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With the 2008 Alaska cruise season now past, Princess Cruises (www.princess.com) has announced the winners of its ninth annual C.R.U.I.S.E. service awards, which recognize Alaska's best shore excursions. Winners are determined by Princess's passengers themselves, through responses they gave in surveys throughout the season.

"It's always gratifying to receive so many positive comments about the experiences passengers have on their Alaska shore adventures," said Charlie Ball, president of Princess Tours. "These awards are to recognize and thank those who make the shore experience special for our visitors."

To add a little perspective, I went through and added some commentary to Princess's list -- sometimes agreeing, sometimes dissenting, and sometimes taking off in a different direction altogether.

Juneau

For 2008, Princess's top-rated Juneau excursions (along with their operating companies) were:

  • Alaska's Whales & Rainforest Trails (Gastineau Guiding Company): A small-group eco-tour that combines whale-watching with an easy hike on a rainforest trail near the Mendenhall Glacier.
  • Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter Tour (TEMSCO Helicopters): Several different options take you up above the massive (and massively receding) Mendenhall Glacier, outside town. Seeing glaciers from above is a completely different experience from seeing them at the waterline, exposing just how big they really are.
  • Rainforest Canopy & Zipline Expedition (Alaska Canopy Adventures): A trip through Juneau's rainforest canopy, along more than 6,000 feet of ziplines and suspension bridges. The trip begins with a high-speed water crossing of Gastineau Channel to the site of the old Treadwell Mine, and a trip up the mountain in a 4x4 vehicle.

Frommer's Commentary: Princess's passengers sure have it right about the Mendenhall Glacier helicopter flightseeing tours, which are among the very best shore excursions I've ever taken, anywhere. I rarely advise spending above your limit, but in this case it's worth taking a hit on your credit card to sign up for the Helicopter Glacier Trek ($399, 4.25 hr.) or Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek ($499, 6.5 hr.), which include 2 or 3 hours respectively of rugged hiking and climbing on the glacier surface, using special boots, helmets, parkas, and ice axes provided by the company. With climate change shrinking the glaciers at an alarming rate, it may be an experience neither you nor your children nor their children will ever get to do again.

I also like the 4.5-hr., 11-mile Bike & Brew Tour, which sets off outside town along Fritz Cove Road. offering views of picturesque Auke Bay and the Mendenhall Glacier. The ride ends at the Alaska Brewing Company (www.alaskanbeer.com) for a tour and sampling of the product. Don't miss tasting the smoked porter, which is produced in limited vintages each year. A tasting goes through several years, showing how the taste changes over the years, like wine. The brewery notes that, "As it ages, the smoke becomes more of a subtle background note. Around the third and fourth years the beer's other flavors such as sherry, currant, raisin, and toffee-like nuances come forward. The fifth year sees the reemergence of the smoky character to the forefront."

Also, don't miss the tours of Alaska's governor's mansion, where you can see Sarah Palin's collections of moose antlers and also polar bear trophies.

Just kidding.

Ketchikan

In rainy Ketchikan, Princess's passengers liked:  

  • Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour (Commercial Fishing Adventures): The Bering Sea may be 1,000 miles from Ketchikan as the raven flies, but that doesn't stop this excursion from pretending. Aboard the F/V Aleutian Ballad -- a vessel featured on the Discovery Channel program Deadliest Catch -- the crew tells fish stories while sailing in calm waters and hauling in cages of crab and other sea creatures for viewing.
  • Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure (Snorkel Alaska): A quarter-inch-thick wetsuit and surprisingly warm water allow you to snorkel an area rich with marine life.
  • Rainforest Canopy & Zipline Expedition (Alaska Canopy Adventures): More zipping, this time over eight ziplines and three aerial bridges suspended above a network of nature trails and boardwalks.

