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Choosing the Right Cruise Line

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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. 

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The Cruise Lines

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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. 

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Selecting a Ship

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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.  

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Alaskan People &Culture

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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. 

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Inside Passage Ports

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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." 

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