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All Aboard Alaska

Cruising the spectacular 49th state

By Christina Orlovsky Page 

Alaska
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Top: Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Middle: Ketchikan, the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Humpback whale. Rain on the Glacier Mendenhall Glacier. Bottom: Tundra landscape in Denali National Park near Wonder Lake campsite.

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The Land of the Midnight Sun. Seward’s Folly. Whatever you call it, our 49th state is a wonderland worthy of exploration. Secretary of State William Seward may have been ridiculed in the late 1800s for his insistence on purchasing the vast piece of land from Russia, but to the nearly two million tourists each year who set their sights on the spectacular northwestern state, the destination is no joke. In fact, it’s a serious bucket-list trip for many travelers looking for magnificent scenery, outdoor adventures, fresh air, and wildlife encounters. Not to mention endless daylight—as long as it’s summertime, where 18-plus hours of sunlight days with mild temperatures appeal to those who might otherwise be scared off by nature’s extremes.

Because of its location, weather and terrain, southeast Alaska is a popular cruise ship destination, allowing travelers to see sights, some only reachable by boat or seaplane. All of the major cruise lines—Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess, Holland America and Carnival—plus the more exclusive lines—Oceania, Silversea—offer Alaska itineraries from May through early September, before the sun starts to set on tourist season. Thrifty travelers, who can do without the creature comforts of mainstream cruises, can board one of the ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System for a more frugal excursion.

If time and money prohibit extending the vacation beyond the coast, the cruise portion is a magical enough introduction to all the beauty Alaska has to offer. Ships stop in the Gold Rush towns of Ketchikan and Skagway, the Russian outpost of Sitka, and the capital port of Juneau. Days of scenic cruising through the breathtaking (literally, even in summer, the air is crisp enough to take your breath away) Glacier Bay National Park, Hubbard Glacier and Tracy Arm Fjord allow up-close-and-personal access to some of the most spectacular wonders of the world. Glacial calvings emit thunderous booms seconds before massive chunks of ice break off and plunge hundreds of feet into the icy waters below; ships sail past frost-blue icebergs that give no hint to how deep they descend into the sea; and the occasional orca sighting reminds you that the world is filled with wondrous creatures that thrive in even the most extreme environs.

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Beyond the natural beauty of scenic cruising, for many Alaskan cruisers the port cities are simply starting points for a variety of additional excursions. Popular adventure tours range from helicopter rides over glaciers to “flightseeing” excursions in floatplanes that land in glacial waters or on the glacier itself. Animal lovers can book whale-watching tours or dog-sledding treks. And fitness lovers have abundant opportunities to hike and kayak.

In rainy Ketchikan, where annual rainfall is measured in feet and not inches, visitors can catch a lumberjack show, view totem poles, or spot spawning salmon. They can also shop along quaint and kitschy Creek Street, a historic boardwalk and the town’s former red-light district, providing a glimpse into the port’s seedier past. In tiny Skagway, the “Gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898,” tourists board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad for a scenic half- or full-day journey along the path that Gold Rush prospectors traveled. “The Scenic Railway of the World” passes breathtaking gorges, snow-capped mountains, and forests filled with opportunities for wildlife viewing—all aboard a marvel of 19th century engineering.

In Juneau, tourists flock to the Mendenhall Glacier, a 13-mile-long face of ice just outside of the city and accessible inexpensively by shuttle bus. Dating back 3,000 years to the last ice age, the glacier is one of 38 large glaciers that make up the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield. Part of Tongass National Forest, the park offers six trails for different vantage points, all with opportunities to encounter wildlife and waterfalls. Juneau is also home to a popular attraction for thrill seekers: exhilarating zipline tours through the emerald-green Juneau rainforest, courtesy of Alaska Zipline Adventures. Not for the faint-of-heart or feared-of-heights, the nearly four-hour tour through the treetops is a must-do for adrenaline junkies, featuring seven zips, a heart-stopping suspension-bridge crossing, and even an axe-throwing challenge to test your inner lumberjack.

With so much to see and do in one of the most spectacular states of the country, one visit is simply not enough to scratch the surface. An amazing way to break the ice on your first Alaska adventure is a summer cruise of the southeastern part of the state. This will surely leave you wanting more.

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For more information, visit: travelalaska.com or alaska.org