Friday, March 16, 2007

Karen Toh's Travel Tip: A Cruise to Alaska, The Ultimate Experience!

I've decided that I want to share my travel experiences with my friends, and maybe their friends.. :)

Here's the ultimate vacation - a Cruise Vacation!

P.S. Please note that some of the images in this blog are from However, all other images are copyrighted © 2006, Karen Toh Guek Bee, and can be viewed at my Webshots Community Album. You can also read my other Travel Blogs here.

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by karentoh

Travel Blog References
· Contents compiled and written by Karen Toh Guek Bee.
· Wikipedia
· Wohlforth, Charles P., Frommer’s Alaska, 1998
· Insight Guides Alaka, 2005

Photography Images:
· Copyright © 2006 Karen Toh Guek Bee,
· Courtesy of

Planning Ahead for your Cruise of a Lifetime..

Why Alaska?
How do i get there?
How much should I budget?
Will I get seasick?

What if i get bored whilst still at sea?

Those questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Cruise to Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

Before you decide that you want to take a cruise to Alaska, you need to do some research. Here’s a checklist:

What itinerary options can I chose from?
If you want you to travel into the interior of Alaska, you’ll need to embark from Vancouver or embark from Anchorage and disembark at Vancouver.

The US Passenger Services Act of 1886 requires that only US flag and US-built vessels can be used to carry passengers between two US ports, but it allows foreign-flag vessels to pick up and drop off passengers while calling at a single US port. Since most large cruise ships are registered in countries such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Panama and in the UK, most cruises choose to start Alaska and end in Vancouver, or vice versa.

What itinerary options can I chose from?
If you want you to travel into the interior of Alaska, you’ll need to embark from Vancouver or embark from Anchorage and disembark at Vancouver.

The US Passenger Services Act of 1886 requires that only US flag and US-built vessels can be used to carry passengers between two US ports, but it allows foreign-flag vessels to pick up and drop off passengers while calling at a single US port. Since most large cruise ships are registered in countries such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Panama and in the UK, most cruises choose to start Alaska and end in Vancouver, or vice versa.

Inside Passage itinerary: Vancouver => Ketchikan => Juneau รจ Skagway => Glacier Bay National Park => Prince William Sound and College Fjord => Anchorage (7 nights)

North/South Bound Itenerary: Vancouver => Haines => Skagway =>Valdez =>Seward (7 nights)

There are also round trip 7 night cruises that leave from Seattle and Vancouver which relatively cheaper, and some of them feature the glacier exploration.

Do note that not all Alaskan cruises visit Glacier Bay or the historic gold-rush town of Skagway, or even head as far north as Seward, so do check the ports of call before you sign up for the cruise.

If you’re the seagoing type, prefer open waters, then you should opt for the north or southbound itineraries.

When should you make this journey?
You can only go between April to September. The resorts in the interior start shutting down from September onwards as winter sets in.

Early and late in the season means that the weather will be cold, chilly and wet (most of the time). If you’re planning to go during this season, make sure you have the right attire! Plus, you need to remember one thing – in Alaska, spring only lasts about 2 weeks before Summer sets in. In spring, the grounds are starting to thaw, and you’ll get first glimpse of all things new.. new sprigs, calves, cubs, etc.

Late May through to August is summer. Hot weather, the best days in Alaska, but don’t forget the mosquitoes.. trust me, they’re as big as a house! In the summer, you’ll see all kinds of wildlife roaming around, feeding, so that they can fatten up for the winter months. I believe mating season also takes place.

Which cruise ship company should I select?
It all depends on individual preferences. Smaller ships are able to get closer to the shore, this means that you stand a better chance of spotting wild life without binoculars. Larger ships have disadvantages as they have to stay further away where the water is deeper.

