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Choosing the Best Itinerary and Ship Size for Journey to Alaska

April 11, 1999|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Shirley Slater and Harry Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month

First-timers to Alaska feel an overwhelming urge to see as much of the state as possible because they still regard it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip. But visitors who have been there before clamor for new itineraries and more activities like sea kayaking, biking and hiking excursions.

Yet for most Alaska-bound cruisers, the first big decision is choosing between a big ship and a small ship, and then, if they pick a big ship, deciding between the two major itinerary options most offer.

Inside Passage cruises sail the smooth, sheltered waters of the southeast and into Glacier Bay or past Hubbard Glacier on round-trip seven-day cruises from Vancouver. Ships on the Gulf of Alaska itinerary make one-way seven-day sailings between Vancouver and Seward that include Inside Passage cruising as well as an open sea voyage across the Gulf of Alaska and into College Fiord, with its 16 glaciers.

Big ships provide more night life, casino action and entertainment, more chances to dress up, more on-board shopping options, more restaurant options from pizzerias to candlelight dinners, spa and beauty treatments, lectures, karaoke sing-alongs, children's programs and playrooms, movies, art auctions, bridge games, dance classes and as many as two dozen shore excursions a day--in short, the full on-board cruise experience.

On the downside, two or three ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers each can overwhelm a small Alaska town like Skagway or Ketchikan.

Small ships offer fewer traditional cruise activities on board. Many have only one indoor public lounge, one dining area with set menus and limited deck space. Most are inappropriate for small children, and those without elevators are inaccessible to passengers in wheelchairs. Life aboard is casual.

But they usually offer unique itineraries, sailing in smaller, less-traveled waters, closer to glaciers and marine life.

Princess heads the list of big ship lines, carrying a total of 10,230 lower berths on the six ships they have scheduled there this summer. The line's new Sea Princess and its sister ships Sun Princess and Dawn Princess sail the seven-day Gulf of Alaska itinerary between Vancouver and Seward, along with the somewhat smaller Crown Princess. The remaining vessels, Regal Princess and Sky Princess, sail the classic Inside Passage seven-day itinerary from Vancouver.

Holland America, also with six somewhat smaller ships sailing Alaska, offers 7,720 beds. The Noordam, Ryndam and Statendam sail the Gulf of Alaska seven-day itinerary between Vancouver and Seward, while the Nieuw Amsterdam, Westerdam and Veendam cruise the Inside Passage.

Royal Caribbean International has slated the Rhapsody of the Seas and Vision of the Seas, carrying 2,435 each, for Inside Passage cruises from Vancouver.

Celebrity Cruises' Mercury and Galaxy also return to Alaska this summer, carrying 1,870 passengers each. Galaxy covers the Inside Passage while Mercury sails the Gulf of Alaska.

Norwegian Cruise Line has on its Alaska schedule both the Norwegian Wind, which now carries 1,750 passengers, and the smaller Norwegian Dynasty, carrying 800. The Wind cruises the Inside Passage round trip from Vancouver, while the Dynasty alternates Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska routes.

The 940-passenger Crystal Harmony from Crystal Cruises sails round trip from San Francisco on 12-day cruises calling in Victoria, Vancouver, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan, and sailing the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier, depending on the date.

World Explorer Cruises combines elements of both small- and big-ship cruising with its 731-passenger Universe Explorer, offering 14-night cruises round trip from Vancouver that call at nine ports and sail the Inside Passage, Gulf of Alaska, Glacier Bay, Hubbard Glacier and Canada's coastal waters.

There's even a combination cruise and RV trip around Alaska that combines a sailing of three, four or seven days on a Holland America ship--the Ryndam, Noordam, Nieuw Amsterdam or Statendam--with a rental mini-motorhome self-drive tour of seven days or longer. Packages range from 11 to 29 days at prices as low as $99 a day per person, double occupancy. Call Alaska Highway Cruises at (800) 323-5757.

Small-ship companies include Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West with seven vessels carrying 52 to 102 passengers cruising Prince William Sound and the Inside Passage; Glacier Bay Tours & Cruises with four ships carrying from 34 to 88 passengers; Special Expeditions with its 70-passenger Sea Bird and Sea Lion; Clipper Cruises with its 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper; Society Expeditions with its World Discoverer; and the deluxe Alaska Yacht Safaris.

To get free color brochures see a travel agent or call: Princess Cruises, (800) PRINCESS; Holland America, (800) 426-0327; Royal Caribbean, (800) 327-6700; Celebrity, (800) 242-6374; Carnival, (800) CARNIVAL; Crystal, (800) 820-6663; World Explorer, (800) 854-3835; Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, (800) 888-9378; Glacier Bay Tours & Cruises, (800) 451-5952; Special Expeditions, (800) EXPEDITION; Clipper Cruises, (800) 325-0010; Society Expeditions, (800) 548-8669; and Alaska Yacht Safaris, (888) 862-8881.

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