As a popular destination on many travelers' bucket lists, Alaska offers nature, culture and luxury, but it doesn't have to break the bank. The year 2013, in fact, will be an especially good year to visit America's 49th state, thanks to added cruise values and extra memorable Northern Lights viewing. And there's more.
Here are some unique ideas to help maximize your next Alaska adventure.
Look Up, Catch Your Breath
NASA says the Solar Max is due in 2013, providing the best views of the aurora borealis in the past 50 years. Fairbanks, which sits under a unique ring-shaped region of the North Pole, will offer some of the best and most frequent sights. And many hotels will make sure you don't miss them: They'll place special wake-up calls to your room as soon as the Northern Lights appear.
See bears, Skip whales
OK, whale watching is a must-do on any Alaskan adventure. But drop anchor on Kodiak Island and venture inland for a special chance to view some of the 3,000 brown bears that call this island home. The Kodiak Brown Bear Center recently opened and allows small groups to venture into unspoiled territory that had been off-limits for almost two decades. Visits require minimum three-night stays (in modern cabins).
Go for the Air Tour, Skip the Land Tour
A floatplane ride or helicopter tour is an essential part to any Alaska vacation. Both can be done as day trips so they fall within a cruise line itinerary. Some helicopter tours include mountain top landings and outdoor activities such as hiking and dog-mushing, the popular Alaska sport using dog sleds. Special to 2013 might be an aerial trek to the peak of Mt. McKinley, North America's tallest mountains, since this year marks the 100th anniversary of its very first summit; Rust's Flying Service is introducing a "Pilot for a Day" program, where adventurers are led on six-hour, customizable tours by an experienced Alaska bush pilot. And if you're an avid skier, seek out a heli-ski operator, which will chopper you direct to classic slalom venues such as Alyeska Resort (45 minutes south of Anchorage) and Tsaina Lodge (near Valdez), which just reopened after a six-year revamp and can get 900 inches of snow a year.
Ride the Sea Cycles, Skip the Kayak
This adventure opportunity is new in 2013: Ketchikan-based and family-owned Alaska Sea Cycle Tours allows tourists to hop on a vessel that looks like a cross between and bike and a boat. It glides like a kayak but is powered by pedals, and it offers a unique way to explore the wildlife, history and culture of Ward Cove and Totem Bight State Park.
Embrace the Canopy, Get Off the Water
For those folks seeking the ultimate Alaska adventure, Alaska Canopy Adventures offers an eco-adventure tour including ziplining through a rainforest, channel-crossing on a speed boat and off-roading on a 4x4 all-terrain vehicle. Available out of Juneau and Ketchikan, these half-day tours feature the largest canopy courses in Alaska and offer an extraordinary sightseeing experience for thrill-seekers.
Ride the Highway, Pass on the Passage
Many cruise itineraries will take you down the iconic Inside Passage. But 2013 might be the year to ride the Alaska Marine Highway, celebrating 50 years of service. This 3,500-mile route connects Bellingham, Washington to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and is a veritable lifeline to some 30 communities, many of which are not connected by roads. The views are stunning, and with a unique promotion this year -- visitors can win travel through a monthly Golden Ticket giveaway -- they can also be free.
Take a Seat at the Chef's Table, Skip the Jerky
Alaskan cuisine at its best just got easier to savor. The popular Alaska Fish House in Ketchikan launched its Chef's Table for 2013. The nightly four-course menu will change with each catch of the day. If wild salmon, halibut, black cod and Dungeness crab make your mouth water, pull up a seat.
Stay on a Luxury Cruise Liner, Skip the Igloo
Fulfill the fantasy of floating past majestic icebergs, orcas and humpback whales while having the luxurious amenities aboard an Alaskan cruise. Major cruise lines such as Celebrity and Princess are adding more ships and departures to Alaska in 2013 and, with more cabins to fill, we're expecting extra deals, especially for May and September travel.