It’s rare that I hate anything about cruising, and especially cruising to Alaska, but I hated Ward Cove, the new NCL terminal near Ketchikan when I experienced it for the first time right after it opened in 2021. I hated it so much that I almost started discouraging people from sailing on NCL to Alaska. It’s good I didn’t though since I’ve cruised there on the line myself a handful of times since and will continue to do so. Why? Because there’s so much to love about NCL (and for me, a local Seattle resident, sometimes the last-minute fares on NCL are just too great to pass up). So instead, I offer you these 5 Pro Tips for minimizing the pain of Ward Cove, experiencing the benefits (yes, there are benefits), and getting to the “real” Ketchikan.
What is Ward Cove?
The Mill at Ward Cove welcomed its first NCL cruise passengers in 2021. Prior to serving as a cruise terminal, it was a pulp mill that operated from 1954 to 1997. It’s located about 15 miles outside of Ketchikan and serves only NCL ships (other cruise lines dock in downtown Ketchikan). Reception from passengers has been overwhelmingly negative as it’s an inconvenient 20 minute shuttle ride (offered by NCL and currently free) to downtown Ketchikan. But hopefully this post will start to gradually change its negative reputation (or it will increase my negative reputation).
5 Pro Tips for Ward Cove
1. Take the perfect photo of your ship
Remember I said there are “benefits” of ward cove? The biggest benefit is that it’s an absolutely gorgeous spot AND you can take the best photos of your ship docked there. At the end of the pier hang a left (before you enter the terminal building).
Keep walking along the short path and you’ll reach several spots for that PERFECT photo. Here are some I took there just today:
2. Watch for eagles
There are several eagles that live in the trees around Ward Cove. I’ve seen them on every one of my cruises there. Look out the port side of the ship to this mound of trees:
Listen for their loud screeches (you’ll often hear eagles before you see them) and look for white heads near the top of trees (you’ll likely see them flying around too). Hand to God, as I sit here writing, facing out at this exact spot, I just saw two fly by – an adult and a juvenile (juveniles don’t have white heads yet)! You WILL see them if you take the time to look (I’ve seen them here on every cruise).
3. Plan independent excursions or explore on your own, but give yourself plenty of time
Because the cruise terminal is located so far from downtown Ketchikan (where most independent tours meet), many will be nervous about booking independent tours or venturing out on their own. Don’t be! Ketchikan is so easy to navigate and tour operators are now used to dealing with guests coming from Ward Cove. However, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to get to and from Ward Cove/downtown Ketchikan. While the free NCL provided shuttle bus takes about 20 minutes, I always plan for 45 minutes each way, just to be extra safe (while traffic snarls are rare in Ketchikan, they can happen during construction season and you may have to wait in line for a shuttle).
Go HERE for my recommendations for things you can do on your own in Ketchikan.
4. Shop in downtown Ketchikan
Don’t waste your time or money shopping in an abandoned mill in the middle of nowhere (i.e. the cruise terminal at Ward Cove). Walk straight on through (close your eyes and have someone guide you if you think you’re going to be tempted)…
hop on the free shuttle bus to downtown Ketchikan…
and do your shopping there! Downtown Ketchikan is so quant, historic, and beautiful. Plus there’s an abundance of great shopping! Anything they sell at Ward Cove will be available in the dozens of shops in downtown Ketchikan, plus so much more!
5. Take a hike
I’m a cruiser first. But I’m a hiker second. And I’ve hiked dozens of trails on my cruises to Alaska (you can see my “Guide to Cruising at every Port on your Cruise to Alaska HERE). Well today I’m happy to report I’ve discovered a trail system within walking distance of Ward Cove, so I can no longer begrudgingly say, “there’s NOTHING within walking distance of Ward Cove!”
Here are some photos I took today from the hike:
And here are directions to the Frog Pond Trailhead where you’ll start your hike, followed by a brief video I took on the way so you can get a sense of what the 2 mile walk to the trail is like.
Once you reach the end of the short Frog Pond Trail, you’ll see a sign for a campground. Enter the campground and keep walking until you see the lake. Hang a left to reach the lake trail (it goes all the way around the lake). There are other side trails along the lake you can explore too.
I only recommend this one for my most adventurous cruising friends, because it’s a bit of a long walk to the trailhead (once you get there you can hike as much or little of the trails as you want – the hiking itself is easy, it’s mostly flat). You could also hop in a taxi or Uber and have it drop you off at the trailhead (just ask them to drop you at the Frog Pond Trailhead at the end of Ward Lake Rd.
While I still encourage people to consider branching out from their regular cruise line for Alaska (Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity all do Alaska so very well) and pay close attention to the itinerary (look at which ports you’ll be visiting, how long you’ll be docked there, whether or not the sailing includes a “scenic cruising day” to see glaciers and fjords, and if you’ll be visiting Victoria during the day or at night), if you end up on NCL and worry when you start hearing horror stories about Ward Cove, don’t! Consider my tips and have a wonderful day in Ketchikan! And with that…
Homework (10 points): Read: First Time Cruisers to Alaska: Answers to 10 Common Questions.
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