(3:05 p.m. EST) -- Travelers have known about the wild beauty of Alaska for years, but those who haven't experienced the 49th State by sea are catching on -- quickly. People are cruising to Alaska in record numbers -- cruise ship traffic is expected to jump by about 15 percent this year, bringing well over a million visitors with no signs of slowing. Cruise lines have taken notice, dedicating more ships to the region, returning after a long hiatus or even building new hardware; destinations -- some used to regularly handling single-day visitors in the five-digit range -- are improving infrastructure and encouraging operators to develop new tours.
If you're taking a cruise to Alaska this year, here are a few new things to keep on the radar.
1. The season begins in March.
No visit to Alaska is complete without some wildlife-viewing, and it was wildlife that Alaskan Dream Cruises had in mind when they designed their new, five-night "Alaska's Spring Wilderness & Wildlife Safari" cruise that departs from Sitka Sound as early as March this year. The timing is designed to coincide with a herring migration that attracts humpback whales, eagles and other creatures like sea lions and sea otters. While the tail end of winter might be a tough sell when most itineraries begin sailing to the region in May, adventurous travelers are tip-toeing into Alaskan territory earlier and earlier each season. The president of expedition cruise line UnCruise Adventures, Dan Blanchard, has coined the phrase "Alaska Awakening" to encourage ports to welcome visitors earlier in the cruise season -- UnCruise offers voyages beginning in April for 2018.
2. It's the Year of the Dog.
According to the Chinese zodiac calendar, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. For Alaskans, it's an excuse to further celebrate their official state sport: dog mushing. Juneau, namely, is using the canine calendar year to highlight the amazing cruise tours they offer like dogsledding on Mendenhall Glacier. At the Taku Glacier Lodge, flightseeing and salmon bakes combine with dogsledding history for a spectacular day trip. This year, visitors to the Taku Glacier Lodge will be treated to talks that focus on female dogsledding pioneer Mary Joyce, who ventured 1,000 miles with five dogs and a sled from the lodge to Fairbanks in December 1935; the trip took her three months to complete.
3. Windstar is back in Alaska.
And they're taking expedition-style cruising seriously. The small-ship cruise line is deploying the 212-passenger, ice-rated Star Legend yacht to Seward and Vancouver this season to sail a number of 11- to 14-night Alaska voyages. The vessel has been refitted with six Zodiacs, 10 kayaks and other expedition equipment, as well programming called Signature Expeditions. Overseeing the program, Captain James Griffiths calls his team "unparalleled," from historians and naturalists to glaciologists. In addition to standard port experiences, there will be at least four days of remote expedition on these Alaska sailings, to a glacial fjord or whale-watching. Ports might include Haines, Tracy Arm, Prince Rupert and Sitka.
4. Skagway has opened a distillery.
Skagway is experiencing a renaissance of libations with a second Skagway Brewing location slated for 2019, as well as a new brewery called Klondike Brewing in the works. However, new for this Alaska cruise season is a distillery specializing in local spirits -- picture inventive cocktails using handmade vodka and local fruit jams. Skagway Spirits Distillery is located in an old airplane hangar about a 20-minute walk from the port. Visitors are well rewarded with creations including a fireweed cosmo or a spruce tip gin and tonic. Don't be surprised to find food trucks parked outside to balance out the tastings with some barbecue.
5. Norwegian Bliss sails from Seattle.Norwegian Cruise Line is preparing to debut its newest ship, Norwegian Bliss, this spring. When it sets sail from Seattle in June, it will be one of the largest cruise ships to ever ply the waters of Alaska, carrying 4,000 passengers at a time. Bliss will call on ports like Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Victoria. The mega-ship will feature a few Alaska-specific touches like whales and other marine life painted on the hull, and an observation lounge designed for prime scenic sailing. Otherwise, cruisers will be able to view glaciers from a top-deck go-kart track, or catch a performance of "The Jersey Boys" far, far from Broadway.
6. You can sip syrup in a treehouse at Princess' McKinley Lodge.
In addition to Princess Cruises' biggest deployment ever to Alaska (seven ships on 130 departures), now you can also check out their deluxe treehouse in Denali on a cruisetour in 2018. Designed and built in partnership with Animal Planet's "Treehouse Masters," the treehouse offers stunning views of Denali Mountain from Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. But the treehouse doesn't just offer views alone. In addition to storytelling sessions and trivia games, the treehouse will host a "Sappy Hour," for guests to learn about and sample various birch syrups and products.
7. Lindblad Expeditions will offer its Global Explorers family program.
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic launched its Global Explorers program last year in the Galapagos, aiming to engage kids and teens in immersive and educational programming throughout their cruise. This year it's headed to Alaska, where the youngest cruisers (under 18) can explore the incredible wilderness with the guidance of certified field educators. Activities might include identifying fluke whales from the ship's bow; learn to tell stories through notes, videos and photos; or even learn to pilot a Zodiac. Global Explorers programming is included in Lindblad's cruise fare.
8. The 57th annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics will take place in Fairbanks.
If you're still jonesing for an Olympics fix after the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, consider the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks this summer. The games take place July 18 to 21 this year, during the height of Alaska cruise season, and attract native communities from across the state to compete in unique events like the Alaskan High Kick, Ear Pull, Fish Cutting or Seal Skinning. While the games are an annual occurrence and not new for 2018, more cross-gulf itineraries (Vancouver or Seattle to Alaska -- and vice versa) mean it's easier to tack on an Alaska cruisetour at one end of your journey. Fairbanks boasts tons of activities from a working car museum to traditional gold-panning -- all under the Aurora Oval (an area designated for optimum northern lights viewing, in season). Consider spending some time here, in what northerners consider "authentic Alaska."
--By Brittany Chrusciel, Associate Editor