Alaska is the biggest state in the union and has more coastline than the rest of the United States combined. It's bordered by the Beaufort Sea to the north, the Bering Sea to the west, the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Ocean to the south, and Canada to the east. Most cruises to Alaska visit Southeast Alaska (just "Southeast" to the locals), the chain of islands that borders British Columbia and makes up the Inside Passage. The main port towns here include Ketchikan, the totem pole center of Alaska; Sitka, once the Russian capital of Alaska; Juneau, the surprisingly cosmopolitan state capital; and Skagway, a gold rush boom town. Other attractions in Southeast include the bear-haunted woods of Admiralty Island; Tongass National Forest; and the whale-populated waters of Icy Strait, at the entrance to the famous Glacier Bay. To the north and west of Southeast, Southcentral Alaska encompasses the Kenai Peninsula's salmon-rich waters, the oil pipeline terminus in Valdez and the kayaking mecca of Prince William Sound, and the biggest metro area in the state, Anchorage, with the wild Chugach Mountains towering beyond. North of Anchorage, past the Mat-Su Valley, begins the Interior. This region includes Denali National Park, where you'll find Mount McKinley; Alaska's second city of Fairbanks, home to the University of Alaska; and tundra with more animals than anywhere outside of Africa. The rest of the state is generally called "the Bush," which basically translates to "everywhere you can only get to by plane or boat." From the long trail of the volcanic Aleutian Islands to Nome, the Iditarod's end point on the Seward Peninsula, the Bush is home to many more moose than people, and doesn't look much different now than it did when people first crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia thousands of years ago.
WHEN TO GO
Memorial Day to Labor Day is the peak season in Alaska. The summer months are impossibly sunny, with 20 or more hours of daylight, and mostly warm. Fairbanks can hit 100 degrees every now and then, although daytime highs throughout the state are usually in the upper 60s. Summer is when the big animals—such as moose, bear, and whales—are easiest to spot and when the state is at its liveliest. The Sitka Summer Music Festival kicks off the high season in June; the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics takes place in July in Fairbanks; and the Alaska State Fair is held near Anchorage in late August and early September (don't miss the 60-pound cabbages from the Matanuska Valley).
Summer, however, is not the only time to go to. Alaska is gorgeous in the spring and fall, when there are fewer crowds, and the weather is usually no worse than autumn in the Midwest. If you ask most Alaskans, they'll tell you winter is the best time of year. Yes, it can get cold—inland temperatures drop way below freezing for weeks—but along the coast, it doesn't snow that much and daytime temperatures hover at or above freezing. Even though not much is open in the smaller towns in wintertime (except businesses serving locals), there's nothing like stepping outside in the middle of the afternoon under a colorful show of northern lights. The Fur Rendezvous, Anchorage's biggest party of the year, is held in late February and early March; the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sets off on the first Saturday in March.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ted Stevens International Anchorage Airport (ANC) is the state's main hub. Alaska Airlines serves Anchorage with direct flights from Seattle, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. You can also fly direct from Seattle and Houston on Continental; Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco on American Airlines; Salt Lake City on Delta; Minneapolis and Detroit on Northwest; and Phoenix on US Airways. Juneau International Airport (JNU), which has connections to Seattle on Alaska Airlines, is the best option in Southeast. Both airports are about a ten-minute taxi ride to the respective downtowns. It takes about seven days to drive from Seattle to Anchorage or Fairbanks via the Alaska Highway. The most scenic option, however, is to ride the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, which links more than 30 Alaskan ports with Bellingham, Washington. Think of it as a no-frills cruise: comfortable cabins and incredible scenery, just no buffets or nightclubs.
Alaska is huge—bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined—but it has about as many miles of road as Delaware. Even so, the easiest way to see the state's interior is by car: Flying into Anchorage and renting a car puts you within a day's drive of everything from Fairbanks to Homer. Another option for the interior is to take the Alaska Railroad, which serves points between Seward and Fairbanks, including Denali National Park. In Southeast, boats or planes are the only way to get around. Locals hop on the Alaska Marine Highway as readily as New Yorkers get on the subway. The ships stop everywhere the cruise ships go, including Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway in Southeast; Valdez and Kodiak in Southcentral; and clear out to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians, which puts you on roughly the same longitude as Samoa.
For more information, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association.