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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cruising Alaska 101

This week, I’m going to switch gears and talk about Alaska. With most of the country in a deep freeze, probably the idea of Alaska as a destination is not top of mind right now. But if you’ve been thinking about it at all for coming warmer months, better act now. The season is short and cruises fill up fast.

Cruising in Alaska is not a topic where I have a lot of experience; admittedly, I’ve only done it once. But, I thought it would be worth devoting a posting or two to sharing what we learned to help if you’re planning one.

Which Cruise Line?
The biggest decision we were faced with once we committed to abandoning our therapeutic Caribbean trip for the more exciting Alaska one was: which cruise line?

We decided to go with Princess, which was reputed to be the reigning cruise line in Alaska. One key reason is that the cruise line has been doing it for a long time. And while we didn’t take advantage, Princess has a number of wilderness lodges and cruise-tours that allow you to see more of the state. Holland America is the other cruise line that is particularly strong in Alaska, with many of its own cruise-tour offerings.

Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay?
Glacier Bay at Memorial Day
The next major decision was, Tracy Arm or Glacier Bay? We spent weeks researching these two itinerary choices and in the end, it was a cruiser’s comment in Cruise Critic that nailed it for me. He had said something to the effect of “I’ve been to Glacier Bay and now I can die happy.”

Glacier Bay's blue-ice glacier
Now while that’s rather dramatic, I believe we made the right choice. It provided unparalleled scenery that’s given me a new perspective on our 49th state. Another reason to consider Princess: it’s one of the few cruise lines with coveted permission to travel through the spectacular park.
When to Go?
The books and travel agents told us:
Spring—if you want less rain and clearer view of the mountains
Summer—if you want more wildlife
Fall—if you want fewer crowds

My advice is to forget it all—go when you want. I say that because we chose spring and had rain or overcast skies for six out of seven days.

How to Get it All in One Suitcase?
We live in Florida, so when we Caribbean cruise, we just drive to Ft. Lauderdale. That means we can pack just about anything. It was a whole different ball game going to Alaska. The more we read about what to bring, the more we wondered, how the dickens do we get all that in one, 50-pound suitcase? Here are a few tips to tackle that what-do-I-pack dilemma:

·       Jeans at dinner. Really. Surprisingly, the Alaska cruise was more casual than the ones in the Caribbean and I was astounded to find folks showing up in the main dining room on casual nights in jeans (at least on Princess). After a few days, I joined them. If the cruise line didn’t like it, it didn’t let on
·       It’s what’s outside the ship that counts. Here’s another big difference between Alaska and Caribbean cruises: you’re in Alaska to see the scenery and wildlife. Invest in cameras, binoculars and comfortable clothing

·       Think simple, basic and warm. You can skip the bathing suit, cover-up and flip-flops. The suntan lotion and sun hats. All you need are jeans, shirts and a coat. A few nice outfits for formal nights and if you want to get out of those jeans once in a while. And that’s pretty much it
The Alaska cruise got us out of our comfort zone and I'll be forever pleased we did it. If you’re on the fence, I urge you to give it a try because it will be a unique, truly memorable experience. The scenery is otherworldly, the ports are Hollywood-cute and the shopping is a blast (salmon jerky, anyone?). But, just so you don’t get shocked—there’s a Del Sol and Diamond International in Juneau!