It looks like another big year is on tap for Alaska cruising. Last season, nearly a million visitors cruised Alaska's waterways, and 2008 may well bring even more travelers anxious to view and experience the state's wilderness waterways, glaciers, forests, snow-capped mountains, wildlife, picturesque port cities and native Alaskan culture.
In 2008, 15 cruise lines will dispatch a whopping total of 47 vessels to explore the waters of Alaska's Inside Passage and beyond. Here's the scoop on cruising patterns, the cruise lines, and the ships:
Cruising patterns remain largely unchanged from years past with four basic options: Most traditional is an Inside Passage round trip in seven nights, eight days from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C. to Southeast Alaska and return. Port calls usually include at least three or four of the principal communities of the region -- Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway -- plus Glacier Bay National Park and/or other spectacular glacier-viewing sites.
Another favorite is a one way ''Gulf and Glaciers'' sailing in seven nights/eight days. This option takes in many of the same Inside Passage cities and sights but adds glacier-rich Prince William Sound. A Gulf-and-Glaciers voyage ends (or begins) at Seward or Whittier at the north end of a voyage, or Vancouver at the southern end. Some voyages include a full-day's visit at the award-winning Alaska Native-owned cultural and light adventure site at Icy Strait Point near the native community of Hoonah.
Passengers also may opt for cruises entirely within Alaska -- either round trips from a single city such as Ketchikan or Juneau, or a one-way voyage between two communities, such as the seven-night trips between Juneau and Sitka.
Finally, more adventurous travelers consider expedition-type voyages, some extending well beyond traditional options to include Aleutian and other remote islands, sub-Arctic ports, and Russian lands across the Bering Sea.
Here's the lineup of Alaska-bound vessels for 2008:
Carnival Cruise Line, 2,124-guest Carnival Spirit makes one-way Gulf-and-Glaciers sailings between Vancouver and Whittier, plus a smaller number of Inside Passage cruises from Vancouver to and through Southeast Alaska and return.
Celebrity Cruises, 1,950-passenger Millennium begins its season with a 14-night open-jaw sailing between San Francisco, Alaska, and Vancouver, then ends the season with another open-jaw option from Vancouver to Alaska ending in San Diego. Most other sailings will be one-way seven night cruises between Vancouver and Seward. Celebrity's 1,950-guest Infinity will offer Inside Passage sailings from Seattle to Southeast Alaska and return. The Mercury (1,870 guests) sails from Vancouver to the Alaska panhandle and return in seven-night sailings, ending its season with an eight-night open-jaw journey to Seattle.
Holland America Line, Eight of its major vessels will be stationed in Alaska. Amsterdam (1,380 guests), Oosterdam (1,848) and Westerdam (1,848) offer round-trip Inside Passage voyages from Seattle to Southeast Alaska; Ryndam and Statendam (each 1,258) and Zaandam (1,432) visit Alaska's southeast region on round trips from Vancouver. Holland America's season-long Gulf and Glaciers option of one way north or south voyages between Vancouver and Seward will be served by the line's Veendam (1,258), Volendam (1,432), and Zaandam (1,432).
Norwegian Cruise Line, Seven-night round-trip voyages from Seattle to Southeast Alaska aboard the Norwegian Star (2,244 guests). The 2,394-guest Norwegian Pearl will homeport in Seattle while the Norwegian Sun (2,002 passengers) will sail the Inside Passage route from Vancouver.
Princess Cruises, Three itineraries: seven-night Inside Passage sailings, seven-night Gulf-and-Glaciers offerings, plus a new-for-'08 14-night option that the line calls a ''Connoisseur'' itinerary. It, too, offers traditional ports and viewing areas but adds Kodiak Island, the region around Valdez and travel in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Vessels sailing the round trip Inside Passage route from Seattle include Star Princess and Golden Princess (sister ships, each accommodating 2,600 guests) and Sun Princess (1,950) cruising round trip from San Francisco. One-way sailings between Vancouver and Whittier are offered on Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess (each 2,670) and Coral Princess and Island Princess (each 1,970). The two-week ''Connoisseur'' option will be aboard the Tahitian Princess (670 guests).
Royal Caribbean International, The season opens with an open-jaw sailing by Serenade of the Seas (2,100 guests) from San Francisco to Vancouver with port visits at Astoria, Seattle, Victoria, and Southeast Alaska communities, followed by Vancouver-based round trips to Alaska's Southeast. The final trip of the year will be another open-jaw sailing Sept. 20 from Vancouver to Southeast Alaska with disembarkation in San Diego.
Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas (2,000 guests) will arrive in Alaska waters from Asia, with visiting Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, the Hubbard Glacier and other Alaska ports before disembarking in Seattle. It then begins a series of Seattle-based round trip sailings to the Alaska panhandle and return. Radiance of the Seas (2,100 guests) will sail between Vancouver and Seward. The vessel will close the season with an open-jaw from Vancouver to Southeast Alaska with disembarkation in San Diego.
MID-SIZE VESSELS ( luxury )
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, 700-guest Seven Seas Mariner offers three options: a single 11-night season opener from San Francisco to Seward, a summer-long series of seven-night one-way voyages between Vancouver and Seward, and a seven-night round trip season closer from Vancouver to Southeast Alaska.
Silversea Cruises, The 382-guest Silver Shadow offers a varied menu of Southeast Alaska-bound round trips and open jaw voyages.
American Safari Cruises, adds the 36-guest Safari Explorer to its fleet. The elegant yacht will sail a season-long seven-night round trip itinerary from Juneau through wilderness waters of the northern panhandle. Safari Escape (12 passengers) will do eight-night one way cruises between Juneau and Prince Rupert, B.C. while Safari Quest (22 guests) will offer one way, seven-night cruises between Juneau and Sitka. Safari Spirit (also 12 guests) is scheduled for one way, seven-night sailings between Juneau and Petersburg. The Escape, Quest, and Spirit offer 14-night positioning cruises in spring and fall.
The Boat Company, The 20-guest 1940's converted wartime minesweeper Liseron and the 24-guest replica Mist Cove will make a total of 30 sailings between Juneau and Sitka.
Cruise West, the nation's largest small-ship cruise line, will offer eight ships in Alaska this year. The largest carries 138 passengers, the smallest 78. Sailings rang from three nights to 24 night.
Discovery Voyages, : Offers 12-guest, 65-foot former missionary vessel Discovery throughout Prince William Sound, specializing in wildlife viewing cruises, hike and kayak adventures, birding trips, whale watching and glacier photography.
Lindblad Expeditions, National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird, each accommodating 62 guests, offer season opener/closer sailings of 11 nights. Throughout the season, each offers a seven-night one way cruise between Juneau and Sitka.
Majestic America Line, Sternwheeler Empress of the North (223 guests) offers a season of saltwater cruising in Southeast Alaska with seven-night itineraries.
Maple Leaf Adventures, An authentic sailing schooner (8 passengers) more than a century old makes one-way voyages from Prince Rupert. B.C. and Juneau.
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