Alaska Travel Preview: 2020-2021

When Alaska became the 49th state 61 years ago it was dubbed (unofficially) “The Last Frontier.” But it’s far from last in anything tourism related. In fact, in 2019, Alaska cruises earned the top spot as the most booked domestic vacation for the third year in a row, according to Travel Leaders Group’s annual travel trends survey. 

Alaska also tied for second with Colorado (behind only Hawaii) as the state drawing the most consideration from potential visitors during the next two years, according to MMGY Global’s 2019-2020 Portrait of American Travelers. Nearly two-thirds of respondents expressed an interest in going there.

That may explain, in part, why the state is expecting 10 new cruise ships, including the Alaska debuts of Golden Princess from Princess Cruises and Holland America Line’s Koningsdam. Well over a dozen other lines have ships operating in Alaska. Here are just a few highlights of the upcoming season. 

Christened in November 2019, Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen will spend its 2020 summer season in Alaska, with departures from Vancouver, B.C. In addition to several 14-day “Treasures of the Alaskan Coast” sailings and slightly longer “Epic Wilderness Expedition” itineraries, there’s the 18-day “Alaskan Adventure with Aleutian Islands” departing on August 1. The latter includes such less-visited ports as Kodiak, Kihak Bay, Unga Village, Dutch Harbor, St. Paul, St. Matthew Island and Nome.

Small-ship luxury operator Ponant sails the Northwest Passage to Nome, Alaska this year with the 264-passenger L’Austral. Sister ship, Le Soleal also sails many voyages within Alaska waters in 2020 and 2021. This year, it’s launching an enticing new “On the Trail of the Gold Prospectors” itinerary between Vancouver and Juneau. Port calls on this seven-night voyage include Skagway, Haines, Sitka, Ketchikan and scenic cruising through Tracy Arm, Endicott Arm and Misty Fjords.

Famous land-trekking adventurers are taking to the seas with Cunard, hopping on Queen Elizabeth for a full season in Alaska in 2020. The vessel will embark on 10 Alaska sailings from June through September. Sir Ranulph Fiennes — named the “World’s Greatest Living Explorer” by the Guinness Book of Records — will share personal insights of his adventures through several lectures. 

Notable expeditions by Sir Ranulph includes the 1972-82 Transglobe, the first surface journey around the polar axis, along with the Pentland South Pole Expedition, which was the first unsupported crossing of the Antarctic Continent. Sir Ranulph has trotted on other adventures as well, having climbed Mount Everest as well as the North Face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps, guided by Kenton Cool, and has raised $22.8 million for charity throughout his career.

Mountaineer Kenton Cool will also join Cunard onboard Queen Elizabeth in Alaska to share his experiences with guests. Cool has climbed to the top of Mount Everest 14 times.

Famous land-trekking adventurers will sail on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2020.

Sir Ranulph will be the first featured guest speaker in Alaska, on Queen Elizabeth sailing between Vancouver and Juneau (June 2-4, 2020). Kenton Cool will board the ship on June 12 and sail on voyages through July 2, 2020.

Regent Seven Seas will introduce new Go Local Tours and other interactive programs led by local residents in Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and Sitka, so guests can learn about some favorite local spots to eat and hidden gems. During a new “Native Tlingit Walking Tour” in Ketchikan, luxury cruisers will accompany a local guide of Tlingit descent for a walk to learn about the city’s history and how the indigenous people have adapted to changes over the years. Then it’s on to Cape Fox Lodge, a Tlingit-owned hotel, to taste smoked salmon, reindeer sausage, fried bread and blueberry jam.

Seabourn has announced new seven-day Alaska and British Columbia cruises as part of its 2020 itineraries in the region and is enhancing four itineraries in the region with scenic cruising of Glacier Bay National Park, with narration and insider observations by a National Park Service Ranger. The 10 new seven-day cruises are a shorter complement to the line’s lineup of 10-, 11- and 12-day sailings. 

The Ventures by Seabourn optional shore experience program will return in 2020. Escorted by an expert team of 14 that includes scientists and local guides, the optional for-charge kayak, Zodiac, catamaran and hiking tours offer close-up touring opportunities. Ventures by Seabourn destinations include Alert Bay, Inian Islands, Rudyerd Bay (Misty Fjords), College Fjord, Tracy Arm/Endicott Arm, Haines (Skagway), Hubbard Glacier, Wrangell and Harriman Glacier

Additionally, scheduled shore excursions for 2020 include a mindful living tour, retreat at Burrow Creek Waterfall Lodge and crab boil that is an extension of the line’s Spa & Wellness with Dr. Andrew Weil program, as well as a salmon-fishing experience in Sitka. 

