advertisement

With the start of the Alaska cruise season about a month away, it's time to check out what the cruise lines are offering by way of cruisetours, which combine an Inside Passage cruise with a tour that takes you to the real inside -- 586,000 square miles of forest, mountains, glaciers, tundra, and taiga that make up the very appropriately named Great Land.

Denali/Anchorage/Fairbanks

Lines That Offer This Tour: Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Line, Cruise West

Length of Tour: 3-6 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 12-night cruisetours from about $2,200

The most popular of all cruisetour routes is the one centered on the six-million-acre Denali National Park, in the Alaskan Interior. Cruisetours on this route operate in both directions (i.e., some with the land portion first and the cruise second, some the other way around), but for the sake of clarity, let's assume you've arranged your cruisetour heading north, with the cruise section first. Let's also assume you're taking this cruisetour with Princess -- which, among all the lines in Alaska, has created the most elaborate infrastructure on this route, operating its own beautiful wilderness lodges in and near the park and offering an exclusive rail link between Whittier and either Denali or Talkeetna, depending on the version of the tour you've chosen.

Arriving at Whittier after your Inside Passage cruise, you board a domed railcar right at the dock and are whisked northward into the Alaskan Interior, a day-long journey that ends at one of two Denali-area wilderness lodges built and operated by Princess. At the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge outside the town of Talkeetna, two-story windows frame views of the lodge's namesake, the 20,320-foot mountain -- the tallest in North America -- that the native Athabascans have simply called Denali, or "The Great One." To the north, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge offers premium lodging within the park itself, surrounded by a network of landscaped trails. Depending on the tour you've chosen, you'll spend your nights at either one or both of the Denali lodges, while your days are spent touring the park and trying to spot its resident bear, moose, and other wildlife. Tours also visit Anchorage and Fairbanks, the latter a hub for optional excursions like paddle-wheel day cruises on the Chena and Tanana rivers, jet-boat rides, and excursions to decommissioned gold mines and dredges.

This year, Princess is offering a version of this tour tailored especially to families with kids. A sort of traveling theme park of the 49th state, the tour ramps up the novelty and adrenaline to keep Junior from popping with boredom, and includes highlights like a jet-boat ride between Talkeetna and the lodge; a stern-wheel boat ride along the Chena River; gold panning at the Fairbanks-area El Dorado Gold Mine; a family-style dinner-theater with smokehouse ribs, Alaska salmon, and a comedy about the first expedition up Denali; and a visit to a "winter Alaska" simulator -- basically a deep-freeze that answers questions like, "Does hot water freeze when you throw it in the air?"

Another specialty version of this tour is designed for those on a budget and/or those who like a little more freedom than the usual tour affords. These à la carte cruisetours include transportation to some of Interior Alaska's major sites, and accommodations while you're there, but then leave you free to explore on your own. Four à la carte tours are available, each including a seven-night northbound "Voyage of the Glaciers" cruise from Vancouver and three, four, or five nights in the Interior. Three-nighters and most four-nighters concentrate on Denali, with stays at Princess's Denali Lodge and Mt. McKinley Lodge. Five-night tours and the "Tour 102" version of the four-night tour also tack on a stay in Fairbanks.

Denali cruisetours operated by Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, NCL, and Cruise West follow similar routes, with stays at various lodges and hotels. Many of those offered by Celebrity and Royal Caribbean include overnights at the lovely Hotel Alyeska, about 37 miles south of Anchorage in the funky little town of Girdwood. Among the resort's attractions is a tramway that takes you 2,300 feet up the mountain, lending views of seven glaciers.

