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Cruising Alaska: A Guide to the Ships & Ports of Call 7th ed. **

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This unique cruise guide offers concise, easy-to-read information on every vessel plying the popular Alaska region. Ship facts include stateroom size, dining options, passenger/crew ratio, crew nationality, ship registry and even when the last refurbishment was completed. Ship itineraries are analyzed, making you aware of the highlights and potential pitfalls of every one. The author tells how to find bargain rates, when to book and makes you aware of considerations for disabled travelers, solo cruisers and being aboard with young children. And it's not just the big boats. Cruising Alaska covers the smaller 'Explorer' boats, which can get into narrower, shallower inlets and enhance your Alaska visit. Walking tours at each port of call are supplemented by detailed port maps. Ports of call include: The Inside Passage (Misty Fjords, Tracy Arm), Ketchikan, Juneau, the Lynn Canal (Skagway, Haines), Glacier Bay National Park, Sitka, Wrangell, Yakutat Bay & Hubbard Glacier, Prince William Sound (College Fjord, Columbia Glacier), Valdez, Seward, Homer.

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Alaskan History

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Around 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, Asian nomads crossed from Siberia into present-day Alaska. (At the time, the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was largely iced over, forming a land bridge.) Entering from the west, these hunter-gatherers eventually spread throughout the vast region from the Aleutian Islands to the far north, and down into what is now central and southeastern Alaska and western Canada. They would eventually develop into three distinct native groups: Inuits, Aleuts, and Indians, with the Inuits occupying the north and west, the Aleuts on the Aleutian Islands, and the Indians (native Americans) settling the central and southeastern regions. The main Indian tribes were the Tlingits of the coastal panhandle and the Athabascans of central Alaska. Much later, two more tribes, the Haida and Tsimshian, migrated from Canada. They survived by hunting and fishing and the coastal tribes also became excellent seafarers and artisans. While spread out over vast areas, some of the tribes maintained contact - and mostly peaceful relations - with each other through trading. 

 

Alaskan People &Culture

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Of Alaska's estimated 683,000 population, about 15% are Native Alaskans - that is, people from Native cultures. While all have traditionally survived by fishing and hunting along Alaska's rivers and coastal areas, these Native cultures are enormously diverse - more so than you'll find in any other state. They include the Inuit (also called Inupiat Eskimos of far northern Alaska, though the Inuit now consider "Eskimo" a derogatory term and it is being phased out); the Tlingit (CLINK-it) and Haida Indians, who reside in the coastal areas of the Southeast's Inside Passage; and the Aleut, who live mainly in the Aleutian Island chain of Southwestern Alaska. Another major Native culture is the Athabascan of interior (Southcentral) Alaska, who extend well into the Yukon and British Columbia of western Canada. Smaller Native groups that you might hear about include the Eyak and Tsimshian, who live in the Southeastern panhandle along with the Tlingit and Haida.  

Most Native Alaskans still live in small villages and adhere to their traditional lifestyles, though some now make their living in tourism and other fields. Tlingits, for instance, run the popular Mt. Roberts Tramway in Juneau as well as the dedicated cruise port Icy Point Strait along the Inside Passage - and are the Native Alaskans that cruise-goers are most likely to encounter on their travels. (The most numerous Natives are the far northern Inuit.) The Inuit as well as the coastal-dwelling Tlingit and Haida are also known for the high quality of their Native crafts and carvings, which are sold throughout stores in Alaska; Athabaskan bead work is also highly prized. The fact that native Alaskans are becoming more enmeshed in the state's economy may cut both ways in the attempt to preserve their cultures. While they may increasingly "melt" into the rest of Alaska's population as they pursue new business interests, their growing prosperity is enabling them to rise above subsistence living and focus more of their attention on native language studies, arts and history. A renewed sense of native pride is wafting through the crisp northern air. 

