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Cruise destination spotlight: Alaska

SmarterTravel

Alaska is an ideal place to cruise, and cruising is an ideal way to see Alaska. The season is short—running from mid-May through September—but spectacular. An Alaska cruise offers stunning views on either side of the ship almost every day, so a balcony cabin, or at least an oceanview, is a must. Days at sea offer close-ups of majestic mountains, glaciers, and fjords—views that are only accessible from the water. Port days give cruisers a chance to experience the state’s cultural heritage, adventure into nature, or take a closer look at wildlife.

Peak or shoulder season almost doesn’t matter in Alaska, except in the cost of your cruise. May is the driest of the summer months so May cruises can offer the sunniest weather. Salmon are running at their peak in July and August, so fishing enthusiasts might want to choose those months to cruise. And if you hope to see the northern lights, plan to cruise in September; earlier in the summer, it’s just too bright at night to see them.

Where you’ll go and what you’ll do

Most Alaska cruises depart from Seattle or Vancouver for northbound or round-trip sailings, or from Seward or Whittier for southbound voyages. All of these destinations warrant pre- or post-cruise stays, so if you’ve got the time, tack on a few days to your trip. Vancouver offers urban amenities in a beautiful natural setting. Seward and Whittier are gateways to Anchorage, Denali National Park, and the Kenai Peninsula. If you want to do a land tour in Alaska, Princess and Holland America have cornered the market; they even run their own train cars and take over certain hotels in Denali.

Most cruises sail up the Inside Passage in southeast Alaska. Rainy Ketchikan is a mecca for salmon during the season. Take a half an hour to explore charming Creek Street, then head out of town for fishing, kayaking, or zip-line excursions. Juneau, the state capital, isn’t much of a town but you can find some local shops and the tourist-favorite Red Dog Saloon. The thing to do in Juneau is take a “flightseeing” or “heli-hiking” tour of the Mendenhall Glacier. If you’d rather save your cash, you can hike or take a bus to scenic overlooks for photo ops.

Skagway had its only heyday during the gold rush. The town originated to take cash off visitors, and these days, it’s still the same. You can ride the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, take a tour to see wildlife of all sorts, or shop along the photogenic main street. The National Park service offers free tours, which are informative and fun. Sitka, the former capital of Russian America, is the only real town on the itinerary. The sea otter excursions garner high marks, but you can easily spend the day visiting the local shops, watching Russian and native dances, exploring the historic Russian Bishop’s House, and learning about native cultures at the National Historical Park. Some ships also call at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, where you can take a trip to Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary, and Victoria, with its world-famous gardens.

Cruise days are also highlights. Some ships take a side trip up Tracy Arm Fjord, with its stunning mountain scenery and waterfalls. Hubbard Glacier and Glacier Bay are popular places to watch glaciers calving up close. The Inside Passage itself offers beautiful scenery on both sides of the ship for much of the trip.

Which cruise lines sail to Alaska?

You’ll find Alaska sailings on all the mainstream and premium lines, as well as on a few luxury lines. Here’s what the cruise lines are offering:

Carnival: Carnival sails seven-night cruises departing from Vancouver or Whittier aboard the Carnival Spirit. Itineraries include round-trip Glacier Bay voyages and one-way northbound and southbound sailings.

Celebrity: Celebrity sails seven-, 10-, 13-, and 14-night cruises departing from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Seward, and Vancouver aboard the Infinity, Mercury, and Summit. Itineraries include northbound and southbound sailings as well as Hubbard Glacier and “Ultimate Alaska” cruises.

Holland America: Holland America sails seven-night cruises departing from Seattle, Seward, and Vancouver aboard the ms Amsterdam, ms Noordam, ms Oosterdam, ms Ryndam, ms Statendam, ms Veendam, ms Volendam, ms Westerdam, ms Zaandam, and ms Zuiderdam. Itineraries include “Alaskan Explorer” cruises to Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier, or Tracy Arm; northbound and southbound “Glacier Discovery” cruises; and Glacier Bay Inside Passage cruises.

Norwegian: Norwegian runs seven-night cruises departing from Seattle and Vancouver aboard the Norwegian Pearl, Norwegian Star, Norwegian Sun, and Norwegian Wind. Itineraries include round-trip Glacier Bay and Sawyer Glacier cruises.

Princess: Princess sails seven- and 10-night cruises departing from San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, and Whittier aboard the Coral Princess, Dawn Princess, Diamond Princess, Golden Princess, Island Princess, Pacific Princess, Regal Princess, Sapphire Princess, and Sun Princess. Itineraries include round-trip Inside Passage and one-way “Voyage of the Glaciers” cruises.

Regent Seven Seas: Regent sails one-way seven-night cruises departing from Seward, Vancouver, or Whittier aboard the Seven Seas Mariner. The line also runs an 11-night repositioning cruise out of San Francisco.

Royal Caribbean: Royal Caribbean sails mostly seven- and nine-night cruises departing from Seattle, Seward, and Vancouver aboard the Radiance of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas, and Vision of the Seas. Itineraries include northbound, southbound, Tracy Arm, and Hubbard Glacier sailings.

Silversea: Silversea sails nine- and 12-night cruises departing from San Francisco and Vancouver aboard the Silver Shadow.

For more information about any Alaska cruises, contact the cruise line or a travel agent.

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