by Andrew Collins
Cruising and Touring Alaska – A Primer on Gay Travel in America’s Last Frontier
I recently returned from my second trip to America’s largest and least populated (by density) state, Alaska. These facts aren’t a big surprise to most people, but sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the state’s sheer dimensions – for example, Alaska is about 15 times bigger than Pennsylvania, but Pennsylvania has 17 times the number of residents. Beyond coming up with startling (and geographically geeky) trivia facts like these, it’s difficult to describe Alaska’s terrain and scenery without resorting to trite superlatives.
It’s truly a land you need to visit to even begin to comprehend. The leading highlights for most visitors are up-close views of massive glaciers (dozens of them in some areas), a fascinating array of wildlife and North America’s highest peak (20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, in Denali National Park). Alaska also offers some of the world’s most exciting kayaking, fishing, rafting, hiking and camping (not to mention dog-sledding). This is a state rich in history – from indigenous culture to tales of Russian trappers and U.S. gold-fortune seekers. And the abundance of delicious fresh seafood makes this a terrific dining destination. Alaska is ideally suited to outdoorsy travelers, but – thanks to cruise ships and scenic railroads – it’s also relatively easy to enjoy the natural beauty from a comfy and controlled environment.
Is There a Gay Scene in Alaska?
Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t recommend traveling to Alaska expressly to partake of gay nightlife or to meet other “family.” Anchorage is a large, modern city with a couple of gay bars, including the extremely fun and friendly dance club Mad Myrna’s (http://www.alaska.net/~madmyrna) – you’ll also find some excellent museums and many stellar restaurants in Anchorage. The state’s second largest city, Fairbanks, has a small but active GLBT scene, some of it tied in Alaska’s oldest college, the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Juneau, with a population of about 30,000, is the state capital and is generally considered the most progressive city in the state – a fair number of gay folks live here, and bars and restaurants are generally quite friendly. Also noteworthy is tiny but funky Talkeetna, midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park. This cool little village is a great base for exploring Denali and a haven of free-spirits (it was the inspiration for TV’s Northern Exposure). Throughout Alaska, and especially around Anchorage, you’ll find many gay-owned and gay-friendly inns and B&Bs. There’s a good list of these at PurpleRoofs.com (http://www.purpleroofs.com/usa/alaska/alaskaregion.html).
An excellent general GLBT resource for the state is BentAlaska.com, a website with events, news, and organizations of interest to the community, plus a list of gay-friendly businesses.
Taking a Cruise in Alaska
Even if you’re not especially enamored of cruise vacations, traveling by boat is without question the best way to see southeastern Alaska’s scenery, including areas like Glacier Bay National Park and College Fjord. Many major cruise lines offer Alaska cruises, with Holland America Line (http://www.hollandamerica.com) and Princess Cruises (http://www.princess.com) offering the greatest variety of itineraries, along with the exceptional line of smaller, upscale ships, Cruise West (http://www.cruisewest.com).
These are all extremely gay-friendly and gay-popular cruise lines. Several GLBT-oriented tour operators, notably RSVP Vacations (http://www.rsvpvacations.com), Olivia (http://www.olivia.com), Atlantis (http://www.atlantisevents.com) book all-gay charter trips on some of the major lines that ply Alaska waters, including Holland America and Princess, as well as Carnival (http://www.carnival.com), Celebrity (http://www.celebritycruises.com), Norwegian (http://www2.ncl.com), and Royal Caribbean (http://www.royalcaribbean.com). Also note that such ultra-luxurious lines as Silversea (http://www.silverseaships.com) and Regent Seven Seas (http://www.rssc.com) regularly visit Alaska.
Even on cruises booked to the general public, you’ll nearly always find gay and lesbian passengers (and certainly some crew). And on these cruises, there’s usually at least one and sometimes several GLBT mixers or meet-ups onboard during the week. If you’d like to find other gay travelers booked on the same cruise, or read other GLBT feedback related to cruise travel, check out the gay/lesbian cruising forum at Cruisemates.com (http://www.cruisemates.com/forum/gay-lesbian-cruising).
I can speak very positively about Alaska cruises based on my recent sailing aboard Holland America’s exceptionally well-outfitted Statendam. I traveled with my family, seven of us altogether, and we chose a particularly glacier-intensive itinerary, through the Inside Passage, with calls at Ketchikan, Juneau (my favorite), and Skagway, plus a day each sailing through Glacier Bay and College Fjord. I’m not, for the record, a general fan of cruise vacations – just a personal preference, as I’m more partial to the freedom of road-tripping, and traveling without a set itinerary. But this Holland America cruise was a wonderful adventure from start (out of Vancouver) to finish (in Seward). And if you are planning a trip with a few friends or relatives, a cruise can be ideal in terms of logistics, value and the pure fun of sharing countless memorable experiences together.