Frommer's Commentary: Princess passengers have the right idea getting out of too-touristy Ketchikan and into the surrounding waters and forest. Another great destination is Misty Fjords National Monument, which lies about 20 miles from Ketchikan and is only accessible by boat (or very small ship) or plane. The 2.3-million-acre, Connecticut-size monument starts at the Canadian border in the south and runs on the eastern side of the Behm Canal, which is bounded on its other side by Revillagigedo Island (where Ketchikan is located). It's topography, not wildlife, that makes a visit here worthwhile, with volcanic cliffs rising up to 3,150 feet and plunging hundreds more feet below the waterline -- a good reminder that this whole area is nothing but long-submerged mountains, and what's below the water was once green, forested valleys. The stock in trade of Misty Fjords is its quiet, unearthly serenity, its namesake mists imparting a storybook, Lord of the Rings kind of atmosphere abetted by dense hemlock and spruce forests, high ridges covered in alpine grass, and the occasional petrified lava flow reaching toward the shoreline.

Several excursions visit the area: a seaplane flightseeing trip that includes a brief water landing within the monument; a different flightseeing trip in which you fly to the monument and transfer to a boat for sea-level sightseeing and the trip back to Ketchikan; and a round-trip boat excursion.

 

Kodiak

A gorgeous island located about 265 miles southwest of Anchorage -- far off the usual Inside Passage and Gulf of Alaska route -- Kodiak is not a frequent stop on Alaska cruises, though it should be. Princess's great little Pacific Princess visits as part of her 14-night "Alaska Connoisseur" cruises, and other ships visit as part of Alaska-Asia sailings. In port, Princess's passengers liked:

  • Near Island Sea Kayak Adventure (Orcas Unlimited Charters of Kodiak): A four-hour paddle trip along Near Island, a part of the city of Kodiak located just south of downtown. Participants paddle through a boat harbor and along the shoreline to watch puffins, cormorants, and sealife, and stop at a quiet beach for lunch. (Note: Tour not available on all cruises.)

Frommer's Commentary: Kodiak is a great town. In 1784, its namesake island became the first permanent European settlement in Alaska when Russian fur traders established a presence here. Today it's Alaska's seventh largest population center with 13,466 residents (some 11,000 of them in and around the city of Kodiak), but the Russian presence is more cultural than ethnic. The oldest Russian building left standing in North America sits on Marine Way, and now houses the Kodiak Baranov Museum and its displays of Russian and Native artifacts. Across the street, the modern Holy Resurrection Cathedral is home to Alaska's oldest Russian Orthodox congregation, established in 1796. Some cruise lines offer a very cozy little excursion that visits the Monk's Rock Coffeehouse & Bookstore ("Music, Coffee, Icons, Books"!), a tiny, funky spot opened years ago by the Brotherhood of St. Herman of Alaska. A group of mostly non-Russian amateur musicians called the Kodiak Russian Balalaika Players put on a performance accompanied by borscht and the shop's own coffee.

Sitka

Of all the towns commonly (or semi-commonly) visited on Alaska cruises, Sitka is my favorite. Partly due to its location (in a sheltered spot on the Pacific coast of Baranof Island, and not on the Inside Passage itself) and partly due to the fact that its location cuts down on big-time cruise traffic, Sitka retains a more residential feel than other large Southeast towns. It's also got a tremendous history (it was the capital of Russian Alaska, and saw huge battles between the Russians and Tlingits) and a lovely physical setting. Among the excursions available there, Princess's passengers liked:

  • 4x4 Wilderness Adventure (Greenling Enterprises): An off-road trip through the temperate rain forest on Sitka's Kruzof Island, using Yamaha Rhino 4x4 vehicles -- which are sort of a cross between an ATV and a golf cart.
  • Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest (Allen Marine Tours): A water-jet-driven tour boat takes you in search of sea otters, whales, sea lions, porpoise, harbor seals, brown bears, blacktail deer, bald eagles, and a variety of marine birds, while a naturalist provides commentary.

