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The Insider’s Guide to Cruising the Inside Passage

Alaskag  I saw the pod of orcas in the early morning, slicing through the wake of my cruise ship, the 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour. The captain saw them, too, and he stopped the engines so we could get a closer look. What made the moment a world-class experience was the backdrop: Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3-million-acre preserve the size of Connecticut.

Welcome to the heart of Alaska’s Inside Passage, a spectacular labyrinth of deep channels that twist around thickly forested islands, sawtooth mountain ranges and the ice-blue glaciers of southeast Alaska. From the deck or cabin of a comfortable ship, you can see some of the most glorious scenery in North America and observe bald eagles in flight and orcas swimming alongside your ship. There is simply no other cruise like it. If you don’t believe me, just ask the more than one million people who take an Alaska cruise every year.

Alaskab_2 Dozens of cruise ships pass through these majestic waters during the season, between May and September, sailing north from Vancouver, British Columbia. They call at such ports as Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, Haines and Seward. Smaller ships may call at Petersburg and Metlakatla. Others occasionally visit Canadian ports such as Prince Rupert, Alert Bay and Victoria; some depart from Seattle or, sometimes, San Francisco. Frankly, a cruise ship is not only the best way to hopscotch between the ports of call on Alaska’s Inside Passage — it’s the only way, short of flying in a seaplane, because most of these towns and cities, including the state capital, Juneau, have no road connections to major highways. But the range of available cruises in Alaska is daunting. There are ships that are essentially floating hotels with 2,000 passengers and 100-person vessels where formal dress means fleece and jeans. There are ships with low cabin prices and others with fares that resemble a down payment on a luxury car.

To help you find the ideal trip, here’s a look at the three major cruise ship categories and the pros and cons of each.

Note that the prices listed here are all brochure, or published, prices. A cruise-only agent or travel agent should be able to get a discount of 20% or more off these prices. And many of the cruise lines discount their own fares if the sailings are selling slowly. The shoulder seasons of May and September offer the best deals, and some include "free air" promotions. July and August are more expensive and busier, so sailings are less likely to be sharply discounted. While the early and late cruises may mean a cooler and wetter voyage, the weather in Alaska gives new meaning to the term "unpredictable." You can have cold and rain or clear, blue- sky weather at any time.Alaska3

CATEGORY 1

BIG SHIPS

Low cost, activities galore

Major cruise lines such as Princess, Holland America, Norwegian, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity fall into this category. We’re talking ships averaging 2,000-plus passengers, with vast dining rooms, casinos, spacious gyms and spas. There are dozens of daily activities, not to mention multiple swimming pools, putting greens and climbing walls. In summer, there are extensive kids’ programs. Both Princess and Holland America have made large investments in their Alaska cruises, with an extensive list of excursions from sea kayaking trips to helicopter tours as add-ons. Princess has even built wilderness lodges and runs its own railcars for transportation from the ship.

Alaskaa Why book a ship like this? There are a number of reasons, starting with price. Costs vary among lines, based on season, availability and each line’s general pricing level. But with so many cabins to fill, discounting is rampant. If your travel or cruise agent can’t get a deal on an Alaska cruise on one of these vessels, then she’s not trying hard enough. If you’re booking directly on the Web with a cruise brokerage firm, it should be discounting these cabins as well. If not, find a better Web site. Alaska Tour & Travel has one of the best Alaska cruise finders.

Another reason to book a big ship has to do with onboard activities. If you’ve got young children, teenagers or parents in tow, these ships fill the bill because they are essentially huge entertainment palaces that can keep everyone happy.

The downside is also their size. The focus of the cruise is the ship itself, a floating city where it’s easy to feel removed from the natural surroundings. When I sailed on a Celebrity ship through these waters, I remember spying a whale from the deck. Of the 2,000-plus passengers on board, only a handful of us saw it. Everyone else was busy watching movies, drinking martinis or having a spa treatment. When ships like this dock, disembarking 2,000 passengers is often slow and tedious. Since these vessels can only go to the major ports, you can expect that the streets of Ketchikan will be teeming with the guests from other mega-liners when you arrive.

