Looks like Alaska and the cruise industry have decided to make nice after all.
The former has lowered its controversial head tax from $46 to $34.50 (even lower with reimbursed port fees factored in); the latter has dropped the lawsuit it filed over the tax, and several cruise lines, including Disney and Oceania, have announced they’ll start offering their first-ever Alaska itineraries.
What’s that mean for Alaska-bound travelers this summer? Not much really as the fee reduction won’t take effect until October and Disney and Oceania aren’t coming until next year. In the meantime, the state will likely see 140,000 fewer visitors this year due to previously announced cruise line pull outs.
On the other hand, travelers heading north this summer will find that, cruise controversy notwithstanding, towns and tour operators across the state haven’t been sitting on the sidelines. From Southeast to the Far North, here are eight new ways to experience The Last Frontier:
The big cruise ships don’t visit Wrangell and small ones seldom do (although Cruise West has added a stop this year). Even so, bear fans should mark their calendars for July 21–25 when the town will hold its first annual Bearfest. Dedicated to all things ursine, the festival will feature workshops and a symposium, along with live music, street games and an art fair. While in town, visitors can also charter trips to the Anan Wildlife Observatory, where black bears feast on runs of pink salmon from late June to late August.
Day-visitors to Alaska’s capital city often find themselves having to choose between bear watching, whale watching or glacier viewing. For those who want to do it all, Alaska Galore Tours offers a six-hour wilderness trifecta via its new, 38-foot landing craft. The Whales, Bears and Glacier tour combines a 2.5-hour nature cruise, a hike to a salmon stream in the bear-friendly woods of Chichagof Island and a 30-minute flightseeing trip over several local glaciers.
Birdwatchers have always flocked to Haines thanks to its proximity to the 48,000-acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which draws up to 3,000 of the birds each fall. This summer, visitors can get a sneak peek at the American Bald Eagle Foundation Museum which has opened an aviary with a bald eagle and three other raptors. After visiting, head for the preserve proper, just up the Haines Highway, a gorgeous drive that was named a National Scenic Byway last fall.
On May 22, the Anchorage Museum will unveil the culmination of its 10-year, $106-million expansion plan. Among the new offerings: the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, which will house more than 600 indigenous objects on loan from the Smithsonian Institution; the Imaginarium Discovery Center, a hands-on science center with more than 80 exhibits; a gallery of contemporary Alaska Native art, and a planetarium. When it’s time for a break, visitors can head outside to The Common, a two-acre urban forest with birch trees and benches.
Located at the remote southwestern end of the Kenai Peninsula, the tiny town of Seldovia (pop. 282) is poised to get a bit busier this summer with the launch of the Seldovia Bay Ferry, a new high-speed passenger ferry. The 83-foot, 150-passenger catamaran will begin service on May 26 and make three trips per day between Seldovia and Homer ($59 round trip). The run itself will be 45 minutes each way, although some sailings will add a half-hour scenic tour through Eldridge Passage.
Just up the coast from Seldovia (but usually reached from Homer across Kachemak Bay), Tutka Bay Lodge is enhancing its wilderness-lodge offerings this year with on-site culinary classes. Open to both day-visitors and overnight guests, the program highlights local seafood (halibut, salmon, crab, etc.) and seasonal produce (mushrooms, berries and homegrown vegetables), but takes a global approach that showcases a different cuisine (French, Indian, Japanese, etc.) each week.
Curious about life in Interior Alaska? Consider a stop at the Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitors Center, where new interpretive displays opened last fall. Using mixed-media and multiple dioramas, the main display offers a walk through the seasons, complete with summer fishing scenes, a fall hunting camp and a three-screen video presentation celebrating winter and spring “green up.” Other exhibits showcase everything from Athabaskan artifacts to major local industries to the remote communities that dot the vast boreal forest.
Finally, for those interested in ranging even farther afield, the National Park Service has opened a new Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in the Far North town of Kotzebue. Showcasing four regional park units — Cape Krusenstern, Bering Land Bridge, Noatak and Kobuk Valley — the facility will highlight the area’s natural history and Native culture through artifacts, exhibits and story-telling stations. The facility had a soft opening in December, but the official grand-opening ribbon will be cut on June 5.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.
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