Alaska cruises tend to explore the same southeastern ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka. Yet to immerse yourself in the land of sled dog, Arctic tundra and northern lights requires a trip to Alaska's northwest interior. Cruise lines have the answer: the cruisetour.
The cruisetour is a land tour of interior destinations before or after a cruise. In conjunction with seven-night Alaska cruises, three- to eight-night land programs extend each trip with visits to interior destinations, such as Anchorage, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. Cruise lines with the most established cruisetour programs in Alaska include Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean, each with its own hallmarks:
Royal Celebrity Tours (Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises): same tour director stays with each group of travelers throughout the trip, and meals are typically not included. Standard destinations include Denali, Anchorage and Fairbanks, while unique destinations include Alyeska Ski Resort, surrounded by seven glaciers.
Princess Cruisetours: On Your Own tours provide travelers with only accommodations and transportation. Denali Explorer tours feature up to four nights in Denali, among other destinations. Off the Beaten Path tours include visits to more unusual locales in addition to Denali, and Connoisseur tours have the support of tour directors, planned activities and most meals included.
Holland America Cruisetours: Standard 11- to 14-night cuisetours visit Denali and cities like Fairbanks. Unique destinations include Yukon, and most land tours are teamed with shorter cruise between Vancouver and Skagway. A number of 19- and 20-night tours include full cruises, and Expedition Cruisetours emphasize wilderness experiences in either Denali, Tutka Bay Lodge (coastal), or Redoubt Bay Lodge (bear country) and Winterlake Lodge (along Iditarod Trail).
It's hardly a cruise on wheels. I discovered that on my Royal Caribbean cruisetour, on which the go-go-go pace had us putting luggage outside our doors at 6 a.m., leaving the hotel an hour later and not arriving at our next destination until the evening. But, that's not all you need to know about Alaskan cruisetours -- here are six other aspects of which you should be aware.
1. The Wild Side
Visiting Alaska is all about wildlife. Spotting orca whales, caribou and grizzly bears requires cameras and binoculars at the ready while staring at scenery all day. The trick is to look for movement. If it's not moving, it's often a "spruce moose" or "rock bear." Using this advice in Denali National Park, we found a mama and baby bear along one slope, dall sheep next to a sheer cliff drop and caribou with huge antlers among the shrubbery. Our driver spotted a lynx, the park's only feline. On a short hike from the Eielsen Visitor Center in Denali National Park, we shared our footpath with a red-tailed fox.
In Seward, a five-hour cruise through Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords at first yielded only jellyfish and seagulls -- not to mention some dried-out salmon in warming trays at lunchtime. But, when the boat reached the Gulf of Alaska, we spotted whales. Returning to the bay, we cruised slowly past horned puffins floating serenely in the water. A brown, furry island became a sea lion-covered rock when viewed through my binoculars. And those white spots on the hills? Mountain goats!
2. Rustic Comforts
Cruisetours tend to favor Alaskan lodges over chain hotels. The lodges typically feature a carefully created rustic look with exposed-log exteriors and blond-wood interiors. Lobbies are homey with cozy seating, fireplaces and "dead animal chic" decor -- lopped off noggins of moose and bear locked in eternal staring contests over the heads of visitors (or even life-size dioramas). The Wi-Fi is often free and fast, but amenities are scarce. We never stayed at a lodge with a pool, a few had teeny-tiny workout rooms with broken equipment, and one had an uninviting sauna.
Guest rooms are either in wings off the main lobby or in out-buildings. Be prepared to walk, though golf carts may be provided for guests with mobility issues. In Seward, we had to walk along wooded trails to get from our room to the restaurant or lobby, and in Denali, we had a bit of a hike through the property to get to the shuttle bus stop. And, yes, animals do frequent the premises -- from our seat on the back patio of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, we saw a black bear wandering down a walking trail behind the hotel.
3. Culture Now and Then
A cruisetour offers a myriad of opportunities to learn about Alaskan culture, but know that presentations range from sophisticated, interactive exhibits to canned, touristy attractions.
I was truly impressed with the Anchorage Museum's excellent exhibit on Alaska native cultures. Jacket made of seal intestines? Helmet with a human face on it? Fascinating. I also enjoyed the art galleries, where a modern art exhibit showcased a range of media, including a beautiful multicolor quilt and a bizarre video that combined images of a native dancer, a cruise ship and a floating Sarah Palin head. Kids would love the interactive Imaginarium that explores volcanoes, marine life and the aurora borealis.
Our visit to Fairbanks included some cheesy Alaskiana, particularly the El Dorado Gold Mine. We climbed into an amusement park-style mini-train, where the old-timey conductor sang Johnny Cash songs as we chugged through replicas of mining operations. (Our hostess wore a giant gold nugget on a chain around her neck.) Teenage boys, dressed like Gold Rush miners, handed us bags of dirt so we could pan for gold, which was fun, but the atmosphere was tourist-trap tacky.
