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9:33 AM Thu, Sept. 20th

New year, new trips: Plan now for a summer vacation in Alaska

It takes a lot of gumption to even think about beginning to plan a trip to Alaska right now. The weather is cold, the nights are long and spring seems a long way off.

But now is really the best time to consider next summer's vacation. This is for several reasons. One, the Alaska cruise and tour season is a short one, only lasting from mid-May until mid-September. Two, this is the best time of year to make a reservation as the cruise lines are offering their best sales now. Once they are assured of a good season, the rates will begin to climb. And three, planning a trip is the best antidote I know to this dreary time of year.

As I told a nice lady last week, Alaska is the most complicated and convoluted cruise vacation that I can arrange for clients. There is so much to see and so many different ways to see it that putting together a visit is an intricate process. Because of this, I'd like to take a couple of columns to outline the basics of what I think you may need to know.

Alaska is unlike any other place on earth. With its glacier-carved fjords, towering peaks and immense national parks, the "Great Land" offers unparalleled majesty. Alaska possesses North America's highest peak and lowest ocean trough, fjords to outshine Norway's, mountains to humble the Alps and glaciers to match Greenland. The name itself is based on the Eskimo word meaning "great lands," which only begins to describe its limitless coasts, countless inland waterways and great snow-capped mountain ranges.

For just a moment, imagine your vacation there. A brown bear with a cub or two in tow fording a salmon stream, the silence of a misty fjord shattered by a pod of giant humpback whales, breaching high into the air and then crashing back against the sea, your floatplane gliding over crystal glaciers toward the midnight sun. And then add to this the rich art of the indigenous people, the classic history of the Alaska gold rush, the character and bravery of the fur traders and explorers.

Because it is so large and has so many fabulous possibilities, preparing to visit Alaska can be a little overwhelming. So, let's start with the simple stuff.

WHEN TO GO: Alaska's seasons are as extreme as everything else about the state. A winter night can last all day; a summer day can last all night. The cruise season itself usually lasts from mid-May to mid-September. May is generally the driest month of the year and June, July and August are usually the warmest. While the mid-summer temperatures will be higher and there will be more daylight during the middle of the summer, this is also the time of the peak-season rates. During the spring and fall the temperatures will be lower and the hours of sunlight less, but you will also find that the rates drop as well. It's a matter of finding a balance between your budget and your calendar.

HOW TO GO: There are a huge range of possibilities. While there are driving tours that will allow you to see much of the state, a great deal of Alaska is only accessible by sea. This makes a cruise/tour combination the best way to visit and appreciate all the beauty the Great Land has to offer.

At last count, there were 15 different cruise lines sailing these waters on 40 different vessels of all sizes and types. The ships range in size from the small "bear in your face" variety of Lindblad and Cruise West to the mid-size and luxurious Radisson and Crystal vessels followed by the larger Holland and Princess lines that offer gracious and classic design at competitive prices.

This year, the one interesting exception to this economy of scale is the small, 670-passenger Tahitian Princess, which will be sailing on 14-day cruises round trip from Vancouver all the way to Kodiak Island. The rates are quite competitive and if you would rather sail on a smaller ship at a reasonable rate, you should consider her. She is a sister ship to Oceania's Insignia which I sailed on in November and is perfectly lovely.

Combining the beauty and splendor of a seven-day cruise with a four- to nine-night adventure tour of Alaska's vast interior is an unforgettable journey. A classic route is to fly from your home city to Fairbanks, spending one or two nights there, and then board the train south to Denali National Park. After taking one or two days to visit the Mount McKinley area, again board the train south to Anchorage and on to your waiting cruise ship and sail south to the glaciers and the inside passage. But there are many variations to this basic scheme.

In my next column, we'll discuss the special spots to visit in Alaska, what sort of cabin to choose, tipping and packing, when to make your reservations, your options for air travel, insurance and so forth.

So if it is a little dark and cold right now, not to worry. Planning a wonderful trip is always a fabulous remedy for the mid-winter blues.

Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel since 1975.