Ferry system delves deep into Inside Passage

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JUNEAU, Alaska -- When you think of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and the Inside Passage, think just two steps to the left of a traditional cruise, something like the waterborne equivalent of an off-road vehicle.

"This is a very cool way to see Alaska -- very slowly," said Sharon Gaiptman, the system's marketing manager, who said the ferry system is often described as a great, if nontraditional, way to view the Inside Passage.

"It's like taking the bus rather than a limousine," Gaiptman said.

The ferry service itself may not be new -- it was created in 1963 as a transportation link for local residents -- but the concept of getting up close and personal with local folk has a fresh appeal for travelers who are seeking a more homegrown vacation experience.

"It's an entity that visitors to the state have embraced because it enables them to travel on a local transportation system with Alaskans," Gaiptman said.

Visitors who travel aboard the ferry system are given the ability to tour the Inside Passage and points beyond rather than just cruising through, she added.

Such a voyage is right for the adventurous or independent-minded traveler because it gives access to such undiscovered gems as Prince of Wales Island, which can be reached by a connection with the Interisland Ferry Authority.

The routes covered by the ferry system were named National Scenic Byways in 2002, which effectively tripled the size of the program when taking into account the 8,800 miles covered by the marine highway system, Gaiptman said.

Because the regularly scheduled service comes and goes much as a bus follows its route, the system enables travelers to get on and off as they please.

Travelers can explore the Inside Passage at their leisure, visiting lesser-known towns and spending as much time as they like in each destination before reboarding and moving on.

The informal atmosphere also holds appeal for travelers who would rather pack hiking gear than formal evening attire. Aboard the ferries, kids can be seen sleeping in deck chairs; camping out in sleeping bags under the glass-roofed, heated solarium; or bunked inside a cabin.

Dining aboard the ferries also is casual, Gaiptman said. Two ships offer sit-down dining, and frequently, travelers purchase groceries and heat food in microwaves.

Despite the informality of the ferry atmosphere, Gaiptman said, the trip is not for budget travelers, and passage does not come cheap.

"People used to call this 'the poor man's cruise,' but it's really not the case anymore," she said.

Travel is sold completely a la carte, with travelers purchasing passage and a room.

Passage on a one-way voyage from Bellingham, Wash., to Skagway costs about $300 per person; the price of a cabin for that voyage can range from $300 to $500, and motor-vehicle transportation costs also vary widely.

The pricing and flexibility of travel times, coupled with the ability to bring aboard cars, motorcycles, bicycles and kayaks, appeal to a broad spectrum of travelers, Gaiptman said.

"Our typical passengers are quite diverse, with many families, and senior travelers from the ages of 35 to 65 on average," Gaiptman said.

For travelers who are not so independent-minded but would enjoy a taste of the ferry system along with a more structured tour, a range of packages that includes ferry travel is offered by operators (see story below).

The system's newest vessel, the Fairweather, recently departed for Alaska from the Derecktor Shipyard in Bridgeport, Conn. The ship is the first high-speed vehicle and passenger ferry built in the U.S.

The Fairweather will pass through the Panama Canal and head up the West Coast for Juneau; its arrival was slated for late March. The vessel accommodates up to 250 passengers and 35 vehicles and is expected to reduce sailing times by half.

The vessel is scheduled to begin serving the southeastern communities of Juneau, Haines, Skagway and Sitka in May. Roads do not connect these communities, so the ferry provides a much-needed link for locals and visitors.

The Alaska Marine Highway will take delivery of the Chenega, a virtual twin of the Fairweather, in 2005.

For online reservations or for more information on the ferry system, with routes, rates, schedules and amenities, visit www.alaska.gov/ferry.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Operators combine ferries with land tours

JUNEAU, Alaska -- Several land-tour operators incorporate trips aboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system with short stays that take in some of the most popular segments offered aboard the ferries.

The following is a sampling of some of the land-cruise options available this spring and summer:

• Cardinal Tours includes the one-night Juneau-Prince Rupert, British Columbia, segment of the ferry system's Inside Passage voyage in its 23-day Legendary Alaska Highway program, which originates in Calgary, Alberta, and visits the Yukon Territory.

Four departures are available in July and August. The trip costs $3,451 per person, double, or $3,521, depending on departure date. Rates are guaranteed in U.S. dollars and exclude air and taxes. For more details, call (800) 263-2106 or visit www.cardinaltours.com.

• Nagel Tours incorporates a ferry trip in its Alaska Midnight Sun itinerary, which travels through Alberta and the Yukon on its way to Alaska. The one-night, Juneau-Prince Rupert cruise segment is featured in the 18-night itinerary, with three departures in June and July.

Rates are converted from Canadian currency to U.S. dollars at the time of purchase. At press time, the price was $2,796 per person, double. Rates exclude air and taxes. For more information, call (800) 562-9999 , e-mail [email protected] or visit www.nageltours.com.

• Pacific Gold Coast Tours features a two-night stay aboard the Alaska Marine Highway ferry on its 20-day Journey to Alaska program, which originates in Vancouver.

Ports of call include Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Prince Rupert, Sitka and Wrangell. A total of seven departure dates are offered from May through July. The program costs $3,315, which excludes air and taxes. Early-booking discounts are available. For details, call (800) 667-8122 or visit www.pacificgoldtours.com.

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