Cruise Passengers Think First Of The Last Frontier
Alaska cruises gaining in popularity
Editors note: On January 20, 2008 an article about cruising to Alaska featured an interview with us. That article is repeated here, with additional information about cruises and cruise tours to Alaska.
Experience an Alaskan cruise or Cruisetour, and you could be right up next to spectacular glaciers, perhaps view a calving, see bears in their natural habitat, or hundreds of salmon heading upstream. Alaska is nature at its best: forests, mountains, rivers and waterfalls, and lots of wildlife.
Chicago Tribune - January 20, 2008
Alaska is hot.
As a tourist destination, the last frontier sizzles and, consequently, space aboard the flotilla of ships that call the 49th state home from May through September fill quickly.
In the 17 years from 1990 to 2007, for example, the number of cruisers who've sailed there has nearly quadrupled from 235,000 to a tad more than a million, says Marty Trencher, owner and managing director of Travel Direct and Alaska Cruisetours Online, a 9-year-old firm specializing in vacations to the "Last Frontier."
In total, a dozen large and small cruise lines will ply Alaska's waters in 2008 -- Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Cruise West, American Safari Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Majestic America Line, and Silversea Cruises.
Most Alaska cruises feature a 7-day itinerary, with your choice of The Inside Passage, with an itinerary roundtrip from Vancouver or Seattle, or The Gulf of Alaska cruise, cruising one-way between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier( for Anchorage visits ) , sailing both northbound or southbound. The Gulf of Alaska itinerary is the one you choose if you plan to explore the interior of Alaska, such as Denali National Park.
Airfares to Seattle are less expensive than to Vancouver, Fairbanks or Anchorage and while most ships depart from Vancouver, Seward or Whittier, there are a growing number of cost saving choices from Seattle.
According to Trencher, Holland America and Princess together attract 90 percent of all passengers to Alaska and offer the majority of cruises and tours to this wilderness landscape.
But there's more to Alaska cruising than just these two lines.
Alaska is awash with "so many possibilities, so many ways to travel," Trencher says, that any vacation "requires research, and more research," he advises.
In fact, there are enough options to make your head spin. You can narrow your options by choosing from a handful of ships with less than a hundred passengers, including a paddle wheeler, to dozens of vessels that carry well over 2,000.
You can choose a cruise or a cruisetour.
What's a cruisetour?
A cruisetour is a package with a cruise and a multiple-day land itinerary--for instance, a 7-day cruise with a 5-day land package. There are any number of combinations between 9 and 21 days in length.
The players sometimes change and a few lines occasionally play musical chairs with their vessels. Princess, for instance, adds the 2,600-passenger Star Princess to its Alaska flotilla this year as well as introduces its 670-passenger Tahiti Princess to the region, proving that even mass-market lines can have a small-ship offering. Silversea Cruises' 382-passenger Silver Shadow returns to the 49th state and Cruise West's 102-passenger Spirit of Nantucket (renamed the Spirit of Glacier Bay) joins the line's Alaska lineup.
The larger ships offer a host of amenities, dining options, entertainments 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. 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.
Guests who visit Alaska come away with a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime experience. Views of majestic mountains, wildlife and spectacular glaciers.
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 Skaway, 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.
You may also cruise scenic Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm. Some cruise lines offer a 10-day Inside Passage itinerary roundtrip from San Francisco.
Why are Alaska Cruises gaining in popularity?
The scenery is both breathtaking and majestic, as you cruise the calm, relaxing and enjoyable Inside Passage, spotting whales and eagles.
An Alaskan Cruise Tour is the best way to enjoy a relaxed land and sea vacation, while capturing more of the essence of Alaska.
You sail right up to Alaska's huge glaciers, perhaps you will view a calving, as large blocks of ice break off and drop to the sea.
Towns along the Inside Passage are populated on the coastline. The pier is often located near the center of town, so you can walk from your cruise ship to the center of town.
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.
To capitalize on the majesty of the state, many lines also offer cruisetours, which let you augment your cruise with a land stay.
Denali National Park
A typical Anchorage/Denali/Fairbanks cruisetour package might include a 7-day Vancouver- Whittier or Seward cruise, followed by 2 nights in Anchorage and a scenic ride in a private railcar to Denali National Park for 2 or more nights at Princess's Denali Lodge or Princess's Mt. McKinley Lodge (or 1 or 2 nights at each). On a clear day, the Princess's McKinley Lodge, you can view a panoramic view of the Alaska Mountain Range and Mount McKinley, which, at 20,320 feet, is North America's highest peak.
