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"Oh, the weather outside is frightful But the fire is so delightful, And since we've no place to go, Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Ahhh, reveling in winter, are you?

Wha? What do you mean you hate ice and snow? And you can't wait for the holidays to be over? Geesh. Bah humbug, indeed.

Well, the Caribbean certainly has it appeal about now, especially for those of us residing in the colder, northern half of the country. But you can't take a picture of a bear in St. Thomas or trek across a glacier in Jamaica, that's for sure.

Now is the time to be thinking about a summertime vacation in Alaska. Summer will be here before you know it and soon enough you'll be dying to get out of the sweltering heat and head north.

"Alaska is very popular for 2006," reports Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus in Nashville (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com), "especially cruise-tour sailings."

He says bargain hunters looking for a genuine deal will find discounts on inside cabins, but you won't be so lucky if you want a balcony cabin or suite.

"On lots of ships and sailing dates, there is nothing available with a balcony at any price," Funk says, citing a popular 11-night Princess cruise tour (# 1S) that is already sold out all summer long in all categories.

"There just isn't a lot of price elasticity in balcony cabins this summer," Funk says.

So, in the spirit of getting on with it before it's too late, here are some things to consider before you book your dream cruise to Alaska.

Going When the Going's Good

You can cruise Alaska between as early as late April and as late as October, though weather conditions can vary quite a bit in southeast Alaska. June, July and August are the warmest months, ranging anywhere from 50 to 80 degree Fahrenheit during the day, and considered the high season. Ships are full these months, so there will be more people to share the Inside Passage with. June tends to be drier than July and August, and August the warmest, though none of course, Mother Nature is never entirely predictable. If you crave the lower cruise rates of the shoulder season, statistically May is the driest month of the season and a very pleasant time to visit the state. Keep in mind, many shops don't open before Memorial Day and many close for the season on Labor Day.

Size Really Does Matter

Believe me, I've done Alaska on big ships and small ones, and the experiences are world's apart. For an really intimate and upclose encounter with Alaska that doesn't have anything to do with elaborate meals, cabaret acts and clanging casinos, definitely do Alaska by small ship. Carrying fewer than 150 passengers each, the expedition vessels of lines like Cruise West, Glacier Bay Cruiseline, Clipper Cruise Line, and Alaska Safari Cruise, can edge into remote places the big ships could only dream about. Seals napping on icebergs drift pass the ship within arm's length and whales can be spotted without squinting. On the other hand, definitely go big if you're want to see Alaska and have amenities like spas, kids' playrooms and lots of restaurants at your fingertips while you're doing it. Mega ships offer it all, a taste of Alaska and a mouthful of big-resort-style vacation.

Don't Poopoo a Balcony

Though you can generally save money by booking a cabin without a balcony, or windows for that matter, in Alaska, you may regret it. Big ships are built with hundreds of balcony cabins (the smallest ships won't have any) that afford you anytime access to a whale sighting or sudden calving glacier. Plus, you'll appreciate being able to have a little privacy at times, considering the open decks will be jammed with passengers and crew craning to check out the great scenery. Also, remember, the sunsets really late during summertime in Alaska, so you can soak up a beautiful lingering scene from your balcony way past 9 and 10 at night.

If you can find an agent that has a block of group space reserved (which Just Cruisin' Plus does, for example), then you may have a chance of scoring a balcony or suite cabin, but large discounts are few and far between, Funk says. Balcony cabin availability is relatively better early in the season, he adds, with limited-to-no-availability in high season in many cases.

Choosing Sides Wisely

If you're doing a one-way trip, the side of the ship your cabin is on could affect the view in certain areas. If you're cruising northbound from Vancouver to Seward, book a starboard side cabin or you'll miss views of lush British Columbia and have west-facing sea views. If you're doing a round-trip cruise or are sailing on a small ship, sides won't really matter, as the ship will be moving in all directions.

Don't Forget to do Your Homework

As the author of travel guidebooks and articles, I'm a bit biased. But I personally think you'll get a lot more out of your Alaska cruise if you do a little reading before you go. For a taste of classic Alaska from someone who was there before the cruise ships and tour buses were, check out explorer and writer John Muir's beloved Travels in Alaska. Published in 1915, you'll get lost in the author's beautiful accounts of the Inside Passage's landscape and wildlife. John McPhee's Coming into the Country is a well written book about modern frontier life in Alaska, delving into the state's many environmental issues as well as the colorful characters that live there. If you're more of a guidebook person, well they're certainly not all created equal, believe me. Among the best is Frommer's Alaska, written by Charles P. Wohlforth, an excellent story teller who has lived in the state all his life.