Alaska & the Klondike

Lines That Offer This Tour: Holland America

Length of Tour: 7-10 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 13-night cruisetours from about $2,200

HAL's niche in the Alaska cruisetour market is its seven- to 10-night tours of Canada's Yukon Territory, which are typically paired with a short three-night Inside Passage cruise. Presuming a northbound itinerary, with the cruise first, travelers embark in Vancouver and sail up the Inside Passage, spending a full day in Tracy Arm Fjord to see the North and South Sawyer Glaciers. The next day, they debark in Skagway and board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, heading up into the mountains and eventually transferring to a bus that takes them the rest of the way to Whitehorse, the territorial capital. Two nights follow in Dawson City, a picture-perfect gold rush town, followed by a 102-mile catamaran cruise along the Yukon River to the Alaskan gold rush town of Eagle and the small town of Tok, a trade center for nearby Athabascan Native villages. From here, you continue on by bus to Fairbanks, then by domed rail cars to Denali and Anchorage. The tour can be taken in either direction.

The Kenai Peninsula

Lines That Offer This Tour:Princess, Holland America

Length of Tour: 6-7 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 13-night HAL Kenai cruisetours from about $2,999 per person; 14-night Princess Denali/Fairbanks/Kenai from about $2,300 per person

The Kenai Peninsula, just across a narrow channel from Anchorage, has long been known as the city's natural playground, packed with opportunities for fishing, hiking, sightseeing, kayaking, and wildlife-watching. Holland America offers a six-night Kenai-centric trip, with nights spent in Seward, Homer, Cooper Landing, Talkeetna, and Anchorage. Princess's seven-night "Kenai Explorer" cruisetours combine a regular Denali-Fairbanks tour with two nights at Princess's own rustic Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, which overlooks the Kenai River. Both trips are paired with a seven-night Inside Passage cruise between Vancouver and Seward or Whittier.

Prudhoe Bay & the Alaskan Arctic

Lines That Offer This Tour: Princess, Holland America

Length of Tour: 6-7 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 13-night cruisetours from about $2,450

Those who want to take the old "North to Alaska" dictum to its ultimate conclusion can sign up for a tour that visits Denali and Fairbanks before heading north to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Along the way, you'll cross the Brooks Range and pass through the treeless tundra that Alaska's caribou herds call home. Travelers overnight in the towns of Coldfoot and Prudhoe Bay, where the Alaska Oil Pipeline begins its journey 800 miles south to transport the black stuff to Valdez.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Lines That Offer This Tour: Princess

Length of Tour: 6-7 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 13-night cruisetour from $2,300

Princess's "Copper River Explorer" cruisetours combine a Denali-Fairbanks itinerary with two nights at the Copper River Princess Lodge in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in the U.S. Located east of Anchorage, near the Canadian border, the park is home to nine of the continent's 16 tallest mountains. It also offers the largest collection of glaciers in North America, a plethora of wildlife (including Dall sheep, moose, brown and black bear, and bald eagles), and the old copper-mining town of Kennicott, where 40 preserved mine buildings provide a window to days gone by. The tour is paired with a seven-night Inside Passage cruise.

The Canadian Rockies

Lines That Offer This Tour: Celebrity

Length of Tour: 5 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 10-night cruisetours from about $1,250

A Canadian Rockies cruisetour offers glimpses of some of the finest mountain scenery on earth, with glacier-carved mountains and hundreds of miles of wilderness high country. Banff National Park and Jasper National Park preserve much of this beauty, while other national and provincial parks offer access to equally vast and spectacular regions of the Rockies and nearby Columbia and Selkirk mountain ranges. Tours can be taken either before or after your cruise, and typically include overnights in the cities of Vancouver and Calgary.

Whistler

Lines That Offer This Tour: Celebrity

Length of Tour: 3 nights, plus cruise

Sample Rates: 10-night cruisetours from about $1,300

This short cruisetour visits the Canadian mountain resort of Whistler, which you just saw on TV as the host of the 2010 Winter Olympics. There's still some high-mountain glacier skiing in summer, but mostly the resort is in warm-weather mode, offering activities like mountain biking (on what are usually ski trails), hiking, golf, river-rafting, fishing, and horseback riding.