I have cruised to Alaska more than 50 times and have put together a nice reference guide for what I think are currently some of the best offerings to the great land for 2016 and some new cruises being offered in 2017.
Ships and Cabins
The Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, which set sail from downtown Seattle every Saturday and Sunday from May through September, and the Norwegian Sun, which cruises between Vancouver and Seward (a port for Anchorage) on what’s often called the Route of the Glaciers. Fares on these ships can be up to 25 percent less than on Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity. These ships are especially suited to families with young kids: The onboard atmosphere is casual—there’s no dress code—and the ships have well-managed kids’ clubs and a wide variety of entertainment options.
Best ship for a splurge
Silversea’s all-suite Silver Whisper, which carries just 382 passengers. Even the smallest cabins are nearly 300 square feet and come with butler service. The food is sophisticated, thanks to Silversea’s partnership with Relais & Châteaux. Daily rates average $600 per person and include cocktails, wine, and other drinks, as well as gratuities. The ship caters to a largely international crowd.
Best large ship
The 2,800-passenger Celebrity Solstice. It’s a stylish ship, with wide-open spaces and glass skylights that fill the public areas with light. While the food in the main dining room is average, several of the ship’s smaller specialty restaurants turn out great meals for a modest fee. Starting in 2015, travelers in the top-category suites will get access to their own private restaurant, sundeck, and indoor lounge, and all beverages will be included in the cabin fare.
Best small ship
Two 62-passenger expedition vessels—the National Geographic Sea Bird and the National Geographic Sea Lion—sail between Sitka and Juneau, visiting many more ports than most big ships can manage. First-rate naturalists give lectures onboard between ports, and when the ship is docked, passengers board zodiacs, canoes, and kayaks to explore their natural surroundings up close. Neither vessel is plush, and the food is more home-style than gourmet, but the service is good, and you learn a ton. These Alaska cruises are pricey—nearly $1,000 per person per day—because of the unique itinerary and shipboard expertise, but they sell out quickly nonetheless, so book a year in advance. Ponant and Silversea have added their ultra-luxury ships in the Expedition market changing the game for those wanting to splurge on the BEST of the BEST!!!
Best ship for families
Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America often run promotions where kids under 18 sail free or at a fare of $99 to $199 per person. These sales are limited-time and capacity-controlled, but watch for them, because they can be the best-value sailings in Alaska. Keep in mind that Norwegian’s shipboard atmosphere is much more casual than Holland America’s; the latter is more traditional and has a dress code on some nights.
Best ship for a solo traveler
There are no bargains for solo travelers on an Alaska cruise: Fares for singles are based on double occupancy and thus are typically twice the usual price. Sometimes luxury lines such as Regent and Crystal Cruises and Silversea may charge solo travelers just 30 percent to 40 percent more than the usual per-person price.
Best ship for independent travelers
The small-ship expedition vessels operated by Un-Cruise Adventures and by Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic offer knowledgeable onboard naturalists, zodiac landings, kayaking in Glacier Bay, guided hikes, and more. They cater to adventure seekers who would never be caught dead on a tour bus. Of course, the smaller the ship, the heftier the price tag. Rates start at $6,290 per person for a seven-day Alaska cruise.
Best ship for foodies
On Silversea’s Silver Whisper, chefs from Relais & Chateaux design menus for the main dining room and for Le Champagne, the smaller restaurant that specializes in gourmet food and wine pairings. Crystal Cruises, the #1 Rated Cruise Line in the World by Conde Nast and Travel & Leisure is also a foodies cruise with a Nobu restaurant onboard among many other grand dining choices!
Many people think they want a balconied cabin on an Alaska cruise, but the truth is that with cooler temps and plentiful rain and wind, passengers rarely use those balconies. Among my favorite cabins are Holland America’s large oceanview staterooms. At 200 square feet, with big picture windows, three to four closets, and relatively large bathrooms that come with a tub, these cabins accommodate three to four passengers comfortably and work especially well for families. AquaClass cabins on Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice are about the same size as the ship’s oceanview staterooms (195 square feet) but come with a balcony plus access to the spa’s private steam rooms and lounge, a dedicated concierge, and Blu, an intimate shipboard restaurant. The mini-suites on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl are 285 square feet (compared to 160 for a standard oceanview cabin) and sleep up to four people. They’re priced significantly lower than similar staterooms on competing ships and often cost only an extra $100 per person above the price of a balconied cabin.
