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Cold passage

In outsize Alaska, smaller gets you closer

By Kari Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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SEATTLE — Witness a pod of orcas playing in a bay in the San Juan Islands. Trace Lewis and Clark’s route along the Columbia River. Watch bald eagles soaring over a fiord where you spend the day paddling among icebergs, or relaxing on deck while your ship’s naturist tells tales of Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Dozens of ships cruise the protected waterways of the Pacific Northwest each year, taking passengers into a region populated by old-growth forests, more bald eagles than seagulls (or so it seems), and some of North America’s least tainted wilderness. A handful of cruises begin or end in San Francisco, but Seattle, Anchorage, and Vancouver, British Columbia, are the Northwest’s main home ports.

“Ten years ago, we launched six ships out of Seattle,’’ says Peter McGraw of the Port of Seattle. “This year, we’re expecting 223 ships to begin their Alaskan journeys here.’’

Aboard a big ship with 1,500 to 3,000 passengers you typically have a wealth of dining choices; casinos, Broadway-style musicals, and other stage shows, and an extensive lineup of programs designed to keep your children entertained. Many cruise companies also offer discounted fares that may include free air fare.

Small to midsize ships, on the other hand, can get into smaller ports and inlets, provide more personalized service (one cruise line has a 1:2 crew-to-passenger ratio), and get close enough to see the eyes of a bird perched on an iceberg. And they often have the flexibility to linger in a spot to whale watch or view wildlife.

Many of the cruise lines, regardless of size, offer “cruisetours,’’ ship and shore combos that provide a more affordable way to tour the cities where you embark or disembark, and to explore the Northwest’s great interior. In Alaska, you’ll be transported through the wilderness by bus or glass-domed train.

Here’s a look at what’s new or unique for Pacific Northwest cruises in 2011.

Disney Cruise Line will offer its first-ever sailings to Alaska next year. Departing out of Vancouver, the 2,700-passenger Disney Wonder will make 18 seven-night voyages to Tracy Arm Fiord, Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan. The ship’s new Outlook Cafe has floor-to-ceiling, curved-glass windows.

Oceania Cruises, which offers five-star gourmet cuisine and a country-club feel, will also run its first Alaska cruises, with 10- to 14-day sailings from San Francisco and Vancouver. The 684-passenger Regatta will also stop at less-visited outposts, such as Kodiak, where you can paddle within eyeshot of sea lions and humpbacks while circling an island, and Homer, a village on the Kenai Peninsula near Alaska’s first state park, at Kachemak Bay.

Oceania’s sister brand, the ultra-luxury Regent Seven Seas Cruises, will operate two new 12-day cruises between San Francisco and Seward aboard the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. Highlights include a “chef’s table’’ in Ketchikan, when you’ll enjoy a five-course meal created by your own personal chef at a private club overlooking the harbor, and a chance to explore old-growth forest on a remote island in Tongass National Forest. Regent offers unlimited free shore excursions at each port of call.

Carnival Cruise Lines will run seven-day round-trip voyages from Seattle aboard the 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit, stopping at Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Victoria (British Columbia’s capital), and Tracy Arm Fiord. Shore excursions include helicopter flight-seeing, rain forest canopy tours, and alpine snorkeling, when you immerse yourself in the salty waters near Ketchikan and snorkel over kelp forests.

Despite the name, Royal Caribbean International will run 34 Alaskan voyages, including seven-night, one-way journeys between Vancouver and Seward via the Inside Passage and Hubbard Glacier, and seven-night round-trip cruises from Seattle with stops in Juneau, Skagway, and Victoria, and a visit to Tracy Arm Fiord. Royal Caribbean’s 2,500-passenger ships have rock-climbing walls, self-leveling pool tables, and mini-golf courses.

Princess Cruises will offer 104 Alaskan sailings aboard ships carrying from 1,970 to 2,670 passengers. Choose from three itineraries: the seven-day Voyage of the Glaciers route between Vancouver and Whittier (near Anchorage) via the Gulf of Alaska; a seven-day journey up the Inside Passage from Seattle; and a 10-day round-trip Inside Passage journey from San Francisco. A new shore excursion offers the opportunity to join a scientific expedition, and a new on-your-own option lets you create a personalized land itinerary at discounted rates.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2,300-passenger ships run seven-day round-trip cruises from Seattle via Glacier Bay or the Inside Passage; five- and seven-day repositioning voyages between Los Angeles and Vancouver via the Inside Passage; and seven-day cruises between Vancouver and Seattle via Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, and Prince Rupert, B.C. The ship’s 6,700-square-foot, three-bedroom villas have private gardens, hot tubs, balconies, and living areas.