Frommer's Commentary: I actually advise cruise passengers against taking shore excursions here. The town is lovely enough by itself, most sights are within easy walking distance of each other (and the docks), and the various attractions all have very good interpretive programs of their own. Highlights include:

  • St. Michael's Cathedral: a Russian Orthodox church sitting right at the center of town, and filled with precious icons, paintings, vestments, and jeweled crowns.
  • The Russian Bishop's House: The home of 19th-century bishop Innocent Veniaminov, with downstairs displays of Sitka history and an upstairs that retains the bishop's living quarters and chapel. National Park Service rangers provide surprisingly enjoyable and informative tours.
  • Sheldon Jackson Museum: A fine collection of artifacts from the Tlingit, Aleut, Athabascan, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, as well as the Native peoples of the Arctic. The core of the collection was assembled by the museum's founder/namesake, a Presbyterian missionary, during his travels around the territory in the 19th century.
  • Sitka National Historical Park: In 1804, the native Tlingit people made their stand here against the Russians, holding off imperial gunboats and Aleut mercenaries for 6 days before finally melting away one night after taking heavy losses. The land was officially protected starting in 1890, and in 1910 the site was designated a National Historic Park, emphasizing the Native perspective. In the visitor center, exhibits explain the history and the art of totem carving, displaying 19th-century poles as well as new ones created in the on-site Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center. Outside, a rainforest trail winds along the coast of the 113-acre park past a collection of towering totems nestled among the spruce and hemlock.
  • Castle Hill: Located in the center of town, this was where the first U.S. flag was raised on Alaskan soil, after the U.S. and Russia held a transfer ceremony here in 1867. You get a great panoramic view of town from the top.

Skagway

Southeast Alaska's tourist central, Skagway in summer comes very close to being an Alaska theme park, but cruise passengers can take excursions out of town once they've gotten their fill of shopping and historic hokum.

  • Dog Sledding & Glacier Flightseeing (TEMSCO Helicopters): A helicopter takes you from Skagway to a dog camp on the Denver Glacier, where guides introduce you to mushing. Participants can either drive the sled or just go along as passengers.
  • Klondike Rock Climbing & Rappelling (Alaska Mountain Guides): A rock-climbing experience on the smooth granite walls of the White Pass, with dfferent climbing routes available for different levels of skill and fitness. At the top, all offer a view of the Skagway River, the White Pass & Yukon Route railway, and the surrounding forest.
  • Takshanuk Mountain Trail by 4x4 (Takshanuk Mountain Trail): A high-speed catamaran takes you to the nearby town of Haines, where you transfer to the Takshanuk trailhead and strap yourselves in to automatic-transmission 4WD Kawasaki Mules -- yet another golf cart cum ATV. The trail drive up to 1,500 feet passes waterfalls, creeks, and forest. Try not to scare the squirrels.

Frommer's Commentary: My usual approach to Skagway involves walking into town from the cruise docks, taking a few minutes to admire the historic 19th-century buildings that have been collected along Broadway, then heading out. (Though I usually set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to pick up a bear-print oven mitt or other tsotchke, then duck in the Red Onion Saloon -- a former brothel turned professional former brothel -- for a beer.) Walking maps describing the town's historic buildings are available at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd. You can also get trail maps that describe the network of 1- to 10-mile trail routes that branch out right from downtown into the thick forest. Most of them involve some fairly strenuous hill-walking.

A great shore excursion option that didn't make Princess's list is the Eagle Preserve Scenic Float & Wildlife Cruise, which, like the Takshanuk Mountain 4x4 excursion, involves a catamaran trip to Haines. From there, you head by bus to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve (www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/units/eagleprv.htm), then suit up in boots and a life vest for a gentle float by rubber raft down the Chilkat River. An expert guide both rows and provides commentary on the area's natural environment, steering the raft close to shore to spot animal tracks and keeping an eye out for moose, bears, eagles, and wolves.

And let's not forget the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway (www.whitepassrailroad.com), Skagway's major claim to fame. Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, it crosses the White Pass Summit, the boundary between Canada and the United States, and continues on to the towns of Fraser (British Columbia), and Carcross and Whitehorse (Yukon Territory). Excursions on the train are a crap-shoot: If you book one and arrive on a very overcast day, you may not see a thing from the windows of your vintage parlor car. If it's nice, though, you'll glimpse waterfalls, mountains, and still-visible parts of the famous "Trail of '98" miners' route.