 

Alaskan Wildlife

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One of the most exciting features of an Alaska cruise is the chance to view wildlife from the deck of your ship - or, if you take an expedition-style cruise or an adventurous shore excursion, from your own kayak or skiff. You might also spot a variety of animals on a land tour before or after your cruise. You'll be aided considerably in this if you carry a good pair of binoculars. Binoculars allow you not only to magnify your vision, but to keep a safe distance, which is good both for you and the animals. 

On water, whales top most passengers' wish lists. And it's a rare cruise that doesn't come across a sizeable number of them. Humpbacks are the most common, but you might also spot migrating gray whales in late spring and white Beluga whales if you venture into the more northerly waters lining the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage. Alaska is the primary feeding ground for humpbacks, which can weigh 30 to 40 tons, grow to 40 feet in length, and migrate to Hawaii or Mexico in the colder months. They often travel in groups of six or eight, which makes it easier to see them, and they're quite acrobatic and playful, making them the whale-watchers' favorite. The best way to spot whales is to watch for their spouts, which resemble little puffs of smoke or mist rising from the sea as they surface. Keep your eyes or binoculars trained on that same general area, because they'll likely surface again near there within a few minutes. Seeing a whale breach - surging to the surface and then diving back headlong into the water, with their tails flipping high in the air before going under again - is one of the great thrills of any Alaskan cruise. Watching for spouts is also a good way to spot porpoises, also high on most passenger checklists. The most common varieties in Alaska are harbor porpoises and super-speedy Dall's porpoises. 

 

Setting Priorities

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While Alaska cruises have many similarities, there are also considerable differences - in cost, itineraries, length, ship size and type, and cruise line "personality," among other factors. This section will help you decide which cruise is right for you. 

Tip: While travel agents can be very helpful in deciding this question, don't take their word as gospel. Some agents favor certain cruise lines, either because they make greater profit when selling those lines or simply because they suit their own personal taste. For instance, a travel agent who wouldn't dream of taking an expedition-style cruise might try to steer you in the direction of taking a mainstream line even if that's not what you want. Similarly, word-of-mouth recommendations from friends can be a big help - but don't take them as gospel either, especially if your friends' traveling style or budgets are different from yours. 

The most important thing is for you to establish your own priorities, and work from there. Here are some key considerations: 

 

Choosing the Right Cruise Line

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If you've never taken a cruise, you may think that all cruise lines are much the same. Not so. Cruise lines are as different - to use a hotel analogy - as Holiday Inn is different from Ritz-Carlton, or from an eco-lodge in the Amazon. They range from budget-minded, mainstream lines that pack in thousands of passengers per cruise to super-luxurious small ships that cater to a few pampered souls - and just about everything in-between. The difference in price can easily amount to thousands of dollars per passenger. Some cruise lines offer nearly round-the-clock entertainment (shows, games, activities of all sorts) while others take pride in a quiet, elegant on-board atmosphere, perhaps punctuated by a wildlife lecture or two. Some lines offer choices of up to 10 restaurants while others have just one dining room. Some ask you to choose your precise evening dining time and place you at one table for the entire cruise; others offer open-ended seating. Some permit casual dress at all meals, while others have a formal night or two where many of the men don tuxes and women wear gowns or cocktail dresses. Some lines cater primarily to couples, preferring to create a romantic atmosphere onboard; others welcome families and people of all ages, where you can expect a good deal of noise, fun and festivity. 

 

Selecting a Ship

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While each cruise line tends to have its own distinctive personality, there may also be significant differences among the ships within each line's fleet. Some lines sailing to Alaska employ as many as seven or eight ships in the region each year, and most of these will exhibit at least some differences from each other - while some will be very different. Watch for variations in the ages of the ships, their sizes and their amenities, among other things. On mainstream lines, especially, newer usually means bigger - with more facilities and amenities (such as restaurants, spas, shops and recreational options). 

