When people as how my first trip to Alaska was—a cruise onboard Holland America Line's Westerdam—my reply is: "Great: I saw bears, bald eagles, humpback whales, glaciers..."
The Westerdam is a lovely ship—clean, classy and stylish—with a competent and friendly staff who greets you in the hallways. But Alaska is about Mother Nature, so a cruise to the 49th state will likely succeed or fail based on the execution of its shore excursions. I happily report that HAL succeeded beyond all measures.
What I truly took away from Alaska were my observations of the bears and the salmon. These memories are my souvenirs. I saw them upon our arrival in Ketchikan, a town on Alaska's southeastern coast, during a shore excursion that took me by float plane over the Tongass National Forest to a remote salmon hatchery on Neets Bay.
It has become customary to say that bears "lumber," and I now know how appropriate the use of this word is for an accurate depiction of their ambulation. In fact, it is a perfect word to convey the half-dozing, sleepy manner in which they emerge from the Tongass wilderness and approach the riverside. It's done with the same languorous enthusiasm of early risers entering the kitchen to get their first cup of coffee for the morning.
On this day, fortune was with us, and six or seven convened—a truly startling sight. It was an easy meal, accomplished with none of the exertions that we, as humans, are accustomed to watching as animals obtain their food on the Discovery Channel. Observing the hunt was far more like watching an eager gastronome at a buffet line, or a hungry man before a well-stocked refrigerator.
The bear, faced with an overwhelming surfeit of fish congregating at this bottleneck in the river, simply plucked his choice from the thrashing aquatic multitude. But if the procuring of the meal was done in a somewhat civilized fashion, the actual eating proved a brutal and violent affair, and one that far more resembled what you would expect from the wild. The bear pilloried his unfortunate catch on a rock and dug in, literally, with his ample maw. Knowing that this is neither National Geographic nor literature, I will spare you a more detailed account, but know this: In this sight I felt I had gleaned something approximating the soul of Alaska—a place where men once braved nature in the pursuit of riches, and today they leverage riches made elsewhere to witness things such as this that cannot be seen in many other places. If you don't dig this sort of rough-hewn nature experience, you should go to the Caribbean.
In fact, so many salmon gathered at the bottleneck of this stream that the bear didn't even finish his meal, but tossed it apathetically over his shoulder like one would dispose of a chicken bone at a barbecue. He then dug in and retrieved another catch and repeated the exercise while his sated brethren lay on the rocks and took in the sun.
Only two percent of salmon eggs laid in the wild actually grow into mature salmon, and so places like the salmon hatchery constitute a vital element in the business. The salmon, purple and glistening in the filtered light, endeavor in the treadmill-like exercise of swimming upstream to the place where they first found life. It's inbred in them to return but the salmon hatchery alters the process. When they reach a small waterfall, the current funnels the fish into troughs, where electrodes send currents that render them unconscious. One man separates them into piles of males and females. Another man slits open the females and squeezes out their eggs into a bucket. A third man squeezes the "milk" out of the males into the same bucket. Thus is the way that 98 percent of the salmon eggs handled at the salmon hatchery actually grow into maturity in the wild. You watch this exercise after watching the bears.
It is of some comfort to learn that the salmon treated to such an end are very near the end, anyway. A salmon, male or female, dies after returning to its birthplace to either lay eggs or fertilize them. The salmon hatchery—and the bears— only minimally expedite the process.
I feel somewhat guilty for not having rendered a more detailed account of the ship. Holland America's fleet is undergoing extensive, $225 million upgrades. The Westerdam, for example, was showing off an expanded shore excursion menu, significantly upgraded soft goods, a Culinary Arts Center, new Pinnacle Grill restaurant and two dozen other modifications that make a palpable difference in the cruising experience.
But my observances of nature bully their way to the forefront of my mind in any attempt to recall my time in Alaska. The ship had many civilized touches aimed at amplifying my experience, but to me, the manner of travel was rendered a tangential detail by the power of the sights that awaited me.
Perhaps therein lies the best advice I can give: Make sure that your cruise line has, like HAL, a wide array of top-notch shore excursions, and book as many as possible. For it will be your congress with the Alaskan wilderness that that will constitute the bulk of your memories of the cruise in the years to come.
