Ever since naturalist John Muir described its majestic fjords and glaciers in the late 19th century, Southeast Alaska has attracted boatloads of tourists. But in the past five years, Alaska's popularity as a cruise destination has avalanched. There are nearly 500 Alaska cruises to choose from this year, nearly a 10 percent increase over 2004.
In the process, Alaska has gone from a once-in-a-lifetime experience to a popular repeat destination for travelers of all ages. The influx of visitors has spurred changes. As traditional ports swell with passengers, smaller harbors like Haines and Prince Rupert are being added to cruise itineraries.
Shore excursions are more active and adventurous, from snowshoe and glacier treks to rock climbing and snorkeling. There are also more excursions that let you quietly enjoy Alaska's spectacular wildlife by kayak, raft and foot.
Choosing from dozens of shore excursions isn't easy. To help, we've chosen our top ten trips. Two of our picks -- Misty Fjords National Monument and Kenai Fjords National Park -- are places of such astounding beauty that they simply shouldn't be missed. Others, like Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Traitor's Cove and Mountain Point, offer intimate glimpses at wildlife and marine life. From an eagle's view from a floatplane to a husky's view from a sled, here are the trips we love:
Rock Climbing and Rappelling
Port of Call: Skagway
Description: Not for the faint of heart, this rock climbing expedition takes place on the "real thing" (as opposed to, for instance, the top deck of a Royal Caribbean ship!). Passengers, whether adventurous neophytes or experienced climbers are guided by professional mountain climbers up the smooth, granite walls of Skagway's White Pass where the ultimate reward, besides the exercise, is stunning views -- of Skagway River, the White Pass Yukon Route Railway, and surrounding areas. Rappelling, simply the act of climbing down, is also part of the experience and requires different techniques. All equipment and instruction is included.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Crystal is the only line to offer this tour. The excursion costs $80.
Misty Fjords National Monument Flightseeing
Port of Call: Ketchikan
Description: With an average rainfall of 160 inches a year, "misty" is a bit of an understatement -- but don't let the rain and clouds keep you from this national gem. Once buried under a solid layer of glacial ice, the two million-acre wonderland features some of Alaska's most dramatic scenery. Throughout the two-hour ride from Ketchikan, your floatplane soars over thousand-foot waterfalls, rainforests, narrow fjords and polished granite cliffs rising 3,500 feet from the sea. During a brief landing, step out onto the floats into another world, keeping a look out for sea birds and marine mammals.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Carnival: $224 adult, $224 child; Holland America: $199 adult, $199 child; Princess: $209 adult, $209 child.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: A similar trip is offered by Alaska Seaplane Tours at $199 per adult (2 adult minimum) and $139 per child (www.alaskaseaplanetours.com, 866-858-2327).
Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise
Port of Call: Seward
Description: This six-hour excursion travels on a two-deck, 95-ft. boat through Resurrection Bay into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park. Established as a National Park in 1980, its 580,000-acre wilderness is known for rocky coastlines and glacier-crowned peaks. Above the long, steep-sided fjords are mountains mantled by the Harding Icefield, which forms more than 30 named glaciers. Cruising further, Chiswell Islands in the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge is home to a Stellar sea lion rookery, nesting puffins and other seabirds You'll also share the water with Stellar sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals and porpoises. If you're lucky, you may also see orcas, humpbacks and minke whales.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Holland America: $139 adult, $79 child; Princess Cruises: $115 adult, $57.50 child.
Going it alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Alaska Catamaran Cruises offers a six-hour cruise for $115 per adult and $49 per child that includes wildlife and glacier calving (www.wildlifequest.com, 888-305-2515).
Helicopter Glacier Trek
Port of Call: Juneau
Description: If you've ever had fantasies about following in Sir Edmund Hillary's icy footsteps, this trip is for you. The newest way to experience the massive 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield is to touch down on one of three dozen named glaciers. There, a professional guide teaches you basic mountaineering skills and how to use trekking poles, an ice axe and crampons. Donning rainproof jacket and pants, gloves and boots, you're ready to explore the icescape, from deep crevasses to azure blue melt water pools. The ice portion of this 4 1/4-hour excursion runs two hours; the helicopter ride half an hour. Note: Guests weighing over 250 pounds incur a 50 percent surcharge.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Holland America: $369 adult, $369 child; NCL: $370; Princess: $355 adult, $355 child.
Going it alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Juneau-based NorthStar Trekking offers a glacier trek for $329 per person. Locations include one of seven glaciers, depending on weather and glacier conditions (www.glaciertrekking.com, 907-790-4530).
Traitor's Cove: Bear Watching
Port of Call: Ketchikan
The Experience: British Captain George Vancouver named this spot in 1793 after the Native people gave him something less than a hero's welcome. Bring your binoculars, high-speed film and zoom lens for a good look at the black bears that gather here each summer. This 3 1/2-hour trip starts with a floatplane flight from Ketchikan over mountain lakes and majestic Behm Canal. At Traitor's Cove, you meet a naturalist for a 1 1/2-mile van ride to the Margaret Creek wilderness trailhead. A quarter-mile hike leads to an observation platform overlooking the Margaret Creek Falls. This is where the bears feed on pink and coho salmon while bald eagles wait in the surrounding trees for leftovers. Deer, mink and marten also frequent this neighborhood.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Carnival: $274; Crystal Cruises: $265.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Taquan Air offers a three-hour bear watching trip during July and August for $249 (www.taquanair.com 800-790-8800). Between August 15 and September 31, trips can be arranged with Island Wings Air Service for $275. (www.islandwings.com 888-854-2444).
