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From coming ashore to seeing the sights in 18 ports, Fodor's Alaska Ports of Call tells cruise passengers everything they need to know — written from a cruiser's point of view.
All the essentials for a perfect day in port
Plus cruise itineraries for the 1999 season
Geography alone makes Alaska an ideal cruise destination. On a typical seven-day itinerary, you'll visit up to four ports of call and one or two scenic bays or fjords. And the nature of ship travel is perfectly suited to discovering what Alaska is all about.
The natural beauty of Alaska is hard to overstate. As you prepare for your cruise, consider these facts about Alaska's grandeur:
Wildlife is everywhere in Alaska. The state has 15 species of whales. Southeast Alaska has more brown bears than the rest of the United States combined. Alaska ranks number one in bald eagles (Florida is number two).
On my second cruise to Alaska, our small ship happened upon a couple of sleeping whales, their blue-blackbodies barely breaking the surface of the water. The captain cut the engines (so we wouldn't disturb the whales' slumber), and for a good while we just observed their breathing.
Not long after, we experienced another Kodak moment: a brown bear foraging on the shoreline. Again, the captain held our position as the bear wandered along the water's edge. When the bear was done, he moved on, as did we. The captain, however, had one more treat in store for us. At a rushing waterfall, he nudged the bow of our small-ship under the gush of water. Raincoat-clad crew members filled pitchers with glacial runoff, and soon we all enjoyed a refreshment of cool mineral water. Such are the simple pleasures of an Alaskan cruise: calving glaciers, sea lions and seals, and sensational sunsets -- at midnight.
Bird-watchers will have a field day looking for bald eagles. These birds have long represented courage and power, so it is appropriate that so many bald eagles populate Alaska. In fact, eagles are so numerous you'll have to remind yourself that they remain a threatened species.
In addition to glaciers and wildlife, there's an exciting frontier history to discover. Alaska's indigenous people belong to one of four groups: Aleuts, Athabascans, Eskimos, and Northwest Coast Indians. The native Alaskans you are most likely to meet during your cruise are the Tlingit, Haida, or Tsimshian Indians of the Inside Passage.
The Tlingit are responsible for Alaska's famous totem carvings. Totem poles tell the story of a great event, identify members of the same clan, and honor great leaders. The best place to see totem poles is Saxman Native Village in Ketchikan, where you'll find my favorite -- the Abraham Lincoln totem pole, with an image of Honest Abe at its top.
Northwest Coast Indians are noted for their many artistic skills; totem carvings are just the most celebrated example. Miniature totem reproductions are among the most popular souvenirs in Alaska, but ceremonial masks, decorative paddles, and woven baskets also make great gifts.
Crafts are just one way for cruise passengers to appreciate the local culture. Native Alaskans are often happy to show you around. In Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, you can book a sightseeing tour with a native point of view. Performances of native dance and traditional storytelling entertain visitors in Juneau, Sitka, and Haines.
Alaska has a reputation for ruggedness -- both in the land and in its people. As for the latter, the rough-and-tumble character of Alaska's past is best sensed in Ketchikan. Perhaps this has something to do with the city's history, filled with tall tales of miners, loggers, and fisherman.
Things are more serene these days, and many Alaskans are given to more spiritual pursuits -- like painting. Galleries that feature the work of local artists are common in all port cities. Seek them out -- a portrait of Alaska is one of the best keepsakes.
If, like me, you're an aficionado of Gold-Rush history, choose a cruise that includes a call at Skagway, the gateway to the Klondike a century ago.
Today, the town looks much as it did in the early 1900s. The entire downtown area is a National Historic District, part of Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. The yellow 1930s touring limousines you see are operated by the Skagway Streetcar Company, which re-creates Martin Itjen's original Skagway sightseeing tour. It's one of the few chances cruise passengers have to venture deep into the mountains.
Few establishments evoke the spirit of the frontier like the local saloon, and as a cruise passenger you'll have the opportunity to visit two of Alaska's most famous (depending on your itinerary). Near the cruise ship docks in Skagway is the Red Onion Saloon. To step inside is to return to 1898, when the saloon was founded. In Juneau the Red Dog Saloon has been a favorite local watering hole since early this century. In fact, Wyatt Earp's six-shooter still hangs on wall. It's said he left it here while just passing through.
Like Wyatt Earp, you too will just be passing through. But, as youare about to discover, cruising is a great way to see "The Great Land."