For guests who like a Scandinavian design aesthetic, Explorer Suites, a snow grotto in a pampering thermal suite and an Aquavit Terrace, perfect for al fresco dining to gaze at the majestic beauty of Alaska, Viking Ocean Cruises will operate summer season voyages between Vancouver and Seward onboard the 930-passenger Viking Orion

Oceania Cruises’ “Alaska Explorer Youth Program” will be available on the 684-passenger Regatta for Alaska sailings starting June 18. Designed for those 5 to 12, with different age groups split out, the program is supervised by experienced youth counselors. Kids can expect games, fun activities and Alaska-inspired special events. Regatta’s 2020 cruises range from seven-day voyages to 10-, 11- and 14-day cruises. For families desiring a week-long voyage this summer, one option is Oceania’s seven-night “Stunning Scenery” voyage sailing roundtrip from Seattle on June 18. Port calls include Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Victoria, BC.   

Of special interest to families, youth adventurist and guide Erin Kirkland will be onboad UnCruise AdventuresWilderness Discoverer for its July 4 and August 1, 2020, “Alaska Fjords & Glaciers” sailings. Kirkland is a guidebook author, travel journalist, and advocate of kids, nature, and world exploration who has sailed on family itineraries with UnCruise since 2014. Mother to an active teenage son, Erin is based in Anchorage, Alaska, and continues to write about family-friendly activities and destinations in the 49th state.

Adventure activities may include flora / fauna identification, foraging, and forest exploration, scavenger hunts, kayaking and paddleboard relays, history and local culture talks, ecology-themed games and activities, and beach parties. Art and craft and art activities may include personalized watercolor paintings and nature collages, basic photography, and wildlife watching.

 A popular non-cruise option for families is the Alaska Railroad, especially the Easter Train and Holiday Train events. The Easter Train includes treats, a magic show and a visit from the Easter Bunny. The train departs Saturday, April 4, from the Historic Anchorage Downtown Depot and travels down the Turnagain Arm to Indian, then back to Anchorage. Holiday Train departures have yet to be announced, but are usually in late November and early December. Activities include a coloring contest, holiday carolers, a magician, door prizes and a visit from Santa Claus.

In between, summer packages include the 11-day “Glaciers, Rails and Trails,” seven-night “Alaska’s National Parks by Rail” and “Alaska Wildlife Safari” and six-night “Active Alaska Adventure,” among others.

Anther train experience is Gray Line Alaska’s one- to four-night Denali Rail Tours — Anchorage-Talkeetna-Denali (and reverse) — aboard its private, domed railcars, some of which have a lounge and an open-air viewing platform. There’s also a dining area onboard. Longer (five to seven nights) Denali Explorer Tours and seven- and eight-night Escorted Tours are also available, as are Self-Drive tours.

Looking Ahead to 2021

Carnival Cruise Line has announced plans to expand its presence in Alaska with the deployment of Carnival Freedom from Seattle beginning April 2021. The ship, which will operate the cruise line’s week-long Glacier Route itineraries, will join Carnival Miracle, which will operate 10- and 11-day Alaska cruises from San Francisco beginning in May 2021. 

In late summer, Crystal Expedition Cruises sets sail with its new 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, a luxury expedition yacht built to handle even the most remote polar regions, and the new vessel will first sail to Alaska in 2021. Top suites onboard include the Owner’s Suite that’s 1,130 square feet with a 737-square-foot veranda, and an Expedition Penthouse of 985 square feet with a 735-square-foot veranda.

Crystal Endeavor’s 19-night “Russian Far East & the Aleutian Isles” itinerary from Otaru, Japan, to Anchorage will depart June 12, 2021. Travelers will sail through waters surrounding Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and hauntingly beautiful volcanic islands and learn about island culture. Among other highlights are off-the-beaten-path spots in the Aleutians and calls at Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, AK.

Windstar Cruises recently announced its 2021 Alaska season: Nine journeys from June through September on four itineraries, including a new seven-day option from Vancouver to Juneau and the reverse. The new itinerary, “Scenic Alaska,” will travel the Canadian Inside Passage and will spend time in Alaska’s Misty Fjords, plus Tracy or Endicott Arms, with stops in Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway (a first-time port for Windstar) and Juneau. All 2021 Windstar Alaska sailings will take place aboard the reimagined 312-passenger Star Breeze, with 50 new suites, two new restaurants, an enhanced spa and fitness center and more.

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