Alaska cruises range greatly in price, starting for as little as $600 per person, based on double-occupancy, with an inside cabin on one of the less-fancy ships that visit the region, such as the Carnival Spirit or Norwegian Star – this is also assuming you book during the shoulder months (May and September). For a stateroom with balcony on an upscale line like Holland America, expect to pay $1,500 or more, depending on the size of the cabin, the particular ship, and the time of sailing (June through August are high season). And if there were ever a great time to splurge for a balcony cabin, it’s an Alaska cruise, as a huge part of the experience is observing the magnificent scenery from aboard the ship.
If you’re averse to organized-group travel, would like to combine driving your own car with traveling by ship, or simply enjoy the excitement and relative affordability of ferry-boat transportation, consider a do-it-yourself version of an Alaska cruise: traveling the Alaska Maritime Highway System (http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.shtml). You can get around via this extensive network of state-operated ferries, just as many Alaskans get from town to town, either without a car or – at considerably greater expense – with one. This is an adventurous way to sail through the Inside Passage, starting either down in Bellingham, Washington, or much closer to Alaska in the Canadian port city of Prince Rupert. The ferry stops at all the major towns in southeast Alaska.
You can also sail via the ferry system through Prince William Sound and to Kodiak Island (with stops in Valdez, Cordova, Whittier, Homer, and others), or through southwestern Alaska’s remote Aleutian Chain, from Chignik all the way to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Again, traveling with a car and sleeping onboard in cabins can make this a fairly costly trip – figure on about $800 to $900 for two passengers, a car, and a cabin for a one-way trip from Port Rupert to Skagway. But you can choose an itinerary that allows you to get on and off at a number of ports, and it’s still cheaper and allows for greater flexibility than a cruise.
Touring Alaska on Land
Whether you reach Alaska by cruise ship, plane or car (the 2,300-mile drive from Great Falls, Montana to Fairbanks on the Alaska-Canada Highway is quite a memorable undertaking), it’s worth taking some time to explore some parts of the state’s rugged and largely unspoiled interior.
Many cruise lines offer one-way itineraries (as opposed to “loop” itineraries, that return you back to Vancouver, Seattle, or wherever the cruise started). These begin or end in Alaska, typically in a port that’s relatively close to Anchorage, such as Whittier or Seward. This latter community, home to the superb Alaska SeaLife Center aquarium and Kenai Fjords National Park, is where my recent Holland America cruise ended.
From here my family and I rented a couple of cars and explored the area, continued on to Anchorage, and then spent two nights up in Talkeetna. Other notable areas within relatively easy driving distance of Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula include the charming little vacation town of Girdwood, which is home to upscale Alyeska Resort; Homer, a popular fishing town; and Whittier, which has kayaking and boating on Prince William Sound plus access to several stunning glaciers. Farther afield and also well-worth investigating are Denali National Park (4 to 5 hours north of Anchorage), Fairbanks (2 hours farther north of Denali), and Valdez (6 to 7 hours east of Anchorage).
One way to explore the interior without a car, as far north as spectacular Denali National Park and on up to Fairbanks, is via the scenic Alaska Railroad (http://www.alaskarailroad.com). Many Alaska cruises offer post- or pre-trip options that includes several days on the railroad, or you can book a your own railroad package, which includes riding the railroad’s gleaming railcars past incredible scenery, tours at different stops, and overnight hotel accommodations. These packages range from five to 12 nights and start around $1,800 per person.
Shorter day trips are also available on the Alaska Railroad – among the most rewarding itineraries are the ride from Anchorage to Denali (starting around $150), and the Glacier Discovery Trains to Grandview (starting around $85).
Another great option is to book a trip with a local outfitter. Based in Fairbanks, Out in Alaska (http://www.outinalaska.com) is a highly reputable, gay-owned tour operator that offers exciting trips, both camping (starting around $1,800 for six days) and hotel-based (from $2,500 for seven days), to some of the state’s most scenic areas. Out in Alaska trips typically last a week to 10 days, have 5 to 10 participants, and include meals, transportation within the regions visited, activities, and – in the case of camping – gear.
Some Out in Alaska trips are oriented primarily toward sightseeing and might cover major national parks (Denali, Kanai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias) and the regions around Fairbanks and Anchorage. The more activity-driven trips – which can be themed around glacier trekking, hiking, rafting, or kayaking – venture into the state’s remote wilderness, from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Yukon or Copper rivers. The company also organizes small LGBT group adventures on some of the mainstream cruises offered through the Inside Passage.
However you explore this majestic land, it’s absolutely worth the time and effort to get yourself up here – and to plan on spending a minimum of seven days. When even seasoned travelers talk about “trips of a lifetime” and “most memorable travel experiences,” they’re often referring to adventures they’ve undertaken in Alaska.