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An earlier generation of Americans traveled to Alaska seeking gold. They found mostly cold, but they also encountered some astounding scenery and wildlife. The brown bears, fjords, humpback whales, caribou and glaciers of “Seward’s Folly” must have seemed otherworldly to the dreamers and schemers who fought their way north to the Klondike. The shrewdest among them may have foreseen a future when these wilderness qualities would be recognized as the true Alaskan treasure. The natural wonders of coastal Alaska leave few visitors disappointed, and there is no better way to experience the splendor of the 49th state than by boat. From the sea, none of the drama of Alaska’s unfolding landscape is compromised: The precipitous rise of snowcapped mountains that jut thousands of feet from sea level is almost enough to induce vertigo. It’s a small wonder that much of the coastline remains today as it was in the gold rush days, though we can conclude that the prospector’s crafts were considerably lacking in restaurant options, spa facilities and onboard recreation. Fortunately, you need not suffer the same deprivations. The cruise lines that ply the popular Inside Passage — the coastline from Seward (south of Anchorage) down to Vancouver — provide the amenities one might expect from a better hotel. On Princess Cruise Lines‘ (Tel. 800-PRINCESS; princess.com) newest ship, the Island Princess, many berths offer private decks, allowing you to whale-watch in your pajamas. Twenty-first century Alaska cruises are all about choice, so passengers are no longer locked into rigid meal plans in formal dining rooms. The Island Princess offers casual options ranging from Italian to Cajun, as well as more classic fixed-seating meals. Flexible dining and the availability of quality child care make a cruise a viable family vacation. Would-be wayfarers wary of being held prisoner to the buffet or bingo tables need not worry. The cruise lines are well attuned to action-oriented baby boomers, and have developed a plethora of off-the-boat activities. If you want to, try your hand at fly-fishing, hop a floatplane during your stopover in Juneau, fly to an estuary stream in the Tongass National Forest, and catch pink salmon until your arms ache. You can also try your hand at dogsledding on Denver Glacier, touch down by helicopter on Mendenhall Glacier, or view black bears fishing at the Neets Bay Bear Observatory. Off-the-boat activities are available � la carte and are seamlessly orchestrated; guides will spirit you off on your adventure from the docks and return you with time to spare for souvenir shopping, if you’re so inclined. Ratcheting up the adventure quotient level a bit, there’s Cruise West (Tel. 800-580-0072; cruisewest.com). Because their ships are considerably smaller (averaging roughly 100 passengers) and don’t require docks to land ashore, Cruise West can get you into venues that the bigger cruise lines simply can’t navigate. Like Princess, Cruise West plies the Inside Passage, but forgoes the more populous ports to visit off-the-beaten-path places … or simply drop anchor in an isolated fjord. Cruise West’s most ambitious trip is billed “Voyage to the Bering Sea.” Traveling nearly 2,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, the 114-guest Spirit of Oceanus brings passengers to Kenai Fjords National Park, Katmai National Park (a stronghold of the gigantic Kodiak bear), and the remote Pribilof Islands. Here, one is far more likely to encounter walrus or fur seals than other tourists. Zodiacs, those durable rubber rafts favored by Jacques Cousteau and Greenpeace, hang at the ready to be lowered and hustle passengers to shore for a closer inspection of local fauna; such mobility is one of the benefits of small-ship travel. There are cultural attractions too; passengers may disembark in Yanrakynnot, Russia, to meet Chukchi villagers who maintain their traditional lifestyle, hunting walrus and whales from sealskin kayaks. If time permits, you may also visit a whalebone repository near Yanrakynnot, where generations of hunters have butchered their catch of bowhead whales. For many sojourners, a visit to Alaska is not complete without a stop at Denali National Park to gawk at Mt. McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain. The major cruise lines now offer guests the opportunity to tack on a land-based adventure at either end of their oceanic journey. On Holland America‘s Denali Explorer Cruise Tour (Tel. 877-SAILHAL; hollandamerica.com), guests cruise the Inside Passage from Vancouver, then board a train to Denali for a few days of wildlife watching, before continuing on to Fairbanks and home. Modern-day Alaska visitors still have the opportunity to pan for gold in the company of their tour group. The smart tourist, however, will choose to bask in the golden glow of mid-evening sunsets that illuminate western-facing glaciers, savoring a cocktail on deck as their craft slides silently along the shore.
IF YOU GO … AIR Most cruises begin in Anchorage, which is served by most major carriers. Nome and Fairbanks are served by Alaska Airlines ( alaskaairlines.com). Air Canada ( aircanada.ca) serves Vancouver. PRIME TIME Cruises begin as early as May, running through September. PRICES A seven-day/seven-night Princess Cruise begins at $799; Cruise West’s 14 day/13 night “Voyage to the Bering Sea” begins at $7,199; Holland America’s 12-day/11-night Denali Explorer Cruise Tour begins at $2,032. Prices are per person based on double occupancy.

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