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Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS)

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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. 

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Bus Tours

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub
Medium 9781588438188

Alaskan Wildlife

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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. 

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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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Setting Priorities

Norton, Clark Hunter Publishing ePub

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: 

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