Cruise lines are in the business of giving their guests a good time, so they've all got something going for them. Here are our picks for Alaska's best, in a few different categories.
- The Best Ships for Luxury: Luxury in Alaska is defined in 2012 by Regent Seven Seas and Silversea. If you want a more casual kind of luxury (a really nice ship with a no-tie-required policy), the Seven Seas Navigator offers just that on an all-suite vessel (most cabins have private balconies) with excellent cuisine. Silversea, on the other hand, represents a slick, Italian-influenced, slightly more formal luxury experience with all the perks -- big suite cabins and excellent food, linens, service, and companions. Both Regent and Silversea include fine wine and booze in their cruise fares. For the ultimate Alaska experience in a small-ship setting, check out the intimate offerings of American Safari Cruises, where soft adventure comes with upscale accouterments.
- The Best of the Mainstream Ships: Every line's most recent ships are beautiful, but Celebrity's Infinity is a true stunner, as is its sister ship, Millennium. These modern vessels, with their extensive art collections, cushy public rooms, and expanded spa areas, give Celebrity a formidable presence in Alaska. And the late-model Sapphire Princess and Diamond Princess have raised the art of building big ships to new heights. Both of these vessels will again be in Inside Passage service this year from Vancouver.
- The Best Ships for Families: All the major lines have well-established kids' programs, with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line leading the pack in terms of facilities and activities. Princess gets a nod for its National Park Service Junior Ranger Program to teach kids about glaciers and Alaska wildlife (they can even earn a Junior Ranger badge), and last year increased shore excursions geared for families. But no one can beat Disney, which is back in Alaska in 2012 for a second year with the Disney Wonder.
- The Best Ships for Pampering: It's a toss-up -- Celebrity's Infinity and Millennium offer wonderful AquaSpas complete with thalassotherapy pools and a wealth of soothing and beautifying treatments, and the solariums on Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas offer relaxing indoor pool retreats. We are also fans of the thermal suite (complete with hydrotherapy pool) in the Greenhouse Spas on Holland America's Zuiderdam and Westerdam.
- The Best Shipboard Cuisine: Regent Seven Seas is tops in this category. And the expertly prepared and presented cuisine on Silversea's Silver Shadow must also come in for some props. While this may surprise some, of the mainstream lines, we like the buffet and dining room offerings of Carnival -- flavorful food, well prepared. The Carnival Spirit in Alaska also boasts the Nouveau Supper Club ($30 service charge per person), where you can enjoy just about as fine a meal as you're likely to find anywhere. And Norwegian Cruise Line's teppanyaki restaurant ($25 per person charge) is also an experience not to be missed -- yummy food and a show by knife-wielding chefs.
- The Best Ships for Onboard Activities: The ships operated by Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer a very full roster of onboard activities that range from the sublime (lectures) to the ridiculous (contests designed to get passengers to do or say outrageous things). Princess's ScholarShip@Sea program is a real winner, with excitingly packaged classes in such diverse subjects as photography, personal computers, cooking, and even pottery.
- The Best Ships for Entertainment: Look to the big ships here. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Disney are tops when it comes to an overall package of show productions, nightclub acts, lounge performances, and audience-participation entertainment (Disney with a family focus, but also offering adult entertainment options). Princess also offers particularly well-done -- if somewhat less lavishly staged -- shows. Holland America has not historically been noted for its entertainment package, but the company has improved considerably in the show lounge in recent years, including adding performances by magicians and comedians.
- The Best Ships for Whale-Watching: If the whales come close enough, you can see them from all the ships in Alaska -- Fran spotted a couple of orcas from her cabin balcony on a recent Holland America cruise, for instance. Smaller ships, though -- such as those operated by Alaskan Dream, American Safari, InnerSea Discoveries, and Lindblad -- might actually change course to follow a whale. Get your cameras and binoculars ready!
