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10:08 PM Wed, Jan. 23rd

Travel Column: Alaska for 2008 - the second lesson

In my last column, I began discussing the almost endless possibilities of a cruise or tour to Alaska - why to go, when to travel and how to see it all. This week I'd like to cover some other facets of planning your adventure.

The land remains much as it was when the first explorers saw it. I promise that your heart will be touched by the elemental grandeur of the sea, the mountains, the sky and the ice. There is more wilderness than can be charted and more wildlife than can be counted. Everything is larger than life and the possibilities for beauty are practically infinite. With all the endless travel options, a cruise or cruise-tour put together by an expert - your personal travel agent - will give you the perfect mix of adventure, relaxation and value.

Where to sail: The Great Land is so enormous that deciding on what to see is difficult. One classic route is a seven-day round-trip through the Inside Passage. Sail from Vancouver or Seattle through the pristine inland waterway. To Ketchikan with its native heritage, to Juneau - home to Mendenhall Glacier, to Skagway - the living museum of the great Alaska gold rush and perhaps to shimmering Glacier Bay where "glaciers reach down from towering mountain ranges to meet the icy waters of majestic fjords."

To sail even farther north, you might consider a one-way seven-day cruise between Vancouver or Seattle and Seward. Using this itinerary, you would begin your cruise in the northwest and then sail north to Alaska, flying home from Anchorage or you can cruise the reverse itinerary. These voyages offer you an opportunity to cruise not only through the Inland Passage but also to sail through College Fjord, Prince William Sound and the mighty Gulf of Alaska.

When the ships dock in each of these ports, there are wonderful shore excursions available. These optional programs spotlight the best sights and activities in each port of call. You might go sea kayaking, fly-fishing for salmon and trout, mush a dog-sled, land on a glacier, or capture the perfect picture of a whale surfacing. Artisans, dancers and storytellers share their heritage in native villages and you can listen to trappers, bush pilots, park rangers and naturalists speak about their unique and beautiful homeland.

To travel beyond the coast into the heart of Alaska, add one of the land tours offered by the cruise lines. This will give you an opportunity to ride the Alaska rails, stay in luxury lodges and visit the awe-inspiring Denali National Park. Give yourself the time to walk, to watch and to learn. There is no mystery as to why you are there; it is for spectacular scenery and wildlife.

There are all sorts of elements to this trip that need to be covered. There isn't space to fully discuss the following items but your travel professional will handle all of this, so not to worry.

Cabin position: I have had many clients move from an inside economy cabin for their first cruise to an outside cabin with a window for their second and then on to a verandah stateroom - but I have never had anyone do the reverse. A perfect early morning on your Alaska cruise is sitting on your veranda dressed in something comfy, sipping hot coffee with a pair of binoculars on the table beside you - ready to grab when you spot a pod of whales.

Tipping: Plan on $10 per person per day. Many cruise lines will put this on your tab to be handled with the final accounting if you wish.

Insurance: It will probably be a complete waste of money. But the penalties are huge if you are forced to cancel, so it is an excellent safeguard.

Packing: The activities you plan on and the sort of ship you sail will determine this. The climate varies a great deal so dressing in layers is a smart idea. Take a little for chilly, a little for rainy and a good pair of shoes. Alaska is not a dressy place, so you don't need to worry about lugging a tuxedo with you.

Air reservations: The cruise line can handle this for you or your travel agent will be happy to arrange it. There will be quite a variety in the air rates and schedules and the amount of control you have will depend on who handles the reservation.

When to book: The best values and the best choice of staterooms are usually offered quite far ahead. Hefty discounts are available now and they will melt away as the sailing season approaches.

The best rates will usually be found from now until the end of February. And beside the early booking discounts, your travel agent can tell you about regional specials, past passenger discounts, group discounts and consortium rates.

Where to Book: Of course, you can do all this by yourself. (But I have no idea why you would.) Your local friendly travel agent is here to sit down with, sort out all the enormous number of options, find you the best rate and most will handle it without a fee. I have only touched the surface, so please realize that this discussion is not only incomplete but also full of personal bias.

Why to Book: They say once you've been to Alaska, you never really come all the way back. The lore and legends of the North, mountains and moose, glaciers and whales, room service and music are all waiting for you.

Leslie and Mike Ross have owned Kachina Travel Agency since 1975.