Selling Alaska Cruises
When it comes to cruising to the Great Land, travel agents are blessed with a plethora of options. But with manifold choices, how do you decide which one is most appropriate for your clients? Here we give an overview of different lines and provide an insider's take from an agent—Susan Weissburg, president of Wylly's Professional Travel in Coral Gables, FL—who has booked them.
Pricing: The Alaska cruise season runs from early May to late Sept-ember, with most lines cutting rates during both shoulder months. Rates will rise as you approach the midpoint of the summer, reaching a zenith approximately mid-July, when interior cabins for most lines run anywhere from $1,100 to $1,300 per person. Bargains exist in early May and late September, when inside cabins can be had for as little as $650 per person. Check the individual web sites for specific pricing information.
Ports of Call: Most of the cruise lines visit the same ports of call: Sitka, Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Anchorage (either Whittier or Seward). Most lines also offer itineraries that feature scenic cruising through Glacier Bay, College Fjord and the Hubbard Glacier.
You may want to disabuse clients of the notion that they are visiting Jack London's Alaska: Some ports of call are more Key West than Klondike, with the only remnants of the gold rush and fierce prospectors who once sojourned being figurines in gift shops. Juneau, for instance, looks vaguely like one of the tourist-friendly pavilions in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. In Skagway, however, remnants of the gold rush are evident.
Shore Excursions: Strongly suggest taking the nature-heavy shore excursions, explaining that a cruise to Alaska is primarily intended to allow clients to witness the grandeur of nature in a scenic and pristine environment that is, for the most part, still untouched by civilization. If they're not ones to enjoy black bears, bald eagles, humpback whales and glaciers, suggest a different destination. They shouldn't be going for the baked Alaska, but the wilderness of Alaska.
Weather: It rains often. Much of the southeastern Alaskan coast is classified as a temperate rainforest. Suggested Clothing: Clients should pack as if they were visiting the northeast in the early fall: jeans, comfortable shoes, short-sleeve shirts, windbreakers and rain gear.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
Departs from Vancouver and Seattle in the south and Seward in the north. Offers seven-night, 9-night, 13-night and 14-night programs. Comparatively inexpensive, with interior cabins going for $620 per person on a seven-night early May cruise. For information, visit www.royalcaribbean.com.
Offers two separate programs, the seven-day "Voyage of the Glacier," departing Vancouver in the south and Whittier (Anchorage) in the north, as well as the seven- or 10-day "Inside Passage" itinerary, departing from San Francisco or Seattle.
Eight different ships follow these itineraries: the Coral Princess, Diamond Princess, Island Princess, Pacific Princess, Sapphire Princess, Dawn Princess, Regal Princess and Sun Princess. Visit www.princess.com.
Insider's Take: "I recommend both Princess and Royal Caribbean for families; they have excellent family programs. The clients must like the big ships, but there are activities from morning until night for families. Both of those cruise lines are activity oriented. You cannot get bored on either. The drawback would be for cruisers who don't like very large ships."
Carnival Cruise Line
Special seven-night cruises begin at $699 per person. Visit www.carnival.com.
Insider's Take: "More the party ship. They call them 'fun ships' for a reason. Lots of young people."
Holland America Line
Allows you to book online and include airfare. All ships have recently undergone an extensive renovation program. Offers three seven-day northbound and southbound itineraries with a total of 230 shore excursions. This line is a bit more expensive than others previously mentioned, with inside cabins on most sailings starting at around $1,150 per person in May and September. Visit www.hollandamerica.com.
Insider's Take: "The ships are lovely and tend to attract a more...middle-aged clientele. My clients are especially satisfied with the large balconies and suites."
Offers seven-night, 10-night, 13-night and 14-night cruises departing San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles and Seward. Has inside cabins beginning at $660 per person for certain early season departure dates. You can also get value on the longer cruises. Visit www.celebritycruises.com.
Insider's Take: "My clients rave about the service and cuisine as well as the entertainment. There's a large variety of activities. It truly is the premier class cruise line."
Regent Seven Seas
Northbound and southbound cruises; seven and 11-night itineraries. More expensive (rates start at $3,500 per person). Visit www.rssc.com.
Insider's Take: "The ship is 700 passengers. On The Mariner, all of the cabins have balconies and are very large...you don't have the huge lines that you have on bigger ships. It is, in my opinion—if you can afford it—the way to go, without question. The customer service is outstanding. Regent's food is truly gourmet." —MJ