North to Alaska: Cruising America's Last Frontier

(Courtesy of Windstar Cruises) Windstar’s optional Signature Expeditions program in Alaska includes a guided Zodiac cruise with one of the ship’s onboard naturalists. // Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises

For 2020 and beyond, much is new in America’s 49th state and the best way to explore Alaska is often by sea. In fact, for the third year in a row, Alaska cruises have earned the top spot in Travel Leaders Group’s annual survey of the most booked domestic vacations. The State of Alaska also is anticipating 6 percent cruise growth in 2020 with the addition of many more ships. Major luxury cruise lines are adding new products, shore tours, itineraries and programming for 2020 and beyond. 

New “Luxury Goes Exploring” 

Debuting this year on the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner is Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ new “Inside Alaska / Luxury Goes Exploring” program, which will also extend to Seven Seas Explorer’s sailings in Alaska for 2021. The ultra-luxury line will introduce new onboard programs featuring raptors, folk singers, Tlingit historians, and culinary and cultural touches. The goal is to “extend” the Alaska experience as these new enrichment activities are scheduled for times after guests have returned from their shore trips. 

In addition, 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 other 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.

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Guests on Seven Seas Mariner will get a chance to enjoy a dogsled adventure. // Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises 

Experts sailing onboard also provide enrichment lectures and presentations. Alaskan Cultural Anthropologist Terry Breen, a veteran of more than 450 Alaska voyages, will sail from June 4 to August 5. All guests sailing this summer in Alaska on Seven Seas Mariner also will receive a copy of Breen’s updated book, “Cruiser’s Friendly Guide to Alaska’s Inside Passage.”

Geologist Steven Okulewiz will sail August 5 to September 2; David Plourd, a marine biologist, will sail September 2 to 9; and, from September 9 through October 5, Gregory Wheeler, a geologist, will lecture onboard. Guests will also hear from such heritage and cultural experts as Juneau-native Lily Hope, a Tlingit tribe member, weaver and teacher who will help guests understand indigenous art and heritage, and local Juneau entertainer Bobby Reynolds, aka “The Great Baldini.”

Dog lovers will be excited about a new Skagway option: A professional musher will board Seven Seas Mariner to talk about the challenging Iditarod race. Yes, guests can have a close-up canine encounter with a sled dog. Separately, in another program, an Alaska Raptor Center staffer will bring onboard one of that center’s “Raptors in Residence” and provide birding insights.  

Weaving in the culinary angle, too, the line will offer a “Great American Salmon Bake & Barbeque” at the ship’s pool deck. Plus, guests who reeled in a fresh catch earlier in the day during a fishing shore excursion can dine on that catch as prepared by Regent’s chefs. Onboard Seven Seas Mariner, guests can also expect to taste Alaskan craft brews, including Husky IPA from Alaskan Brewing Company and Alaskan-themed cocktails, from an Alaskan Iced Tea to the Golden Rush.

Cruisers could also opt for a scenic ride to Denali National Park. // Photo courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises 

New Seven-Day Voyages

For Seabourn’s 2020 Alaska season, travelers will discover 10 new seven-day itineraries between Vancouver and Juneau on the 458-passenger Seabourn Sojourn; this new product is designed to appeal to travelers with less time to spend sailing. These will complement the line’s regular line-up of 10-, 11- and 12-day cruises. Seven-day cruises can also be combined with another week-long cruise to create a 14-day roundtrip cruise, including glacial ice viewing at Hubbard Glacier and Tracy /Endicott Arm. Guests reserving back-to-back voyages can save up to 15 percent on their cruise fare.

On four sailings of 10 to 14 days, Seabourn also will visit Glacier Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which ties in well with Seabourn’s UNESCO partnership. Narration and insider observations will be presented by a U.S. National Park Service ranger. And for those seeking a more in-depth Alaska land experience, Seabourn is introducing two new Seabourn Journeys’ pre- and post-cruise land packages for 2020 - “Alyeska Chugach Mountain Resort” and “Majestic Whistler Blackcomb Mountain Resort.” 

