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50 Years of Cruising in Alaska: The Game Changers

Larry Bleiberg

Oct 10, 2019

Read time
12 min read

Sponsored by Princess Cruise Line

Fifty years ago, few travelers made it to the wilds of Alaska. The 49th state was considered a vast wilderness, attracting mostly hardy outdoorsman and intrepid RVers willing to tackle the 1,300-mile unpaved Alaska Highway. Few others even considered visiting the Last Frontier.

What a difference a half-century makes.

Now, the state is one of the world's top cruising destinations, a place where visitors can experience some of the earth's wildest landscapes from the comfort of a modern ship.

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Interest had begun to build after the territory gained statehood in 1959. Over the next decades, it blossomed as cruise ships began to make regular calls. But the transition didn't happen without drive, vision and a share of luck. Here are the people and companies that transformed Alaska into the travel destination it is today.

Mr. Alaska - The Man who Started it All

Alaska often seems larger than life, so it's no surprise its early promoters were as well. Chuck West, who married a former Miss Alaska and won a Distinguished Flying Cross military decoration for hauling World War II cargo over the Himalayas, is considered the godfather of Alaska tourism.

After the war, he came to Alaska to work as a bush pilot in Fairbanks, and was immediately enamored by the stunning landscapes he saw from the air. In 1946, he started Arctic Alaska Travel Service, one of the state's first tourism companies. Using a leased plane, he flew some of the territory's first tourists to Nome on the Bering Sea and the Inuit village of Kotzebue north of the Arctic Circle.

"He saw the potential of people wanting to see Alaska. And he made it happen," said John Binkley, whose father teamed up with West to start the Alaska Visitors Association in the 1950s.

Soon West opened an agency in Seattle to lure visitors from the Lower 48, and launched the first Inside Passage tourist cruise line, the first Alaska hotel chain and a motor coach tour operation. They eventually all combined to become a company called Westours that remained in business for decades.

West said it was initially a hard-sell to convince travelers to venture to the Last Frontier. But he won them over through his charisma and personality, which led to his nickname: Mr. Alaska.

A Pioneering Princess

Princess Cruises has deep ties to Alaska. Just a few years after sailing its first ship to Mexico, the company turned its sights north. In 1969, it chartered the Princess Italia to bring 525 passengers to Alaska. And things haven’t slowed down since. Today, the company brings more passengers to the state than any other cruise line.

In its first decade, interest in cruising grew thanks in part to the hit television show, "The Love Boat," which was set on a Princess ship and featured many episodes in Alaska.

But the cruise line was expanding its reach in other ways as well, developing land adventures for visitors. Rail trips and lodge stays were coordinated with cruises to create a seamless land and sea vacation. For example, its 500-mile Direct-To-The-Wilderness Service now can whisk passengers directly from their ship to Denali-area lodges in one-day, eliminating the need for an overnight stay on the way. “The Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, and Denali National Park were the Big Three,” says Charlie Ball, executive vice president of land operations and customer service for Princess Cruises. “Princess was very, very early in recognizing this, and started to invest in that itinerary.”

Another important evolution for Princess: Its increasing variety of itineraries. Options include round-trip cruises lasting from seven to 12 days; and also, one-week, one-way cruises that could be extended with three-to-eight-night land tours staying at the line's owned and operated Wilderness Lodges. It created its own rail service. The range of choices stretches from on-your-own packages for independent travelers to “Connoisseur” offerings with tours and most meals included. Places like Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, and Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge on the edge of the country’s largest national park, Wrangell-Elias, all add extra perspectives to a cruise vacation.

On board the ships and in ports of call, Princess has also developed programs to connect passengers to the destination. Its “North to Alaska” program brought local personalities, speakers from Discovery’s "Deadliest Catch," and even cuddly sled-dog puppies to visitors. The effort also carried over to the dining room. Passengers have numerous opportunities to dine on fresh Alaska seafood, including specialty dishes like crab cakes, fish tacos and seafood chowder from Inside Passage restaurants. And those that head-out on shore excursions to go fishing can have chefs prepare their catch for dinner that night.

