Name your Alaska: from whale-watching cruises to mountain-hugging train rides, the Last Frontier appeals to everyone’s sense of adventure

Name your Alaska: from whale-watching cruises to mountain-hugging train rides, the Last Frontier appeals to everyone’s sense of adventure

M.T. Schwartzman

TO SOME PEOPLE, ALASKA IS A BREACHing whale. To other people, Alaska is the thunderous roar of a calving glacier. To still other people, Alaska is the colorful history of the Klondike Gold Rush. Indeed, Alaska is many things, and with a state this big (more than twice the size of Texas), it’s a place that has something for everyone.

So how do you find your Alaska? It’s really very easy. You just need to know where to look. Some of Alaska’s top operators have spent years searching for just the right locales. Holland America Tours. (800-628-2449) has packages statewide, while Cruise West (800-426-7702) has small-ship cruising along miles of coastline. Alaska Airlines (800-468-2248) has trips to some of Alaska’s more remote destinations, like Kodiak and the Arctic.

If you’re more independently minded, the Alaska state ferry system allows you to come and go as you please. Contact Knightly Tours (800-426-2123) for complete itineraries. Farther north, independent land packages can be arranged through Alaska Heritage Tours (877-258-6877) or Alaska Tour & Travel (800-208-0200).

However you choose to go, here are some insider tips on traveling through the place they call “The Great Land:”

WHALES

Alaska is the summertime home to pods of humpbacks and orcas. And as popular as they are with people, the whales seem to enjoy the attention as well. Why else would they put on a show of leaping out of the water–called breaching–unless they knew that someone was watching? Excursions in search of whale sightings are easy to find throughout coastal Alaska. Juneau (888-581-2201) is one of the best places to board such a boat, since some of the best whale-watching waters are within close range. Kenai Fjords Tours (800-478-8068), a division of Alaska Heritage Tours, has day cruises departing from Seward.

EAGLES

America’s national symbol is more populous in Alaska than in any other state. The tree-lined coast, craggy fjords, and even floating icebergs all make perfect perches. So look for them everywhere–they’re easy to spot: just scan the trees for their white heads. Haines (800-458-3579) has a large population of resident bald eagles (about 300), which swells to nearly 4,000 every winter during the annual “Gathering of the Eagles.” And if you want to get up-close and personal with a bald eagle, head for the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. The center nurse injured birds back to health and runs educational programs for visitors.

OTTERS, SEALS, AND SEABIRDS.

Without a doubt, Prince William Sound is the place to go for abundant marine life. And while Kenai Fjords Tours runs day trips of Resurrection Bay in search of the critters, the world-class Alaska Sealife Center (800-224-2525) in Seward brings the creatures to you. Otters, seals, sea lions, and seabirds galore populate the center’s “habitats,” which re-create the natural home of Alaska’s marine mammals and birds. But the Sealife Center is more than just an aquarium–it also conducts research and rehabilitates injured animals.

BEAR AND MOOSE. What’s a trip to Alaska without at least one bear sighting? Have no fear, it’s virtually guaranteed, since practically all of Alaska is considered bear country. The king of Alaskan bears is the famous Kodiak brown bear, which can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. Polar bears are just about as big and can be found in the Arctic regions. Alaska’s famous grizzlies are abundant in the Interior, especially in Denali National Park, which is easily reached from Fairbanks (800-327-5774), Alaska’s second largest city. Moose are found most abundantly on the Kenai Peninsula (800-535-3624). Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see them in the wild. Like the biggest bears, moose can weigh 1,500 pounds or more.

GLACIERS. Alaska’s rivers of ice are truly sights to behold. Most impressive are the tidewater glaciers, which reach into the sea and “calve” large chunks of ice into the water with a thunderous roar. Day boats leave Juneau in the Southeast and Whittier in Prince William Sound. The 26 Glacier Cruise (800-544-0529) out of Whittier is one of the best. Helicopter flightseeing is another great way to view the glaciers. Era Helicopters (800-843-1947) has flightseeing from Anchorage, Denali National Park, Juneau, and Valdez. Some glaciers can be reached by highway; these are called “drive-up glaciers.” The Mendenhall in Juneau is the biggest and one of the easiest to reach; it’s just 13 miles from downtown. Other drive-up glaciers include Exit Glacier, just beyond Seward, and Worthington Glacier, near Valdez. Glaciers are known as rivers of ice, since they are actually moving–like a waterslide, which in Alaska can only be found at the H2Oasis Waterpark (888-426-2747) in Anchorage.

MOUNTAINS. They’re everywhere in Alaska, but the granddaddy of them all, Mount McKinley, lies almost exactly in the geographical center of the state. On a clear day, you can see McKinley from downtown Anchorage (800-478-1255), 125 miles away in the distance. But for a closer lock, the Alaska Railroad (800-544-0552) comes to within 46 miles of McKinley. The railroad will take you all the way to Fairbanks, or you can get off in Denali National Park for the classic view of Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake. Want to climb a mountain? The Mount Roberts Tramway (888-461-8726) in Juneau whisks you up the side of Mount Roberts in minutes. The view from nearly 2,000 feet above sea level is breathtaking. Want to get even higher? Era Helicopters can show you Alaska’s mountains from a loftier perspective.

TOTEMS. The colorful and mysterious totem poles of Alaska’s Indian people are found throughout the Inside Passage. Ketchikan has the largest number of totem poles in the world. Only here can you see such a diverse range of totem carvings, including the unusual Abe Lincoln totem pole with an image of Honest Abe at the top. Sitka has a smaller but equally dramatic collection of totem poles. Totem carving can also be seen in some Inside Passage communities, such as Ketchikan, Sitka, and Haines, where native carvers practice their craft before your eyes. A comprehensive view of Alaska’s native traditions can be found at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (800-315-6608) in Anchorage, the only place where all the state’s native cultures are gathered under one roof.

GOLD! There’s gold in them thar hills. That was the cry of Gold Rush prospectors a century ago. Today, you can still find gold in Alaska: Some people estimate that only 10 percent of the gold has been recovered from the earth. And there’s plenty of Gold Rush history to explore. In the Interior, Fairbanks has several attractions devoted to the city’s Gold Rush origins. At the El Dorado Gold Mine, visitors ride a vintage 1904 narrow-gauge railway that once transported miners and get to see a modern mining camp in operation. Along the Inside Passage, the town of Skagway is unbeatable for a taste of the “Spirit of ’98.” In fact, the entire downtown is a designated historic district; the best preserved buildings are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The Skagway Streetcar Company will give you a guided tour in antique cars with guides dressed in period costume. Just as much fun is a scenic train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route (800-343-7373), built to conquer the treacherous mountain passes that divided Skagway from the Klondike gold fields. Looking out the window, you can still see the old “Trail of ’98,” worn permanently into the mountainsides a century ago.

For a free state vacation planner, write Alaska Travel Industry Association, Dept. 2101, P.O. Box 196710, Anchorage, AK 99519. Call (800) 862-5275 or log on to www.travelalaska.com.

COPYRIGHT 2003 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group