November: Sailing Away

Photo Courtesy InnerSea Discoveries

A boat trip is a great way to see the best of what Alaska has to offer

From a distance, the dark spots in the water looked like logs floating along the current. But as our boat approached closer, those brown objects came into focus and our toddler-aged son oohed at the comical, curious faces of the sea otters looking back at us. The cluster of sleek bodies bobbed on the surface, floating on their backs as they watched us and we watched them—a sort of sea-mammal vs. human face-off.

We’d snapped only a few photos from the rail of the boat—where we’d been all day since embarking on a day cruise out of Valdez—when the group of otters simultaneously disappeared under the water, disinterested in the excited cruise passengers watching them, and on to more interesting things in Prince William Sound. We sat back, scanning the photos on our digital camera and satisfied that we captured the creatures for memories to share later.

There is nothing quite like observing a marine mammal in its natural environment, and that’s what makes cruising in Alaska such a terrific option for experiencing the state. Cruising is one of the best places to create such memorable moments as staring into the soft eyes of an otter or watching a whale break the surface of the water. They are glimpses into the day-to-day life of the creatures that call this starkly beautiful place home.

Just how you plan your cruising experience is up to you. The modes of travel are diverse, ranging from small boats with personalized service and custom itineraries to giant cruise ships with all the luxuries and amenities of a fine hotel. There are affordable mini-cruises or grand, weeks-long getaways. All of them offer some of the best sightseeing in the state. Besides the ever-present whales and otters, there are sea lions, seals and sea birds galore. There are calving glaciers and cascading waterfalls. It’s as if you are traveling on a moving postcard, with every scene around every bend seeming just that bit much more beautiful than the last.

For starters, look for experts in the field to help you plan. We took our trip with Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises. Stan Stephens lets you travel with the local experts to Columbia or Meares Glacier. View seals, sea otters, sea lions, whales, porpoise and marine birdlife. At home in Valdez since 1971. (866-867-1297)

Alaska Tour & Travel specializes in custom land vacations to Alaska’s most spectacular destinations including Kenai Fjords, Seward, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks. Combine a custom land tour with an Alaska cruise for a great value and a convenient way to plan your Alaska vacation. (800-208-0200)

American Safari Cruises (InnerSea Discoveries) has small expedition-style ships that are capable of versatile cruising into some of the most remote waterways of the Inside Passage where other cruise lines can’t travel. You’ll cruise in the company of expert naturalist guides and a small number of other cruisers who share your passion for exploration, adventure and discovery. (877-901-1009)

Alaska Cruises & Vacations is a great way to plan your cruise. What style of cruise is right for you? Is it a casual small-ship cruise offering remote wilderness experiences, an elegant luxury ship or traditional large ship. Plan with Alaskans who have experienced Alaska cruises themselves. Customizing a land tour makes your journey complete. (800-977-9705)

Cruising Alaska is popular statewide –especially along the coastal communities. From Southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords/Resurrection Bay to Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage, there are countless options for exploration. In 2010, an estimated 58 percent of Alaska’s 1.5 million visitors came to Alaska via cruise ship.

Kenai Fjords Tours, Alaska’s No. 1 Wildlife and Glacier Cruise, has been exploring Kenai Fjords National Park for more than 30 years. Experience the abundant wildlife, glaciers and breathtaking scenery as experienced captains narrate your journey. Visit our Fox Island lodge for a complimentary prime rib and wild Alaska salmon buffet—a Kenai Fjords Tours exclusive. (888-478-3346)

Southeast’s Inside Passage is known for its protected, scenic sailing. It’s an incredible place, rich in history, culture and the oh-so-mind-boggling scenery. And cruise passengers account for the majority of its visitors. Juneau, the state’s capital, received more than 875,000 cruise ship visitors in 2010, according to a report in the April 2010 edition of Cruise Industry News.

Not only is Juneau beautiful, but historic too. When cruise ship passengers disembark, they have limitless options for exploring. On one day in May, tourists could be seen walking through the State Capitol, coming just inches from the Governor’s office with little self-guided walking maps in their hands. As the governor walked out of the office, they didn’t even notice that they had just seen the state’s most important politician.

One of the most popular of Juneau’s destinations is the Mount Roberts Tramway. Mount Roberts Tramway gives cruisers extraordinary views from 1,800 feet above Juneau’s historic waterfront district. The panoramic views of the mountains, waterways and lush forests are unsurpassed. Visitors can enjoy walking alpine trails and birding, or visit the Chilkat Theater, Raven Eagle gift shop and the Timberline Bar and Grill serving all-you-can-eat crab and other Alaska specialties. (888-461-8726)

Also based in Juneau is TEMSCO Helicopters. TEMSCO Helicopters has more than 50 years experience in Alaska skies and offers a variety of glacier adventures. Whether you choose a glacier landing, a walk on the famous Mendenhall Glacier or a glacier dog sled tour, you will soar over spectacular mountain peeks and deep blue glacial crevasses for an awe-inspiring experience of a lifetime. (877-789-9501)

Just north of Juneau is Skagway, another hotspot for cruising in Southeast. Here, passengers can enjoy all the amenities of their larger cousins to the south, but in a smaller-town atmosphere. One of Skagway’s claims to fame is its rich Gold Rush past, and the history of the town will give those who step off their cruise ships a chance to explore even more.

White Pass and Yukon Route is a narrow-gauge railroad designated as an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Its nickname is the “Scenic Railway of the World,” and for good reason. The route climbs nearly 3,000 feet in less than 20 miles, just outside of Skagway. Experience the breathtaking panorama of mountains, glaciers, gorges, waterfalls, tunnels, trestles and historic sites from the comfort of vintage passenger coaches. Bookings are available by the website or 800 number. (800-343-7373)

With gasoline costs ever soaring, it makes sense to sit back and let someone else do the driving. The slower pace of a cruise and the natural scenery along the way dictate that even the busiest and most stressed-out of vacationers is sure to relax.

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