Large-ship cruising in Alaska may be on hold for another season, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still visit the state this summer. Though traveling the waterways to get there remains tricky, a number of tourism companies are launching new experiences for travelers who want to see the Last Frontier in the next few months.
Canada extended the cruise ban put in place last March amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Alaska’s senators responded by introducing legislation that would alleviate restrictions for cruises. But while we wait to see where it goes, the state is working on welcoming tourists in other ways. First, it recently announced less restrictive measures for visitors. Last summer, travelers had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test on arrival or self-quarantine for 14 days, neither of which are required as of now.
Last year, the cruise ban had an enormous effect on the state and its economy, which is why residents want to encourage the return of safe tourism. And, they say, they’re hopeful that this summer can bring back a bit of what they lost last year.
Tracy LeBarge, owner of Tracy’s King Crab Shack, a popular restaurant in the port city of Juneau, said she lost 95 percent of her business last year, going from a couple hundred diners a day to less than 20. However, with the loosening of restrictions and the increasing number of vaccines, she’s optimistic that this year will be different. “Last year was dismal—we depend on tourism,” LeBarge says. “But I’m hopeful for this year. I think there will be more independent travelers and more smaller ships, so I think it’s going to be better than last year.”
Becky Janes, owner of Above & Beyond Alaska, a Juneau-based adventure tour operator that opted to hibernate for the 2020 season due to a crush of cancellations, said that website traffic has been building momentum in recent weeks. “There’s obviously an uptick in travel interest to Alaska,” Janes says. “We know it’s not going to be a normal year, but it looks promising.”
Statewide, outfitters are working to expand options for travelers, with the addition of more land-based tours as well as additional sailings on small-boat cruises. Here are several newly launched trips you can take to Alaska this summer that caught our eye.
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Holland America Line and Princess Cruises
In normal summers, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises are two of the most dominant forces in Alaska’s waters, making up roughly half of the cruise market there. This year, they’re leaning into their dry land offerings instead, launching a series of tours that traverse the state via train, bus, and car, with stays at their own network of lodgings, the Princess Alaska Lodges, and Holland America Line Westmark Hotels.
The lines are offering six types of rail tours, including itineraries starting at five nights and some including a guide; you can even book a four-night train ride along the Alaska Railroad Route through Denali National Park. Most tours include Kenai, Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks, and like a cruise, everything is included, from the transportation (in this case, glass-domed railway cars and coach buses), activities (like visiting North America’s largest peak and sightseeing in small towns), and dining.
Alaska Private Touring
Custom tour operator Alaska Private Touring arranges for myriad land- and sea-based tours. Travelers can either let their agent craft an itinerary based on their must-dos, or guests can choose a pre-built itinerary. One of the new trips this season is the privately guided Family Fun in Alaska’s Backcountry tour, which arranges iconic interior Alaska experiences, including meeting future Iditarod race dogs, rafting, exploring in Denali National Park, gold panning, and walking through a Boreal forest with reindeer. Another new but more niche option is the Culinary Tour with “Taste” on Alaska’s Coast, wherein guests split their time at the remote Tutka Bay Lodge in Kachemak Bay, cooking with chef Kirsten Dixon, before boarding a yacht for a three-day tour of Prince William Sound.
John Hall’s Alaska
Long-time tour operator John Hall’s Alaska will continue small group tours of 7, 9, and 11 days, with Denali National Park as the main attraction. However, they’ve also added a catamaran tour of the Inside Passage. Unlike most cruises, where guests overnight on the boat, travelers on the catamaran stay at hotels (a plus for those who prefer their bathrooms standard-sized) in Juneau and Sitka, and do day trips to Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, and Icy Strait Point. It also allows for the opportunity to experience local nightlife, which cruisers rarely get to do.
Alaska has 6,640 miles of coastline and Lindblad Expeditions’ newest 22-day sailing is going to cover a lot of it. Aptly named Alaska End to End, the cruise starts in Ketchikan, goes up the Inside Passage, traces the Aleutian Chain to far-flung Dutch Harbor, then heads north to Nome (also stopping in Provideniya, Russia, on day 20). Also new this season is a six-day tour that winds from Ketchikan to Juneau. Because it’s a smaller vessel (maximum capacity is 62 guests), it can explore hard-to-reach glaciers, coves, and towns that larger cruise ships cannot.
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