The line continues to lead the industry in offering innovative new features, infrastructure, and programs on Alaska. In 2018, it partnered with Animal Planet's "Treasure Masters" to design and build a custom treehouse at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Lodge guests not only enjoy expansive mountain views but can also visit the hideaway for enrichment programs, including lectures from Denali climbers and tastings of birch-syrup and other tree-based products.

In 2019, the line will mark its 50th anniversary of Alaska cruising by sending its largest ship, the 3,600-passenger Royal Princess, and six other vessels to sail the state. Its tour coaches will drive the highways, trains will glide along tracks, and lodges will welcome travelers eager to explore the wilds.

Why Trains Really Matter in Alaska

Surprisingly, trains changed the pattern of Alaska cruising.

For many years, Alaska cruise ships followed a set pattern. Vessels would sail north from Vancouver, Canada, and head up the Inside Passage on what was usually a three-day trip. Once they reached Skagway, the ship would turn around and head south.

But businessman Tom Rader saw opportunity in rail. He purchased surplus California commuter rail cars and hooked them up to the Alaska State Railroad for trips from the port of Whittier, north to Anchorage and Denali National Park.

This changed the rhythm and nature of Alaska cruising, even for people who didn't take the train. Passengers could now book a weeklong cruise on a new "glacier route." Instead of turning around at Skagway, ships continued northwest, passing through Prince William Sound and visiting Glacier Bay National Park on their way north. Once they reached Whittier, passengers could then board a train and continue to the Interior. Others could head to Anchorage for flights back home.

"When ships started going across the Gulf of Alaska, things started to grow," says Don Rosenberger, a tourism executive who remembers flying with Rader along the Alaska coast, holding a chart in his hands as they looked for potential cruise ports.

In 1986, Rader's Tour Alaska company joined with Princess Cruises to build luxury domed rail cars, offering a seamless land and sea vacation experience for travelers. And cruise ships still sail the same route today.

The Original Camp Denali Has an Intriguing Backstory

While cruise ships continue to fuel Alaska tourism, many passengers extend their visit inland on cruise tours, staying in wilderness lodges like those developed by Princess Cruises.

These follow a model created by Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood. The pair of Second World War Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) had a taste for adventure. After the war, they had traveled in the Alps, staying in small hikers' huts. When they came to Alaska in the late 1940s, they wanted to develop something similar, and staked out a lodge property at the northwest corner of what was then Mount McKinley National Park.

Camp Denali opened near the park in 1952 as one of the world's first eco-lodges. Hunter, Wood and her husband Woody, helped visitors explore the tallest peak in North America, providing guides and excursions into the rugged backcountry. Their rustic lodge with outhouses has inspired countless variations around the world, from the rainforests of Costa Rica to the wilds of the Arctic.

"Those ladies were pioneers," says Binkley. "They became forces in the industry to promote the park." Today's Alaska land tours have grown to include cultural visits and wildlife tours that take passengers across the state in luxury. Indeed, the lodge concept has become a popular pre- or post-cruise option for travelers who want to have in-depth experiences in Kenai, Denali, Fairbanks, Copper River and Denali (formerly Mount McKinley).

Read reviews from travelers in our Princess cruise reviews.

Wildlife Spotting and Derring Do: Alaska's Transformation

One of the challenges facing Alaska tourism was finding ways for visitors to see and experience the frontier. In the first years, cruise passengers had few options in ports. Often, they loaded on to converted school buses for brief tours and visited a few historic sites.

Today, visitors find literally dozens of options to experience Alaska at every call. Active travelers and families can fly to glaciers, fish for salmon and hike through rainforests. These excursions, which for many are the heart of an Alaska cruise, were largely developed by local entrepreneurs who loved their state and were eager to share it with visitors.

Allen Marine Tours was one of the first to take passengers on wildlife excursions. In 1970, just as the cruise business was taking off, the Allen family resurrected a sunken motor yacht and began to offer day tours on Silver Bay, just outside of Sitka.

