Alaska, despite its awesome natural attractions, has been struggling as a cruise destination.
In 2009, the recession saw Americans sticking closer to home, which meant the lines had to slash cruise fares to fill the over-abundance of ships stationed in Alaska -- great for last-minute travelers who could afford the airfare to get to their cruise port, not so good for generating revenue for the lines and the state's tourism industry. And in 2010, the situation became even bleaker. Alaska welcomed its lowest number of cruise passengers since 2005, as lines pulled ships out of the region and threatened to sue over a pricey head tax imposed on cruisers.
But 2011 may end the state's streak of bad luck. Government officials have voted to reduce the head tax, and cruise lines are embracing the region anew, bringing back ships or, in the case of Oceania Cruises and Disney Cruise Line, entering the market for the first time. Agents report that Alaska sailings and cruisetours are selling well, as travelers have the cash and confidence to book a summer trip to a must-see destination.
The region has pretty much everything you might want: a variety of ship and itinerary options, beautiful scenery, interesting culture and history, adventurous excursions, wildlife you can see from a safe distance, shopping opportunities and convenient homeport options. Savvy travelers have also picked up some great deals on early-bird cruise buys or shoulder-season departures. The only things missing are hot summer temperatures, sandy beaches and a long cruise season (Alaska sailings are only offered from May through September).
But why go now? Here are eight compelling reasons to cruise Alaska ... and soon.
No. 1: You can think big.
Take your pick -- nearly every major line cruises Alaska, and many are adding ships and itineraries for 2011 and 2012, so it's easy to find the big-ship experience that's right for you. If you want to see Alaska Mickey-style with your family, book Disney Wonder on its inaugural Alaska cruises. Karaoke stars and late-night revelers can rock out on Carnival Cruise Lines and NCL, while more traditional tea-and-ballroom types can pick from several Holland America ships.
And more ships up north means more itinerary options. Roundtrip sailings from Seattle and San Francisco fit the bill if you need affordable, convenient airfare options as oil prices and plane fares skyrocket. One-way cruises between Vancouver and the Alaskan ports of Whittier and Seward allow you to travel farther north and tack on pre- or post-cruise guided tours or independent explorations of America's 49th state. And Holland America is bringing back its new-for-2010 14-night roundtrip sailing that calls directly in Anchorage at the halfway mark.
No. 2: You can think small(er).
In 2011, Crystal Cruises and Oceania are joining Regent Seven Seas and Silversea Cruises with their first (or first in years) Alaska cruises. Not only do you have more ways to cruise in style, but the influx of luxury ships means more booking deals, like $1,000 discounts, hefty onboard credits and free airfare. Also, the smaller ships allow for closer approaches to glaciers and scenic waterways and provide plenty of room at the ship's rail for picture-taking and binocular use -- not to mention more personal service, gourmet food and luxurious staterooms onboard.
At the other end of the small-ship spectrum, expedition lines like InnerSea Discoveries, American Safari Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions and Discovery Voyages can show you a side of Alaska often missed on the big-ship voyages. The difference? Expect a focus on Zodiac excursions, wildlife sightings, educational enrichment and exploring hidden coves and corners. You'll be skipping most of the major ports (like Skagway and Sitka) and the flightseeing and shopping excursions, and instead anchoring off small towns or wilderness areas, with days spent hiking, kayaking, birdwatching or beachcombing. But back-to-nature doesn't have to mean bare bones: High-end expedition lines feature comfortable ships with luxurious appointments and price tags to match (e.g. fares for a seven-night "Glacier Country" cruise on American Safari start at nearly $1,000 a night during the peak summer months).
No. 3: You can act your age.
Once upon a time, Alaska was a bucket list destination. But as more cruise lines headed north and west, bringing amenity-laden ships and adventurous activities to the cruise scene, and grandparents decided that an Alaska cruise would make a great multigenerational family vacation, the offerings changed to cater to travelers of all ages.
Lines like Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess Cruises now offer extensive onboard programming for kids and teens. The Mouse even offers specific family-focused shore excursions in Alaska, including salmon bakes with Disney characters, a teen-only helicopter glacier trek and special youth-friendly activities on Skagway's White Pass Railway journey. And travelers of all ages can enjoy innovative dining and nightlife options onboard, more active shore excursions like kayaking and hiking, and seven-night voyages that fit into busy work schedules.
