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The Inside Passage

Call it the Gold Rush of the 21st century. The most popular choice for domestic summer vacations in 2003 was, according to a travel industry survey, a cruise in "the last frontier" state. No doubt, an under the water economy and world unrest kept many travelers in our own country. But the appeal of boarding a big ship to troll the glacier-filled inlets, fjords and craggy coastline of the Inside Passage has grown for other reasons.

Cruise ship leaving Vancouver

Ten years ago Alaskan voyages attracted mainly gray-haired passengers. In the ensuing decade the age demographics plunged. Trips to the 49th state evolved from "sit on deck and stare at the scenery" to "cram sports and outdoor adventures into a seven- to 10-day time frame."

Radisson Seven Seas, Crystal, and Silversea are the premier lines plying the Alaskan waters. Standard Inside Passage cruises begin or end at Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco stopping at the ports of Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Skagway and Seward (Anchorage) and sailing into Glacier and Hubbard Bays. Some itineraries deviate to include Valdez or Victoria and Tracy Arm, College Fjords and Sawyer Glacier. The season runs from early May to late September, months when the "midnight sun" stretches the daylight hours well into the evening.

Visitors Center, Anchorage

The shore excursions as listed in our ship’s activities handbook numbered about 90. Most of them took place in the open. For a relatively short trip that amount was staggering. I had never before cruised in a location where there was so much to do. Whatever your pleasure—kayaking, salmon and crab fishing, canoeing, flightseeing, exploring the glaciers, dog sledding, whale watching, gold panning and taking a helicopter or jeep wilderness safari or a nature walk—it can be pre-booked or arranged after embarkation.

Our ship left from Vancouver and dropped us off in Seward. The first full day was spent at sea and on the second one we docked in Ketchikan, the "Salmon Capital of the World" as well as the "First City" so coined because it is the first stop on the Inside Passage. The city is one of rich Indian culture and holds the largest collection in the world of authentic Indian totem poles at Totem Bight, a nearby state park. www.visit-Ketchikan.com

Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure

We are so wild about wild salmon and were so gung ho to learn to fish that at 7 a.m. we bounded down the gangplank to meet the Ketchikan Charter Boats, Inc. representative who escorted us to the F/V Flying High and introduced Captain Danny Hoggard and Deckhand Kevin Mackey. It was a gratifying and productive four-hour jaunt. At that time of year, early August, the fish in the waters are so plentiful that with two lines hanging off the boat, it was practically like catching them in a barrel. By law Danny was not allowed to help us reel in the fish and he didn’t. Some of the salmon were slippery enough to get away, but we were more than satisfied with our haul of six 6-pound pink salmon and two 10-pound silver ones. We had to throw back the king of the catch, two king salmon because they measured slightly under the requisite 22 inches. Carla, who runs the company, said that you can walk into the office, which is not far from town where the ships dock, to arrange a charter. Or you can reach her at 800-272-7291 or www.ketchikancharterboats.com.

Totems and tribal house stand guard at Totem Bight, a state park near Ketchikan

We brought our fish to the Cedars Lodge and arranged to have them frozen and shipped to our home. Their smoked product is tasty, but we preferred to do our own smoking and poaching. Many of our 50 friends and relatives who ate the salmon at a party said it was the best they had ever tasted. www.cedarslodge.com

Our next four excursions were arranged by Alaska Travel Adventures. The company handles cruise ship tours, but you can also book on your own. Our afternoon in Ketchikan was spent on the company’s Backcountry Jeep & Canoe Safari. The guide in the first Jeep Wrangler stayed in touch with the other drivers by radio and led the caravan on a bumpy old logging road into the berry- and wild flower-covered Tongass National Forest. At Lake Harriet Hunt the group paddled 20-person native-style canoes to a remote campsite. Following a clam chowder and hot smoked salmon lunch the guide escorted us on a short nature walk through the rain forest.

