Herbert Levinsky browsed brochures on Alaska Inside Passage cruises aboard luxury liners carrying 1,000 or more passengers. Along with spectacular scenery, the 54-year-old Connecticut toxicologist could enjoy a whirlwind of daytime activities, stage shows, discos, casino gambling and formal dinners.
The brochures also touted “cruisetours,” a big-ship voyage combined with a land package. On one, he could travel on a 50-passenger bus and a train with dome cars to the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks.
Instead, Levinsky thought small - and reaped large rewards. He chose an adventure ship carrying 70 passengers and five naturalists. These experts led excursions to unspoiled wilderness areas and presented lively lectures and cocktail-hour recaps of each day’s events and wildlife sightings.
Then Levinsky added a nine-day land tour offered by Alaska Wildland Adventures. With 12 other outdoors-oriented people, most 50 or older, he hiked and rafted rivers in the Kenai Peninsula. His group got close-up views of marine mammals and other wildlife on a daylong sail in Kenai Fjords, and spent several nights at a lodge deep in Denali National Park.
“I saw the difference between the two kinds of trips in Glacier Bay,” Levinsky says. “Our Special Expeditions boat was hugging the coastline looking for animals, stopping when we came across something interesting. We spent four hours watching the face of the glacier close up as it calved icebergs, with every passenger and staff member up on the foredeck with their cameras and binoculars ready.
“While we were there, I saw two of these big ships steam up the middle of the channel at full speed, putting out a lot of smoke that hung in the air for an hour or more. Then they immediately turned around and steamed out. Through my binoculars, I saw only a few people sitting out on deck, with several more playing basketball. The rest of them probably didn’t know that they’d just missed what most likely was the most beautiful sight on their trip.”
Because of its natural beauty and mystique as “America’s last frontier,” Alaska has for years ranked high as a destination with mature travelers such as Levinsky.
Many of them find that luxury-liner cruises or cruisetours are just the ticket. But because these mass-market travel programs are heavily advertised and most often suggested by travel agents, many people never hear about other ways to see Alaska.
So they return home wishing they’d been able to smell the tundra and rain forest and see bald eagles and glaciers up close.
By choosing from among the alternatives to the mass-market approach to Alaska, Levinsky was able to do just that. Other options for Alaska-bound travelers range from easygoing outdoors-oriented tours requiring little physical exertion to camping trips incorporating difficult hikes and climbs on glaciers.
Among the options are RV caravans, educational programs and special interest tours for photographers, birders and nature-lovers.
Recreational-vehicle enthusiasts might join a 40-day RV tour with Woodall’s World of Travel, in which you bring your own vehicle. The caravan starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and goes to such places as Whitehorse, Dawson City, Tok, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage, Homer, Valdez and Stewart/Hyder before ending in Prince George.
Accompanied by tour directors, it incorporates more than two dozen special excursions, cruses, special dinners and performances. Time is built in for such options as a two-day trip to far-north Prudhoe Bay.
RVers who also love luxury cruises can look to Alaska Highway Cruises. New this year is its Alaska and Gold Rush country program, which combines an RV tour with a seven-night cruise between Vancouver and Seward on a Holland America ship. Participants pick up rental RVs in Anchorage and drive to Denali, Fairbanks, Tok, Dawson City, Whitehorse, Skagway, Beaver Creek and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Whether you cruise or drive first depends on the dates you go.
Photographers might sign up for one of the seven Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trips to some of the state’s most alluring photo destinations. The Best of Alaska stays at a backcountry lodge in Denali National Park, sails the Kenai Fjords and visits the Anan Bear Preserve near Wrangell. Other safaris focus on the Pribilof Islands, the bears of Katmai National Park, the bald eagles of Chilkat River and Southeast Alaska.
Birders reach varied habitats on Victor Emanuel Nature Tours’ Grand Alaska. Around Nome, they explore the seacoast, river rapids and inland hills. The Kenai Peninsula features lakes, gravel bars in rivers, and forests. The Pribilof Islands offer thousands of nesting seabirds, while Denali hosts high-latitude land birds. An optional extension visits Barrow, with its high-Arctic birdlife.
Nature Expeditions International’s two-week Alaska tour, led by professional naturalists, reaches Glacier Bay, Kenai, Denali and Katmai National Parks, as well as Sitka, Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks, studying the wildlife and natural history of each area.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Contacts Alaska Highway Cruises, 3805 108th Ave. N.E., Suite 204, Bellevue, Wash. 98004; (800) 323-5757. Alaska Wildland Adventures, P.O. Box 389, Girdwood, Alaska 99587; (800) 334-8730. Great Alaska Fish Camp & Safaris, HC01 Box 218, Sterling, Alaska 99672; (800) 544-2261 Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, P.O. Box 655, Vashon, Wash. 98070; (206) 463-5383. Nature Expeditions International, P.O. Box 11496, Eugene, Ore. 97440; (800) 869-0639. Special Expeditions, 720 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10019 (800) 762-0003. Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, P.O. Box 33008, Austin, Texas 78764; (800) 328-VENT. Woodall’s World of Travel, P.O. Box 247, Greenville, Mich. 48838; (800) 346-7572.