Wilderness Exploration and Crab Fishing Adventure
Port of Call: Ketchikan
Description: Crabbing is among the more dangerous occupations in America -- especially here. Each winter, crab fishermen in the Bering Sea endure brutal winds and waves, and freezing temperatures. Fortunately, crab fans can pull a few pots in comfort on this delicious four-hour excursion. After a 30-minute scenic bus ride, you board a skiff, pontoon boat or catamaran and motor seven miles past snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and the Mahoney Glacial Cirque to the crab harvesting grounds. At Coon's Cove, home to the Dungeness Crab Fishery, guests help pull up crab pots before feasting on a Dungeness crab dinner at George Inlet Lodge. Sure beats winter in the Bering Sea.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Carnival: $139 adult, $112 child; NCL: $140 adult, $100 child; Princess: $129 adult, $82 child.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Experience Alaska Tours can often fit individuals into an excursion at $129 per adult and $99 per child (www.experiencealaska.com, 888-320-9049).
Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest
Port of Call: Sitka
The Experience: After being hunted to near extinction by fur traders, the adorable sea otter is making a comeback. This is good news, since otters are considered a "keystone" species whose feeding habits have a top-down effect on other marine life. Seventy to eighty percent of the world's sea otters -- an estimated 60,000 to 90,000 animals -- live in Alaska. Sitka, the former Russian capital of Alaska, is one of the sea otters' preferred areas. There you board the 65-ft. Sea Otter Express or a sister ship for a three-hour otter cruise. Note: Have your binoculars ready. In addition to otters, this area is home to whales, pinnipeds, bears, Sitka black-tailed deer and bald eagles. You're guaranteed to see an otter, whale or bear -- or your money back.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Celebrity $109 adult, $81 child, Princess: $105 adult, $77 child.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Allen Marine Tours offers a Saturday and Sunday morning cruise at $79 per adult and $40 per child; and a Tuesday and Thursday evening tour for $59 per adult and $30 per child (www.allenmarine.com 888-747-8101).
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
Port of Call: Skagway
The Experience: Each winter, a late run of chum salmon attracts several thousand eagles to the Chilkat River, the world's largest gathering of bald eagles. And even though by summer, the madding crowd has thinned out to some 400 resident eagles, this is still a worthwhile experience. The best way to experience this unique preserve is to float quietly downstream by raft, observing eagles feeding on salmon and nesting in black cottonwoods. And eagles aren't the only salmon lovers -- if you're lucky, you'll also see brown and black bears, as well as moose, river otter, beaver and trumpeter swans. Throw in towering mountains, hanging glaciers and lush forest and you'll have an unforgettable day.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Holland America: $119, adults $119 children 7 years and older.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Dolly Varden Alaska offers a 4-hour raft trip at $85 for adults and $57 for children (www.dollyvardenalaska.com, 866-298-6287).
Musher's Camp and Sled Dog Experience
Port of Call: Skagway
The Experience: If you loved "The Call of the Wild" and are crazy about dogs, don't miss this outing. Jack London traveled to the Klondike in search of adventure and that's what you'll get during this two-hour adrenaline rush at Klondike Gold Rush National Park. Hold onto your seat -- and your hat -- as a powerful team of huskies whisks you on a wheeled sled; spruce and hemlock forest, glacial-fed waterfalls and the Taiya Inlet tidal flats will surround you. If you're not already smitten with these handsome, hard-working dogs by the end of the ride, stop by the kennel and meet the adorable puppies.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Holland America: $99 adult, $99 child; Princess: $99 adult, $99 child.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: A similar 2 1/2-hour tour is available out of Skagway for $103 per adult and $52 per child from Alaska Tours (www.alaskatours.com, 907-277-3000).
Northeast Native Culture Tour
Port of Call: Prince Rupert
The Experience: For thousands of years before the arrival of Russians and Europeans, Alaska was inhabited by the Tlingit, Tshimshian, Nisga'a and Haida peoples. To gain an appreciation for this rich heritage, travel to The Museum of Northern British Columbia in Prince Rupert, home to one of the world's best collections of native art and artifacts. During the 2 1/2-hour excursion, the complex protocol and ceremonial regalia of the potlatch is described, followed by a slide show on the role of the natural environment in the lives of the Northwest people. For the finale, visitors watch a dance performance, listen to ancient stories and songs, and sample native foods at the Tsimshian Big House.
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Norwegian Cruise Line: $52
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: The Museum is open Monday to Saturday 9 am to 8 pm and Sunday 9 am to 5 pm. Admission $5 adult, $1 child. In addition to the exhibits and tours, walk across from the post-and-beam building to the carving shed, where native artists are often at work. (www.museumofnorthernbc.com, 250-624-3207).
Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure
Port of Call: Ketchikan
The Experience: Snorkeling in Alaska? Sounds like something the cruise lines should pay passengers to do! But thanks to the combined effect of the Japanese Kiroshio current, along with long summer days and lack of glaciers in this area near Ketchikan, water temperatures at this rocky beach average 55 degrees in the summer. With a quarter-inch thick wetsuit, booties, gloves and a hood, you're ready to discover marine life that includes colorful nudibranches, plume worms, crustaceans, giant sunflower stars, pink salmon and wolf eels. Shallow tide pools teem with marine life and steep underwater rock walls are great for free diving. A cup of hot chocolate wraps up this unique three-hour trip (one-hour snorkel).
Shore Excursion Cost By Cruise Line: Crystal: $77; Holland America: $89 adult, $89 child; Princess: $89 adult, $89 child.
Going It Alone -- For Independent Adventurers: Alaska Deep Six provides snorkeling gear and transportation for $75 a person to Mountain Point or Sunset Beach. Trips are limited to six people. (www.alaskadeepsix.com, 866-DEEP-SIX).
For advanced divers with a dry suit specialty rating, scuba diving is available through Wind & Water Charters (www.wind-water.org, 907-247-2082).