For example, on the Alyeska pre-cruise program, guests arrive in Anchorage, stay one night at the Captain Cook Hotel, then on Day Two, transfer from the city to mountains and check into Hotel Alyeska. The concierge can suggest daytime activities such as kayaking or hiking, and for dinner, guests will take an aerial tram ride for an included dinner in the Seven Glaciers Restaurant atop Mt. Alyeska. Guests then spend another full day at the hotel or exploring, before departing the following day for their ship.  

Several popular Seabourn Journeys will return this summer, including the Denali Experience, a four- or five-day, pre- and post-cruise program by road, rail and air to see Mount McKinley, and a seven-day, pre-cruise “UNESCO Banff National Park & Rocky Mountaineer,” inland journey by rail from Calgary.

Seabourn also will continue to operate its Ventures by Seabourn optional expedition program in Alaska / British Columbia. Tapping into a team of 14 experts, including scientists and local guides, the program focuses heavily on guided kayak, Zodiac, catamaran and hiking tours in such places as Alert Bay, Inian Islands, Rudyerd Bay (Misty Fjords), College Fjord, Tracy Arm / Endicott Arm, Haines (Skagway), Hubbard Glacier, Wrangell and Harriman Glacier. 

In Ketchikan, Alaska a new “Native Tlingit Walking Tour,” will allow Regent guests to learn about the city’s history from a local guide of Tlingit descent. // Photo by Getty Images / dbvirago

New Luxury Expedition Ship

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. 

On June 30, 2021, Crystal Endeavor also will operate “Expedition Alaska,” an Anchorage (Seward) to Vancouver itinerary, designed to showcase glaciers, Native American culture and heritage and outdoor adventure. Guests can enjoy glacier viewing, sea kayaking, fishing for halibut, a temperate rainforest canoe and nature walk, and exploration of Misty Fjords. 

The Owner’s Suite on Crystal Endeavor has two bedrooms, living and dining areas and a 737-square-foot veranda. // Photo courtesy of Crystal Cruises

And from August 4 to 19, the expedition vessel’s “Beyond the Aleutian Isles” itinerary from Seward to Anadyr will offer travelers the opportunity to trek through deep forests and on glaciers in remote corners of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. This sailing also includes a flight from Anadyr to Anchorage and a one-night, post-cruise hotel stay in Anchorage at the end of the cruise. Touring highlights include “Kodiak’s Russian Traditions,” “Panoramic Seward & the Alaskan Sealife Center” and a whale watching excursion. 

As for future visits to the Great Land by classic Crystal Cruises, look for Crystal Serenity to sail Alaska waters in 2022. 

New Shore Excursions

Many enticing new shore excursions are on tap this summer from ultra-luxury Silversea Cruises, which is sending its newest vessel, the 596-passenger Silver Muse to the Great Land. From May through September 2020, the ultra-luxury vessel will sail 15 voyages between Vancouver and Seward. 

Among the new shore excursions is a half-day “Exclusive Luxury Whale Watch” excursion in Juneau, a private yachting, whale watching and wildlife spotting (possibly) experience for a maximum of eight guests. Heading out via a Mercedes Sprinter for a scenic, narrated drive through downtown Juneau en route to the bay, guests will then board the private yacht to look for humpback whales, orcas, porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles and seabirds, and possibly even an occasional brown or black bear. 

Along the way, guests will enjoy Alaskan beer, wine, champagne, soft drinks, juice, water, coffee, local salmon dip, a charcuterie board and snacks. Returning to Auke Bay, guests will re-board their Mercedes Sprinter, stop at the Brotherhood Bridge and, weather permitting, snap photos of Mendenhall Glacier. Another new shore excursion in Juneau is an “Alaska Culinary Experience & Whale Quest” with an evening departure.

In Ketchikan, we’d suggest the new “Bonfire Bay Oyster Farm” excursion. After a drive to Bonfire Bay, guests will board a 20-passenger vessel for a short wildlife spotting cruise across the Clover Passage to the Hump Island Oyster & Kelp Farm. Upon arrival at the floating farm, they’ll then learn about the kelp- and oyster-growing process, have an interactive, touch-tank experience with sea life and head for the on-site Oyster Bar for a sea-to-table tasting experience with locally harvested oyster and kelp products. 

