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Sunday, March 30, 2008

New Things To Do On An Alaska Cruise

Here are excerpts from a Vancouver Sun article we thought you would find interesting.

Spring marks the approach of a new Alaska cruise season and each year brings changes -- new ships, new itineraries and an ever-growing array of activities, both on board and in port.

This year one of the most exciting new itineraries being offered is on the Tahitian Princess. This mid-sized ship carries 670 passengers and is sailing 14-day roundtrip voyages from Vancouver throughout the summer. If you make just one trip to Alaska, this is the cruise to take.

Not only does the ship pull into the popular ports of call -- such as Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway -- it visits quieter ports such as Russian-founded Sitka and scenic Valdez, nestled at the base of the Chugach Mountains on the shores of Prince William Sound.

The ship even stops at Kodiak Island, a place better known for its large fishing fleet and even larger brown bears than as a port of call for cruise ships.

Tahitian Princess (sister ship to Pacific Princess) offers cruising at its classic best. You won't find water slides or rock-climbing walls on board this ship, but you will be able to relax in the poolside whirlpools or pamper yourself at the spa, or sink into an easy chair in the wood-panelled library, or simply enjoy the attentive service provided on this elegant ship.

With fewer onboard distractions, you can focus on the scenery, which includes a daytime visit to Glacier Bay -- a cruise highlight with its numerous tidewater glaciers and a thriving population of humpback whales. The ship even cruises down the west coast of Vancouver Island and pulls into Victoria before returning to Vancouver.

Tahitian Princess is part of the Princess Cruises fleet of ships, which has been offering cruises to Alaska since 1969 when the company first chartered the Princess Patricia, a Canadian Pacific steamship.

The timeless appeal of cruising the pristine fjords of the Inside Passage is still a major incentive to board a ship bound for Alaska, but the activities pursued by passengers have changed considerably.

With the average age of passengers steadily dropping, the list of adventurous shore excursions is increasing. Gone are the days when most passengers boarded tour buses for a passive view of the local sights.
Today a typical day in port might include ocean kayaking past a tidewater glacier, flying over an icefield in a helicopter and landing at a sled-dog camp to try your hand at mushing across a glacier with a team of dogs trained to run in the famous Iditarod Dog Sled Race.

Whale-watching is offered in several ports, most notably Juneau -- where humpbacks feed throughout the summer in nearby Stephens Passage and Lynn Canal.

While it's possible to see a humpback whale from the ship, you're much more likely to see these gentle giants up close on an excursion boat that takes you to specific spots where they are known to feed. Half-day excursions are on board specially built vessels equipped with waterjets for speed and manoeuvrability.

While an onboard naturalist provides commentary, the whales can be viewed from inside a comfortable cabin with large windows or from the boat's upper deck.

Another reason to go on a whalewatching excursion is the chance to get out on the water in a small vessel -- an experience that's especially appealing to anyone who dreams of one day cruising up the Inside Passage to Alaska in their own boat. We have been fortunate to cruise these waters in a 35-foot sailboat and one night at anchor, when the air was perfectly still, we could hear the thunderclap sound of humpbacks smacking their tails on the water. The next morning we motored up Stephens Passage, the main channel leading to Juneau, where we watched feeding humpbacks blow puffs of mist into the air and occasionally arch their backs out of the water as they prepared to do a deep dive. Huge icefields crown the mainland mountains bordering Stephens Passage, where floating ice sculptures drift seaward from tidewater glaciers.

Princess Cruises offers an extensive selection of Alaska shore excursions that can be reviewed and booked online before you board the ship. If you like the idea of taking a customized excursion with a small group of friends or family members, Princess now offers passengers the opportunity to book a private whalewatching boat in Juneau for a party of up to 10 people.

Unlike taking your children to a theme park for your family vacation, a cruise to Alaska is treating them to a big slice of real life. Wildlife, in fact. In the course of an Alaska cruise, your children will have the opportunity to view humpback whales, rafts of sea otters, black bears feeding at salmon-spawning creeks and Pacific white-sided dolphins leaping in the bow wave of your ship. To enhance what your children are seeing, a park ranger comes aboard the ship in Glacier Bay (which is a U.S. national park and preserve) to explain the dynamics of glaciers and the species of animals that inhabit this region. Even supervised activities in the ships' playrooms focus on Alaska and its natural wonders.

Most of the major cruise lines have youth facilities on their ships and a trained staff to handle large numbers of young passengers. The minimum age for participating in youth programs is usually three years, but some ships also offer private babysitting at an hourly rate. (Be sure to check these details with your travel agent, for they vary with each cruise line.)

Holland America Line offers a wide range of onboard activities for their junior cruisers, and one of the most popular is their cooking school.

There are also shore excursions geared to kids but most excursions can be enjoyed by the whole family. These include canoeing, kayaking and rock-climbing in a mountain pass near Skagway. Forest hikes can be enjoyed with an organized group or on your own. Skagway has several excellent trails that are a short distance from the cruise docks, and at Juneau you can take the tramway to the top of Mount Roberts for spectacular views and a selection of easy hiking trails.

In Ketchikan a fun event for families is the lumberjack show, in which two teams (one representing British Columbia, the other Alaska) pit their logging skills against one another. These crowd-cheering contests include pole climbing and log rolling. A popular eco-adventure in Ketchikan is the Bear Creek Zipline Course, which accommodates kids five and up on its cable ziplines, suspension bridge, mountain slide and tarzan-style swing. And when your family returns to the ship after an active day in port, the evening promises elegant dining and live entertainment for the adults while the ship's youth counsellors keep the kids entertained in their own fun zone.

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