The Inside Passage runs through the area of Alaska known as Southeast, which the locals also call "the Panhandle." It's the narrow strip of the state -- islands, coastal towns, mountains -- that runs from the Canadian Border in the south to the Gulf of Alaska in the north, just above the Juneau-Skagway area. Because of the sheltering effect of the outer islands, you reach the port towns with less rocking and rolling... and less risk of sea sickness.
Sitka isn't on the protected Inside Passage, but on the open Pacific Ocean side. Still, it's included on most Inside Passage tours because it's a beautiful little port that apparently best reflects the history and architecture of our 49th state’s Russian past.
Inside Passage tours leave from and return to the same city, usually Seattle or Vancouver.
The Gulf of Alaska
The terminal point for ships cruising the Gulf is usually either Seward or Whittier, although the tour itinerary will indicate Anchorage. Ships rarely continue to Anchorage; you’d need another full day. Instead, passengers take the train or bus to Anchorage.
You don’t have to make an "either/or" choice. If you decide on a tour that includes the Gulf of Alaska, it's an add-on to the Inner Passage trip.
The more popular Inner Passage cruises take seven nights round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver. The Gulf of Alaska journey is one-way -- northbound or southbound -- between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier. A typical Gulf cruise will also visit Inside Passage ports like – in my case -- Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway.
The Gulf cruises are usually more expensive, since they involve flying into and out of different cities, rather than a simpler round trip.
And cruises on the Gulf of Alaska’s open sea carry a greater risk of sea sickness.
But the Gulf cruise has more “novelty” – the element that made my decision easy.