In Skagway, Silversea will add a new “White Pass Summit and Yukon Suspension Bridge” excursion, a three-hour tour by road, climbing 3,000 feet from sea level to the dramatic White Pass Summit and on to the Yukon Suspension Bridge, where guests can venture out to see the Tutshi River below. Informative displays there interpret the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and how the area was given the name, “Dead Horse Trail.” Guests will walk along a boardwalk on the protected tundra to view alpine wildflowers, before returning to Skagway for a short narrated, historical district tour.  

Silversea will also unveil new Sitka shore excursions, among them a “Sitka Hovercraft Adventure & Rainforest Exploration.” Guests settle into a six-passenger hovercraft, don a headset for “live” commentary from the captain and deckhand, and then head out to Katlian Bay. They’ll pass the site of Sitka’s original Russian fort, learn about Tlingit culture and look for bald eagles, harbor seals and sea lions. After arrival at Katlian Bay, guests will take a guided walk into the forest and nearby meadows and learn about a 1900s pioneering homesteader who started a small dairy and fur farm here. Check out the farm’s remnants on the forest floor. 

Windstar Cruises guests spot bears from their Zodiac at Misty Fjords. // Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises

New “Stretched” Ship

Windstar Cruises received its highest rating ever during its second season in Alaska in 2019. This year, the small-ship luxury line will introduce the newly enhanced 312-passenger Star Breeze to sail Alaskan waters; it’s Windstar’s first ship to emerge from the $250 million Star Plus Initiative, a major revitalization project that also “stretched” the vessel with the addition of a new mid-section. 

The result? Star Breeze will have 50 new suites, including a 1,374-square-foot Grand Owner’s Suite, two new restaurants, an enhanced spa and fitness center, an elevated pool and more eco-friendly propulsion. That said, a shipyard delay has resulted in the cancellation of some early 2020 Alaska season sailings, including a planned James Beard Foundation-themed culinary cruise. Now, Star Breeze itineraries this summer in Alaska are slated to begin June 30 and run through the end of August. 

New for 2020 is the “Alaska Glaciers & Prince William Sound” itinerary, sailing August 2. Windstar will make first-time calls at such small ports as Valdez and Petersburg; plus, it will add new scenic cruising to the Hubbard Glacier and College Fjord with five tidewater glaciers in northern Prince William Sound. Guests can also opt for Signature Expedition offerings such as Zodiac or kayaking outings.

For 2021, the big highlight is a new seven-day “Scenic Alaska” option from Vancouver to Juneau or in reverse with coastal wilderness cruising along the Canadian Inside Passage, time in Alaska’s Misty Fjords, Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm, and calls at Ketchikan and Sitka. Also, the ship will make a maiden call in Skagway, a first-time port for Windstar. Cruise tours will allow guests to opt for an even more comprehensive experience with overland trips to Denali and Fairbanks. 

Windstar Cruises' guests are seen kayaking at Tracy Arm & Endicott Arm fjords. // Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises

Windstar’s new 2021 Signature Expeditions include Zodiac cruises and kayaking in Icy Bay, a remote fjord near Prince William Sound that’s part of the Wrangell-Saint Elias Wilderness. In Barry Arm, Zodiac cruises and kayaking are planned as three glaciers flow from the Chugach Mountains into the fjord, which is relatively ice-free with smooth waters. 

On the shore excursion front, new in 2021 is a White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge train ride from Skagway to view mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, tunnels and historic sites. Separately, a new Glacier Point wilderness safari will include catamaran cruising in a fjord, hiking in a temperate rainforest and paddling a canoe on a mountain lake. 

Doubling Alaska Cruises

Cunard’s 2,081-passenger Queen Elizabeth is doubling its Alaska voyages this year between June and September with 10 round-trip Vancouver voyages ranging from nine to 12 nights. They feature Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay National Park and other destinations. 

