Anyone who went on an Alaskan cruise 10 years ago might think that the experience doesn't change--but cruise lines are consistently making improvements.
A million passengers are expected to cruise Alaska this summer--twice as many as went a decade ago--and there are now 27 ships from eight major companies running along the state's southern coast. Juneau, Ketchikan, and Skagway remain popular ports, but new ones do get added. Whittier, a gateway to Prince William Sound, reopened in 2004 thanks to a $10 million dock reconstruction. In the last two years, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Celebrity have tacked on Icy Strait Point, a fishing community, to some six-night itineraries. Advances in ship navigation also make it easier to maneuver larger ships into narrower waters, improving the shoreline views. Tracy Arm Fjord, a 25-mile-long inlet flanked by granite cliffs and forests, once hosted one or two ships a week; now two ships a day pass through.
Every cruise line has increased its options for shore excursions. Royal Caribbean's selection has more than doubled in the past decade, from 60 to 130; Holland America, meanwhile, has gone from about 50 to 230; and Princess, which has cruised the area since 1968, adds or alters a dozen activities each year, and currently offers about 150. Since the lines generally visit the same ports, they tend to offer similar excursions at comparable prices. One of the newer activities is dogsledding. Passengers on Norwegian, for example, can hop on a helicopter from Skagway to a glacier-based dogsledding camp to learn hands-on from racing pros ($435). Cold-water snorkeling is another recent addition. Carnival passengers can don wet suits and brave Mountain Point's 55-degree water for three-hour-long trips ($99). There's plenty to keep kids occupied, too. Celebrity takes kids panning for gold at Liarsville camp ($38) and on ATV rides through the rain forest ($199); kids on Princess can watch lumberjacks compete in a series of challenges ($15).
The inland experience
Most major cruise lines sell what they call "land tours" or "cruisetours"--pre- and post-cruise extensions. Royal Caribbean, Holland America, and Celebrity run trips that explore Fairbanks, Anchorage, and the Kenai Peninsula, and provide lodging, some meals, and transportation on buses or trains. Princess has what it calls a Direct to the Wilderness program: a three- to eight-night tour you can add onto the beginning or the end of your cruise. After disembarking at Whittier, you're whisked via glass-ceiling train to one of five Princess-owned lodges in four areas (Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and the Kenai River valley). After a few days, you take a train to Fairbanks, or return to Anchorage. The prices vary based on duration and season.