Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sweet Home Alaska: An Affordable Cruise Vacation

Cruise ships in Juneau, Alaska. Photograph by ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It’s important, even for those of us on a budget, to get out and see the world. A cruise can be one of the most sensible and convenient ways to cover a whole lot of...well, not ground, but sea. You pay one flat price that covers transportation and lodging (since they’re the same), plus food, which these days is usually excellent. So while you’re away from home, you only have to pay out of pocket for drinks, souvenirs, and other incidentals. This makes for a marvelous trip because you have the peace of mind that comes with leaving your money worries behind.

Most of the time, though, when we think about cruising, we picture a voyage through tropical Caribbean or warm Mediterranean climes. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with a balmy island getaway, the cruise industry does offer a much wider geographical diversity, including the unfamiliar resort cities of the Black Sea, the fjords of Scandinavia, and a thriving tourist trade on the coast of Alaska. This latter destination was where I ended up a few years ago, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

Our cruise departed from Vancouver. It was my first opportunity to visit this city, famed as one of the best places in the world to live, a beautiful jewel among cities. I only had 24 hours to see it, but I had to agree. As our ship set out from Burrard Inlet, we saw the city grow smaller and smaller against the gorgeous natural backdrop of British Columbia.

The Veendam, our Holland America vessel, was headed up through the Inside Passage, whose waters are kept calm by being sandwiched between the mainland and the archipelago of islands along the coast of B.C. and Alaska. In this peaceful wilderness it did not take long to spot bald eagles and tantalizing glimpses of whales.

We also took this first day at sea to explore the ship itself, with its multiple dining options (sit-down, buffet, or fancy restaurant with a surcharge), fitness center, gaming room, cooking classes, theatrical shows, and a spa where I had a rejuvenating massage. Alaska cruises, as you might expect, don’t exactly draw the Spring Break party crowd. The activities were more geared to a mature audience, which is not to say they weren’t fun.

Our first port of call was Ketchikan, which with a population of around 14,000, is still the fifth-largest city in the (geographically) largest U.S. state! It’s known for its salmon fishing, totem poles, and the Misty Fjords National Monument. We took a morning floatplane excursion over the fjords, which would have been amazing...if I hadn’t had too many cocktails the night before.

After I managed to get back to the hangar without using my motion sickness bag, we re-boarded the ship and headed for Juneau. Juneau is tiny for a state capital, easily walkable, but so hilly that many “streets” are actually stairways. The postman must be in great shape. We went on a packaged day trip in Juneau that included an incredible whale-watching excursion and a stop at the impressive (but shrinking) Mendenhall Glacier.

My favorite city, though, was Skagway, where we stopped next. This was a boomtown of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and its authentic Wild West appearance is preserved by the National Park Service. The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is the highlight: built too late (at a cost of many lives) to reach the Yukon Territory before the rush had peaked, it nevertheless remains a world treasure, providing a breathtaking scenic experience over a century later.

Our next two days were spent at sea in Glacier Bay National Park, which truly must be seen to be believed. Alaska is just so much wilder and bigger than any place I’ve ever been. The glaciers “calve” before your eyes, dropping chunks of ice the size of cars into the sea below.

We disembarked for good at Anchorage, the state’s largest city by far, home to more than 40% of its population. It was funny to be back in civilization, with its strip malls and high-rises. In our day in Anchorage we saw a beautiful light show about the aurora borealis, a rather awesomely cheesy theater-shaking show about an earthquake, and the impressive Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, which covers all of Alaskan history from its huge diversity of First Peoples (literally the first people to come to America, through the Bering Strait), to the underestimated Russian colonial influence, to Alaska’s modern importance in the Cold War and the energy industry.

As fascinating as this anthropological material was, the history of man in Alaska immediately shrank into insignificance as our plane took off at sunset. The twinkling man-made city of Anchorage was soon gone and all we could see were mountains, mountains for a thousand miles, mountains each bigger than any I’ve ever seen, but so many of them that it beggared the imagination. This is Alaska. If you want to be seized with a sense of awe at the majesty of creation, I can recommend no cruising experience more highly.

Tracy Myers writes about finance, travel, and education issues at sites such as www.homeinsurance.org. When not out exploring the Arctic Circle, Tracy likes to stay home with her two Shetland Sheepdogs and a big mug of coffee. She welcomes your questions and comments!

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