears.

Take a paddle

Kayaking is big in Alaska so what better place to paddle the glassy water of the fjords and hidden coves to catch a glimpse of harbour seals, sea lions, Dall’s porpoises or possibly even humpback whales at eye level. With so many tiny islands, kayaking is excellent in Sitka. You can also take a beautiful trip in Skagway and from Juneau you can paddle out to the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier.

Embrace the culture

Southeast Alaska is a rich tapestry of stories and artwork that includes a range of cultures from the indigenous Tlingit and Haida Indian communities to the Russian and Norwegian influence. Walk through the magnificent Totem Parks in Sitka or Ketchikan to learn why these works of art are important historical records, take an excursion to a native village from Ketchikan or catch a cultural dance in the Tribal House in Wrangell or Sitka.

Take to the skies

With very few roads, float planes and helicopters are the taxis of Alaska. Flightseeing over the Misty Fjords Monument from Ketchikan will literally take your breath away. Towering mountains dip into glassy water surrounded by dense rainforest dotted with cascading waterfalls. Or from Juneau take a flight amongst the majestic glaciers of the Juneau Icefield where you might even be lucky enough to witness a calving. If that’s not enough of a thrill, there’s also an adrenaline rushing ziplining park in Juneau.

Step back in time

Relive the gold rush days and wander through the beautifully preserved village of Skagway. Take a walk with a “madam” to hear tales of the ladies of the night. Here you can even pan for gold in Liarsville Camp (and discover the story behind the name) or take a horse ride through the Klondike Gold Rush National Park. Creek Street in Ketchikan is also a must do heritage experience.

Go mushing

What could be more Alaskan than being on a sled with a team of dogs charging through the snow and ice? With the help of a helicopter you can even have this adrenaline rush in summer or for a slightly more sedate experience many kennels hitch their dogs on sleds with wheels in summer. Either way you’ll get to pat adorable puppies. Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau all have once-in-a-life-time-type of dog-sledding experiences.

Catch a big one

You only have see the number of cool boxes at an airport in Alaska to realise it’s the ultimate fishing destination. Commercial fishing is a major industry, however there’s plenty left for the sporting angler. Salmon will give you a run for your money or try for a monster halibut. Most ports offer fishing excursions, especially Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. If you’re lucky, your itinerary might take in the tiny Norwegian village of Peterborough, home of the big commercial fishing vessels.

Have a whale of a time

The Inside Passage is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. This is where hungry humpbacks gorge themselves in the nutrient-rich waters before migrating to their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Baja, Mexico. Juneau offers brilliant small vessel viewing opportunities and towards the end of the season, Sitka is also an excellent spot. In addition to humpbacks, you may be fortunate enough to see Orca whales that transient these waters.

Shop for souvenirs

Alaska might not be high on your list as a shopping destination, but you’ll be surprised by the treasures to be uncovered. Alaskan made products, especially jewellery and other crafts are creative and highly sought after keepsakes. Villages throughout the Inside Passages all have a quaint shops typifying quintessential Alaska. Look for signs that say the shop is owned and operated by an Alaskan family to ensure authenticity.