However, just because a ship is bigger doesn't necessarily mean it's "better." For instance, an older ship might have more pleasing nautical lines, roomier cabins, or more deck space than a newer ship. Taking a bigger ship may also mean you'll have less chance to visit some of Alaska's off-the-beaten path attractions, which aren't capable of accommodating large vessels or groups. And big ships typically require more time to disembark passengers when in port - which cuts into the time you'll be able to spend on land.  

 

Settling on a Stateroom

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No matter which cruise line you take or what the level of luxury, fares often vary dramatically within the same ship. The number one reason for that is which type of stateroom or cabin (the names are used interchangeably) you pick. 

The least expensive staterooms are almost always "inside," that is, they have no windows. The next higher category is "outside" cabins, which do have windows, of varying sizes and shapes. Next up the ladder in expense is the balcony cabin - an outside cabin with a veranda. The fourth and highest category is the balcony suite - a multi-room cabin with veranda.  

Within those four major categories, you'll also find a number of sub-categories that can affect the price. For instance, an outside cabin may have an "obstructed" view, usually meaning that a lifeboat or other object at least partially blocks your scenery. Those cabins are usually somewhat cheaper than other outside cabins (and certainly should be; always check to make sure whether your outside cabin has an obstructed view). Most subcategories, though, are based on where the cabin is located on the ship. For various reasons, cabins that are higher up on the ship are usually more expensive; similarly, the lower a cabin is on the ship, the less pricey it tends to be. Cabins midway between the fore (front area) of the ship and the aft (rear area) of the ship also tend to be more expensive, on the theory that they offer a smoother ride. Unless you're particularly prone to seasickness (the type who gets queasy in a bathtub), however, this should be less of a consideration in Alaska, especially in the relatively calm waters of the Inside Passage, than in most other cruising regions of the world. 

 

Alaska Cruising Itineraries

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While it's true that most any Alaskan cruising itinerary will provide the opportunity to see glaciers, whales and interesting ports of call, it would be a mistake to think of all Alaskan itineraries as pretty much the same. When you take your cruise, are you looking to cover the "basics" - the most popular ports and scenic areas - or would you prefer to get off the beaten track a bit, perhaps in search of the "real" Alaska? Would you like to see as much of Alaska as possible, or concentrate on one small area and get to know it very well?  How much time, and money, do you have to spend? These are all factors that figure in consideration of which itinerary to pick. For many people, they may outweigh the factors of which cruise line or ship to take. 

While you might find an occasional Alaska cruise as short as four days or as long as 24 days, most itineraries are one week to 10 days in length. And almost all fall into one of the four categories below. The first two categories are the most common and are generally favored by big ships, while the second two tend to be favored by small ships, but you may find some crossover between the two. The good news is that settling on an Alaskan itinerary is somewhat easier than settling on, say, a Caribbean or Mediterranean cruising itinerary, where there are many more ports - as well as cultures, languages, and landscapes - to add to the mix. But you will have to make some basic choices. 

 

The Cruise Lines

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We'll now take a detailed look at all the different cruise lines, and their ships, in the Alaska market. These fall into four main categories: Mainstream/big ships, luxury lines, small/expedition-style ships, and ferry systems operated by various government entities (the last, while not technically cruise ships, are often used for the same purpose). We'll also take a brief look at some cruise lines that include Alaska as part of much longer itineraries around the globe. 

For mainstream and luxury cruise line ships - that is, big and mid-sized ships - you'll find a set of facts and statistics listed under the name of each ship. Some of the stats are easy to figure out, others may seem pretty mysterious. Here's a breakdown: 

Registry - this is the country in which the ship is registered, often bearing little relation to where the cruise line is headquartered; very few ships are registered in the United States, for instance. 

Officers - this lists the nationality or nationalities of the top navigational officers, often Italians, Scandinavians, British or other Europeans. 