Silversea Cruises’ 382-passenger luxury ship, Silver Shadow, offers seven- to 10-day voyages between Vancouver and Seward or Anchorage. All of the ship’s spacious suites come with ocean views, a choice of nine types of pillows, and handmade chocolates and chilled champagne as standard offerings; most suites also have verandas. New land tours include a chance to meet Martin Buser, who holds the record for the fastest time in the 1,049-mile Iditarod dogsled race.

Lindblad Expeditions, known for its small-ship, luxury expeditions, offers 12-day, one-way cruises from Seattle to Sitka, exploring the San Juan Islands, the Inside Passage, and fiords and glaciers along the way. The 62-passenger expedition ships also run eight-day one-way sailings from Juneau to Sitka, cruising Tracy Arm Fiord en route. All voyages in May will have a National Geographic photographer on board, who will offer tips.

InnerSea Discoveries, a new cruise operator, launches its adventure trips in May, offering one- to two-week voyages between Juneau and Ketchikan or Seattle that avoid traditional ports of call in favor of true wilderness exploration. Go spelunking in the largest mapped cave in North America, trek six hours (round trip) to a waterfall and alpine lake, or camp on a wilderness island. Geared to active travelers, these 49-passenger cruises also offer stand-up paddleboarding and other activities as soft or hard-core as you like.

InnerSea Discoveries’ sister company, American Safari Cruises, has 12- to 36-passenger luxury yachts that run eight-day round-trip cruises from Juneau via Glacier Bay National Park, where you’ll be the only cruise-based kayakers paddling these icy waters. It also runs an eight-day one-way journey up the Columbia and Snake rivers, stopping for private wine tours and tastings along the way.

A small operator, Fantasy Cruises takes a maximum of 650 passengers cruising the entire season. It runs nine-day trips between Sitka and Petersburg, a small Norwegian fishing village just north of Ketchikan, from May through August, and eight- or nine-day trips to the San Juan Islands or Columbia River in September and October. The 32-passenger ship has 17 staterooms, including two for single travelers, and stays put at night.

“We carry 8,000 pounds of batteries on board,’’ says Jeff Behrens, owner of Fantasy Cruises and the ship’s captain. “At 9 or 9:30 p.m., we turn off the generators and run on batteries. It’s like dragging a really peaceful B&B out onto the water.’’

By day, you may visit a remote lighthouse just north of Petersburg, or stop at Tenakee Springs, a village with natural mineral springs and a population of 95.

“It’s real Alaska,’’ says Bahrens. “It gets some float planes, but not many people go there. The bakery opens just for us when we visit.’’

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.

If You Go

Per person, based on double occupancy, to Alaska.
American Safari Cruises
888-862-8881
americansafaricruises.com
Rates start at $4,895 for 8-day round-trip Juneau cruises, and $4,295 for the 8-day Columbia and Snake river cruises.
Carnival Cruise Lines
800-227-6482
www.carnival.com
Round-trip cruises from Seattle start at $709.
Crystal Cruises
888-799-4625
www.crystalcruises.com
Promotional two-for-one cruise fares start at $2,695 and include $500 shipboard spending credits. Book by Sept. 30 and get free air fare from Boston.
Disney Cruise Line
888-325-2500
www.disneycruise.com
Rates for the 7-night Alaskan itinerary start at $939.
Fantasy Cruises
800-234-3861
www.smallalaskaship.com
Rates for 9-day Alaskan cruises start at $4,495; 15-day Seattle to Sitka at $5,995; 9-day Columbia River, 8-day San Juan Islands, at $2,995, including taxes, food, drink, excursions.
InnerSea Discoveries
877-901-1009
www.innerseadiscoveries.com
Rates for 8-day/15-day cruises start at $1,795/$2,995.
Lindblad Expeditions
800-397-3348
www.expeditions.com
Rates for 12-day Seattle-Sitka cruise start at $7,690, 8-day Juneau-Sitka at $5,990.
Norwegian Cruise Lines
888-625-2784
www.ncl.com
Rates for 7-day round-trip Seattle cruises start at $639; 7-day Seattle-Vancouver route, $569; and 5- to 7-day LA-Vancouver route, $389 and $409.
Oceania Cruises
800-531-5658
www.oceaniacruises.com
Offers two-for-one fares and free air fare from Boston; rates for 10-day cruises start at $3,499.
Princess
800-774-6237
www.princess.com
Gulf of Alaska and Inside Passage cruises begin at $649; cruise tours start at $948.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
800-285-1835
www.rssc.com
Offers two-for-one fares starting at $4,599, early booking savings of up to $3,000, complimentary excursions, and free round-trip flights from Boston.
Royal Caribbean International
888-307-8401
www.royalcaribbean.com
Rates for 7-night Vancouver-Seward cruise and Seattle round-trip route start at $649.
Silversea Cruises
877-760-9052
www.silversea.com
Rates for 7-day voyages start at $3,558 and include free round-trip economy-class air fare from Boston, based on availability.