Alaska is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world. And, for those of you fortunate enough to have visited the 49th state, you know why. The scenery is breathtaking and the wildlife awe-inspiring. Alaska is one of the "must see" destinations in the world, and there is no better way to see it than by cruise ship.
Hike the Tongass National Forest
The cruise industry in Alaska has grown steadily over the past 20 years. The number of people visiting Alaska by cruise ship rivals the total number who arrive by air! And, when you consider that many who arrive by air are probably doing so to board a cruise ship, the impact of the cruise industry on the Alaska economy is pretty clear.
Rent a Harley and go for a guided two-wheel tour in Ketchikan, Alaska
What makes Alaska such a great cruise destination? Take your pick! Abundant wildlife, amazing scenery, an unspoiled environment, and much more. Simply put, there is no place on Earth like Alaska.
"Animals outnumber people in Alaska, sunlight shines at midnight and nature reigns," says Marty Trencher, Managing Director of Alaska Cruises Direct. Beyond Alaska's breathtaking glaciers lie scenic ports of call, treasured national parks, and abundant wildlife. And, with more than 1,400 miles north to south and 2,400 miles east to west, it's truly a land of epic proportions."
A humpback whale breaching within 100 yards of our ship!
As journalists for CruiseReport.com, we have been to Alaska five times in the past eight years, and each time we see something new and different. We have been on large ships with 2,500 guests and small ships with as few as 65 people. There are more than a dozen cruise lines operating in Alaska and all of them have something special to offer.
Alaska is awash with "so many possibilities, so many ways to travel," Trencher says, that any vacation "requires research, research and more research," he advises.
The larger ships offer a host of amenities, dining options, entertainment and "the excitement of crowds, which is impossible on smaller vessels," Trencher notes. On the other hand, "small ships go places where big ships can't. They get closer to the glaciers and the wildlife," he adds.
Holland America Oosterdam in Alaska
Keep in mind, too, that you're not really seeing Alaska unless you step off the ship and get up close and personal with the wilderness. Here the possibilities seem endless.
Most cruise ships not only sail Alaska's Inside Passage, featuring sailing in either Glacier Bay or Sawyer Glacier, but also visit quaint ports teeming with people (although many of those people will be cruise passengers pouring off of cruise ships) such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell and Skagway, and lesser known stops like Petersburg. Essentially, these ports are gateways to snow-capped mountains and glacier-riddled bays and to wilderness adventures that include whale watching, bear sighting, and bald eagle spotting.
Kayaking the calm waters of Alaska's Inside Passage on Innersea Discoveries
Depending on the cruise line, the itinerary and the shore excursions you choose, you also can explore any one of 14 national parks and wilderness areas, including Kenai Fjords, Gates of the Arctic, Klondike (Skagway), Wrangell-St. Elias and Sitka national parks, plus the Klondike Historic Site (Dawson City), Yukon Charley National Preserve, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Misty Fjords National Monument and Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.
Enjoy a glass of wine in a field of icebergs!
To capitalize on the majesty of the state, many lines also offer cruisetours which let you augment your cruise with a land stay. Holland America, for instance, offers vacation packages combining 3- or 4-night cruises with 6-, 8-, or 9-day land tours. In all, Holland America has 29 distinct cruisetours ranging from 10 to 20 days and Princess offers 24 ranging from 10 to 16 days. Celebrity, Regent and Royal Caribbean also offer escorted land tours, according to Trencher.
Per Trencher, the most unusual shore excursions are fishing off a float plane from Ketchikan or Juneau, river rafting on the Haines or Skeena Rivers, a backcountry safari and a visit to Denali Park, dog sledding without snow and on wheels in Whittier, and heli hiking, where passengers are flown by helicopter to a mountain top around Mt. McKinley and then hike down.
Take a train ride and re-live the days of the gold rush!
The list doesn't end there, however. You can trek glaciers, take a mile-long zipline-canopy tour at Icy Strait Point, Klondike rock climb or rappel in Skagway, canoe or kayak almost anywhere, and even go underwater in semi-submersibles. In Campbell River, Regent passengers can accompany an authentic Alaskan mail floatplane making deliveries.
There is a downside to popularity, however. Because of the state's allure, Trencher warns, "There are no huge bargains in Alaska like there are in the Caribbean."
"Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation and high priced," he says. On average a 13-day cruise tour in a balcony cabin on a larger ship will run around $2,400 per person without airfare on the season's shoulders (May or September) and about $3,600 in peak season.
Split pea soup on the deck in Alaska is a Holland America tradition
But book early and some deals emerge. For example, Norwegian sails three ships (Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Star and Norwegian Sun) at published fares ranging in the $800 to $1,500 range (per person), based on double occupancy, for an inside stateroom. Prices drop dramatically if you book early and range from $599 to $699 for lower category accommodations. An early booking special from Holland America will take you on a 7-day Glacier Discovery cruise for $549. Carnival's 7-day Glacier Bay cruises start at $879.
Killer whales! Oh yeah, Alaska's got those, too!
Of course, luxury comes at a price. Step up the gangway on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner and you'll lighten your wallet by $4,000 to $16,000 for 7-, 8- or 11-day cruises sailing between Seward, Alaska and Vancouver, B.C.
In our opinion, Alaska is one of the must-see cruise destinations that should be at the top of any cruise enthusiast's "bucket list". If your cruise experience has been restricted to the Caribbean, or the typically warmer climates, you simply don't know what you are missing. After all, they call this "The Last Frontier" for a reason.
Special thanks to Marty Trencher, Managing Director of Alaska Cruises Direct, part of Cruise Direct Online (www.AlaskaCruisesDirect.com)