 

Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS)

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For travelers who are adventurous, budget-minded, free-wheeling and prefer flexible itineraries - but don't require the luxury or convenience of a cruise ship - the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) provides an informal year-round public transportation alternative to taking a cruise. Dubbed the "poor man's cruise ships," the 11 state-owned ferries of the AMHS ply the waters of the Inside Passage, southcentral Alaska and southwestern Alaska, reaching the same ports - and more - that cruise ships do. Its coastal routes cover more than 8,000 miles, from Washington State north to ports near Anchorage and west to the Aleutian Islands. Though called a Marine Highway, it's like no other "highway" in the country, traveled by ship rather than by car. You can, however, take your car (if you have one) aboard any of the ferries for additional land touring along the way or after you disembark at your last stop. 


Alaska Marine Highway ferries

From the southern terminus in Bellingham, Washington, some 90 milesnorth of the Seattle airport, or from the Canadian departure point in Prince Rupert, B.C., the ferries pass by the lush, green rainforests of British Columbia and the glaciers, fjords and snow-capped peaks of Alaska's Inside Passage. Northbound travelers can make the journey from Bellingham (leaving on Fridays in summer) to Haines or Skagway at the northern end of the Inside Passage in a bit less than three days, not including any stopovers you choose to make. You can then connect to similarly beautiful Prince William Sound to the north and then west via Kodiak to the remote Aleutian Islands, though those ferry schedules are much more occasional. Along the way, you may choose to stop in tiny fishing communities and native villages as well as well known ports such as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, Valdez, Whittier, Seward and Kodiak. There are some 15 potential stops alone along the Inside Passage, and another 15 to the north and west. The Alaska Marine Highway System has been designated both a national Scenic Byway and, more recently, an All-American Road, one of just 27 "roads" - and only two in Alaska, the Seward Highway being the other - so honored in America. (To qualify, an All-American Road must have both national significance and one-of-a-kind features not existing elsewhere. Besides being the only maritime "road" in the national highway system, the AMHS is the longest byway in the United States.) Besides mountains, fjords and glaciers, wildlife are an integral part of the scenery on this highly scenic route: In the sea and air, watch for whales, orcas, otters, sea lions, harbor seals, Dall porpoises, bald eagles and seabirds. On land, watch for bears prowling on shore or mountain goats perched high on the cliffsides. 

 

The Frozen World Of Glaciers

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Glaciers begin to form when tons and tons of snow accumulate on mountaintops and are then squeezed and solidified into huge, incredibly heavy expanses of ice. The force of gravity then pulls the glaciers downhill into valleys, where they turn into massive, moving rivers of ice. As they grow by accumulating ice, glaciers are labeled as "advancing" and as they shrink - melting faster than they accumulate snow and ice - they are labeled as "retreating." Alaska - which has a remarkable 100,000 glaciers - currently has both advancing and retreating glaciers, and, over time, an advancing glacier can become a retreating one, or vice versa (the Hubbard Glacier is a good current example). Retreating glaciers produce higher sea levels, making them one of the major threats of global warming. As one NPS ranger quips sardonically, "Never buy land downstream from a glacier." 

Whether advancing or retreating, most glaciers move slowly - at a "glacial" pace, if you will - usually no more than a few feet a day. Some, however, move much faster. The Columbia Glacier near the Gulf of Alaska is reported to have reached a record velocity by retreating more than 100 feet per day in 1999. No matter their speed, each time glaciers move, they resculpt the landscape below them. One major result is the fjords you see in Alaska: valleys carved by glaciers that are then flooded with sea water. A less scenic result is moraines: mounds of crushed rock, silt and other debris that glaciers deposit along their sides as they move. Moraines often make glaciers look "dirty" around the edges, but this is a strictly natural phenomenon and doesn't detract from their overall beauty once you get up close enough to view the details. Rather than solid blocks of ice, you'll see that the glaciers' faces, as their front walls are called, are scored by deep fissures, pocked with ice caves at the water's edge and topped by jagged spires and rounded arches. Often a stunning deep blue, glaciers are awesome both in appearance and sheer power.  