Big Ships: (around 2,000 passengers, give or take a few hundred)

Princesss Cruises (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princess.com)

  • Coral Princess: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier
  • Dawn Princess: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Diamond Princess: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier
  • Island Princess: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier
  • Regal Princess: 10 nights round-trip San Francisco
  • Sapphire Princess: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier
  • Sun Princess: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle

Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com)

  • Oosterdam: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Ryndam: Seven nights between Vancouver and Seward
  • Statendam: Seven nights between Vancouver and Seward
  • Veendam: Seven nights between Vancouver and Seward
  • Volendam: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver
  • Volendam: Three and four nights between Vancouver and Skagway
  • Westerdam: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Zaandam: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Zuiderdam: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver
  • Zuiderdam: Three and four nights between Vancouver and Skagway

Royal Caribbean (tel. 800/327-6700; www.royalcaribbean.com)

  • Vision of the Seas: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Radiance of the Seas: Seven nights between Seward and Vancouver
  • Serenade of the Seas: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver

Celebrity Cruises (tel. 800/437-3111; www.celebrity.com)

  • Infinity: 10 and 12 nights round-trip from San Francisco
  • Infinity: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver
  • Mercury: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Summit: Seven nights between Vancouver and Seward

Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com)

  • Norwegian Star: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Norwegian Sun: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Norwegian Wind: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver

Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/227-6482; www.carnival.com)

  • Carnival Spirit: Seven nights round-trip from Vancouver
  • Carnival Spirit: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier

Mid-sized Ships (between about 400 and 700 passengers)

Radisson Seven Seas (tel. 800/285-1835; www.rssc.com)

  • Seven Seas Mariner: Seven nights between Vancouver and Whittier

Silversea Cruises (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com)

  • Silver Shadow: Nine nights round-trip from Vancouver

Small Ships: (between 12 to 150 passengers)

Cruise West (tel. 800/426-7702; www.cruisewest.com)

  • Sheltered Seas: Four- and five-night daylight cruises between Ketchikan and Juneau
  • Spirit of '98: Eight nights between Ketchikan and Juneau
  • Spirit of Alaska: Four, five and eight nights round-trip from Juneau
  • Spirit of Columbia: Three and four nights round-trip from Anchorage
  • Spirit of Columbia: Seven nights round-trip from Seattle
  • Spirit of Discovery: Eight nights round-trip from Juneau
  • Spirit of Endeavor: Eight nights between Ketchikan and Juneau
  • Spirit of Glacier Bay: Three and four nights round-trip from Juneau
  • Spirit of Oceanus: 11 nights between Vancouver and Anchorage

Glacier Bay Cruiseline (tel. 800/451-5952; www.glacierbaycruiseline.com)

  • Executive Explorer: Seven nights between Juneau and Ketchikan
  • Wilderness Adventurer: Seven nights round-trip from Juneau
  • Wilderness Adventurer: Eight nights round-trip from Anchorage
  • Wilderness Discoverer: Seven nights between Juneau and Sitka
  • Wilderness Explorer: Six nights round-trip from Juneau

Clipper Cruise Line (tel. 800/325-0010; www.clippercruise.com)

  • Yorktown Clipper: Seven nights round-trip from Juneau

Alaska Safari Cruises (tel. 888/862-8881; www.amsafari.com)

  • Safari Escape: Eight nights between Juneau and Prince Rupert
  • Safari Quest: Seven nights between Juneau and Sitka
  • Safari Spirit: Seven nights round-trip from Juneau

Lindbland Expeditions (tel. 800/397-3348; www.expeditions.com)

  • Sea Lion/Sea Bird: Seven nights between Juneau and Sitka

So, What Will it Cost Me?

Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com) has provided some sample rates, below. Fares include all taxes and fees.

  • Holland America Zaandam: Seven-night Alaska cruise, round-trip from Seattle. From $1,012 (inside) and $1,684 (balcony), May 12 sailing.
  • NCL Norwegian Sun: Seven-night Alaska cruise, round-trip from Seattle. From $913 (inside) and $1,423 (balcony), May 13 sailing.
  • Princess Diamond Princess: Seven-night Alaska cruise, Whittier to Vancouver. From $733 (inside) and $1,432 (balcony), May 20 sailing.
  • Princess Diamond Princess. 11-night Alaska cruise tour package, Whittier to Vancouver. From $1,708 (inside) and $2,308 (balcony), May 16 sailing.
  • Carnival Spirit. Seven-night Alaska cruise, Vancouver to Anchorage. From $845 (inside) and $1,195 (outside), May 17 sailing.
  • Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas.7-night Alaska cruise, round-trip from Seattle. From $848 (inside) and $1,708 (balcony), May 19 sailing.
  • Celebrity Mercury. Seven-night Alaska cruise, round-trip from Seattle. From $840 (inside) and $1,990 (balcony), May 19 sailing.

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