A paddlewheel boat river tour was actually quite good, with a float plane demonstration followed by a sled-dog demo at the home and training camp of an Iditarod champ. We debarked in a mock Athabascan village, where we got a culinary demonstration (how to best prepare a salmon for dog food), fashion show (a teenage girl modeled an elaborate fur coat) and open house (a peek inside a typical trapper's cabin). Alas, the forced cheerfulness of the presentations ("Look who just happens to be playing outside today!") was grating.
4. Riding the Rails, for Better or Worse
The Alaska Railroad -- which traverses the long distance between Anchorage and Talkeetna, and on to Denali -- is a don't-miss experience, but be sure you know what you're getting.
We passed some beautiful scenery, most notably Hurricane Gulch, where the train crosses a 918-foot bridge poised some 296 feet above a creek. Unfortunately, the tiny viewing platform was crowded with other travelers blocking my view and my viewfinder. (The real Alaska Railroad cars have a better design with a much larger viewing platform on the top level, not the bottom like Royal Caribbean's.) We saw crazy, colorful homestead cabins in the middle of nowhere, in addition to Sarah Palin's hometown.
Still ... I was a bit disappointed with our Alaska railroad experience. Cruise lines tend to hype the rail portion: double-decker, glass-domed cars with 360-degree views, outdoor viewing platforms, a dining room with regional specialties. Instead, I spent four hours at a stretch with my carry-on bags squashed at my feet watching a bunch of trees go by, hoping that one of them was a moose. (It never was.) Train hosts provide commentary about Alaska and the railroad's route, peppered with bad jokes and sales pitches for spiked coffee drinks, moose pins and books about the railroad.
5. Dining, for Better or Worse
One of the biggest surprises about the cruisetour is that only one meal was included -- the aforementioned buffet during our fjords cruise. A Royal Caribbean rep told me that the line doesn't include meals in the price of cruisetours to give travelers the freedom to try local restaurants of their own choosing.
Yet we were often compelled to eat at certain times and in certain places. On the two Alaska Railroad train rides, we were told that we were not allowed to eat our own food up in the seating area. But, since ride took place smack in the middle of a meal time (the train from Talkeetna to Denali, for example, leaves at 11 a.m. and arrives at 3 p.m.), we were basically forced to eat in the dining car. And, because the dining car couldn't accommodate all the passengers, we had to eat in shifts as dictated by the train host.
Eating dinner at the hotel each night was the most convenient option, which we discovered when a group of us decided to go into "downtown" Denali for dinner on our first night there. Due to our jam-packed tour schedule that day, we didn't arrive at the Salmon Bake restaurant until after 8 p.m., and we finished too late to catch the last hotel shuttle. The restaurant shuttle (many out-of-the-way Alaska restaurants and attractions have them), left us stranded nearly an hour buying overpriced drinks in the bar before squeezing into a packed van full of young hotel employees returning from their night out on the town. So, if you eat dinner out, be prepared: getting back to the hotel is part of the adventure.
6. Knockout Scenery
Only in Alaska can you choose from an array of interesting wakeup calls. The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge offers a Mt. McKinley wakeup call. The hotel staff will ring you if the skies clear, providing a view of the majestic mountain from the hotel's back deck. As our trip was blessed with clear skies and sunny weather, we actually saw the mountain several times, once during a jetboat tour on Talkeetna's three rivers and once on the way to board our bus in the morning.
In Denali and Fairbanks, you can request a Northern Lights wakeup call, and the front desk will alert you in the middle of the night should the aurora borealis be especially active. On our final night of the trip, our phone rang at 11:30 p.m., and we rushed outside in our pajamas to view a ghostly arc of green, shimmering across the night sky.
The wakeup call opportunities show just how much scenery is a part of an Alaskan vacation -- in addition to many hours riding buses, trains and boats. One of the most scenic rides is from Seward to Anchorage, along the Turnagain Arm, where snow-capped mountains and rolling hills rise on either side of the bay. On a clear day in Anchorage, I saw the volcanic peaks of the Aleutians and the faint outlines of Denali before watching a dramatic sunset from my 15th-floor hotel room. And, if you really want to immerse yourself in the beauty of Alaska -- and are less of a white-knuckle flier than I am -- you can book a flightseeing trip, offered in most destinations, to see the glaciers and mountain peaks up-close.
The Bottom Line
After a week on the road in Alaska, I came home with mixed feelings about the cruisetour experience. Personally, I felt a bit trapped by the heavily scheduled tour, long train rides and restrictive meal offerings. Although the lodges were wonderful, they were often a bit off the beaten path leaving us at the mercy of shuttle buses. In these ways, the tours were very unlike the cruise, where you traveled at night and had a full day in port, free to choose activities and time meals to your liking.
However, a majority of the activities were quite good -- the Resurrection Bay cruise and visit to a wildlife center were highlights -- and while some struck me as too touristy, I appreciated that they gave a nice overview to the Alaska experience. The cruise line did a good job of condensing Alaskan highlights into a relatively short tour; we covered an amazing amount of ground in just a week, with a nice assortment of urban and wilderness destinations, famous locales and hidden gems.
The biggest impression I came away from this trip with is that Alaska is a beautiful and interesting state and well worth exploring -- and that the cruise lines have put together a variety of tours to showcase it at its best.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor