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Alaska Wildfire Cautions Cruisers

Alaska fires

ANCHORAGE — If there’s one thing Alaska has learned to deal with, it’s uncertainty. Day One of an 11-day experience for us — like many cruisers, four on land and seven on the Star Princess as part of a Princess Cruisetour — was waiting with just such an introduction.

On the eve of the height of the cruise season, the smoke signals spewing from 80 miles north were from the Hotel Captain Cook. They delivered a potentially ominous message to everyone with land excursions before or after Alaska cruises:

Wildfires and highway closures.

That’s highway, singular, because here in The Last Frontier, there is only one that connects north and south, the George Parks Highway. Smoke from the Sockeye Fire, now spread over more than 6,500 acres, has closed the road intermittently. This could leave cruisers wondering if they’ll complete their land excursions if they’re going north, or get to their cruise ship on time if they’re heading south.

Late yesterday, the traffic light was still green. There is reason for optimism…buses and trains were getting through but, like almost everything in Alaska, Mother Nature is in charge. This week, in fact this spring, she has been full of surprises. 

A worker at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport put it this way: “It’s too hot for us Alaskans. Yesterday we broke an all-time record for June 15.” 

The temperature, as he spoke…78 degrees.

In the news…

• Carnival sends Breeze to Galveston, Magic to Port Canaveral
• Costa Fascinosa to join in South America for 2015-16 season

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Grand Princess
7 nights
August 8, 2015
Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Alaska cruising: A Time to Plan

While this hardly seems the time of year to be talking about places as cold as Alaska is right now, it's not a bad idea. This is when people start to make decisions for after The Thaw if they've got Alaska on their minds.

So, as a public service, here are some things you should know about Alaska cruises…

Holland America (139 scheduled trips in 2013) and Princess (119) are the industry leaders in volume, and both have seven ships touring the 49th state next year.

• For the complete package, you can't beat the cruisetours that Princess has perfected for seeing this beautiful state before or after your cruise.

Denali National Park is a must. And, if you happen to be 62 or older (and a U.S. resident), it's one of 10 places in Alaska where you can buy a lifetime National Park Pass for $10, for entry to any park in the U.S.

• Wildlife is a wish. If you want to be sure of it, find a way go to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where wild animals are being rehabilitated for release. Other than that, even in Denali, it can be hit and miss.

• Be prepared for whatever weather. Spring to fall, the climate can be wonderful or wistful, so you have to accept there could be impediments ranging from rain to cold to mosquitoes to fog.

• If you're a first-time, one-timer try to take a flight over either the glaciers or mountains, or both. The scenery from a small aircraft is jaw-dropping.

• Historical stops — and there are plenty — at the usual ports (Skagway, Ketchikan, Juneau) are enlightening and only costly if you buy some of the "stuff" they're selling.

Everybody should see Alaska once…at least.


Celebrity Millennium
7 nights
May 24, 2013
Vancouver, Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skagway, Anchorage
Inside: $699
Cost per day: $99

A Cruise Trip to Alaska and the Iditarod

Photo by Frank Kovalchek

You just never know how going on a cruise is going to change your life. For example, we never imagined that in the first week of March — when most people were tuning into their source of sports for the final stages of basketball and hockey, or the start of baseball — we'd be looking for the Iditarod.

In case you haven't been here since last fall, our introduction to the Iditarod came while on a Princess Cruisetour in September. Oh yes, did we mention that the Iditarod is a sled-dog race that has taken anywhere from nine to 20 days to finish, in becoming Alaska's most famous sports event?

It's run in early March, from Anchorage to Nome (there's no place like it), on the far western shores of Alaska. It's run in March because just about any other time of the year (when the climate is less than perishable) the terrain from Anchorage to Nome is a bog.

We met a sled-dog racer named Gerry Sousa, who took us for a dry-land ride behind 13 of his puppies, in the rain. For people who thrive on warmer climes, this was preferable to a trip to Nome in March. It turns out that Gerry had been in nine of the last 10 Iditarods…now 10 of the last 11. His best finish is 16th — he was 20th this year. You can look it up (we did).

The race, from its roots to present-day, was captivating. It traces a life-saving race with medicine that was needed in Nome, about 90 years ago. This year's race, the 40th, was won by Dallas Seavey, who turned 25 this week, somewhere between Anchorage and Nome. His Dad (Mitch) finished 7th. His Grandpa (Dan), the only competitor to have competed in all 40 races, was 51st and still sledding yesterday.

Women have made their marks on the Iditarod. Aliy Zirkle finished second this week, 27 years after Libby Riddles became the first woman to win. The year after Riddles won, Susan Butcher was first four times in five years, leading to the slogan:

"Welcome to Alaska, where men are men…and women win the Iditarod!"

How do we know all this?

Because we went to Alaska on a cruisetour, and came back on the Coral Princess.

Norwegian Epic
11 nights
April 14, 2012
Miami, Ponta Delgada, Barcelona
Inside  $499
Cost per day: $45

Booking Alaska: Five Key Factors

Ice breakers leading the way to reach the fuel-starved people of Nome, on the far west coast of Alaska. Elsewhere in the state, there are snowbanks towering 15 to 18 feet high. Good time to think about an Alaskan cruise?

The answer is yes.

It is now that cruise companies start promoting this year’s cruises to Alaska, so if you want to pick the optimum time for going, this is the time to start looking.

Optimum time?

This is always problematic with Alaska. Also unpredictable. Preparing cruisers for the uniqueness of booking an Alaska cruise is the job of cruise agents, and we came across one — Vacations To Go — that has done an excellent job of the “five key factors” when planning a cruise to Alaska.

Here they are, in capsule form:

Discounts are available right now on virtually every departure from May to September. Shipboard credits and other free amenities are also available on many sailings and you’ll find the lowest rates on departures early and late in the season. If for some reason you must sail on a specific ship on a specific date, or you require special cabin needs, you should lock in your rate while there are still cabins that will accommodate you on nearly every ship. However, if you are flexible rates for many cabins are likely to be reduced about 90 days before departure.

There are two types: Inside Passage cruises that sail round-trip from Vancouver, Seattle or San Francisco; and Gulf of Alaska cruises that sail one way between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier. The round-trips offer two advantages: 1) you can book closer to departure because there are many flights and 2) airfare is less because no flights to/from Anchorage or Fairbanks are required, and flights to those cities is limited and fill early with cruise and cruise tour passengers, which makes it more risky to wait for a last-minute deal on a one-way, where there’s the opportunity to explore the interior on a land tour. Keep in mind that tour buses, rail cars and lodges can sell out early and booking no later than the end of February is recommended.

It’s unpredictable, but the warmest temperatures are generally in July and August, when average highs are in the low- to mid-60s. Precipitation can rise a bit in late August and early September, but don’t avoid that time for that reason. Weather is part of the experience in Alaska.

Different species of wildlife are active at different times.
• Humpback and killer whales: summer in large sounds and straits along the coast.
• Brown and black bears: grassy tidal flats starting in May and near salmon streams and berry patches in July and August.
• Moose and caribou: calving in May and cow moose and their young near thickets along roadsides and rivers in May and June.
• Bald eagles: plentiful and spotted at the water’s edge in the summer, particularly near salmon-spawning streams.
• Tufted puffins and other seabirds: nesting colonies on coastal islands in May. Shorebird watching is popular in August and September, as species begin migrations south.
• Harbor seals: visible throughout the season and with their pups on and around the icebergs of Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay during June.
• Sea lions: start becoming visible in September.
• King salmon: runs from May through August; late May through June best for saltwater king salmon fishing, and July-August for freshwater.
• Sockeye (red) salmon: fill freshwater streams and rivers on spawning runs from late June through July.
• Chum and pink salmon: saltwater fishing best in July and August, and freshwater fishing peaks in August.
• Coho (silver) salmon: in saltwater areas from late July through early September, and in freshwater areas during September and October.
• Halibut: most abundant in salt water from late June through August.

Passports are required for all travelers who enter or re-enter the U.S. by air from any other country, which means U.S. citizens and residents who fly back to the U.S. from Canada are required to have a valid passport. It is also required for anyone who enters or re-enters the U.S. by land or by sea. There are a few exceptions but passports are always recommended.

Carnival Conquest
7 nights
March 4, 2012
New Orleans (return): Key West, Freeport, Nassau
Inside $489

Big Guy in Alaska for Princess

We spent almost two weeks looking up to Guy Glaeser, and the fact that he’s six-foot-six was only part of the reason.

He’s a nice man who runs cruise tours in Alaska for Princess. Being nice doesn’t make him good at his job any more than being six-six makes him a basketball player, but it’s hard to imagine anybody being better at educating non-Alaskans about Alaska than Guy Glaeser.

What little he doesn’t know about the 49th state, he will find out. Not now, right now. He knows so much about Alaska because right from the beginning he had impeccable credentials. Right?

“I had ‘outdoor, Northwest’ experience,” he laughs.

The outdoor came from enjoying things like hiking, camping and biking. The Northwest came from having lived in Oregon and Seattle most of his life. The job that has been Glaeser’s every tourist season for more than 15 years now was almost an accident. A friend of his college roommate suggested he apply.

“It was dumb luck,” he says now.

A communication and psychology major at college, he could never have imagined applying those skills to his current position, but he does. Nor, for that matter, does being a recruiter and corporate trainer for UPS qualify you to be an Alaskan tour guide, but it did.

Guy explains it this way:

“I was raised by an art history professor and a librarian, so I’d been dragged into a lot of museums by the time I was 12. I have a passion for history, and a passion for information. The greatest privilege with tours is being able to be responsible for sharing. You try to be entertaining but you feel like an ambassador, to have that role with a group.

“There are so many components. I’m just a component. Once you establish your presence, I’m just part of it. My component provides continuity, comfort and fun. That’s the best part. If I’m not having fun, my guests aren’t having fun.”

Spending 16 summers in Alaska came with an added benefit. Her name is Robin, who for the last nine years has been Guy’s wife and now mother of their three-year-old. They met in Kenai, just south of Anchorage.

“We were co-workers,” he recalls. “I was impressed by her smile. I was fortunate to train her in Alaska. That was on the Kenai Peninsula and it was wonderful because there will never be another trip like it.”

There have been many trips since then, for both of them, including six months in  South America and Cuba. They settled in Portland but every May through September, Guy is back in Alaska, doing what he does best in a state that he says is “worthy of studying.”

If he hasn’t perfected running cruise tours in 16 years, probably nobody has. Among other things, he has the right demeanor, and he has developed this philosophy:”What you see is what you get with me. The hardest part of your tour should be recognizing me, and I’m six-six.”

One good reason to look up to him, right?

Norwegian Dawn
7 nights
October 14, 2011
Boston (return), Bermuda (3 nights)
Inside $349

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