Mention Alaska, and cruising comes to mind. Glaciers, fjords, small villages, and even the glimpse of a whale or two make cruising this area very appealing. In fact, over one-fourth of the nearly 800,000 visitors to the state cruised there during the 1987 season.
A small though rapidly growing number of people, however, are choosing to see more of Alaska than the coastline and glaciers, and increasingly visitors are turning inland to explore this land of incomparable beauty.The towns of the southeastern Alaska panhandle - Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Haines - welcome visits by recreational vehicles and offer routes to explore the back country. Visitors can combine the joys of cruising with the fun of road touring by taking campers aboard the cruise ship Stardancer, which can carry 350 vehicles, or by using the Alaska State Ferry system.
Gray Line of Alaska offers 29 tours by motorcoach to destinations such as the Kenai Peninsula and even up the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, northern terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline.
Yet one of the most interesting and comfortable ways to see Alaska is a relatively recent development. Seattle-based Tour Alaska brought the concept of private, domed rail cars to the Alaska Railroad in 1984 by offering a two-day trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks, with a stop at Mt. McKinley.
Business has been so good on the Midnight Sun Express that this year the company is introducing a second-generation rail car. The new cars have the largest single-pane glass domes of any ever built. The cars travel in pairs, so that passengers can walk between them on both levels. They also have a larger dining area and an open-air observation platform - ideal for photography - on the lower level.
Last year Holland America Line-Westours Inc. introduced its own rail service: the McKinley Explorer private rail cars, which follow the same route as the Midnight Sun Express. In its first season, the McKinley Explorer carried more than 27,250 passengers, and bookings are expected to top that this year.
The cars, which entered service a year ago, are among only 30 full-length dome cars built in the early 1950s for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. Refurbished, they offer a comfortable way to enjoy the scenery along the way to Denali National Park and Preserve.
Passengers enjoy the vistas of mountains and even the occasional moose or bear from comfortable first-class reclining seats. Below the domed section, meals are served in a nicely appointed dining room on tables set with linen, china, silver, and fresh flowers. Conductors provide information on the passing scene.
The trip includes an overnight stay in Denali National Park, where Mt. McKinley is a giant presence, though often obscured by clouds and mist. Visitors can enjoy a side trip by bus through the park, which is larger than the state of Massachusetts. Established in 1917, Denali National Park is a protected preserve for grizzly bear, moose, Dall sheep, wolf packs, and other species. The bus tour stops frequently for views of the mountain and any wildlife encountered. Although the road is rough and unpaved, the experience can be memorable, often yielding the sight of moose grazing in a clearing or fleeting glimpses of white Dall sheep huddled along a rock ridge.
Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy the interior of Alaska is to book one of the tour packages offered in conjunction with a cruise. Holland America-Westours, Princess Tours, and Tour Alaska offer a wide variety of excursions in addition to the rail trips.
Holland America Line's three ships, the Rotterdam, Noordam, and Nieuw Amsterdam, will depart on 50 sailings through Alaska's Inside Passage this summer. Westours offers a total of 48 tours in conjunction with these sailings, as well as cruises aboard three additional ships, the Sea Venture, Regent Star, and the Golden Odyssey. Included will be tours to Prudhoe Bay, Katmai National Park, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the Kenai Peninsula, and even a cruise aboard the riverboat Yukon Queen between Dawson City, Yukon Territory, and Eagle, Alaska. This is a glimpse back into the days of paddle wheelers carrying miners to the gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Tour Alaska offers a variety of cruise-tour combinations, including an 11-day voyage aboard Cunard's elegant Sagafjord, with glimpses of such northerly destinations as Cook Inlet, Kenai Fjords, and the Columbia Glacier. This trip can be combined with a Mt. McKinley tour or a tour north of the Arctic Circle to Kotzebue. Tour Alaska works with other cruise lines as well, including Princess, Regency Cruise Lines, Royal Cruise Lines, and Sea Venture Cruises.
Princess Tours, the company that brought you the Love Boat, provides combined cruise-rail excursions, independent travel, and even motorcoach tours to just about every possible destination in Alaska.
This summer the Royal Princess, Sun Princess, Sea Princess, and Island Princess will all be in Alaska. Independent tours include retracing the Gold Rush route from Skagway north to the Klondike and an excursion to see the 26 glaciers in the College and Harriman Fjords.
If you go:
Any of the above land or sea excursions can be booked through a local travel agent.