However, there are pro and cons for both types of vessels. The larger mainstream vessels like Princess Cruises, Holland America, Celebrity Cruises cater for the seagoing experience. This means that they have better facilities – which translate to better service, more food choices, more room to roam around on board, and loads of activities. These ships also offer more entertainment options on board – casinos, nightly shows, lectures on wilderness, shopping, and so on. They even invite trained naturalist and special guest speakers on board, like the Iditarod champion.

However, bigger ships means more people so much so you have to queue for everything – food, disembarking and embarking at Ports of Call, or having an early dinner so that you can catch the evening shows. Dinners are formal, and they take this seriously, so unless you want to have the buffet dinner – you dress up, of feel underdressed!

The smaller ships I suppose are “cosier”, you get to know your fellow passengers, especially if you are a single traveler.

As one of the pioneers of Alaska, Princess has one of the two largest state owned land operations that offer an array of shore excursions and land-cruise tours. They are rivaled only by Holland America.

These mainstream cruise companies have better deals on ground, at the ports of calls – better discounts when shopping, more choices in excursion packages, and they’re better coordinated.

Oh yeah, the better cruise companies have better port docking deals.. your ship will dock right at the harbour, where as the smaller ones will have to transport passengers by a smaller boat. You’ll need to take that into consideration if you have elderly and disabled family members.

Princess and Holland America have special domed trains that take you into the interior – these are private cabins, so they’re well kept, but mind that you’ll be crammed up like sardines. Every single space will be allocated, and your journey to Denali from Anchorage may take up to 10 hours.

What sort of cabins do I chose?
You need to consider this carefully as to what will make you comfortable during your time at sea (which depends on your itinerary that you’ve chosen)

The cabins that have no windows are the cheapest, but this will depend also on the size of the cabin, the location of the cabin (front or back), and on the deck.

So, if you’d like to have a balcony, you may have to pay a higher rate, than the guy who doesn’t have a balcony, just a porthole.

Will it make a difference if you have no view? Only if you’re claustrophobic. If you’re an active person and intends to be up and about all day, your room will only be a place to sleep. There are so many activities on board the ship while the ship is at sea. Many people hang out at the dining areas, the swimming pool, the deck, otherwise they’ll be engaged in some other activity – casino, at the bar, on board games, etc.

If you’re a person that like his/her creature comforts, and the privacy of your room, then you’ll have to pay a premium for the space and window/balcony. Believe me, it is worthwhile, especially if the cruise is your “once in a lifetime” adventure, the cabin with balcony makes a difference. Then again, it depends which side your cabin is in. If you’re heading north, and you want to see the view of the mainland, then your cabin should be on the right. This will allow you an occasional view of a sunset.

Can I get discounts?
If you plan ahead and book 4 months ahead of the sail date, you should be able to get a discount. You should also look out for promotions through the internet, but look out for the Port of Calls offered. Remember, if you sail from Seattle, it will be a round trip back to Seattle without reaching either Anchorage nor Seward.

What if I’m prone to seasickness?
If you or your companion is prone to seasickness, choose the Inside Passage itinerary.

Most large cruise ships have a sophisticated system to keep the ship stable. At the most, you’ll have to take one seasickness pill ahead of time – the captain will tell his passengers before they hit the open seas.

What excursions can I and my family take?
Most cruise companies have a list of excursions that you can choose from, even before you decide on signing up for a cruise with them. Check these out first, to see which suits you best. The activities start on your first port of call. These companies will have listed only the packages that will suit the disembarkation and embarkation times, so don’t worry, you won’t miss the trip, nor will you miss the boat, unless you do some extra shopping and you’re late!

Examples of excursions range from helicopter rides with landings on the glacier, to fishing, to meeting the dog musher and their sled dogs. There are a range of activities to suit all ages, except maybe the toddlers, but I believe, the larger ships have day care centers too – so check out the facilities if you intend to bring your kids!

If budget is an issue and you intend to save money by not disembarking at the Port of Calls, please check with your agent as most automatically include the fee charged for disembarkation.

