Alaskans are coming up on one of the most interesting seasons of the year. Some call it "spring," but it's hard to reconcile a full-blown springtime experience when kids are digging Easter eggs out of the snowbank.
"Breakup" is closer to the truth—but that's only true when the sun warms the rotting snow during the late afternoon.
Still, winter is losing its grip on the Last Frontier during April and May. The bright sun and longer days are leading more companies to offer some new travel options, some great deals—or both.
Down in Seward, Kenai Fjords Tours and Major Marine Tours are offering cruises in Resurrection Bay to see the migrating gray whales. These four-hour cruises head out to the head of the bay for views of a variety of wildlife. In addition to the gray whales, you may see some orcas or humpback whales. Watch for otters, puffins, eagles, Dall sheep and maybe even a bear. Prices are $80-$84 per adult.
If you're really interested in seeing the orca whales, Major Marine Tours offers an "Orca Quest" cruise starting on May 14, which specifically chases the pods of killer whales that roam Resurrection Bay.
After your cruise, be sure and check out the Alaska Sealife Center. The touch-pool for invertebrates, the giant tanks for fish and sea lions and the big aviary enclosure make for a fun family outing.
Keep driving south to Homer. Land's End Resort offers the "Getaway Package" featuring overnight accommodations and dinner for two between now and mid-May. Packages start at $139 per couple.
Over in Whittier, Phillips Cruises sails the Klondike Express on the "26 Glaciers Cruise" starting May 4. This five-hour cruise goes up into College Fjord—and you really can count the glaciers! The Klondike Express's cruising speed averages 34 knots, or just under 40 miles per hour. It is fast!
Up in Fairbanks, the aurora-watching season ends around mid-April. And while the summer rush doesn't start until mid-May, there's a full month when the weather's good and the nights are bright. Northern Alaska Tour Company calls it the "Midnight Sun season" and offers discounted rates ($179 per person) on their Arctic Circle roadtrip from Fairbanks. It's a long drive, but there are plenty of stops along the way. You cross the Yukon River on the way up to the Arctic Circle — and you'll get some up-close looks at the trans-Alaska pipeline, too. But mostly, you'll see the big country north of Fairbanks while it's still coated in snow. Bring your sunglasses!
If you want to get an early jump on visiting Denali Park, two of the biggest lodges are offering early-season discounts. The Denali Princess opens May 9 and offers rooms starting at $88.88. Next door, the McKinley Chalet Resort offers rooms at $88 between May 16 and May 24. Princess also is offering train/hotel packages from Anchorage to Denali Park in May for $299 per person for a roundtrip train ride and a two-night stay.
Down in Southeast Alaska, the cruise season starts on April 30 in Juneau with the arrival of the Ruby Princess. That means the Mt. Roberts Tram will be open, as well as the seasonal shops between the cruise ship berths, and downtown will be open for business.
"Uncruise Adventures" will arrive in Juneau in mid-April with its fleet of small ships. The company is launching an "Alaska Awakening" campaign to encourage visitors to come in April. Rather than sailing from Seattle, these smaller ships cruise between Juneau and Ketchikan, slipping into bays and fjords that the big ships can't reach.
"April and May are some of the best times to be in Southeast Alaska," said Sarah Scoltock of Uncruise Adventures. "The weather is good, often with less rain than you see in July and August. The bears are out and the snow comes right down to the water. It's different scenery," she said.
Uncruise's ships carry between 22 and 86 guests. Prices for the early-season cruises start at $3,345 per person, double occupancy. The seven-night cruise price includes all shore excursions and activities.
For the full-on cruise experience, you can sail on the Coral Princess south from Whittier on May 16. The seven-night itinerary includes stops in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway, before ending in Vancouver, B.C. Prices start at $449 per person for an inside cabin. Book with AlaskaCruises.com.
If you want to jump-start your summer travel plans, visit the Alaska Summer Showcase at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on March 31 (disclosure: I organize the event). Twenty-five travel companies will share details and special offers for summer trips. There are lots of travel prizes, food trucks and live music (AlaskaSummerShowcase.com).
For those who want to escape breakup, there's a nice collection of airfare deals during late April and early May. Fly from Anchorage to San Diego between April 12 and 28 for $363 round trip on Delta. Fly nonstop from Anchorage to L.A. on Alaska Air for $362 round trip, starting April 12. It's about the same price on Delta to fly from Anchorage to either Phoenix or Las Vegas during the last week of April. Or, fly to Florida! You can get a good deal from Anchorage to Orlando, as low as $435 round trip on Delta for travel during the last half of April.
So if you've got spring fever, there are good travel deals in the air, on the ground or on the water. Don't forget your camera!