 

Icebergs - Glacier "Offpsring"

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The life of an iceberg typically begins with that thunderous roar the Tlingits called "white thunder," as ice splits off a glacier when it reaches the sea. The iceberg then begins its free-floating journey through the water, a type of mobile freshwater ice island that typically follows the prevailing currents. Depending on its size, the water and air temperature, and other conditions, the iceberg might survive anywhere from a few days or weeks to several years. Eventually, it breaks up and melts away - often far from where it originated (icebergs can drift six miles a day or more, depending on their size and shape, as well as on wind speed, waves and currents).  

While icebergs - which take their name from the Dutch word ijsberg, meaning "mountain of ice" - are most often associated with Greenland and Antarctica, cruise ship passengers can most easily view them in Alaska, where hundreds of glaciers reach right down to the water. When these rivers of ice, propelled by their own weight, complete their glacially slow flow from mountaintop to the sea, they "calve" icebergs in one of nature's rawest displays of power. And on itineraries that include Glacier Bay National Park, Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm fjord, College fjord and other sites, ship passengers are virtually guaranteed close-up views of the action, complete with riveting visuals and sound effects of crashing and splashing. Once calved, icebergs prove much more than mere mountainous chunks of ice. 

 

The Inside Passage

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The Inside Passage is the world's longest marine highway, stretching more than 1,000 miles from Bellingham, Washington, through southwestern Canada to Skagway, Alaska. The portion of the Inside Passage within Alaska itself is about 500 miles long, ranging from Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan in the south to Skagway and Haines in the north. All Southeast Alaska communities are linked by this "highway," which is actually a network of connecting waterways. Both commercial and pleasure boats regularly ply the route - the latter mostly in summer, while commercial vessels and passenger ferries operate year-round there. Since almost every Alaska cruise focuses either entirely on the Inside Passage or includes it as part of a voyage between Seattle/Vancouver and the Gulf of Alaska, this is the section of Alaska that virtually all passengers will experience. Within the Inside Passage - also sometimes called "Southeast Alaska" and "the Panhandle" - are some 1,000 islands and 10,000 miles of shoreline. 

 

Options in Port

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You have three major options for spending your time in port: taking a cruise ship organized shore excursion, taking an independent organized shore excursion or going off to explore completely on your own. (Of course, if the port doesn't interest you, you can always stay on the ship if you choose - and some passengers do take advantage of that opportunity to schedule leisurely spa appointments or simply relax on deck.) We'll take a look at the pluses and minuses of each option. Keep in mind that whichever option you choose for one port, you can always choose a different option for the next port; for instance, you might choose a cruise line organized flightseeing trip in Ketchikan, book an independent whale-watching tour in Juneau and then explore Skagway by yourself. Finally, you may well have time to take a shore excursion (or even two) and still have time to explore the port on your own a bit, if your excursion isn't of the all-day variety. 

Shore excursions purchased through your cruise line can be enormously convenient. You sign up a few days (or weeks, if you go online before your cruise) in advance, you pay through your shipboard account, you board your transportation soon after leaving the ship, and you are guided or escorted to - and usually during - your destination or activity. 

 

Inside Passage Ports

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Most Inside Passage cruises include at least three of what we'll call The Big Four ports: Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau and Skagway, so we'll look at these first. Later we'll look at lesser-visited ports in the Inside Passage region, and then turn to ports in the Gulf of Alaska and British Columbia.  

