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Shoulder Season in Alaska

Back in February, I recommended that groups consider planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies during the autumn shoulder season, the period between the busy summer months and the winter ski season. Then, in our July/August issue, I recounted a delightful barge cruising experience on the Marne Canal in France aboard CroisiEurope’s Raymonde during late April, well before the crowds descend upon the continent’s popular destination areas for summer vacations.

Europeans traditionally get eight weeks of vacation time, much of which is spent on holiday excursions that result in massive congestion of historic cities, towns and attractions that surely were not designed to accommodate multitudes of tourists. Prices for land arrangements and airfares are also at their highest during the summertime, when temperatures are frequently hot and uncomfortable, so savvy U.S. group coordinators have long planned trips to Europe during the spring and autumn months to take advantage of more favorable conditions across the board.

This month, I’m extending my appreciation of shoulder season travel to Alaska, undoubtedly one of North America’s own top group vacation destinations. Spring 2017 once again proved to be an ideal time for a cruise to our 49th state, in this case a one-week, round-trip sailing from Seattle aboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam, from May 14 to May 21.

The more than 2,000 guests aboard enjoyed visits to Juneau, magnificent Hubbard Glacier in Yakutat Bay, Sitka, and Ketchikan and an evening in Victoria, British Columbia. Although I had previously embarked on numerous Alaska cruises on a variety of lines throughout the May-to-September season, excellent food, a wide variety of onboard entertainment options and exceptional shore excursions combined to make this one of the most memorable. 

Our itinerary did not feature the famed Inside Passage that is readily available on sailings of other ships, but it did offer lots of sunshine and bright-blue skies and many hours of daylight. We enjoyed exploring Alaska before countless land travelers’ typical arrival around Memorial Day weekend and the inevitable June hatch of the state’s large and ravenous mosquitos. Of course, the shoulder-season pricing was extremely attractive as well. Similar savings are available in September, although the substantially fewer daylight hours then prohibit cruisers from seeing the sights along the way during evening hours; this is somewhat balanced by the fact that bargain seekers will find “end of the season” sales underway in many port shops.

In addition to glacier viewing, our sightseeing, chosen from Holland America’s extensive lists of options, included sea kayaking; exploring pristine beaches and beautiful island rain forests, happily sans the rain; an air/sea trip to Misty Fjords National Monument; and a wonderful evening exploring Victoria’s extensively illuminated Butchart Gardens without having to contend with the larger daytime crowds.

For evenings aboard Oosterdam, in addition to the expected main showroom productions, the line has added the B.B. King’s Blues Club; the Lincoln Center Stage, a favorite of mine, being a classical music devotee; and Billboard Onboard, to provide programming that appeals to a wide range of interests. Furthermore, a specially commissioned audiovisual program complete with live music and incredible photography from BBC Nature was presented one evening to celebrate Holland America’s 70 years of exploring Alaska.