Friday, January 29, 2010

Alaska Part 2

The easiest way for most US passengers to cruise to Alaska's Inside Passage is from the Port of Seattle, mainly since airfare is usually cheaper to Seattle than Vancouver. You can also sail roundtrip from  the Port of Vancouver, or go the full Anchorage-Vancouver route. Because of the very low tides around Anchorage, however, most cruise ships actually sail from the ports of either Whittier or Seward. Frankly, unless you can spend the extra time and money to add a land tour to your cruise package, you don't gain much by cruising the full Vancouver-Anchorage route. Some cruise lines do add Prince William Sound and College Fjord to the full route (a plus), but others depart Seward or Whittier and head straight for the Inside Passage ports--also available on a roundtrip itinerary.

Conversely, the only way to add a tour is via the full "glacier route"--and that IS the best way to make the most of your vacation time and dollar AND add to the memories of your Alaska experience.

Whether cruising just the Inside Passage or the full route, however, you'll usually call on three ports from a short list of possibilities. Juneau is the only US state capital city totally surrounded by water and accessible only by boat or airplane. One cannot drive to Juneau!

A favorite of mine is Ketchikan, salmon capital of the world. It can be a wet stop for you, though, since Ketchikan can receive about 300 inches of rain annually. The majority of the so-called Alaska panhandle is part of the Tongass National Forest, the United States' largest national forest. The Tongass contains 14 percent of the world's total acreage of temperate rain forest, creating a nice environment for coffee growing; hence, my affection for the Raven's Brew brand. Nearby is the entrance to the Misty Fjords, a great area for a seaplane excursion.

Stories of Gold Rush days abound in Skagway, gateway to the Klondike. It's here that you can board a narrow gauge railroad for a historic ride up to White Pass Summit. At the top of the mountain, you'll flip your seats over for the return trip back down. (Hint: for a different view down the mountain, choose the excursion that's half train/half motorcoach with a visit to Liarsville thrown in.)

Sitka is that quaint Alaskan city with a combined heritage of Tlingit culture and Russian history. Ships usually tender passengers to port here.

Located near the entrance to Glacier Bay, Icy Straight hosts a multitude of eagles (lured by an abundance of salmon) who no doubt watch with interest as screaming humans rip through their airspace on the longest zipline in the world. Another key wildlife area is around the small town of Haines on the shores of the upper Lynn Canal, the longest, deepest fjord in North America. Cruise ship visits to this are very restricted, however, to protect this home of humpback whales, orca, Dall's porpoises, seals, sea otters, brown (grizzly) bear, halibut, and all five species of Pacific salmon.

All ships visit at least one glacier area during a seven-night cruise, sometimes more: Glacier Bay National Park, Hubbard Glacier, or Sawyer Glacier located in Tracy Arm Fjord. The most accessible of them all (if not the most dramatic) is Mendenhall Glacier, which is a short bus ride from Juneau. Glacier Bay is sometimes considered the premier pick of the glacial lot because of the number of active glaciers in the area. However, Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier on the North American continent whose size can blow you away. She's quite impressive. The twin Sawyer Glaciers come at the end of the narrow, 26-mile Tracy Arm Fjord lined with vertical rock cliffs and lush waterfalls, making for a pretty dramatic approach.

The best of the full Anchorage-Vancouver "glacier route" itineraries add Prince William Sound, Columbia Glacier (near Valdez) and College Fjord, home to several glaciers with such notable names as Princeton, Yale, and Vassar. The entrance to Prince William Sound is very close to the Port of Whittier. Also nearby is Portage Glacier, sometimes partially visible from the road and railway en route to the port, or via a cool up-close-and-personal excursion.

The Alaska cruise booking wave is well underway. Is this your year to finally get there? Check out more of our photographic memories from our most recent Alaska cruisetour!

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