SKAGWAY, Alaska - This landlocked Midwesterner was among some 900,000 people to cruise the Alaskan coast this year. For me, and for many others, the trip was spurred by the promise of one thing: incredible scenery.
That promise was kept.
"We had visions of untamed wilderness, soaring bald eagles and humpback whales flapping their tails in the water. Thankfully, we were not disappointed," said Eron Garcia of the San Francisco Bay area, on his first cruise with wife, Kari.
The Garcias were among our table mates for a one-week, 2,300-mile cruise, beginning in Seattle, that my wife, Gina, and I took last summer. We'd cruised previously in the sunny Caribbean, but to celebrate out 25th wedding anniversary, we chose an early June tour of Alaska's Inner Passage. We like taking cruises to relax, enjoy the food, shop and sightsee. An Alaska cruise has all of that, and more.
We were told by those who've been to the 49th state that the landscape is stunning, and fellow passengers were impressed by the rugged coast, blue sea and plentiful wildlife. The mountain and glacial vistas were spectacular.
A highlight of the trip was a surreal morning spent leisurely meandering among nomadic icebergs in Tracy Arm, a 30-mile fjord beginning at the base of the Sawyer Glacier. Steep granite slopes scale the banks of the narrow inlet, which is 900 feet deep. The ship went so far into the fjord that is seemed there was barely room to turn around before heading out to sea.
In addition to the raw scenery, the Garcias were thrilled with the cruise experience aboard Sapphire Princess, a sparkling 113,000-ton, 2,600-passenger ship first launched in 2004.
"The ship itself offered plenty of things to do: lectures, shopping, bars, restaurants, swimming pools, hot tubs, movies, live shows, wine-tasting, yoga, massages, line-dancing class, scavenger hunts," said Eron, a quality control specialist for a large video-game company. "There were only dull moments if you let them."
The choice of activities at Alaska ports also is mind-boggling. You can hire a helicopter for a hop to a glacier, hitch a ride on a dog sled, hike in a rain forest, view amazing native art, enjoy salmon fishing and go whale watching.
Large cruise ships sail the Alaska coast from May through September, but Charlie Ball, president of Princess Alaska Tours, recommends booking Alaska cruises early because of high demand. Most people book in January and February, followed by October, he says.
Ball says a cruise is the perfect way to sample the Last Frontier.
"A good part of Alaska is best seen from the water," he says, adding that many cruise passengers later return to Alaska by land. Visitors are captivated by a sampling of the state's vast beauty, Ball says.
"There's a pretty positive correlation between coming to Alaska on a cruise and becoming a land-side vacationer later on."
Alaska cruises, once a haven for the retired, have also become popular family vacations, Ball says.
"Alaska, to many people, is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so people tend to take more time planning it," Ball says.
"Historically, it was a very small market previously viewed as someplace you could only go if you wanted to commit two weeks and spend a lot of money," he says. "Cruising has really democratized going to Alaska because you can go fairly economically."
The Alaska cruise business has grown by 6 percent to 8 percent annually for the last 10 to 15 years, Ball says.
Our first stop was kitschy Ketchikan, near the southern end of the Tongass National Forest. Landing on a crisp but sunny morning, Gina and I first toured stately Totem Bight State Park. The park boasts one of the largest collections of totem poles in the world.
Next, we walked the streets of Ketchikan for souvenirs and soaked up some local history on Creek Street, once home to many brothels. We also toured the gallery at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.
Although Ketchikan is the rainiest town in southeast Alaska, getting 155 inches a year, nary a drop fell on us. We carried rain slickers just to be safe.
Our second port of call was Juneau, where we toured Glacier Gardens, a temperate rain forest foray highlighted by a bumpy ride up a steep peak providing a great view of the Gastineau Channel. The Mount Roberts Tramway near the cruise dock offers a similar vista in Juneau, the state capital.
We also dropped in at the jam-packed Red Dog Saloon in the heart of Juneau's tourist district to savor the flavor of days gone by, when gold first drew hordes of prospectors to Alaska in 1880.
Juneau visitors wanting to see ancient ice up close can take a shuttle bus to nearby Mendenhall Glacier.
Our final Alaska port was Skagway, our favorite. This colorful gold-rush town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our behemoth boat docked near the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, and we rode the train for 20 miles of twists and turns, across bridges and through tunnels, to a 2,865-foot summit and back. Thousands of men seeking their fortune took the same rugged route on foot when gold was discovered in Yukon, Canada, in 1897.
With ample windows and a railed enclosure on the platforms between cars, passengers with cameras eagerly captured vivid reminders of the breathtaking rail ride.
The railroad, which eclipsed 430,000 passengers this year, is the most popular shore excursion in Alaska, says Ball, the Princess executive.
"It's an incredibly scenic and historical experience," he says.
Many Alaska cruisers also take advantage of pre-cruise and post-cruise sightseeing, Ball says. Among favorites for extended visitors is Denali National Park, a 6-million-acre wilderness that includes 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
Our return voyage featured an enchanting late-afternoon cruise southward through an ocean strait bordered by beautiful snowcapped mountains, as far as the eyes could see, on both sides of the ship.
Last stop before Seattle was a short visit to Victoria, British Columbia, where we went to renowned Butchart Gardens, a 55-acre paradise of greenery and flowers sowed to reclaim a long-abandoned limestone quarry.
Alaska proved to be everything cruise passengers hoped for and more.
"I'm hooked," Eron Garcia said afterward. "It was a lot of fun. Just be sure to keep a watchful eye on your credit cards!"
If You Go...
A number of companies offer Alaska cruises, including the following:
CARNIVAL: http://www.carnival.com or (800) 438-6744.
CELEBRITY: http://www.celebrity.com or (800) 437-3111.
CRUISE WEST: http://www.cruisewest.com or (888) 851-8133.
HOLLAND AMERICA: http://www.hollandamerica.com or (800) 426-0327.
NORWEGIAN: http://www.ncl.com or (800) 327-7030.
PRINCESS: http://www.princess.com or (800) 774-6237.
RADISSON SEVEN SEAS: http://www.rssc.com/ or (877) 505-5370.
ROYAL CARIBBEAN: http://www.royalcaribbean.com or (800) 327-6700.
SILVERSEA: http://www.silversea.com or (800) 722-9955.
WHITE PASS & YUKON ROUTE RAILROAD: http://www.whitepassrailroad.com
FOR MORE INFORMATION: http://www.travelalaska.com