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Top Adventure Excursions, Right from the Horse's Mouth: Out & About in Alaska

Too many choices can be a problem. When every tour is touted as exciting, fascinating, and once-in-a-lifetime, how can you tell which ones really are?

Things were simpler back in the old days. We had three TV networks, one kind of lettuce, and a handful of car companies. To see a movie you had to go to the theater. When you voted, you had to choose from just two political parties. (Oh, wait, we're still stuck with that one . . .) And when you went on a cruise, your choices in port were pretty limited too.

"Five or ten years ago you got to a port and basically you had a bus tour, a beach tour, a bike tour, and a snorkel tour to choose from, and that's about it," says Glen Dean, manager of shore excursion pre-sales for Carnival Cruise Line. "In the past five years, though, your options have increased exponentially, where there might be forty or fifty different tours in a port."

And it's not just more of the same. These days, the tour operators with whom the cruise lines contract are working overtime to come up with new options, up to and including the genuinely hair-raising.

"What's happened in the last five year is that we've seen a huge growth of the active tour market," says Dean. "Things like rock climbing, scuba diving, ATVs, and night scuba diving have become very popular."

But all that selection can be a problem in and of itself. When every tour is touted as exciting, fascinating, and once-in-a-lifetime, how can you tell which ones really are?

That's where I come in -- and not because I've taken all the excursions there are to take. I haven't. With more than 100 different excursions available in Southeast Alaska alone (not to mention at least 600 in the islands of the Caribbean), it's just impossible for one person to have sampled them all.

But somebody has. At every cruise line, there's a whole department dedicated to shore excursions. These are the expert-experts, the people who find, test out, contract, and then manage all the shore excursion the line offers. If anyone would know which excursions are really the most adventurous, it'd be them.

So, I asked them. I polled experts at the Big Four cruise lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and NCL, and had them pick the five most adventurous excursions in several different cruise regions, having them concentrate on both active adventures (hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, dog sledding, etc.) and "experiential" adventures (helicopter tours, ATV and jeep tours, volcano tours, and so on). Sometimes the lines' answers matched, sometimes they didn't, but all of them made me want to sign up double-quick.

Here's what they picked for Alaska, a destination that has adventure written all over it. In follow-up articles we'll reveal the excursion experts' picks for the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, and Europe.

Note: All prices are averages. Actual prices may vary by a few dollars.

From Juneau

Helicopter Flight Seeing & Extended Glacier Trek: Travel by helicopter from sea level to the glacier surface, where your guide will teach you the basics of glacier travel and then lead your group on four hours of glacier hiking and climbing. Time: 6 Hours 15 Minutes, including 30-minute flight. Cost: $469. Recommended by: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, NCL.

Mendenhall Glacier Guide's Choice Adventure Hike: An exploration of the Tongass National Forest, hiking above a glacial lake, crossing salmon streams, and glimpsing great views of Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier. Depending on the trail chosen for the day, you'll hike between four and six miles, with a possible elevation gain of 600 to 1,000 feet. Time: 4 hours 30 minutes. Cost: $77. Recommended by: NCL.

Glacier & Dog Sled Adventure Via Helicopter: Fly by helicopter over the massive Juneau Ice Field to view glaciers exhibiting four different kids of behavior: cascading, advancing, retreating, and floating. Land on Norris Glacier, where you meet top Iditarod racer Linwood Fiedler's dog-mushing team for a dog-sled ride. Return by helicopter. Time: 3 hours 30 minutes (including 30 minutes flight time and 1 hour on the glacier). Cost: $449. Recommended by: Princess.

From Ketchikan

Tomcar Expedition Kart Adventure Combo: Transfer by motor coach to the Cape Fox Rainforest Preserve on the shores of George Inlet, then strap yourself into a Tomcar expedition kart for a convoy ride through the Mahoney Lake basin, making scenic stops along the way. At the lake, you can take a walk to view the waterfalls before returning to the base camp, where you'll take a 60-minute jetboat ride tracing the shoreline of George Inlet back to the cruise ship dock. Time: 4 hours. Cost: $194. Recommended by: Carnival.

Tatoosh Island Sea Kayaking: After a 30-minute ride to the marina, you'll gear up for a ride to the Tatoosh Islands in a motorized inflatable, then mount double kayaks for a paddle around the islands, with one guide to each six guests. Possible wildlife sightings include bald eagles, seals, sea lions. Time: 4 hours. Cost: $134. Recommended by: Carnival.

Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure: Don a quarter-inch wetsuit (complete with hood, boots, and gloves) for this one-hour guided marine-life tour in the clear waters of Mountain Point. Snorkel over the kelp forest and observe a variety of multicolored sea stars, urchins, sea cucumbers, and the giant sunflower star, as well as myriad fish. Time: 3 hours. Cost: $91. Recommended by: Royal Caribbean, Princess.