In addition to scenic Inside Passage cruising, Queen Elizabeth will visit Glacier Bay National Park and spend full days in several ports, giving guests more time ashore. New guest lecturers onboard include explorer / mountaineering experts Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Kenton Cool. What’s most exciting, though? From our perspective, it’s new roundtrip sailings from Victoria, BC. The move diversifies Cunard’s Alaska voyage portfolio and gives guests an enticing, new destination for pre- and post-cruise Alaska stays. 

In addition to nine- to 11-night itineraries, roundtrip out of Victoria, which Cunard announced earlier, the line has also recently added a 12-night Alaska voyage roundtrip from Victoria, departing July 8 with visits to Vancouver, Sitka, Glacier Bay National Park, Anchorage, Kodiak, Seward and College Fjord and a 10-night Alaska voyage roundtrip from Victoria, departing July 20-30, 2020, calling at Vancouver, Juneau, Skagway, Hubbard Glacier, Sitka and Ketchikan. In addition, a three-night getaway cruise from San Francisco to Victoria departs July 5 with a call in Astoria, OR.

Cunard 2,081-passenger Queen Elizabeth is doubling its Alaska voyages this year between June and September. // Photo courtesy of Cunard

Multigenerational Magnets

Certainly, Alaska is a top multigenerational travel destination with grandparents taking their adult siblings and grandchildren or even great grandchildren. Many upscale lines have added new children’s or teens’ programs to help entertain the young ones while the adults enjoy spa treatments, culinary lessons, enrichment lectures or even time ashore. 

Oceania Cruises’ “Alaska Explorer Youth Program” will be available on the 684-passenger Regatta for Alaska sailings starting June 18. Designed for those aged five 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.  

For 2021, Regatta’s Alaska line-up includes an 11-day “Glaciers to Blooms” sailing on June 21, 2021, from Vancouver to Seattle. Calls include Ketchikan, Wrangell, Icy Strait Point (Hoonah), Skagway, Juneau, Sitka, Victoria, BC, and cruising to the Hubbard Glacier. We like the line’s OLife Choice program, which gives guests a chance to personalize their cruise with value-added inclusions. Among the perks, guests receive one of these per stateroom: Six complimentary shore excursions, a complimentary beverage package or a $600 shipboard credit. 

Oceania Cruises’ 684-passenger Regatta will offer the “Alaska Explorer Youth Program” for five- to 12-year-olds starting June 18. // Photo courtesy of Oceania Cruises

Also, on the kid-friendly side, for the first time Regent Seven Seas Cruises has curated Alaskan excursions for children or teens enrolled in its Club Mariner Youth Program. Those seven to 17 years of age can participate in these new outings at Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Icy Strait Point; experienced Club Mariner counselors will accompany the trips. For example, during a new “Salmon Hatchery and Juneau City Tour,” children will see salmon at a hatchery and learn about their lifecycles, plus take a drive through Juneau and along its bustling waterfront. 

Small Ship Adventure

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.

Ponant will offer three of those sailings in 2020 with the first journey departing July 22, 2020; seven “On the Trail of the Gold Prospectors” voyages are planned for 2021. Added bonus? At press time, Ponant was offering a “no single supplement” deal on several of the mid-summer 2021 voyages.

In 2021, Le Soleal also will operate several expeditionary sailings in Alaska, including the 12-night “Wildlife and Forests of Alaska” sailing between Vancouver and Seward on August 23, and the 16-night “Fire and Ice in the Arctic,” sailing between Seward and Nome. 

Scandinavian Flair

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. 

The 930-passenger Viking Orion will sail 11-day “Alaska & the Inside Passage” itineraries; guests receive seven guided tours in the cruise fare. Certainly, enrichment is a big activity for Alaska cruises, and a Viking Resident Historian will lecture about “Western Canada Exploration” and the “Indigenous People of North America.”

Pre- and post-cruise extensions give travelers a chance to extend the experience. For example, guests can opt for a seven-night “Canadian Rockies – Banff to Vancouver” pre-cruise package with exploration of Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

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