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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Alaska Moment

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Exploring the Alaska wilderness

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Kayakers from the MV Discovery paddle through a calm bay along Knight Island, Prince William Sound, Alaska.

GERALD & BUFF CORSI | Courtesy of Discovery Voyage

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Alaska's glaciers are hot. In 2008, more than a dozen large and small cruise lines will sail the 49th state's waters, including Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Lindblad Expeditions, Discovery Voyages, Maple Leaf Adventures and others.

Some ships carry close to 3,000 passengers; others as few as 12. Big ships offer almost everything you could find on land: dining options, spas, boutiques, entertainment, gambling and crowds of passengers to play with.

But small ships go where big ships can't. They get close to the glaciers and drop anchor in tiny inlets to view the wildlife; the crew catch the fish you'll eat for dinner that evening. At night, the bright lights will be stars.

Some cruises sail through Alaska's Inside Passage, stopping at historic ports such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Wrangell and Skagway.

Some cruises offer shore excursions ranging from fishing off a float plane from Ketchikan or Juneau, to heli hiking, where passengers are flown by helicopter to a mountain top around Mt. McKinley and then hike down.

Some cruise lines offer cruise/land tours to Denali National Park and beyond.

Generally, the larger the ship, the bigger choice of onboard activities, dining and the cheaper the cruise. A 13-day cruise tour in a balcony cabin on a large ship will run about $2,700 per person without airfare on in shoulder season (May or September) and about $3,000 in peak season. On small-ship cruises like Discovery Voyages and Maple Leaf Adventures, eight-day cruises start at $3,600.

Book early: An early booking special from Princess Cruises will get you on a seven-day cruise for as little as $650. Carnival's seven-day Glacier Bay cruises start at $859. Norwegian Cruise Line's six-day Alaska Inside Passage Cruise on Norwegian Star, leaving Vancouver, British Columbia, and returning to Seattle, starts at $549 for an inside cabin and $649 for a balcony cabin.

— Chris Oliver

More resources

Alaska wildlife viewing tours and tips: www.travelalaska.com.

Denali National Park: www.nps.gov/dena or 907-683-2294.

Denali bus tours: www.reservedenali.com or 800-622-7275. Tundra Wilderness Tour offered May 25-Sept. 11, adults $93.50, children 14 and under, $46.75. Reservations being accepted now for summer 2008.

Cruises: Holland America, www.hollandamerica.com. Princess Cruises, www.princess.com. Carnival, www.carnival.com. Royal Caribbean, www.royalcaribbean.com. Discovery Voyages, www.discoveryvoyages.com.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The MV Discovery motors past the massive face of Beloit glacier in Blackstone Bay, Prince William Sound, Alaska.

PATRICK J. ENDRES | AlaskaPhotoGraphic.com

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Day hikes ashore when traveling on the MV Discovery in Alaska's famous Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Discovery offers multiday voyages for small groups of 12 people.

Photos by GERALD & BUFF CORSI | Discovery Voyages

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A horned puffin takes flight from the calm waters of Prince William Sound. Guests aboard the MV Discovery have abundant opportunities to photograph the sound's rich marine life during multiday voyages.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The 65-foot MV Discovery in Nassau Fjord, western Prince William Sound. Smaller vessels offer more rugged adventure.

PATRICK J. ENDRES | AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cruises aboard big ships such as the Sapphire Princess are a good fit for families and multigenerational groups.

Courtesy of Princess Cruise Line

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Alaska Railroad's Coastal Classic Train heads north to Anchorage from Seward. Mountain tracks run far above the highway.

Advertiser library photo

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Pat Henry's Alaska moment was eyeballing a bald eagle's eyrie through binoculars as the great predator visited its nest. But it could have been kayaking around the sea lions barking on nearby ice floes, or the puffins and orcas near Glacier Island. Then, there was the very long — and loud — moment when an apartment-size chunk of glacier calved just a quarter-mile from the ship deck, creating a boom and waves that rocked the ship. "Alaska was a truly great adventure," Henry said. "Every day was wonderful."

Esther Tokars' Alaska moment was seeing whales right next to the ship, but equally it was that she and husband Jerry could totally relax with their three children, then ages 9, 14 and 15. "No cooking, no driving, no hotel let-downs; the kids were safe," Tokars said. "It worked well for the whole family."

If you're cruising to Alaska between May and September, you're probably weighing tour options now.

But where to start? Whales, sea lions, otters, glaciers, snow-covered peaks, eagles ... Alaska is a life-list destination with 3,000 miles of islands, inlets and wildlife, especially popular with Hawai'i residents. But what exactly are you looking for? Is it to sit back on deck and watch the glaciers, or is it to go ashore and interact with nature? Are you there just for the wilderness or do you want evening shows, dancing and entertainment?

Kimo Sutton wants all the options. In addition to Alaska's stunning ocean vistas and wildlife, Sutton is coordinating a reunion trip in August with his Punahou class of '71. The 13-day cruise on Princess Lines includes a six-day land safari by train with three full days in Denali National Park. "This is a chance for us to reconnect and get to know each other again, but also to have fun and see fabulous scenery and wildlife," Sutton said.

