If you're thinking about traveling to Alaska, a cruisetour is a comprehensive -- albeit fast-paced -- way to cover a ton of ground (and water). I'm back from an 11-night Princess cruisetour of the 49th state, and it's different than any other trip I've taken in my life. Living on the East Coast, everything I saw seemed to be turned up a couple notches: the sheer size of the mountain ranges; the dumbfounding expanse of glaciers, tundras and rainforest; the diversity and intensity (grizzly bears, killer whales) of the wildlife; the free spirit of the indigenous cultures and year-round inhabitants; and being able to touch upon each one of those earth-shattering elements with tours and excursions.
The following are 11 tips from my Princess cruisetour experience.
1. Pack Smart.
Unfortunately, a cruisetour of Alaska is one of those occasions where you need to bring everything, as weather in the Last Frontier can vary widely. Be smart about the items you pack and keep in mind that laundry is accessible (on Princess Cruises) both at the lodges and onboard the ship. "Layers" is the magic word. Traveling in the summer months can mean shorts and T-shirts in one place, and long pants and three waterproof layers in the next. Be prepared to rewear those one pair of pants that are working out well on hikes, and to not touch the tank top because of mosquitos.
2. Protect Yourself.
Which brings me to my next point: Bug spray and sunscreen -- make sure you have it, no questions asked. And if bugs love you as much as they do me, consider holistic remedies as well, including vitamin B supplements and natural oils. (Surprisingly, bug spray with DEET did not deter them all.)
3. Divide Your Clothes.
When you embark on the land portion first, you will be moving from lodge to lodge, and depending on the length of your tour, this could be nightly. That means you need to have your bags tagged and ready to go the night before, every time. Bags for the cruise portion can be tagged to be transferred directly to the ship; we recommend this option for formalwear and items that you won't need on land. Alternatively, bring a carry-on bag/backpack that will fit everything you need for the next day, plus room for your pajamas or an extra change of clothes.
4. Don't Bet on Wildlife ...
Everything is unpredictable in the wild. One minute, you will spot a soaring bald eagle or the spouts of beluga whales; then you may see nothing but wind and rain for two days straight. Although Alaska is a bucket list trip for some, there's nothing that can be done to account for nature. Don't have your heart set on seeing wildlife. That way, you'll avoid major disappointment and it makes it that much more special when you do see a moose or a bear.
5. ... Or Other Natural Sights.
Our group was lucky enough to join the "30 percent club" -- the average amount of visitors who ever gain clear sight of Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley), the tallest mountain in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world. Because of cloud cover, you can visit Princess' McKinley lodge, perfectly positioned so the Alaska Range is your breathtaking backdrop, but never catch a glimpse of the mountain they call The Great One. We heard stories from lodge staff about guests who complain about everything from poor weather and low visibility to requests for the "cloud blowers" to come and clear up the sky so they could see better. Don't be those people.
6. Book Everything.
Alaska's ports are fine for a little souvenir shopping and supporting local business, but when you're here, the real souvenirs are the experiences. Here you can kayak a lake where salmon spawn and trumpeter swans patrol their domain; land on an otherworldly glacier in a seaplane; hike the awesome Alaskan tundra; and take a helicopter past waterfalls and majestic mountains to dog sled at a camp with a real Iditarod team. Now is not the time to be shy about your budget; it's not worth the price to come all the way out to Alaska to do a single bus tour.
7. Try New Things.
As my zip-lining guide stressed while we were standing 135 feet up on a Sitka spruce amidst the pouring rain: Say yes… to everything. I am not very active at home, but I wanted to experience the range of Alaska's scenic arsenal by land, air and sea, so I booked kayaking and hiking trips that made me slightly nervous before I did them. Obviously, you don't want to hurt yourself by signing up for something you're physically unable to do, but Alaska is a place to do, see and even eat things (rockfish, anyone?) you wouldn't otherwise. You won't regret the investment.
8. Tour First.
Sure, there are options to take a land tour after your cruise. But be warned that the popular option of touring before you cruise is that way for a reason: You fit a lot in on land tours with Princess, but you need to contend with the hustle and bustle of bus rides, early wake-up calls, and a rainbow of luggage tags and logistics. It's a pace that may not be quite as welcome after a leisurely weeklong sailing; you'll have more energy at the beginning of your journey, when you're fueled by the excitement of embarking on a new adventure.
9. Check Inclusions.
Unless you book a high-end cruisetour (known as a Connoisseur tour with Princess Cruises), meals and extras are not included at the lodges. Alaska isn't cheap, and the fine dining restaurants will quickly rack up a three-digit bill for two. Make sure you're prepared.
10. Eat Local.
By the end of this trip, you may never want to eat salmon or sourdough again -- but only because it won't be as good anywhere else. Never in your wildest dreams did you imagine you could get burned out on king crab legs or reindeer. Pace yourself (I limited salmon to every other day to avoid taste- bud fatigue) and, remind yourself that it's all part of the authentic experience. There's no reindeer chili in New Jersey.
11. Take Part in Enrichment.
The learning aspect of your Princess cruisetour doesn't end once you board. Princess Cruises offers North to Alaska, an enrichment program that focuses on local customs, cuisine and guest speakers. A recipe from local seafood distributors in Skagway can be found as one of the specials at the onboard Trident Grill -- a halibut sandwich with slaw that was one of the best things I ate onboard. Native storytellers, such as The New York Times bestselling author Nick Jans or Iditarod champion Libby Riddles, sail on select cruises to share their perspectives and personal accounts of life in the wild. Embrace the midnight sun (you can sleep when you're home) with a special deck party held at the aft of the ship that comes complete with naturalist commentary and folksy guitar music.
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