Rainforest Ropes & Zipline Challenge: After outfitting with specialized climbing gear you'll head into the rainforest canopy, gaining elevation in a series of challenges: crossing a suspension bridge, a two line bridge, a postman's walk, a swinging log, and a Burma bridge to the zip line platforms. The zip lines will take you over to tree platforms located 65 feet above the ground, nestled in old-growth trees. Time: 3 hours 15 minutes. Cost: $129. Recommended by: Royal Caribbean, Princess.

Canopy Adventure & Wildlife Expedition: This eco-adventure combines a flight over seven zip lines and 4,500 feet of high-tension cables, three aerial bridges, and a ground-based network of nature trails and boardwalks. After a detailed safety briefing, don your safety equipment and hike up to the first platform. Your guides ease you into the forest canopy along cables ranging from a short 175 feet to nearly 1,000 feet. Watch for wildlife from the tree platforms, glimpse a hidden forest waterfall, and cross three hanging sky bridges. Your chance of spotting wildlife is excellent. Time: 3 hours 15 minutes. Cost: $155. Recommended by: Princess.

From Skagway

Klondike Rock Climbing & Rappelling Adventure: Join professional mountain guides for a climbing adventure on the smooth granite walls of the White Pass. There are climbs for all abilities, each ending with aerial views of the Skagway River, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway, and the surrounding wilderness. You will have the chance to climb several of the routes and try rappelling on the cliffs. This excursion is ideal for those looking for a first climbing experience, or for experienced climbers looking for a little rock time. Time: 3 hours 30 minutes. Cost: $94. Recommended by: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess.

Snowshoe Trek & White pass Railway Adventure: This trip combines a train ride aboard the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railway with a guided 4- to 5-mile round-trip hike and a snowshoe trek up the frozen Skagway River to Laughton Glacier. Note: May not be available, depending on snow conditions. Time: 8 hours 30 minutes. Cost: $199. Recommended by: Carnival.

Eagle Preserve Wildlife Quest Via Jet Boat: Transfer by boat to the small town of Haines, then take a bus to the 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, home to hundreds of bald eagles. See the place by jetboat with an experienced guide; scan for eagles, moose, and brown and black bears; then transfer back to Skagway the way you came. Time: 6 hours. Cost: $164. Recommended by: Carnival.

White Pass Railway & Heli-Hike: Fly by helicopter over the Juneau Ice Field, along the Sawtooth Mountain Range, and over Goat Lake, before landing at Glacier Station. After a brief orientation, you'll be off on a 4-mile round-trip hike along the Skagway River to a viewpoint at Laughton Glacier. This sub-alpine valley offers scenic views and the possibility of sighting bear, mountain goats, and moose. Once back at the wilderness whistle stop, board the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for a one-hour train ride back to Skagway. Time: 5 hours 30 minutes, including approximately 20 minutes of flight time. Cost: $327. Recommended by: Royal Caribbean, Princess.

Chilkoot Trail Hike and Float Adventure: During the Gold Rush, thousands of would-be prospectors made their way into Canada's Yukon Territory via the difficult Chilkoot Trail. This hike traverses the first two miles of the route from the Gold Rush ghost town of Dyea. After trekking through a forest alive with birds, wild flowers, and edible berries, you arrive at the shore of the Taiya River, where an 18-foot raft will take you on a leisurely 40-minute float back to town. Time: 4 hours 15 minutes. Cost: $99. Recommended by: Princess.

Glacier Point Wilderness Safari: Board one of the fastest catamarans in North America for a 40-minute cruise along Alaska's deepest fjord. Watch for whales and sea lions en route to a remote beach at Glacier Point. After a short scenic drive and a quarter-mile walk you'll reach the waters around Davidson Glacier, which you'll explore aboard a 31-foot canoe. Throughout your tour, expert guides share their extensive knowledge of this amazing landscape. Time: 5 hours 30 minutes. Cost: $219. Recommended by: Princess.

From Whittier

Sixmile Creek Whitewater Rafting: Located on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, Sixmile Creek cuts its way through three separate canyons, dropping more than 50 feet per mile as it flows out from the Chugach Mountains. The upper and middle canyons offer a class III and IV rapids. Time: 6 hours. Cost: $155. Recommended by: NCL.

From Wrangell

Backcountry Highlander Hike: This hike takes travelers up through the Tongass National Forest to an elevation of 2,500 feet for spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and waterways. Time: 5 hours. Cost: $70. Recommended by: NCL.

Extreme Rainforest Hike: Climb high above the town of Wrangell through the rainforest and experience a variety of ecosystems, waterfalls, and scenic vistas -- and actually learn something along the way, including how to navigate through the forest and how to identify wild edible plants. The trail is approximately 5 miles round-trip, with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet. Time: 5 hours. Cost: $89. Recommended by: NCL.

For Other Ports

Visiting a port not covered here? Talk to your onboard shore-excursion staff. These folks deal with excursions day in and day out. Just make sure they know you want something seriously active and adventurous, and they should be able to steer you toward the goods.

Stay tuned for follow-up articles covering adventurous excursions in the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, and Europe.

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