However if you intend to go exploring on your own, do take note of what time the ship sets sail, and plan to be back at least an hour before then. If you are planning to go hiking, find out how long the trail takes. Even if you are planning to go shopping, make sure you have a watch that keeps accurate timing. All the other people around you may be from other ships, so people come and go like the tide, so you can’t rely on the crowd to thin during peak seasons.

What can I do when I reach Anchorage?
You’ll need to plan ahead before you book your cruise – if you plan to tour the interior, you’ll want to sign up for a land tour package with cruise line. They offer a variety of packages to allow you to explore the various sites – Denali National Park, Mount McKinley, Fairbanks, Anchorage itself, and more.

If you like wildlife, do not miss the Denali National Park. This is the final wilderness frontier, where the wildlife roam freely without fear, and where few humans are allowed to interact with the wild. Climb on board one of the wilderness tour busses on a 6 hour journey into the park – you’ll be amazed at the things you see from the bus – Moose, Caribou, Black Bear, Brown Bears or Grizzlies, Wolves, Dall Sheep, a variety of birds and other smaller animals.

Alaska's Must See Sights

Alaska is the 49th and largest state in the United States of America, and is twice the size of Texas!

If you are on the inside passage traveling north to Anchorage, your first port of call is Ketchikan, or “the First City” as Alaskans call this town. Here, if you are interested in native art, you’ll find a Totem Heritage Center.

As the “Rain Capital of Alaska” Ketchikan gets an average of 156 inches of rain per year. It is also the closest port to visit the Misty Fjords National Monument. Ketchikan is also well known as the “Salmon Capital of the World”, as there are a number of hatcheries and canneries.

How about some shopping, Ladies? There are a large number of jewelers in Ketchikan with very good deals for Diamonds, Tanzanite, Amolite, and other precious gemstones. Some of the larger cruise ships offer lectures on what to shop for in the various Ports of Call. If shopping is your thing, then don’t miss these talks.
Ketchikan at Sunrise, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh
You may also spot a number of Bald Eagles as they swoop in to feed on the whatever parts of salmon that the canneries discard.

The state capital of Alaska is the port of call for every cruise ship, ferry and airline that comes to Southeast Alaska. There are no roads leading to this interesting but remote city, as it is surrounded on three sides by the Juneau Icefield (which is the face of the Mendenhall Glacier), and the fourth by water. Car thieves won’t get very far in this city! :p

Juneau Icefield, Medenhall Glacier, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

Why found a city that is inaccessible by land? Well, apparently Gold was the reason the city’s location.

There are a couple of things that you must do in Juneau.

Mendenhall Glacier
You can take a flight seeing tour of the glacier. If you’d like to experience a landing on the icefield, opt for the helicopters carriers – they provide equipment too.

Bear Encounter @ a Hiking Trail near Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

I liked the hiking trails, as there were a rich variety of flora and fauna. Just remember that if you aren’t used to hiking in North America, you need to watch out for the wildlife – keep your distance. Watch out for Bears, especially if you see cubs – sure they’re cute, but Mama’s not far behind, and they’re very protective of their young. It is best to go with a local guide.

Whale Watching

Having a Whale of a Time in Auke Bay, Juneau, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

Juneau’s Auke Bay is a perfect place for whale watching as the waters in the bay is relatively calm, due to the protection from the nearby islands. Catamarans with experienced crew spot whales for you, so all you need is to catch sight of those elusive whale specimens at the place and at the right time, especially if you are taking photos or even with your binoculars – it can be a challenge, believe me. Do note that your batteries in your digital equipment can go flat in extreme cold weather (do factor in wind chill).

Skagway reminds me of a cowboy town in a Hollywood set or in Disneyworld, where the buildings are in great condition, painted like it was in the past, with its natural surroundings of forest, mountains and water. It was founded by the Klondike Gold Rush, as it was the jumping point to those who wanted to seek a fortune in gold in the Yukon. Being accessible to the mountains from the sea, thousands made their way up the coast and bought supplies before taking the hike through the mountain pass.

