Alaska Cruise Guide
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Alaska, at more than twice the size of Texas, is America’s last great frontier, where nature makes the rules, and man is left to follow them. Vast stretches of unspoiled terrain are waiting to be explored, along with snowcapped mountains, ice-enveloped fjords, active volcanoes, imposing glaciers, and quaint port towns.
Discovering all that this region has to offer starts onboard a cruise ship or plane, since 90 percent of the state is inaccessible by car or foot, including major cities such as Juneau and Anchorage.
The cruise ports offer a surprising amount of diversity: In Skagway, for example, the gold rush era is remarkably frozen in time in the colorfully painted buildings and old-time saloons. Juneau dazzles the masses with natural wonders like the Mendenhall Glacier and Tracy Arm Fjord. And the “salmon capital of the world,” Ketchikan, keeps visitors busy fishing and hiking. One experience that’s not to be missed: a kayak tour. As you glide through the water, watch for spawning salmon jumping across your bow.
When in Alaska, expect to share the land with an abundance of diverse wildlife: Bald eagles, caribou, humpback whales, polar bears, and mountain goats are among some of the majestic creatures calling the Land of the Midnight Sun home.
Grizzly bears are especially notorious for wandering into backyards or campgrounds and helping themselves to salmon right off the grill. Their affinity toward food has also caused locals to use bear-proof trash cans made of metal and held shut with locks, ensuring the safety of both people and the hungry animals — just another distinctly Alaskan detail to appreciate.
Satisfying both outdoorsy adventure seekers and those craving a peaceful respite from everyday life, the breathtaking natural beauty of this region — experienced by land or sea — can be considered a milestone in even the most seasoned traveler’s log.
When to go
Alaska cruise season runs from May to September, when the waters are calm, days are long, and temperatures warm to between 55 and 75 F. And while the dead of winter may be the best time to see the northern lights, it’s simply too cold and the conditions are too dangerous for ships to even offer sailings. (Trust us, you wouldn’t want to go then anyway.)
The best time to cruise in the season depends on your interests. July and August are the warmest months and offer the most opportunities to view a variety of wildlife, but this time of year is also high season, which means you’ll find higher rates and overcrowding. While mosquitoes can be more bothersome during June and July, the days are the longest in those months, allowing you to make the most of your time being active on land.
If you want to save money, cruising in the shoulder seasons — May and September — is the best time to find deals and avoid mosquitoes. May is the driest month, and although there’s a chance to glimpse the northern lights in September, the days then are shorter, and frequent rain and snowstorms can force cruise lines to cancel excursions.
The Inside Passage: This is the most popular route. It offers a constantly changing landscape — from lush forests to jagged glaciers — as you travel along the coastline. Most cruise lines offer a seven-day, round-trip sailing from Vancouver or Seattle with three or four stops, including Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, and either Sitka, Haines, or Victoria, British Columbia. Some 14-day sailings that leave from San Diego and San Francisco are also available.
Good for: You’ll get to see Alaska’s stunning coastline at a steady, relaxed pace. Booking round-trip airfare can also mean getting a good deal on flights.
Downside: Returning to the port of embarkation means you may not see as much as you would on a Gulf of Alaska voyage.
Gulf of Alaska: This route begins in either Seattle or Vancouver and ends in Whittier or Seward, or vice versa. It usually makes many of the same port visits as the Inside Passage tour, with additional stops at Hubbard Glacier and College Fjord. It’s a great choice for those who want to see more of Alaska’s magnificent glaciers and beautiful coastline scenery.
Good for: Active cruisers can experience Alaska by land, with tours available before or after the sailing. Land tours can extend your trip for up to a week and allow you more time to get up close and personal with the state’s landmarks, animals, and locals.
Downside: Having to book one-way flights can make prices much higher.
Although a cruise can show you a lot of Alaska’s attractions, many incredible sights can be found further inland. A great way to get the most out of your Alaska vacation: Book a pre- or post-cruise rail tour. These typically run round trip from Anchorage or Fairbanks and take you to a wilderness lodge for an immersive experience in the great outdoors. If you choose a luxury train, you’ll find that many feature glass-domed cars for even more impressive views of the landscape. Three cruise lines offer these train tours:
Princess Cruises offers rail tours to its two Denali National Park lodges for one or more nights. Once there, you can walk in Denali National Park, go whitewater rafting, sightsee via helicopter, tour abandoned copper mines, or just kick back and relax in the serene setting of the comfortable accommodations. Best of all, you’ll get views of the dramatic mountains that overshadow the lodge, including Mount McKinley, Mount Drum, Mount Wrangell, and Mount Blackburn.
Royal Caribbean’s Alaska cruise tours combine a seven-night sailing on Radiance of the Seas with a three- to six-night land tour that includes Fairbanks, Mount McKinley, and Denali National Park. These tours come with some extras, including local experiences such as panning for gold or riding the Alyeska Aerial Tram.
Celebrity Cruises offers 21 different Alaska land tours traveling on the luxurious Wilderness Express ® train. Destinations include Alyeska, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Seward, and Talkeetna for three- to seven-night stays in a remote lodge or urban hotel. Look for excursions that get you into the wilderness and include such things as salmon fishing, glacier flightseeing, jet boat safaris, and wilderness hikes to spot Alaska’s “big five” animals: grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, and moose .
Wilderness Express is a registered trademark of Royal Celebrity Tours Inc.
Are you a thrill-seeker or a nature enthusiast? Expedition cruises take wilderness adventure to a whole new level, focusing exclusively on imparting the purest Alaskan experience possible. These small ships are able to navigate narrow channels that large ships can’t, docking in remote areas and offering passengers once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters.
To assist in the mission to see a more authentic side of Alaska, these lines hire a crew of naturalists, photographers, marine biologists, and tour guides. They ensure you not only participate in environmentally sound activities, but learn about your surroundings in more depth. Locals and guest lecturers may join in too, adding a cultural element to the day’s events.
The ships are more intimate (and less glamorous) than larger ships, typically accommodating less than 100 passengers in small cabins furnished with the basic necessities. There’s no need to pack formal attire, and you won’t find specialty restaurants, casinos, or nightclubs onboard. Nightlife is virtually nonexistent as well — evenings are quiet and casual, with passengers recapping their day over wine or card games. With such small capacity, everyone on board will get to know each other; anonymity is not an option.
Expedition cruises are not for everyone. They require more physical ability, adaptability, and passion for the outdoors. What this no-frills option lacks in flashy accommodations and onboard entertainment, it more than makes up for in the connection that can be forged with the Alaskan wilderness and its diverse inhabitants.
Here are some expedition-style lines:
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Expeditions
A pioneer in expedition travel, Lindblad has partnered with National Geographic to bring their 10 small ships to all seven continents.
Offering four styles of adventure — luxury, active, heritage, and charter — Un-Cruise’s diverse itineraries appeal to thrill-seekers, families, and sophisticates.
This German brand’s fleet of three small cruise ships and two expedition ships are a fit for the modern traveler who appreciates resort-style amenities.
Cruise Lines That Sail Alaska
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