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7:00 AM Sun, Sept. 23rd

Column: Call of the wild: Visit Alaska and you'll be hooked

Whale-watching is one of Alaska’s many draws.

Courtesy

Whale-watching is one of Alaska’s many draws. Courtesy

Glaciers thunder, mountains fill the sky, whales breach and the sun shines at midnight. Listen and you'll hear the call of the wild. It's time to think about visiting Alaska. It is the dream of every traveler to get to go there, and then to go again and again because there is just so much to see.

There are very few places left on this earth where you can experience the rawness, the wildness that you find in Alaska. It is a very humbling place as we realize how small we are in the whole scheme of things. Go just once and you'll be hooked forever.

For several reasons, now is the best time to begin to plan your travel to Alaska for next summer. One, the Alaska cruise/tour season is a short one - only lasting from mid-May until mid-September. Two, the very best bargains are available for sale right

now. The cruise lines are offering their largest discounts now, at the beginning of the season. These will begin to dissipate as they are assured that their ships will be full. And three, in the middle of the winter, there is nothing nicer than trip-planning to keep you cheerful during the long grey winter days.

It's terrific to have clients call in January to begin planning their Alaskan vacation for next summer, but, as I told a nice lady last week, Alaska is the most complicated and convoluted cruise vacation that I can arrange for clients. And I love it when we can take the time to plan it properly. 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 unparalled 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. We are very fortunate to have it as part of the U.S.

For just a moment, imagine your vacation there. A brown bear with a cub tagging along fords a salmon stream. The silence of a misty fjord is shattered by a pod of giant humpback whales breaching high into the air then crashing back against the sea. Your cruise ship sails by 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. This is Alaska. This is real. This is the adventure of a lifetime.

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 begins in mid-May and lasts until 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 the rates drop as well. It's a matter of finding a balance between your budget and your calendar.

HOW TO GO: Here there is 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 16 different cruise lines sailing these waters on 42 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.

A classic route is to fly from your home city to Fairbanks, spend one or two nights there and then ride a luxury motor coach south to Denali National Park. Take a day or two to visit the Park and the Mt. McKinley area. Finally, take a train to Anchorage or Whittier and on to your waiting cruise ship sailing south to the glaciers and through the inside passage. But there 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.