Q. We are in the process of choosing a ship for an Alaska cruise this year. All the ships sound good, so we will choose on the basis of ports of call. Aside from cruising Glacier Bay, which we definitely will do, which port would you say not to miss?
A. Of all the ports of call when I cruised Alaska a couple of years ago, the one I remember most vividly, and would most like to see again, is Skagway.
Alaska this year celebrates the centennial of the gold rush of 1898, so Skagway is in the spotlight because it was there that shiploads of prospectors arrived from Seattle to start their long trek to the gold fields of Canada’s Klondike.
Skagway today is great fun, tarted up to look much like the 1890s boom town without the muddy streets or rip-roaring hell-raising. Most of the downtown district, along Broadway, is part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Federal, state and local money has restored old false-front stores, saloons and brothels, recycling them into ice cream parlors, restaurants and souvenir shops. At the height of the gold rush, 80 saloons flourished there.
This is where some 30,000 gold hunters poured in after the world got word of a gold strike when a ship carrying 2 tons of gold and 68 prospectors sailed into Seattle in 1897. Skagway, hundreds of miles from the Klondike gold, was the closest port to it by sea.
The 430,000 cruise ship passengers who arrived there in the summer of 1997 could choose to hang out in one of the few remaining “authentic” saloons; take a ride around town in the White Motor Co.’s 1937 touring cars, whose driver-guides spin lurid tales about the bad old days; visit the cemetery where the pioneers, both heroes and villains, are buried; and have lunch in Alaska’s oldest hotel, the Golden North, built in 1898 and filled with antiques and a resident ghost. Or they can visit the restored cabin that was the only building in Skagway when gold fever struck.
Most cruise ships stay in Skagway most of a day, docking within a short walk of downtown. I stopped by the Visitor Center and signed on for a free narrated walk around town, led by a Park Service ranger. The center has displays and a slide show.
I also rode the White Pass and Yukon train, which has been operating since 1898 and crawls for 20.4 miles along the shoulder of a mountain, through tunnels and across a trestle to reach the 2,865-foot summit.
Q. I would like to see China’s Yangtze River gorges before the new Three Gorges Dam is completed and the gorges become a reservoir. How much longer are the river cruises expected to operate?
A. Actually, cruises through the Three Gorges are expected to continue even after the dam is built and the reservoir is filled. As you might expect, however, the scenery may not be as spectacular, according to Larry Greenman, marketing manager for Victoria Cruises (1-800-348-8084), a major cruise ship operator on the Yangtze. On the other hand, tributary rivers not now navigable may be opened to cruising.
Victoria Cruises operates three vessels on the river between Chongqing and Wuhan (and vice versa). As evidence of the firm’s optimism, a fourth vessel is scheduled to debut this year, says Greenman, and two more already are under construction.
To see the gorges at their most dramatic, however, you ought to plan to go as soon as possible - this year or next. Construction schedules in China are uncertain, and the reservoir is expected to fill slowly. But by 2003, the reservoir’s planned completion date, a Yangtze River cruise will be a different experience.
Aboard the Victoria vessels, a Three Gorges cruise ranges from $620 to $760 per person (double occupancy) for a standard room, depending on departure date and direction of river travel. Rates generally are less if the cruise is purchased as part of a China tour package. A travel agent can provide information about tours and other river cruise lines, including Regal China Cruises (1-800-808-3388).
The high season months for Yangtze cruising are April, May, September and October. Shoulder season months are March, June, July, August and November. Victoria does not operate in winter because river mists frequently hide the views.
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