"Finding the right cruise takes planning," said Mabby McDiar-mid of Davies Cruise Agencies in Kailua. "There are so many different experiences out there; talking through the options with an agent is really the key to making sure you are sure of what you're buying."

And that means asking questions such as: Do I want to dress up for dinner? Am I comfortable in small or restricted places? Who will we find ourselves next to at the pool ... do we even want to find there's a pool on board?

Henry, a University of Hawai'i professor, sailed with Discovery Voyages in August, aboard a 12-passenger, 65-foot rugged missionary boat. Quarters in all six cabins were comfortable but tight; evenings centered on dinner and conversation.

The Tokars family, of Kailua, who've sailed to Alaska twice — with Royal Caribbean and Princess Cruise Lines — chose a 1,950-passenger ship with pools, teen activities, a choice of restaurants, cinema, shows and a spa.

Sutton's reunion-cruise tour is on an even bigger vessel. Sapphire Princess departs Vancouver, British Columbia, for Whittier, Alaska, followed by a six-day rail portion from Whittier to Mount McKinley, with lodging included.



For Discovery Voyages' Classic Voyage, a sea-based natural history adventure around Prince William Sound, Pat Henry joined a 12-passenger group for five days aboard the 65-foot Discovery. He described fellow passengers as "athletic and adventuresome, with similar interests and focused on the wildlife." Over the five-day cruise, Discovery offered two optional shore excursions each day; Henry kayaked, hiked and marveled at Alaska's abundant wildlife. The group ate meals together at tables that completely filled the small lounge area; dinner was at 7 p.m.; there was no evening program. "It wasn't needed. We were pretty tired," Henry said. "Breakfast lasted until 10 a.m. Thankfully, no cell phones, no Internet, just nature."

Despite the ship's close quarters (the only place the 6-foot-4 Henry could stand inside was the wheelhouse), limited storage space and alternate-day-only showers, Henry described it as "the best trip of my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

Cost: $3,650 per person. Includes train service between Anchorage and Whittier, accommodations, all meals and drinks, crew and guide services, kayaks, paddles, skiffs, waterproof clothing. Airfare to Anchorage not included. Discovery Voyages' five-, six- and 11-day cruises depart from and return to Whittier, Alaska. www.discoveryvoyages.com. 800-324-7602.


The Tokar family's seven-day cruise from Seward to Vancouver on the 1,950-passenger Sun Princess fitted Esther Tokar's idea of a fun family vacation. The Tokars with their three children and friends, a family of four, enjoyed the "total relaxation" that came from everything being organized for them aboard ship. "We could eat when we wanted to, go ashore if we wanted to, and enjoy all the onboard activities like bingo and gambling and evening entertainment," Tokar said. "We could go dancing in the evening and knew the kids were safe. There was plenty on board for them to do."

Seeing the glaciers, whales and eagles from the ship in Prince William Sound were fantastic highlights for everyone, Tokars said. And though Princess offered optional organized excursions at three ports, Tokars said it was easy — and much cheaper —to take public transport in places like Skagway, where the families boarded the town bus for a trip out to the tundra.

Princess Cruises to Alaska feature "anytime dining" including a 24-hour restaurant with evening entertainment area, dance floor and a 270-degree view over the bow of the ship. Two showrooms boast Broadway and Vegas-style entertainment. You can also place your bets with your fellow cruise-goers at the slot machines, blackjack, roulette, poker and craps tables. There are multiple swimming pools, hot tubs, lounges, bars, movie theaters, an extensive library and two children centers. If you must keep in touch with the office, there are onboard phone, fax and computer services.

Cost: Princess Cruises and Holland America Cruise Line offer seven- and 10-day cruises between May and September beginning at $545 for a seven-day cruise with early booking. www.princess.com, www.hollandamerica.com.


Growing up on O'ahu, Kimo Sutton has fond childhood memories of sailing to the Mainland with Matson Navigation Co., where his family would rent a car and tour California. "I always loved traveling by sea, and all the activities onboard," Sutton said. When he heard how much fun his sister's class had on a reunion cruise tour to Alaska, he decided to plan a similar excursion for his own class and friends. He liked the idea of a land-and-sea vacation and especially the group discount rate. After detailed Internet research, Sutton found a 13-day cruise that included six days' travel by rail through Denali National Park, ending at Fairbanks.

The cruise includes wildlife viewing, stops at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway with excursion options, and a day in Glacier Bay. Sutton wanted full entertainment on board and ship activities for all ages. He also wanted a hassle-free transition from ship to train. "The Alaska train leaves for Denali right at the dock in Whittier. That means we don't have to stay overnight; we go from the ship to the train to Mount McKinley's wilderness, all seen from panoramic rail coaches operated by (Princess) cruise line. Bears, moose, bald eagles, sheep, caribou; it's the last great frontier in North America," Sutton said.

Cost: The Sutton Group Alaska Cruise Tour is Aug. 23-Sept. 4. Tickets begin at $2,233 per person (includes $511 taxes and fees), based on double occupancy. The cost includes ship accommodations and meals between Vancouver and Whittier, rail transportation from Whittier to Fairbanks, and all land accommodations. Meals are not included on the land tour. For information on Sutton's group rate: 261-2304, 800-863-0400, www.cruisedavies.com/offer.htm.

Reach Chris Oliver at coliver@honoluluadvertiser.com.