On the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, Skagway, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad laid its tracks from Skagway to Whitehorse in the Yukon territory. Visitors can now take a ride into the past on well maintained steam or diesel engines, and on a clear day that gives way to a view of how the railroad was cut into the mountain, you’ll be ever grateful to those who toiled and died to build the route through the mountain pass.

More Must See Sights

Glacier Bay
Glaciers are one of the reasons tourists flock to Alaska. Glaciers are constantly on the move, shaping the landscape.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

The Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve provides you with a glimpse of its sixteen tidewater glaciers. Glacier Bay was discovered by John Muir in 1879 which a century before was nothing by a wall of ice which is today a fjord 65 miles long. The glacier is fast receding, and is one of the places where visitors can see glacier ice calve from its 150 feet walls. Ice calving occurs when pieces or even sections of ice break away and fall into the water. If you hear the crack and roar, this means you have missed the event, since sound travels slower.

Prince William Sound and College Fjord
The Prince William sound is a helicopter ride or a ferry ride away from Whittier, which is easily reached from Anchorage through the tunnels in the Chugach Mountains.

Prince William Sound & College Fjord, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh

College Fjord is a fjord located in the northern sector of Prince William Sound in the U.S. state of Alaska. The fjord contains five tidewater glaciers (glaciers that terminate in water), five large valley glaciers, and dozens of smaller glaciers, most named after renowned East Coast colleges, like Columbia Glacier, Dartmouth Glacier, Harvard Glacier, Wellesley Glacier, Williams Glacier, Yale Glacier and more..

The waters of the sound are uniquely protected and diverse, and are a rich nursery to all kinds of wild life – otters, harbour seals, whales, bears, goats and gulls and other migrating birds.

The Columbia Glacier is the largest among many that drop down from the Chugach Mountains into the northerly fjords of Prince William Sound.
Valdez is another port of call near Anchorage. The original town was wiped off by a tsunami on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 after an earthquake – 9.2 on the Richter scale, set off an underwater landslide causing the huge wave that swept over the waterfront killing 32 people, sinking and destroying the town. The new town has since been relocated and today.

With the trans-Alaska pipeline ending in Valdez, which brought many tankers to its port, the town began to boom once more.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Valdez, Alaska
Photo Image courtesy of

However on Good Friday, March 24, 1989 almost 25 years since the earthquake, the tanker Exxon Valdez, on its way south, hit the Bligh Reef, causing the largest and most environmental costly oil spill ever in North America. The spill cleanup added another economic boom to Valdez.

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill was one of the largest manmade environmental disasters ever to occur at sea, seriously affecting plants and wildlife. Its remote location (accessible only by helicopter and boat) made government and industry response efforts difficult, and severely taxed existing plans for response.
It is the largest city in the state of Alaska, and while there’s a lot of information about what to do in this city, it is the one place where you can get to any other destination in Alaska – whether it’s by plane, sea, train, bus or by car.

Anchorage, Alaska
Photo Image courtesy of

Anchorage itself is a very nice city, it has great views as it stands between the Chugach Mountains, which are protected by the Chugach State Park, and the waters of upper Cook Inlet. Less than 15 miles from downtown Anchorage stands Chugach’s most popular mountain – Flattop Mountain, which is visible from the city. City roads approach to within a mile from its base and it is apparently an easy climb, taking hikers two to three hours to reach its summit.

Anchorage is the hub for many who want to tour the interior of Alaska, or who may not want to take a 7 night cruise. Should you wish to see College Fjord and the Prince William Sound, you can take a bus or train to Whittier and join a day tour.

No Roads Lead to Nome
Dog Sledding remains a practical means of transport in winter, but once a year comes the last great race on earth – the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The race starts from Anchorage on the first Saturday of March each year. The finish line is in Nome, some 1,770 km away, and while all roads lead to Rome, no roads lead to Nome!