Visit Denali National Park to explore this unbelievable beautiful wilderness expanse and its wildlife. Spend at least 2 days, best 3. Then reboard the train and head further north into the Interior of Alaska, to Fairbanks, for a couple of nights. The activities available in outlying areas of fairbanks are fantastic, the Riverboat Discovery paddle-wheeler day cruise on the Chena and Tanana rivers and an excursion to a gold mine are highlights. Then, fly home from Fairbanks.
Take a shorter 3- or 4-day cruise between Vancouver and Juneau/Skagway (you either join a 7-day sailing late or get off early), combine it with a land tour into the Klondike, Canada's Yukon Territory, then through the Interior of Alaska to Anchorage. En route, you will tour may include rail, riverboat, motorcoach, and possibly air. There are over 24 variations to choose from.
The land tour stops may include Whitehorse, the territorial capital, and Dawson City, a remote, picture-perfect gold rush town near where the gold was found. After heading north through the Yukon, cruisetour passengers cross the Alaska border near Beaver Creek, travel thence to Fairbanks, and from there go through Denali to Anchorage. Again, the tour can be taken in either direction and on a pre- or post-cruise basis.
A Canadian Rockies tour is easily combinable with an Inside Passage or Gulf of Alaska cruise. In 5-, 6-, or 7-days, you can visit Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper National Park in conjunction with an Alaska cruise. ( you tour first, then cruise )
The Canadian Rockies offer some great mountain scenes . These glacier-carved mountains are astonishingly beautiful. Banff National Park and Jasper National Park are places to view these majestic mountain ranges. The beautiful Lake Louise, colored deep green ( high mineral content ), is located 35 miles north of Banff.
Tour First, Cruise Last
Land tours for both the Denali and the Yukon itineraries can be taken either before or after the cruise.
We recommend taking the land portion pre-cruise rather than post-cruise. Why? After several days of traveling around in the wilderness, it's nice to be able to get aboard your ship, relax, and enjoy the views of the Inside Passage
Remember, there's more of a demand for pre-cruise land packages than for post-cruise. Since obviously the lines can't always accommodate everybody on a land itinerary before the cruise you would be smart to book your reservation early.
Who Offers What?
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. Celebrity, Regent and Royal Caribbean also offer escorted land tours, Trencher notes.
Princess is best for the Denali National Park tours, while Holland America dominates the Yukon/Klondike tours.
Princess has its own domed railcars. Some tours offer "direct to the wilderness" rail service from the pier at Whittier all the way to Denali National Park. Holland America and Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also owns railcars.
All,use the Alaska Railroad to pull them. So the view is the same and the rail cars are virtually the same no matter which cruise line. Princess owns their own wilderness lodges; others do not. All have a fleet of deluxe motorcoaches.
According to 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.
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 real bargains in Alaska as 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 $2,700 per person without airfare on the season's shoulders (May or September) and about $3,000 in peak season.
When is the Best Time to Go?
The Alaska cruise season is from May through September. Peak season, is from mid-June thru August ( prices are at their highest). May and September departures offer the best deals.
Is 10 days enough?... or should I tour for 12, 13 or 14 days?
If your budget is tight, consider combining three or four nights with a 7-day cruise to visit Denali National Park. But if you have more time and money, a 12 to 14 day cruisetour will get you the ultimate experience. After all, you're only going to to this once, so why not go for it!
Should I get an inside cabin, oceanview or a balcony?
Balcony (aka Verandah) staterooms offer spectacular scenery from the comfort and privacy of your stateroom. These staterooms cost a lot more than the least expensive inside stateroom. You have to judge if stepping out onto your balcony, to enjoy an in-room breakfast or midnight snack while viewing the scenery, is worth it. So many people reserve a balcony, you will need to book early to get the choice balcony locations aboard ship. With an ocean-view stateroom, you get a large picture-sized window to view the great outdoors.
If you book early and some deals emerge. For example, Norwegian sails three ships (Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Star and Norwegian Sun) at published fares ranging from $729 to $1,399 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.
Of course, luxury comes at a price. Step up the gangway on Regent's Seven Seas Mariner and you'll lighten your wallet by $4,195 to $16,750 for 7-, 8- or 11-day cruises sailing between Seward, Alaska and Vancouver, B.C.