Backcountry Jeep & Canoe Safari, Ketchikan

Among the several ways to experience the Mendenhall Glacier, a 12-mile river of ice and a Juneau highlight, is by a float or raft, which accommodates eight to 12 people. For this 3-1/2 hour trip a motor coach took us to the shoreline to put on rain gear, a life vest and boots. Compared with rafting in level four waters, the trip was like gliding on a pond. It was a very gentle form of white water rafting. In some cases the guide did all the work. Or passengers could choose a raft that was fashioned to let some of them paddle.

After crossing Mendenhall Lake, which afforded a front-seat view of the one- and one-half mile wide and 150-foot high glacier, we turned into the river. Calm mostly prevailed, with the rapids reaching level two in just four places. The rock-studded river ran past snow-topped mountains and Alaska-style mansions. During the trip the guide talked about the natural phenomena of the scenic valley. The ride ended where the river met the tidewater.

Alaska’s "original" outdoor salmon bake takes place in Juneau beside the Salmon Creek. While the chef grilled the fish over alder wood we asked what kind of salmon it was. He said that he only cooks the best--king. Ribs, salads, rice, baked beans, corn bread and cookies were on the buffet table. A teacher moonlighting as an entertainer sang lovely ballads and accompanied herself on the piano. The scenery in the surrounding rainforest, particularly the waterfall near the remains of the old Wagner Mine where you can pan for gold, was lovely. And if you want to prolong the evening and take the last shuttle to the ship you can linger to toast marshmallows over a campfire. 800-791-2673, www.alaskaadventures.com.

Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip, Juneau

On the following morning our ship arrived in Sitka, Russia’s capital in the New World, which was established in the late 18th century and was referred to as the Paris of the North. In its heyday it knew great prosperity as a fur trading center. Overhunting depleted the sea otters. I could not a find a single otter coat in any of the many fur stores in Alaska. www.sitka.org

The town combines a trove of Russian architecture and artifacts, native (Tlingit) culture and stretches of wilderness. Indeed, the activity we chose in Sitka was the Wilderness Sea Kayaking Adventure. A guide met us at the dock and steered us in a motorized inflatable to a floating camp. He taught us how to paddle the two-person kayaks. We were assigned a different escort who led a small group out into the water to explore the bay and the inlets, admire the lush forest and perhaps sight wildlife.

Skagway, the next stop, gave Alaska a new face. Popularly referred to as the "Gateway to the Klondike," the town owes its existence to the Gold Rush of 1897-98 when stampeders gripped with gold fever set out from here to journey to the Yukon. Stroll along boardwalk-lined Broadway and the roaring past of this wild frontier town, formerly populated by gangs, gamblers and ladies of the night and crowded with 80 saloons, comes alive. www.skagway.org

Gold Creek Salmon Bake, Juneau

During the Klondike Gold Rush a narrow gauge railroad, the White Pass & Yukon Route, later designated an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, was built from Skagway to the summit of White Pass, a 2,865 elevation. At the Skagway terminal we boarded a restored old-fashioned parlor car pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive and retraced the original 20-mile route over the Coastal Mountains. As the WP & YR climbed to the U.S./Canadian border, we learned about the railroad’s often harrowing and frenzied history from a narrator. He pointed out the steel cantilever bridge, which was the tallest of its kind when it was constructed 1901, and important historic sites, such as the original "Trail of ‘98", Dead Horse Gulch and Brackett Road, which was used by wagoners. The train traveled through two tunnels, over bridges and trestles and executed steep turns as it passed waterfalls, glaciers and gorges. www.whitepassrailroad.com

The town of Haines sometimes alternates with Sitka as a port stop. Both are located on the fjord-like Lynn Canal. The fast ferry takes 35 minutes from one pier to the other. The narrated crossing is a safari on water with frequent sightings of humpback whales and bald eagles. www.haines.ak.us.

