Alaska: Wondrous land by sea

At one time, the trek to Alaska was a monumental task. Today, cruise ships not only make the journey simple, but one replete with comfort and luxury.

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Thunderous cracking sounds break the silence as giant pieces of ice calve from blue-tinged glaciers. Humpback whales cavort in pristine waters, and majestic bald eagles soar overhead. This is Alaska, the great land.

The alluring beauty and serenity of Alaska's wilderness belies some of Mother Nature's most impressive works. At almost twice the size of Texas, Alaska accounts for one-fifth of all U.S. land.

Wildlife comprises most of the population that inhabits the land. It's here that bear, moose, wolves, sheep and caribou find solace in the isolation. While there are 616 officially named glaciers, experts estimate there are closer to 100,000, more than in the rest of the world.

There are mountain peaks that humble climbers, earthquakes that silently rumble the quiet land and wildflowers that peek out from temperate rain forests that contrast with a treeless tundra. The 49th state is home to a mere 640,000 full-time human residents, though nearly a million others visit this vast expanse each year.

At one time, the trek to Alaska was a monumental task. Today, cruise ships not only make the journey simple, but one replete with comfort and luxury.

Many of Alaska's most beautiful sites and cities are accessible only by boat or plane. Cruising is the most affordable way to experience this expansive array of coastal cities, wildlife, vistas and glaciers. Shore excursions bring you into the heart of historic regions, immersing you in native traditions, wildlife and rich local culture.

Cruising is often is a family affair. Jeane Sanders took her first cruise last year with four generations of her Charlotte-based family.

“I've been on a lot of vacations and couldn't care if I went back again,” said Sanders, 80. “But Alaska was so cool, I want to go back. Going with the family was special, just marvelous. It was different from anything I have ever done.”

“The scenery was absolutely fabulous – the icebergs and the mountains topped with snow – and everywhere, the people were so easy-going and helpful. We went salmon fishing and watched whales.”

If you're thinking of an Alaskan cruise, now's a perfect time to begin planning. The cruise season in Alaska runs from May to September, with July and August the most popular months. Typically, most cruise lines begin their voyages out of Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle; Seward/Anchorage, and occasionally Skagway and Juneau.

There are a number of cruise ships that travel to Alaska. Here are some of the best, by category (alphabetized):

Large to mega ships

Carnival Cruise Lines' "Fun Ship" Carnival Spirit (2,124 passengers) has scheduled 16 cruises for 2009, including Northbound, Southbound and Glacier Bay. The first sailing date is set for May 6, with the last departure for the year slated for Sept. 9.

Celebrity Cruises will feature three vessels to Alaska in 2009: Infinity (1,950 passengers), Mercury (1,870), and Millennium (2,034). The line's Alaska season begins April 27 with the industry’s first ever round-trip Alaska cruise out of Los Angeles and ends with a Sept. 18 Ultimate Alaska departure. Celebrity's vessels will sail from the ports of Vancouver, Seattle, Seward or Los Angeles.

Holland America Line has been leading tours in Alaska for more than 60 years and has eight premium ships offering a total of 156 cruises in 2009. These include 59 sailings on three ships – Westerdam (1,916 passengers), Amsterdam (1,380) and Zaandam (1,432) – home-ported in Seattle and 98 cruises on five ships – Ryndam (1,258 passengers), Statendam (1,258), Veendam (1,258) Volendam (1,432) and Zuiderdam (1,848) – based in Vancouver.

Princess Cruises fleet will offer a total of 130 Alaska sailings, with Diamond Princess (2,670 passengers), Sapphire Princess (2,670), Coral Princess (1,970) and Island Princess (1,970) traveling on the line's signature Gulf of Alaska sailings. Golden Princess (2,590), Star Princess (2,590) and Sea Princess (1,950) will sail the Inside Passage routes from Seattle and San Francisco, while Pacific Princess (670) takes over the line's small ship experience on 14-day Connoisseur voyages to some of the state's less-visited ports.

Royal Caribbean International will offer Vacationers to the "last frontier" – 10 distinct itineraries, ranging from seven to 15 nights, on 57 sailings departing from San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Seward and Vancouver. On select itineraries, guests can extend their Alaska adventure with a Royal Caribbean cruise/tour to go deeper inland. Guests will sail aboard one of three Royal Caribbean ships deployed in the region in 2009: Radiance of the Seas (2,501 passengers), Serenade of the Seas (2,501) and Rhapsody of the Seas (2,435).

Small ships

Cruise West was founded in Alaska and is now the largest small-ship cruise line in the U.S. It will position several vessels in Alaska during 2009, featuring specific voyages. Cruise West offers eight ships with 10 different itineraries operating 147 different cruises to parts of Alaska from mid-May through the first week of September.

The largest vessel, company flagship Spirit of Oceanus (120 passengers), continues to offer the longest itinerary: a 24-night, 3,600-mile voyage called "In Harriman's Wake." Also sailing is the Spirit of Yorktown (138 passengers), the Spirit of '98 (96), Spirit of Discovery (84), Spirit of Endeavor (102), Spirit of Columbia (78) and the recently renamed Spirit of Nantucket, now known as the Spirit of Glacier Bay (102 passengers).

The Spirit of Alaska (78) has scheduled a "Glacier Bay Highlights" round trip out of Juneau in three nights or four, as well as "best of both worlds," an eight- or nine-night journey from Juneau to Ketchikan or reverse, including a land-tour into Denali National Park.