In reviewing the ports on our itinerary - Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka (not necessarily in that order) - some seem to lend themselves well to self-guided walking tours instead of the pricey shore excursions offered by the cruiselines. Any advice or suggestions?
Yes, there is "stuff" to see and do in each town. But , did you go all the way to Alaska, the last frontier/the last wilderness to see town? In Skagway you can walk around town, prbably see a harbor seal or two right from the pier. You can walk to Soapy Smith's Saloon, stop in the shops, see the outside of the Artic Brotherhood Lodge and stop in a saloon and see a dance hall girl. And you can see the train cars of the White Pass Railway. Or you can get out of town and travel to the top of White Pass. You can see Dahl Sheep, stand at the top of the pass and view six glaciers at one time, and see one of the great engineering marvels, the route of the White Pass Railway.
In Juneau you can walk around town , maybe take a tram to the top of the mountain if the weather is clear and visit another old saloon. Or you can get out of town and visit Mendenhall Glacier, take a boat ride and "chase" humpback whales, pass and island with bald eagles roosting on the rocks and discover a small island completely covered with Stellar Sea lions.
I Kethchican you can walk around town and see the lumberjack show. Walk over to Creek Street and visit Dolly's house. There is also a nice mueseum in town. But you will miss Saxman Park's totems, or a trip to the old Salmon Cannery. Miss going out on a boat ride and seeing harbor seals at play and bald eagles luching on salmon along the shoreline.
Bottomline, either on your own or on a ship's excursion, do not limit yourself to seeing only the town.
(and we did not even do the adventurous things like flightseeing a glacier or sea planing in to see grizzly bears feeding).
I too think first time visitors should clearly look over tour offerings and consider what is of interest, rather than "just" walking about the ports. As above- this is just a superior area all the way around to exceptional tour opportunities. Budget fully- if you aren't going back soon. There are many regrets from visitors who missed out on tours they were interested in causing repeat visits. Anyway- walking tours are worthwhile in all your Alaska ports, pick up maps at the visitor centers. BUT always have plans and reservations in place before you go. Time is way too short to step off the ship- then decide what you want to do, there won't be much availability either.
I'm definitely a big believer in Alaska excursions being the key to fulfilling the vision of Alaska that you have in your head. That being said, we really enjoyed some walking tours between or after our excursions. In particular, if you have any interest in history, the free programs run by the national park service in Skagway are great. We enjoyed a great slide presentation on the development of Broadway (the main street you'll be walking down) and a ranger-led walk with commentary/history. It makes a nice complement to Skagway excursions.
By the way. We waited 9 years to cruise Alaska. Reason, it is the one popular cruise destination, that if you are going to go, you go "right" or not at all. At least that is how we felt. Right now we are planning a return trip to see more and different things. Probably a year or two years away.
We hit the same ports on our first trip to Alaska. We mixed our own walking tours with excursions - and it was a fantastic trip.
Although it is not a requirement (for the walking tours), I did buy a book from amazon.com "Inside Passage Walking Tours" by Julianne Chase, (14.95 I think).
It covered Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka. We took our time and
deviated from the tours as we wanted.
We were on a VERY limited budget for our 6/03 Alaska cruise as DD was getting married 8/03. Both Sitka and Juneau have a couple of bus lines operated by locals that offer on/off privaleges and go to most of the really major sites. Cost is about $15-20 pp for all day. They are right at the cruise port. The only place I booked a tour was Ketchican and that was private to see the totem poles.