There is an optimism in Alaska this year, with state industry leaders hoping for increased good relations with the cruise lines, and cruise lines looking more favorably at the market and, in some cases, increasing capacity. This follows a contentious period centered largely on a controversial state tax on cruise passengers.

To fight the tax, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Holland America all downsized, moving ships from Alaska to Europe and other cruise destinations, or cutting down on their numbers of Alaska itineraries in 2010 and 2011.

After much debate, filing of a federal lawsuit by the cruise lines against the state, and even a visit by Gov. Sean Parnell to the Cruise Shipping Conference in Miami, the cruise industry's annual major conference, in an attempt to make nice, the Alaska legislature in 2010 approved a reduction in a controversial $50-per-cruise passenger head tax passed by Alaska voters in 2006. The tax was originally to support the infrastructure at the ports and enforce environmental compliance, but whether it was all used for that was subject to debate.

Taking effect last year, the head tax was reduced to $35. The legislature also listened to the cruise lines in approving deeper offsets of the tax in Juneau and Ketchikan, which have their own taxes of $8 and $7 per cruise passenger, respectively, and approved more funds for tourism marketing.

But in the meantime, cruise passenger numbers in Alaska fell by an estimated 142,000 in 2010 to about 868,000 passengers. There was better news in 2011, with an estimated 933,000 cruise passengers expected.

Obviously, Alaska wants ships and cruisers back -- the decline in 2010 alone meant some $150 million in lost revenue, including onshore spending. Everyone is looking forward to a more fruitful 2012.

Good news for Alaska cruising has come in several forms, including an announcement by Disney Cruise Line that it would return to Alaska for the second year in 2012. Disney debuted in Alaska for the first time in 2011 and drew much attention to the state as a family destination. (Princess launched new family programs, too.)

Market leaders Holland America and Princess Cruises have a substantial presence in Alaska this year, with seven ships each; Princess added a ship, and Holland America has 130 departures, representing a 6% capacity increase.

Two lines are leaving Alaska in 2012. Crystal Cruises will visit only briefly with its luxury product, as part of a multicountry itinerary (the line had returned last year after a 6-year absence), and upscale Oceania did its first season ever in Alaska in 2011 but is not back in 2012.

But InnerSea Discoveries, which debuted a new line of small ships last year, is back, and so is new small-ship line Alaskan Dream.

The cruise season here is dictated by the weather and generally runs from about mid-May to mid-September.

Especially for first-time visitors, a cruise is an excellent way to get the lay of the land and an introduction to Alaska. Cruise passengers visit the towns and wilderness areas of the Southeast (the Inside Passage, also known as the Panhandle) or the Gulf of Alaska by day, and burrow into their ships for effortless travel by night. The lack of roads between towns makes the waters of the Inside Passage the region's de facto highway.

Your options -- apart from a somewhat limited airline schedule -- are basically taking a cruise ship or the Alaska Marine Highway System (the state ferries). You have to be willing to invest more time -- both for the actual traveling and for the planning -- to use the ferries. And you have to be willing to give up the comforts and diversions of the average cruise ship. Then again, the ferry does give you unlimited stops along the way and a chance to meet Alaskan residents not only in major cruise ports, but also in smaller, less-visited communities. For most people, the luxury of cruise travel is preferable to the rough-and-ready nature of ferry transportation.

No matter how much revenue cruise passengers (and ships' crews) generate for merchants in the ports visited, some locals aren't as welcoming as they might be. Alaskans are known for their hospitality, but they have their limits. During the height of the cruise season, once-charming streets are transformed into virtual carnival midways jammed wall to wall with vacationers from simultaneous ship landings. As a result, service standards suffer somewhat -- especially toward the end of the season.

Some communities feel that the cultural bulldozing brought by cruise ships is not worth the economic benefit and have placed limits on the number of ships that can come into port, in addition to taxes based on passenger count.

The cruise lines have taken the prevailing mood very seriously. Individual lines have appointed community affairs officers with orders to smarten up the public's perception of cruising and cruise operators. And the industry as a whole brought on Johne Binkley, a prominent lifelong political figure (he's a former state senator, gubernatorial candidate, and chairman of the state-run Alaska Railroad) to liaise with both the elected officials in Juneau and the voters who put them in power. In addition to the partial repeal of the head tax, the cruise lines successfully got a delay in new wastewater dumping regulations that were to take effect in 2010.

Alaska's popularity as a cruise destination is due in most part to its natural splendor. As a visitor, you can avoid much of the human congestion caused by ships by choosing a small-ship cruise that spends more time enjoying the wilderness and the small towns that big ships can't reach. On the small ships, you might visit Haines, for instance, or Cordova, or Metlakatla, and a dozen other places where the big guys don't (or, at least, seldom) go.

On the other hand, riding a megaship is a different kind of fun -- the ship itself is an attraction, with far more amenities than any of the towns along the way. If you need to relax and leave all the stresses of life at home behind -- and if seeing Alaska wilderness isn't the most important part of your trip -- a big ship is the way to go. Plus, you can still get a taste of some wilderness areas on shore excursions.

Another way to avoid some of the disadvantages of overcrowding and service problems is to choose an early season cruise -- say, the last couple of weeks in May. One other option: You can always travel independently after the cruise to the real Alaska, inland from the cruise ports.

We'll go through the cruise options available in the state, focusing primarily on those that provide a true in-depth experience. For even more information, pick up a copy of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call (Wiley Publishing, Inc.).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.