But my experience on the big ships is that you can still have the cruise you want. Add a couple of well-chosen shore excursions and you’ll find yourself with a like-minded group, especially if you enjoy sports such as sea kayaking or mountain biking. Want to explore a port on your own? You’ll find that getting away from the crowds isn’t difficult. And the price of these cruises is very hard to beat.

Alaska4 CATEGORY 2

LUXURY SHIPS

Smaller, personalized and pricey

If you want significant creature comforts, in terms of cabin and cuisine, consider a ship in this class. The luxury vessels offer both a higher-end experience and, given their smaller size, a more intimate one as well. Having more crew per passenger, a world-class spa and stellar dining makes for a pretty cushy voyage. And only a small ship can cruise into fishing villages like Petersburg or Metlakatla, where real life, not T-shirt shops and duty-free emporiums, is on display.

Alaskae But even in this category size varies considerably. Regent Seven Seas Cruises will offer 34 Alaska cruises in 2008, many of them on Seven Seas Mariner, an all-suite 700-passenger ship. A theater, a casino and multiple lounges provide plenty of entertainment, as do the four restaurants and the pool grill. If it sounds a bit like a big ship, remember, the Mariner is one-third the size of the behemoths. Every activity is on a personalized, almost clublike scale. Of course, none of this comes cheaply. A seven-night cruise starts at $4,195 per person.

Even smaller are the ships of American Safari Cruises’ fleet, such as the 21-passenger Safari Quest, which is closer to a luxury yacht. Like the Odyssey, this ship has the distinct advantage of being able to anchor in out-of-the-way coves, avoiding the bustling ports that welcome the big ships. Rates begin at $4,695 per person for a seven-night trip.

If there’s a downside to this category, it’s the price, which can be even higher when you factor in shore excursions. Also, if you’re on one of the very smallest vessels, pray that your fellow passengers are a nice bunch. You can’t escape them.

Alaska6 CATEGORY 3

EXPLORATION SHIPS

Perfect for wildlife lovers

This category also includes small vessels, like those of Cruise West, whose ships hold between 78 and 138 passengers, and Lindblad Expeditions, but they are more affordable and more casual than the luxury ships, and they tend to attract serious wildlife lovers. You sail on a vessel like Cruise West’s 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavour to explore remote ports and scenic areas and to spot wildlife. For my money, this is the only way to really see Alaska from the water. On my cruise, the captain actually postponed dinner when we encountered a group of breeching humpback whales. They were at eye level and all of 150 feet away from us. In the village of Petersburg, we had lunch with the locals at the Sons of Norway hall. Excursions were on Zodiacs, not buses.

But there are caveats. If you have young children, they’ll be bored silly and feel cooped up on these ships. If you need entertainment or crave a more formal dining experience, these cruises may not be for you. It helps, too, to be very interested in wildlife. The cabins tend to be small, and nightlife, apart from the odd lecture, is nonexistent. Then there’s the cost. For an eight-night July cruise on board the 96-passenger Spirit of ’98, you’ll be paying $4,449 per person. And unlike the larger cruise lines, those in this category don’t offer much in the way of discounting.

What’s the perfect Alaskan cruise ship? I can’t answer that. You’ll have to assess what each vessel offers, then choose one based on how you want to see Alaska.

SHIP TO SHORE

CRUISE LINES IN ALASKA

BIG SHIPS

Carnival Cruise Lines 800/438-6744

Celebrity Cruises 800/437-3111

Holland America Line 800/426-0327

Norwegian Cruise Line 800/327-7030

Princess Cruises 800/774-6237

Royal Caribbean International 800/327-6700

LUXURY SHIPS

American Safari Cruises 888/862-8881;

Regent Seven Seas Cruises 800/505-5370;

EXPLORATION SHIPS

Cruise West 888/851-8133;

Lindblad Expeditions 800/397-3348

(Images courtesy of American Safari Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises and Regent Seven Seas)

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