Ketchikan is the first city you come to when traveling north into Alaska by ship, and most cruise ships and ferries sailing Alaska's Inside Passage make it their first port of call, earning it the sobriquet "Alaska's First City." Located along Tongass Narrows on Revillagigedo Island, Ketchikan boasts other self-anointed titles as well, among them "Canned Salmon Capital of the World." The latter title pays homage to the town's founding as a fishing camp and its history as a canning town dating back to the turn of the 20th century. (Alaskan native peoples had lived and fished on the banks of the Ketchikan River for thousands of years, however.) With a population of around 8,000 (and 15,000 in the area), Ketchikan is now Alaska's fifth largest city, yet the downtown is compact and fun to walk around, especially along its colorful wooden boardwalks that cross creeks and evoke the town's early frontier atmosphere.  Built at the foot of and into the sides of steep green hills and mountains, Ketchikan is also suited to grabbing high-up views - if you can see through the mists, that is. It's one of the nation's wettest cities, receiving a drenching of 162 inches of rain a year. That's 13.5 feet of annual precipitation - making it the rainiest town in Southeast Alaska (no small feat in itself) and much rainier than famously wet Seattle, Washington. Ketchikan residents soak it all in with good cheer and seem to take perverse pride in not using umbrellas - though they do at least like to keep their feet dry, favoring the ubiquitous high boots dubbed "Ketchikan sneakers." 

 

Less-Visited Inside Passage Ports

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Gulf of Alaska Ports

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Cordova is served by daily ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System coming from Whittier and Valdez, which dock at 201 Orca Ave., one mile north of city center at Copper River Highway. Small ship cruise lines dock at the harbor.  Frequent air service is available from Anchorage and Juneau.  

The small town of Seward, which has about 3,000 residents, was named after William H. Seward, who was U.S. of Secretary of State when the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Dating from the early 20th century, Seward enjoys a gorgeous Kenai Mountain setting on Resurrection Bay, which does not ice over in winter. Today it's a haven for commercial fishermen, cannery workers and tourist outfitters, including charter boat operators and cruise line workers. If your cruise is departing from "Anchorage," chances are you'll actually be leaving from the port of Seward(or, alternatively, from Whittier), since Anchorage does not have a working cruise ship port. Cruise lines originating from the Port of Seward include Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Holland-America and Regent Seven Seas.  



Sailing in Seward

Seward is the starting point for the Alaska Railroad, which runs northwest to Anchorage and beyond. If you head south, Seward serves as the gateway to the stunning Kenai Fords National Park (which is mostly viewable from the water or the air). This region is one of the favorite getaway destinations for folks from the Anchorage area; the city itself is just 130 miles north, and the views along scenic Seward Highway (state highways 1 and 9), a National Scenic Byway, are among the most beautiful of any U.S. roadway, with forests, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers. Bad weather, of course, can always intrude in Alaska, so come prepared for rain and cool temperatures even in the height of summer. 

Travel Information
 
Seward Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau
PO Box 749, Seward, AK 99664
tel. 907-224-8051
www.seward.com  

 

British Columbia (Canada) Ports

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Parliament Buildings

 

Also in the Inner Harbor area is the Royal British Columbia Museum, whose permanent galleries showcase the province's human and natural history, from native cultures to modern times and regional wildlife. Inside the museum is an IMAX theater, and you can buy combination tickets to both, or just to one or the other. To get your money's worth, plan to spend at least two hours in the museum alone. 675 Belleville St., tel. 250-356-7226; open daily 9 am to 5 pm; $$$$. IMAX open daily 10 am to 8 pm, $$$. 

 

Thunderbird Park , near the museum, is the place to see totem poles in Victoria. You'll also find a number of other beautiful parks wandering around the area. 

 

Touristic attractions include the Undersea Gardens (off Belleville St., tel. 250-382-5717; open daily year-round 10 am to 5 pm and 9 am to 8 pm July-September; $$), where you can view local marine life such as salmon, anemones, octopi and eels, and watch as the marine life are fed by divers. It's located in a floating vessel moored in the Inner Harbor across from the Parliament Buildings. Miniature World (649 Humboldt St., tel. 250-385-9731; open May to early September daily 9 am to 9 pm, hours vary rest of the year; $$$) presents different "worlds" - such as the circus, the frontier, the Canadian railway and doll houses - in miniature. And the Royal London Wax Museum (470 Belleville St., tel. 250-388-4461; open daily 9 am to 9 pm, $$$) depicts everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Gordie Howe in wax. 

 

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