As the company grew, the protected humpback whale, which had almost been hunted to extinction, began to make a comeback. Within a few years, Allen's whale watching tours were drawing a growing stream of cruise ship passengers eager to see pods of the playful sea mammals.

Today it operates more than 25 vessels in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, including high-speed catamarans. It has also expanded offerings to include culinary tours, which combine nature viewing with seafood tastings at remote lodges.

Another company, TEMSCO Helicopters, has a similar history. The firm began in 1958 to serve industry, as its name—an acronym for timber, exploration, mining, survey, cargo operations—suggests. But in the early 1980s, it launched a tourism division, first offering air tours of Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau.

"The easiest and quickest way to access the glaciers is by air. It opened up a whole new world for the traveling public," says company vice president Craig Jennison.

A few years later, it added a cruise ship excursion that some passengers consider a bucket-list Alaska experience: helicoptering to a glacier for dog-sledding. It also expanded to Skagway and Denali. As volume grew, the company focused on professionalism, becoming a founding member of TOPS, a national helicopter tour safety organization.

Now, during peak season, it has 16 helicopters running tours every day from Juneau, Skagway and Denali.

Making Tracks to the Yukon Goldfields

For nearly a century, the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad was a stalwart of the north. The narrow-gauge rail line, based in Skagway, opened in 1898 to haul prospectors to the Klondike Gold Rush, and the route, with tunnels and high trestles, is still considered an engineering marvel. For decades, it served as the primary route to the Yukon, hauling freight and supplies to mining camps and settlements.

But, just as competition from trucks was taking its toll, tourism was growing. In 1988, it found new life as a heritage railway, offering excursions for cruise ship passengers from the port of Skagway.

The trip is stupendous, says Don Heimburger, who publishes books on rail history and travel. "You just can't find a railroad and scenery combination much better than this—anywhere, really. Ships that sail up the Inside Passage unload train passengers, and the railroad allows them to go deeper into the beautiful wilderness."

Today, the train, pulled by green and yellow engines, is a highlight of an Alaska vacation, attracting many passengers every year.

Alaska's Biggest Challenge? Its Own Popularity

As the popularity of Alaska cruising grew, lines began seeking new sites to visit. The core ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka were getting crowded and cruise lines needed new places to put their ships.

The Alaska Native Tlingit community from the village of Hoonah helped solve that problem in 2004, when it opened a new port -- Icy Strait Point -- at a restored 1912 salmon cannery across from Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. According to Alaska Native beliefs, ice-filled Glacier Bay had been the natives' ancestral home before the glaciers arrived, which led them to relocate to their current village site.

The port, owned by the Huna Totem Corp., an Alaska native owned corporation, has attracted more than $50 million in investment and provided employment in a community where logging and fishing jobs had dried up. It got off to a quick start, welcoming 34 ships in its inaugural year. Now it hosts more than 100 vessels annually, and has grown to become one of the country's busiest ports, welcoming more than 175,000 passengers every season.

"It's such an incredible story. They started a cruise ship port from nothing, from scratch," said John Binkley, who serves as president of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Alaska.

Visitors enjoy the wilderness setting and the direct connection to Alaska's Native community, with tribal dances, culinary demonstrations and craft shops. Because of its remote location, the port can feel more tranquil than Alaska's busy city berths. Trails lead away from the docks and a nearby beach allows for nature walks and exploring tidepools.

Icy Strait also offers more than 25 shore excursions, including some of the best whale watching in the world – since the port opened, tour boats have had a 100 percent success rate at spotting the sea mammals. Others seek adventure on one of the world's largest ziplines. Thrill-seekers reach speeds of up to 65 mph as they zoom along a line that stretches more than a mile and drops 1,300 feet.

It's a trip as wild as Alaska itself, and one could guess that tourism pioneer Chuck West would have loved to take a ride.

What do you want to know about an Alaska Cruise? Check out these other stories...

Travel writer Larry Bleiberg is an eight-time Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner, and was honored for editing the best newspaper travel section in North America. He writes a column for USA Today, and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Better Homes & Gardens, Delta Sky and many others.

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Updated October 10, 2019
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