White Pass & Yukon Route

Our guide Lisa Herzlinger, a representative of the Haines Tourist Bureau, said of her adopted home, "There is no other place in the world to be."

Who would have believed that a couple of young and ambitious sophisticates, she from Seattle and he from Ontario, would have found happiness in the Alaskan hinterlands in a community with a population of 2,500? But with many recreational opportunities, four museums, a sizable group of artists and hotels, restaurants and galleries located in town’s center where Fort Seward once stood, the Herzlingers are living their ideal lifestyle.

Northbound Inside Passage sailings end in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. People reach Anchorage, 125 miles away, by motor coach or train. Many cruisers continued on to Denali State Park, a side trip, we, too, had planned before leaving home www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/denali1.htm).

A fellow cruise passenger who had been to Alaska many times, but never to the park told us that both tours and independent travel to Denali were "rip-offs." Sadly, he turned out to be right. I can count on one hand with a few fingers missing, destinations that I’ve disliked. Denali State Park was one of them. The eight hours spent on the McKinley Explorer train (800-717-0108) was the only enjoyable aspect of the trip. As the domed cars traveled the several hundred miles northward from point to point, the resplendent landscape unfolded outside the windows.

Mt. McKinley, Denali Park

Accommodations in the park, including those at the three most expensive lodges, were adequate, but not as attractive as they appeared in publicity photographs. The crowds made DisneyWorld look like a ghost town. Multiple groups, often numbering more than 100 each, waited to board tour buses that did not take them very far into the wilderness. Wild life was sparse and the only animal we sighted, a moose, was more accessible in downtown Anchorage. On a clear day, about one in three, you might glimpse Mount McKinley.

Our Inside Passage cruise, sandwiched between the ports of Vancouver and Seward (Anchorage) did not afford us enough time in the city of embarkation due to a delayed flight. Luckily, we were able to squeeze in a two-hour trolley tour that stopped at 23 landmarks and gave us an overview of the town’s European sensibility in a modern architectural setting. Time did not permit us to get off the trolley, but we did see parts of Chinatown, Gastown and Stanley Park. Despite our brief sojourn we immediately understood Vancouver’s draw.www.canada.com/vancouver.

The Westin Grand Hotel, Vancouver

The hotel in which we overnighted would satisfy even the mostly finicky traveler. The Westin Grand, designed to accommodate both the leisure and business traveler, has every amenity and more. Located in the downtown area, its sleek silhouette curves against the Vancouver skyline in the shape of a grand (Grand as in Westin Grand?) piano and forms quirky layouts in some of the 207 suites. Every accommodation features a well-equipped kitchenette, spacious bath with double-headed shower, living room and bedroom. More than half the suites have Heavenly Beds, a Westin special, offering 10 layers of comfort to the weary guest.

Native Heritage Center, Anchorage

Before leaving Alaska, we spent several days in Anchorage and found enough activities to fill our time including a walk along the coastal trail, visits to the Native Heritage Center, the Museum of History and Art and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, a narrated trolley tour and dinner-theater at the 4th Avenue Theater. www.anchorage.net

Most of Anchorage’s better hotels are tall, modern, and belong to colorless chains. We were delighted to have stayed in what we perceived to be the city’s best one, the Historic Hotel Anchorage. The city's only hotel property listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it dates from 1916. Newly refurnished with just 26 rooms and junior suites, our quarters were comfortable and homey.

It was hard to say goodbye to Alaska, a state where the vibrancy of the present blends effortlessly with mood of the past. Although it was only my second visit to the state, I now understand why my husband, Ed, chose to spend his freshman year at University of Alaska and why the experience was so indelible.

The Westin Grand, 433 Robson Street, Vancouver BC Canada V6B 6L9. Tel. (604) 602-1999. www.westingrandvancouver.com

The Historic Hotel Anchorage, 330 E Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501. Tel. 1-(800) 544-0988, 1-(907) 272-4553. www.historicanchoragehotel.com

Winter 2003-04