March is probably the coldest time in winter, and this annual race began in 1973 to commemorate the 1925 “race for life” when 20 mushers relayed life-saving serum to Nome, which was then fighting a diphtheria epidemic. The trail crosses two mountain ranges, runs along the Yukon River and crosses the pack ice of Norton sound.

The dogs are the true heroes in this race – they have been bred for endurance, speed and stamina.

At Jeff King’s Iditarod Champion’s Homestead & Dog Kennel, near Denali National Park, Alaska
Photo Image © Karen Toh
Dog mushers have to take care of their dogs on the trail. They feed and water the dogs, check their physical condition to ensure that the dog can make the rest of the journey.

There are usually a team of up to 16 dogs. The lead dog is the smartest of the lot, and must be born a leader.

The Northern Lights
While many visitors to Alaska may not be able to see the northern lights, if you’re lucky, you can catch a “show” in the local cultural center. The northern lights occur most intensely within an oval band that stretches across Alaska (as well as Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Siberia.), which is known as the “auroral zone”. One of the best views to be had is in Fairbanks in Alaska. The aurora occurs throughout the year, but can only be seen on clear nights when the sky has darkened, and is thought to be caused by particles in the upper atmosphere being charged by the gas molecules caused by solar flares from the sun. The result are a show of lights with colors varying from pale yellowish green to red, blue and purplish red.
Aurora Borealis
Photo Image courtesy of

Exploring the Interior of Alaska

Denali National Park & Reserve and Mount McKinley, Alaska

Denali is part of the Alaska Range, a 960 km arc of mountains stretching across the state from the Alaska Peninsular to the Canadian border. Denali National Park and Preserve is a unique place to visit, and is highly recommended by many who’ve been there, me included. It is all about human management of the wilderness. Here, humans thread with care – only a small part of the park is open to visitors who want to hike and camp and sleep under the sky.

Most of the 6 million acre park can only be accessed through a national park tour bus which conducts daily tours in the summer. There are two tours – the National History Tour and the Wildlife Tour. Food is provided, and for 8 hours you won’t get off the bus except at specific rest stops.

Why would you want to spend all this time on a bus? That is because this is the only chance for you to catch glimpses of the natural wildlife at play. Where else can you see the Dall Sheep grazing on steep cliffs, grizzly bears, caribou, moose and even a wolf. You may even catch sight of the willow ptarmigan, Alaksa’s state bird - flying low across the thickets and tundra. The ptarmigan is one of the wildlife that adapts to its landscape – in the winter, it sports a white plume, while in the summer it turns brown. You may even catch a glimpse of an occasional snowshoe hare, with its big feet, which comes in handy in the winter months.

Willow Ptarmigan changing its plume from winter's white to summer's brown, Denali National Park and Preserve
Photo Image © Karen Toh

The reason why the park created the tours into the wilderness was to protect the landscape and the wildlife. The number of visitors annually had grown tenfold from 140,000 a year. The extra traffic and noise created by the visitors would have driven the animals out of sight, and the park would have to deal with more people encountering the dangerous animals like the bears and moose.

This compromise is quite popular as buses are very full in the summer and often booked well in advance. The buses pick you up as early as 6am, and leaving every half an hour for the rest of the morning. You are asked to help spot wild animals and shout it out to the driver/guide, who will stop by the side of the road to confirm the sighting.

Mount McKinley, Denali National Park and Preserve
Photo Image © Karen Toh

Within the park, Mount McKinley is always in sight. It is after all the highest peak in North America, some 20,320 feet. McKinley is located within the Denali National Park & Preserve.

· Wohlforth, Charles P., Frommer’s Alaska, 1998
· Insight Guides Alaka, 2005

Photography Images:
· Copyright © 2006 Karen Toh Guek Bee
· Courtesy of