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Cruising Alaska bears very little similarity to the other most popular cruise destinations. The Inside Passage is hardly sun drenched, and the 49th State will never be confused with one of the great capitals of culture as is most of Europe.

Still, a cruise to Alaska can provide a lifetime of magnificent memories. The glaciers, mountains and wildlife represent an awe-inspiring departure from everyday life in the Lower 48, and a cruise exposes you to more of Alaska than any form of transportation short of your own private bush plane.

To make the most of this special trip, we strongly recommend that you study the shore excursions available on your cruise and select the side trip that best suits your interests and abilities. In fact, if your time and budget allow it, we suggest you tack on a couple of days for a trip to the interior.

Your cruise ship will expose you to some travelogue-quality vistas, but if you want to get up close and personal with Alaska, get busy with a shore adventure. Your choices range from easy hikes and kayaking nature tours to floatplane or helicopter sightseeing. Your ship will call at a number of interesting towns and cities, and some, like the gold-rush town of Skagway, have colorful histories. But the sourdoughs 100 years ago knew that the riches of Alaska are most abundant outside of town.

Experiencing The Heart of Alaska

Holland America Line does not just skirt the coast of Alaska. Through the extensive menu of cruise-tour packages from Holland America Westours along with on-board cultural programs and lectures, travelers not only see Alaska–they get to know it, too.

This year, Holland America is enhancing visits to Alaska with two new on-board programs providing insights into native culture. All seven-day cruises to Alaska this year will feature the Artists in Residence Program with a native artist, representing one of 11 tribal cultures, demonstrating traditional art forms, such as ivory or soapstone carving, basket weaving or mask making from wood and other materials.

The Artists in Residence Program was arranged through the new Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is visited on all optional cruise-tour packages to Anchorage. The center features educational exhibits on the five main groups of Alaska natives, which encompass the 11 native cultures. Selected tours of the center will include live demonstrations and performances in native village settings.

The second on-board programming addition will allow cruisers to understand Southeast Alaska's spectacular Glacier Bay from the perspective of the Huna Totem that has called this area home for centuries. A Huna member will talk about the tribe's culture and history and will describe how the tribe coped and prospered amid such a daunting climate and geography.

This presentation, which will be given on the day of all Holland America cruises into Glacier Bay, will take place in conjunction with the National Park Service's interpretive program describing the geologic wonders of Glacier Bay.

"We want Alaska native culture to come alive for our cruise guests," says David Giersdorf, senior vice president for marketing and sales. "These two cultural programs are designed to provide guests with a rare glimpse of traditional native ways of life. In Glacier Bay, especially, guests will learn fascinating cultural and historical aspects of the Huna people's bond with this area."

This year, Holland America will offer 118 Alaska cruises with departures from May 4 through Sept. 24 aboard six ships, including the newest member of the fleet, the 1,440-passenger Volendam. All of the cruises will feature the Artists in Residence Program, and 97 will visit Glacier Bay and will include the Huna Interpretive Program.

Holland America Westours offers numerous escorted tours into Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory. Depending on the tour, travelers immerse themselves in the history of the Gold Rush, the natural beauty and wildlife of Alaska or native history and art.

Alaska On The Off Days

The Carnival Fun Ships are not known for escaping the madding crowds, but in Alaska from May to September, that's just what the Jubilee does. As Carnival's sole entry in the Alaska cruise market, the Jubilee is relatively modest in size, with a passenger capacity of 1,486, and her unusual Wednesday-to-Wednesday itineraries have her calling at the most popular Alaskan ports on off days.

As a result, Jubilee passengers have Skagway, for instance, virtually to themselves, because most other major ships have stopped there on Tuesday or Thursday. In a town with a year-round population of less than 600, this can make a difference in the quality of your visit.

Alaska cruising is a departure from the Carnival trademark of sun-drenched pool decks and a rock-around-the-clock atmosphere, but the Jubilee does a good job of hitting the must-see highlights of an Alaska cruise. On her northbound glacier route, she plies the Inside Passage from Vancouver to Juneau and traverses the north shore of the Gulf of Alaska to Seward. Then she reverses course and follows much the same route back to Vancouver.

Either way, the cruise includes a transit of the Lynn Canal, a 67-mile stretch surrounded by forests, wildlife and snow-capped mountains. And in Prince William Sound, a pass by the Columbia Glacier, awesome at 260 feet high, four miles wide and 40 miles long, is always special.

The northbound and southbound cruises do have some distinctions worth noting, though, and you'll want to consider these when planning your cruise. Going north, the Jubilee visits the Russian-styled village of Sitka and cruises through the fjords, Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm, which provides dazzling views of sparkling glaciers. Southbound, she spends an afternoon in Valdez, a beautiful port city surrounded by mountains, and then she cruises Yakutat Bay to see the "galloping glacier."

In Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Valdez, Carnival offers a full menu of shore excursions. These programs range from relaxing but informative tours of cities, tribal communities or fish canneries to more physically demanding activities such as canoeing or kayaking, hiking and sport fishing. Many of the programs are appropriate for children.

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