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White Water Rafting
Princess Treats Alaska Cruisers Royally
Jeannie Block
(with photos by Bernie Block)

It's hard to believe that the Alaska Purchase from Russia in 1867 was called "Seward's Folly." But that was long before shiploads of tourists began flocking there in seagoing comfort, to return forever mesmerized by the dramatic picturebook vistas of America's last frontier.

To keep up with accelerating demand, Princess Cruises, of TV's "Love Boat" renown, has scheduled the second of its two new modern-age behemoths, the 77,000 gross-register-ton, 1,950 passenger Dawn Princess, to join her celebrated twin, Sun Princess, as part of the line's six-vessel fleet cruising these northern climes in 1997. The others are Crown Princess, a slightly smaller, 1,590-passenger megaship that we sailed here last season; her identical sister, Regal Princess; 1,490-passenger Star Princess and 1,200-passenger Sky Princess. In common they provide a typical signature Princess cruise.

To reach the Crown Princess we flew to Anchorage from Miami, catching up with the long time lag by (wisely) staying overnight in one of the big name hotels that Princess uses for passengers buying land arrangements. This also gave us a few hours the next morning to look around this rapidly growing city, before showing up at downtown center, where extraordinarily helpful Princess local staff got everyone on busses bound for the ship docked in Seward, a scenic three hours away. Our weeklong odyssey, ending inVancouver, would showcase an enchanting cross-section of America's 49th state.

Our late Saturday afternoon arrival in Seward left little time to nose around this very small town. Instead, we had a snack on board, then went to our cabin (all are lovely, roomily comfortable and have many amenities [184 have verandahs]), freshened up and went about exploring the six-year-old ship. The interiors, in essence, are soft and understated, featuring a symphony of crisp corals and blue and aqua tones accented with fine light woods, granites and polished metals.

Our starting point -- the Plaza Deck base of the glamorous three-deck, glass and brass atrium centerpiece. We mentally noted to return here later to relax at La Patisserie, which serves specialty coffees and fresh pastries all day. A state-of-the-art cinema and a circular shopping arcade displaying a broad range of name-brand as well as lesser-prices items (they even have "sidewalk" sales), are one deck up on the Emerald Deck.

More boutiques edge the atrium on Promenade deck. Then there's Kiplinger's, a handsomely styled midships lounge with an active dance floor; adjacent Intermezzo, a soothing piano bar and Chianti, a quiet nook to savor fine wines and caviar. The sophisticated two-level International Show Lounge anchors the forward end of the deck. Its horseshoe design promotes great sightlines for viewing production shows and top-notch variety talent.

Aft, the two-level Crown Court evokes all the telling decorative features of a high-society restaurant, with food and service to match. White-gloved afternoon high tea and late night buffets served here are well worth the extra calories. But you can work some off on the 1/6-mile tractioned outdoor running track on Sun Deck and the supervised, equipment-filled fitness center on lower Holiday Deck.

The Stage Door, on Dolphin Deck, is another striking lounge where dancers on an unusually large sunken dance floor can move to varying musical beats. And up on Lido deck, where fore and aft pools are located, we found a really cute bar called Characters. Big huggable stuffed ones decorated several chairs, and the libation list boasts "outrageous specialty drinks." They are.

The tempting aroma of fresh-baked pizza led us across the deck to Presto, where the Italian delicacy and liquid refreshment are available without charge thoughout the day. And if you prefer casual meals, Cafe Cubana, on the opposite end of the deck, serves appetizing buffet breakfast and lunch spreads that can be eaten either inside or outside in the refreshing Alaskan air.

The Dome, perched high-up on Sun Deck, an entertainment mecca in itself, is unique to the newest Princess vessels. It includes a vibrant casino, live music and a dance floor, and a decorous, glassed-in observation area - each section lighted to create a different mood.

These creature comforts and traditional shipboard programming, combined with fascinating scenery and a host of varied land excursions that enable you to fly, float, bike, walk on glaciers, pan for gold, sportsfish, view Alaskan culture, among so many other exhilarating activities, are what make the Alaskan cruise so excitingly attractive. On Sunday, for example, we cruised College Fjord, the decks lined with passengers viewing awesome, crusty-sheened glaciers named after Ivy League schools.

Monday, amidst blue-green ice chunks, we entered Glacier Bay National Park, watching as park rangers gave meaning to the brooding surroundings. The highlight, Marjorie Glacier, its jagged, twisted face towering 200 feet, is a desolute remnant of the Ice Age. Italian Captain Giuseppe Romano had carefully maneuvered his ship and stopped just a few hundred feet from the massive ice wall so passengers could watch for calving. The signal came, a rifle-like crack, and then a booming roar as chunks of ice crashed into the frigid water, creating a boiling turbulence.

Our first port call, Tuesday, was fabled Skagway, a lawless Gold Rush town in 1897-98, now restored by the National Park Service, which chronicles the incredible hardships faced by 30,000 prospectors vying to reach Yukon gold. Train and bus tours now follow the rugged route. Among other historically interesting excursions is an offbeat, lore-filled one that includes a visit to the grave of martyred Frank Read, who suffered a mortal wound taking out arch villain Soapy Smith. Abundant markers show that '97 and '98 were prosperous years for the local undertaker.

From our dock in Juneau, the state capital, we could watch float planes taking off on morning flights over the ice fields and to Taku Lodge for a salmon bake. We had booked another salmon bake closer to town, following a helicopter experience to Mendenhall Glacier. For a thrilling 20 minutes the five-passenger craft played worrisome tag with the surrounding peaks before swooping down to a gentle landing on the ice near a waiting guide.

The Bake, in a wooded canyon, was a gastronomic delight. The tasty salmon secret, we were told, is an alderwood fire. Gold panning is also part of the fun here. Later, we still had time to browse the many nice stores around the waterfront.

Another morning found us in Ketchikan touring Tlingit Indians' Saxman Village, learning about the strange figures on decades-old totem poles and watching masters carve new ones out of freshly cut red cedar trees. Afterwards, in town, fortified by a hot fish chowder from a dock-side cafe, we walked a few blocks to the once-infamous bordello area, Creek Street, built on stilts over Ketchikan Creek some 60 years ago. Most of the string of brightly painted houses are now shops, but Number 24, Dolly's House, is still filled with her things, plus a costumed madam -- a trip back to bawdier times.

A final day of cruising on the silent Inside Passage treated us to an unfolding tableau -- unending tiers of evergreens adorning sheer slopes, waterways meandering to distant craggy peaks and a warm sun glistening off patches of high-up, still-white snow.

Vancouver's vaunted skyline was slowly emerging with the Saturday morning dawn as the Crown Princess slid under landmark Lions Gate Bridge heading to the downtown Canada Place dock. Those who elected to stay over in the spectacular city would have even more delightful memories to take home.

Jeannie and Bernie Block have been roaming the worldwide travel beat for nearly 30 years. Jeannie is widely recognized for her insight into the cruise industry. Her articles and reports have appeared in an array of publications such as Cruise Travel and Travel Agent magazines as well as newspapers throughout the United States.

Bernie is an editor and photographer whose pictures graphically illustrate the stories they jointly cover. His work also appears in a variety of other publications.

Originally from Chicago, Jeannie & Bernie now call North Miami Beach home.

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