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Cruising in Alaska

Alaska, United States, North America: Arm's glacier tends to calve more frequently than those in nearby Glacier Bay, and the

Cruise West

Tel: 888 851 8133

Gold Belt Tours

Tel: 800 820 2628

Kenai Fjords Tours

Seward , Alaska
Tel: 877 777 4051

Alaska Marine Highway

Tel: 800 642 0066's insider take:

Alaska's most popular cruise destination is in Southeast, between the countless islands strung out along Canada's western coast. Stretching from Ketchikan to Glacier Bay, the Inside Passage is a landscape of still water and tree-covered mountains that slope to the water's edge, forming deep, narrow channels. Bays and inlets are so quiet that frequently the loudest sound is the exhale of a passing humpback whale. All the big-name cruise lines take this run. (For help choosing your cruise, see Cruises 101, our primer on the strengths, weaknesses, and audiences of 15 major cruise lines, most of which have Alaska sailings.) The standard one-week route is round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver with stops in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway; longer cruises include Sitka. Most operators also have ten-day or two-week itineraries that continue across the Gulf of Alaska into Prince William Sound, usually stopping at Valdez and Seward. A few operators run trips into the far reaches of Alaska; Cruise West, for example, has trips into the Bering Sea.

When relatives visit Southeast, locals book them on a day cruise to Tracy Arm (we recommend Gold Belt Tours). It's not as famous as Glacier Bay, but Tracy Arm's glacier tends to calve more frequently than those in the Bay, and the landscape is more intimate. (Look for mountain goats and bears at the water's edge, and seals basking on ice floes near the glacier's face.) A couple of times a year, Gold Belt goes to Ford's Terror, a channel off Tracy Arm. Mostly inaccessible because of shallow water and fierce tides, the Terror looks like the set for the ultimate dinosaur movie. Steep mountains drop waterfalls the height of a 50-story building, and the ship winds through channels so narrow it feels like you can reach out and touch the trees where ravens gather to argue.

Southcentral Alaska's pride for cruisers is an excursion combining Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords. It's a short course on the best of Alaska: a place where you can pass 20 or 30 glaciers in a day, where orcas surface alongside rocks occupied by 1,000-pound sea lions, and puffins and bald eagles dot the sky. Native-owned Kenai Fjords Tours runs full- and half-day cruises from the town of Seward, about a two-hour drive south of Anchorage. Cruises can also be booked through the Alaska Railroad, along with your train from Anchorage.

And don't overlook the Alaska Marine Highway as a cruise alternative. For locals, this is the bus system; to the rest of the world, it's the longest ferry system anywhere. The AMH ships have two- and four-berth cabins, or you can sleep for free in the solarium (on a couple of the ships, you can even pitch a tent on deck). Fares are a fraction of what you'd pay on cruise ships, and you get the chance to mingle with locals headed home, instead of other tourists.—Edward Readicker-Henderson

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.