Cabin worth the splurge
The 5,750-square-foot Garden Villas on the Norwegian Pearl and the Norwegian Jewel. They each have with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling windows, multi-tiered balconies, and an outdoor hot tub. Oh, and there’s a butler too, on hand to help you unpack, make reservations for restaurants and shore excursions, or plan the party you could easily host on your huge private sundeck. All the Garden Villas are in the VIP Haven section, which has its own pool, gym, and restaurant. While there are more luxurious ships sailing in Alaska, Norwegian has gone all out with its Garden Villas. They’re easily the largest family staterooms at sea—they can comfortably accommodate up to eight—and are outfitted with the same amenities you’d expect to find at a five-star hotel. In fact, these rooms are so private and so luxurious that many Hollywood and music-industry celebrities, and even one royal family, have booked them. Not surprisingly, luxury like this doesn’t come cheap: The suites run about $25,000 per week, but occasionally you can snag them for thousands less.
Best cabins for families
The two-bedroom suites (Category SC Penthouse or Haven S4) on the Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl, both of which sail on seven-day cruises from Seattle. The suites are 540 square feet, which is more than three times the size of a standard oceanview cabin, and have a king-size bed and sea-facing en-suite bathroom in the master bedroom. The second bedroom also has its own private bathroom, and there’s a living area and a dining room too. Both suite types offer concierge, butler, and VIP services. They can sleep up to six passengers (there’s a pullout sofa in the living room). Second best are the standard balcony cabins on the Celebrity Solstice. The ship has 121 connecting cabins in category SD-1A where Mom and Dad can have their own stateroom that connects to another stateroom accommodating up to four kids. Each cabin is at least 195 square feet, not including the balcony space, where the privacy partitions can also be opened.
Where to Cruise
One that encompasses both the Inside Passage (an archipelago of 10,000 islands in the Alaska Panhandle near British Columbia) and the Gulf of Alaska (the coastline farther north that gives you access to Alaska’s interior). Sailings that include the gulf enable you to continue inland to Denali National Park, home of the tallest mountain in North America and the Big Five of Alaskan wildlife, including grizzly bears. These sailings are usually one-way between Vancouver and Anchorage—you fly into one city and back from the other—which makes them more expensive than solely Inside Passage cruises, which tend to be round-trip out of Seattle or Vancouver. Round-trip airline tickets to Seattle are most affordable, and thus many people find round-trip Inside Passage cruises out of Seattle to be the most budget-friendly and convenient; just be warned you’re missing Alaska’s backcountry.
Best short cruise
In May 2015 Princess Cruises will begin four- and five-day sailings round-trip out of Vancouver to Ketchikan (the salmon capital) and Juneau (the state capital and home to Mendenhall Glacier). Prices start at only $449 per person. The route is limited to the Inside Passage, but that’s good if you suffer from motion sickness, since the water there is calmer than in the Gulf of Alaska.
Juneau, the state capital. It’s where you can heli-hike to Mendenhall Glacier; visit a salmon hatchery; take a guided rain-forest walk; or go river rafting, whale watching, or even golfing. Or you can sample an Alaskan-made microbrew and a halibut burger at the Red Dog Saloon, then take an aerial tram ride up Mount Roberts for panoramic views.
Port most worth the trek
Again, Skagway. It’s where the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1898, and the city still retains its historic character. One of the more interesting (and fun!) shore excursions is to take the narrow-gauge train along the jaw-dropping cliffs, while local guides spin yarns about the miners living in the area during the height of the Gold Rush.
Sitka. It’s a historically rich and colorful little fishing town that was once the capital of the Russian fur-trading empire. In fact, it was here that the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. Today the shops, architecture, and even a local dance company hark back to the motherland. Sitka is also a base for water sports such as sea kayaking and diving.
Alaska is more popular than ever and choices abound for those looking for great prices and options…