You've booked an Alaskan cruise early enough to secure a stateroom with a private balcony. You've seen the cruise line advertisement that boasts, "One picture tells the story."
One problem with the ad: The photographic image of a whale's fluke so close to the balcony is misleading, if not an outright fabrication.
Whales and other marine wildlife of Alaska's Inside Passage can be viewed from the huge ships, but the distances are great -- think of spotting such an animal a quarter mile away from the 10th floor of an office building. Therefore, shore tours are essential for close observation of nature that makes Alaska vacations special.
Cruise lines offer advance tour reservations, but many tours also can be purchased upon arrival at the ports of call. Last season, Princess Cruises listed almost 100 options, ranging from deep sea fishing for halibut ($450 per person) to the Town and Totem tour of Ketchikan (about $33). Helicopter rides ($300-plus per person) are popular for dramatic views of glaciers and pristine rivers.
Other prices for Princess Adventures Ashore: Wildlife Sightseeing Quest, Juneau, $105, with partial refund if no whales are sighted; Heritage Town and Country Tour, Ketchikan, $59, including nature walk and visit to Totem Bight; White Pass Scenic Railroad, Skagway, $89, traveling by rail along the historic White Pass & Yukon Route.
The experiences can be jaw-dropping, like a humpback whale that surfaces no more than 30 yards from the deck of tour boat near Juneau.
"We have a 100-yard limit, but the whales don't," notes the captain.
The mammoth animal disappears and then resurfaces on the other side, floating for several minutes before diving into the deep channel. "I got it; I got it," shout several passengers, their cameras focused on the whale's fluke as it descends.
Participatory tours like kayaking, hiking, bicycling and even dog sledding are available, but don't overbook. Stroll around the Alaskan ports of call with no set agenda. The downtowns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka and Skagway are all accessible from the harbor. The Red Dog Saloon in Juneau draws a throng. Not far away, a more subdued Mt. Juneau Trading Post has collections of Indian and Eskimo masks, miniature totems and other native carvings.
Perhaps Skagway is the best walk, though some visitors believe its restorations leave the impression of a historic theme park. The residents depend on tourism, but their patience and humor nevertheless are impressive.
Tour brochures offer dress recommendations; rain-proof layers of clothing that can be shed are best for temperatures from the 40s to the 70s. Sleet is possible in July In the micro-climate of Glacier Bay.