- The Best Ships for Cruise Tours: Princess, Holland America, and the twin-brand Royal Caribbean Cruises (which owns Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity) are the market leaders in getting you into the Interior of Alaska either before or after your cruise. They own their own deluxe motorcoaches and railcars. Princess and Holland America Line (HAL) also own lodges and hotels. After many years in the business, these two really know what they're doing. Royal Caribbean is a comparative latecomer, but its land company, Royal Celebrity Tours, with some of the finest rolling stock (rail and road) around, has made huge strides. Most of the other lines actually buy their land product components from Princess or HAL. One of Holland America's strengths is its 3- and 4-night cruises combined with an Alaska/Yukon land package. The company offers exclusive entry into the Yukon's Kluane National Park, and they've added another Yukon gem -- Tombstone Territorial Park, near Dawson City, a region of staggering wilderness beauty, Native architecture, stunning vistas, and wildlife. Princess is arguably stronger in 7-night Gulf of Alaska cruises in conjunction with Denali/Fairbanks or Kenai Peninsula land arrangements. Princess's Copper River Lodge is by the entrance to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
- The Best Ports: Juneau and Sitka are our favorites. Juneau is one of the most visually pleasing small cities anywhere and certainly the prettiest capital city in America (once you get beyond all the tourist shops near the pier). It's fronted by the Gastineau Channel and backed by Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, offers the very accessible Mendenhall Glacier, and is otherwise surrounded by wilderness -- and it's a really fun city to visit, too. In recent years, an addition to the tourist attraction roster is a drive past the governor's mansion, once the residence of former Gov. Sarah Palin. Sitka's Russian architecture, historic totem pole park, and Raptor Rehabilitation Center earn it the nod here, not to mention the fact we've had very pleasant conversations with Sitka locals about topics ranging from the fishing season to local politics -- when the first non-locally owned T-shirt shop was railroaded in a few years ago, the whole town was abuzz. No town in Alaska is more historically significant than Skagway, with its old buildings so quaint you might think you stepped into a Disney version of what a gold-rush town should look like. But the arrival of so many glitzy, expensive jewelry stores imported from the Caribbean has impacted our impressions of that community. Still, if you can get yourself into the right frame of mind, and if you can recall the history of the place -- the gold rush frenzy that literally put the town on the map -- it's easier to capture the true spirit of Skagway. For a more low-key Alaska experience, take the ferry from Skagway to Haines, which reminds us of the folksy, frontier Alaska depicted on the TV show Northern Exposure and is a great place to spot eagles and other wildlife. Some ships also stop at Haines as a port of call, usually for a few hours after Skagway.
- The Best Shore Excursions: Flightseeing and helicopter trips in Alaska are absolutely unforgettable ways to check out the scenery, if you can afford them. But airborne tours tend to be pretty pricey -- sometimes approaching $600 a head. A helicopter trip to a dog-sled camp at the top of a glacier (usually among the priciest of the offerings) affords both incredibly pretty views and a chance to try your hand at the truly Alaskan sport of dog sledding. (Yes, even in summer: If there is not enough snow, the sleds are fitted with wheels.) It's a great way to earn bragging rights with the folks back home. For a less extravagant excursion, nothing beats a ride on a clear day on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway out of Skagway to Canada -- the route followed by the gold stampeders of '98. The railway a couple of years back expanded its rail system so that some of its trains go not just to Fraser at the border, but all the way to Carcross (formerly known as Caribou Crossing) in the Yukon Territory (adding more than 30 miles by rebuilding old track). While you're riding the rails, try to imagine what it was like for those gold seekers crossing the same track on foot! We also like to get active with kayak and mountain-biking excursions offered by most lines at most ports. In addition to affording a chance to work off those shipboard calories, these excursions typically provide optimum opportunities for spotting eagles, bears, seals, and other wildlife. Another, less hectic shore excursion that's become increasingly popular is whale-watching. On an evening excursion from Juneau in May, on one cruise we were on, passengers on one of the whale-watching boats got the thrill of seeing an entire pod of orcas, more than a dozen of the giant creatures frolicking well within view. For wildlife lovers, the Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest tour in Sitka guarantees you'll spot whales, bears, otters, or other impressive wildlife, or your money back.
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.