Reason 4: You can see wildlife right off the Lido Deck -- for free!
Sure, you can shell out $455 on Oceania for a bear-viewing excursion via floatplane to Prince of Wales Island or $199 on Princess for a day trip to an eagle preserve. Or you could look over the side of the ship and see whales, bald eagles, seals, and possibly moose or bears at no additional cost. Captains will typically make announcements when whales are spotted, and then you'll nearly feel the ship list as everyone races port or starboard to see the critters.
Scenic cruising days through the Inside Passage, Tracy Arm, Hubbard Glacier or Glacier Bay will also yield wildlife views, while you enjoy hot chocolate (or pea soup on Holland America) on deck. Or just keep an eye out as you relax on your balcony or a sip a cocktail up on deck -- and you might just spot something interesting in the water or on the shoreline.
No. 5: You can choose from a variety of unique-to-Alaska excursions.
Forget city tours and beach breaks. If you're into fishing or just cooking and eating fish, active pursuits like hiking and kayaking, and taking in beautiful scenery and wildlife, Alaska presents tour opportunities not found on many other (if any) cruise itineraries. Take a helicopter ride up to a glacier, where you can go ice-trekking or dog-sledding. Seek out bears in their natural habitats.
Princess' new-for-2011 tour combines a bit of all things Alaska (and is family-friendly, to boot) with a trip from Skagway to the Klondike Gold Fields to meet Iditarod sled dogs, experience temperatures of 40-below in a cold chamber and pan for gold like the miners of yore. And one of Disney's new family tours lets passengers join actual fishermen on a crab-catching boat ride and for a crab dinner afterward.
No. 6: You can be a do-it-yourselfer -- and not feel like you're missing anything.
Yes, Alaska's excursions are pricey. But if you prefer to skip official tours and see each port on your own, you've got lots of options here, plus you'll still get a good feel for the Last Frontier. In Ketchikan, you can hit the shops on Creek Street and visit a Gold Rush brothel-turned-museum. In Juneau, you can take the tram up Mount Roberts where you can watch a short movie, check out educational displays and presentations, and explore the mountaintop trails. Skagway is a great place for DIY hikes and shopping; many cruisers rent a car here to drive the scenic Klondike Highway -- that roughly mirrors the path taken by gold prospectors in the 1898 gold rush -- rather than take the White Pass Railway tour. Just pick up some tips and brochures by contacting the local visitor centers or tourism bureau before you go.
No. 7: You can pack more into your vacation with a pre- or post-cruise stay.
As cruises will only show you a tiny fraction of the state, get more out of your trip by booking a cruisetour or your own land vacation to see more of Alaska, including such crowd-pleasers as Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula or even northern areas above the Arctic Circle. Explore by car, train, coach or even plane. You can see vastly different landscapes, tour major Alaskan cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, and maybe even spot the famed pipeline.
Plus, as one-way airfares into Canada and out of Anchorage (or vice versa) can be high, it's best to make the most of your visit by taking more time to explore more of this humongous state. Bonus: Alaska cruise homeports that are located farther south, such as Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco, are also wonderful cities to spend a few days shopping, eating, exploring and taking in the local culture.
Reason 8: You can see it now ... before it's gone.
Alaska's glaciers are among the biggest attractions for cruisers. Yet with global warming and other environmental changes -- not to mention new laws to protect animals from cruise ships -- this is an experience in transition. And by most accounts, not for the better.
Visit any Alaskan glacier and your guide (or informative plaques) will point out how much the glacier has receded. Many may be on track to disappear altogether. New studies showing the possible dangers of cruise ships to seals may lead to ships being forced to stay farther away from the creatures or even to cease cruising to Hubbard Glacier altogether. And various Alaskan animals -- like whales, sea otters and sea lions -- are on the endangered list.
While cruise lines do their best to soften their environmental footprint, following laws about where to dump wastewater and how to keep a safe distance from marine life, great forces -- such as climate change -- are the real threats to Alaska's marquee natural attractions. So if you want to see the wild side of Alaska, the most compelling reason to go now is that soon it may all be gone.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor