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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

Alaskan Wildlife Sanctuary a Hit

KENAI, Alaska — The three bears, said the young man from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, are called Hugo, JB and Petrone. In a strange quirk of giving bears names, Hugo is female while JB and Petrone are male. Their names do indeed have something to do with alcoholic beverages.

And why is a female grizzly called Hugo? She was found, starved and dying, at the base of Mount Hugo.

These are grizzlies, or brown bears, and they are part of the menagerie of injured wild animals that now make the Center home. Their progress towards true natural habitat living is closely monitored. Some, like the bald eagle whose left wing was shot off, will never leave. Others will, in time.

Anybody can visit the Center — for a fee of course — if you can find it. It’s on the Kenai Peninsula, somewhere south-east of Anchorage, in the middle of nowhere, as wildlife preserves should be. Princess tries to make sure its CruiseTour customers see it, because it’s an amazing sidelight and because it means nobody will leave saying they didn’t see Alaska wildlife.

The fact that it’s in a controlled atmosphere is immaterial. Where else can you be 10 feet from a grizzly bear with only wire fencing between you without feeling like you’re about to become an endangered species yourself? There are 35,000 brown bears in Alaska and you’re as close to three of them as you’d ever want to be.

And where else can you find wood bison? Nowhere, because the once thought-to-be-extinct members of the buffalo family are only here, 50-some strong and getting ready to be released into the wild again in 2013. They were only 23 strong when they arrived, donated to the Center by a Canadian bush pilot who stumbled across them next door in the Yukon. It was the first time Alaska had seen wood bison in 150 years. If you’re wondering why “wood” is part of their identity, welcome to the club.

Readily available for photo-ops are moose and elk and black bears and cariboo and muskox and reindeer, none of them with red noses. The cariboo provide the entertainment, locking antlers so often that anybody wanting a home movie won’t go home without one. And then there are the lynx sisters, just seven years old and here because somebody kindly saved them from a forest fire.

The muskox, arguably the most aggressive animals on site, regularly square off at 50 to 100 paces, then meet in the middle, a collision that approximates a small to mid-size car smashing into a concrete barrier, according to Scott the guide, and when there’s wildlife concerned, who’s going to argue?

They say even Hugo, JB and Petrone are afraid.

For more on our Alaska adventures, click on Ports and Bows.

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