Calling all adventurers seeking to see the real Alaska: The best highway is on the water! In fact, the only highway to most of lower Alaska’s villages is by sea. Each Friday, year-round, the Alaska Ferry (officially called the Alaska Marine Highway System) departs from Bellingham, WA to access America’s remote north through the awe-inspiring Inside Passage. This is how the locals travel, and visitors seeking an authentic experience are welcome to share the ride.
The Kennicott, the Columbia and the Malaspina are three of the system’s 11 ferries that generally make the voyage to and from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal to¬†Ketchican and Dutch Harbor. Additional departures on some Saturdays are also offered during the summer months.
While touring the vessel, we learned that the Kennicott was named for an Alaskan glacier, as are all AMH ferries. The ship carries vehicles and up to 499 passengers. Although it is large, it is much smaller than today’s “cruise ships” which generally carry 2,000 to 3,000 passengers. The ferry is big enough to comfortably navigate the waters, yet small enough to pass through the most scenic and direct routes.
Accommodations on board include 100 cabins and roomettes. Cabins are clean and comfortable, but not lavish. Cabin choices include the 4-berth with a private head (restroom), the 2-berth with communal restrooms, or the roomette, which is a very cozy, yet private spot resembling a camper with a table that converts into a bed.
Rooms are not required on the ferry. Many passengers also choose to sleep on the deck, with or without a tent, and lockers are available for securing belongings.
Food service is offered on the ferry in a beautiful cafeteria and dining area. The Kennicott also features a movie theater, children’s playroom, bar, gift shop and a forward-facing salon with large windows for viewing the spectacular scenery on the multi-day trip.
How long does it take to travel from Bellingham to Alaska? It depends on where you’re going. The ferry runs 24 hours a day. It takes 36 hours from Bellingham to reach the first stop at Ketchikan. Visitors often disembark in a variety of towns, stay a few nights on land, then continue on the ferry. The full route reaches from Bellingham to Dutch Harbor and Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, with vistas that appear as untouched as the Galapagos.
Visitors also enjoy spending the night in Bellingham and exploring the area before and after their trip. Although located in another state, and separated by another country, Bellingham and the Alaskan villages have a shared history and culture. The Bellingham region at the far northwest tip of the continental U.S. (including Fairhaven, Blaine, and Semiahmoo) was the original destination of the Alaska fishermen bringing in their catch to large salmon canning operations that would distribute to the nation and the world. Native peoples have traveled these routes for centuries sharing family ties and trade. To this day, many Bellingham residents have commerce ties to Alaska in a variety of industries.
The Alaska Ferry continues the tradition of tying us all together.