While cruises to the Caribbean and Mexico put the accent on activity, festivity and fun, and Mediterranean routings generally revolve around antiquities and idyllic islands, when cruising the waterways of Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia, the focus is a wonder-world of scenic splendors, wildlife and cultural interest.
What these more northerly venues also have in common is that they are seasonal, following the sun to visit destinations during their best weather times, generally May through early autumn, when ships of all sizes introduce their passengers to many places and experiences they never would, could, or see on their own.
Alaska Alaska would be a primary example. And the cruise industry is well positioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood this year, with 14 cruise lines scheduling 46 ships, according to a count made by Mike Miller’s very usefulalaskacruisingreport.com website. Agents and their clients will find no shortage of cruising styles and itineraries, with choices ranging from the large vessel lines (1,000 and more passengers) to mid-size ships carrying more than 400 passengers and small ship cruise companies operating more like expedition vessels with less than 300 guests. To varying degrees, they all have one thing in common: they are all afloat in a wonderland of fjords and glaciers, forests and islands, which includes Glacier Bay National Park and/or the Inside Passage, and they all—in some way or another—include Alaska’s exciting ports of call embracing port cities, towns and villages.
Cruise West’s small cruise ships—nine in all—carry between 78-138 guests on Alaskan itineraries off the beaten track, close-up experiences of wildlife, or scenery viewing at a leisurely pace. Itineraries range from 3- and 4-night getaways in Glacier Bay or Prince William Sound, to classic Inside Passage trips where wildlife sighting—whales, porpoises, harbor seals, black bears, brown bears, sea lions, bald eagles, cormorants and herons—is all but guaranteed.
Alaska itineraries explore remote areas and small villages. On the 8-night Inside Passage cruise (priced from $3,999 pp dbl), for example, passengers make a port call at Metlakatia on Annette Island, Alaska’s sole Tsimshian community; watch the Leikarring Dancers perform in the fishing town of Petersburg; walk through Sitka’s National Historic Park with its towering totems and thriving wildlife; and spend a day exploring Alaska’s capital of Juneau. On the Gold Rush Inside Passage cruise, passengers sail into Ketchikan, the “Salmon Capital of Alaska” and home to impressive collections of Tlingit totem poles and native art; receive a warm welcome at the Norwegian-heritage fishing village of Petersburg (accessible only to small ships); and relive the Gold Rush in Skagway.
Many cruise companies, including Cruise West, add-on additional options to get out and see more of Alaska up-close with land tours either pre- or post-cruise. The most popular extension is one or more nights in wondrous Denali National Park, 230 miles north of Anchorage—accessed by a combination of motorcoach and deluxe domed railcar—and by motorcoach from Fairbanks, 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Denali’s sky-high attraction is Mount McKinley (at 20,320 ft., the tallest peak in North America), reflected in Wonder Lake and most brilliantly on view during flightseeing tours. No less exciting is exploring this tundra wilderness in search of the grizzlies, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall sheep that make themselves at home in the 6- million-acre wildlife reserve. Land tour add-ons include accommodations in the park; naturalist guides to point the way; and optional adventure choices, such as rafting and hiking. An 8-night cruise/land tour including a 4-night land tour to Denali and four nights of the Glaciers of Prince William Sound Cruise aboard the Spirit of Columbia, is priced from $3,699 pp dbl.
Scandinavia Everyone’s favorite cruising ground in Scandinavia is the craggy coast of Norway, deeply indented by long, finger-like fjords, carved eons ago by massive glaciers. Often at the head of fjords are snowcapped peaks, and in some places glaciers inch toward the North Sea. Along the shores are fishing villages and isolated farmhouses. Many major cruise lines with ships in Europe offer Norwegian fjord cruises, some going as far north as Trondheim, Norway’s original capital, or Tromso, the largest town north of the Arctic Circle. Others continue to the North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe, and to the icy Arctic island Spitsbergen, studded with massive glaciers.