Monday, June 21, 2010

Cruising on the train

SEWARD, Alaska – “Black bears at three o'clock!” the engineer called, and a hundred heads swiveled as the Alaska Railroad's Cruise Train ground its way along a rocky outcrop deep in the Chugash National Forest.

This 114-mile journey from Ted Stevens Airport outside Anchorage to the quay at Seward where cruise ships dock seemingly is one of the better-kept tourist secrets of the Far North. The Holland-America factotum running our land tour from Fairbanks said his charges almost never took the twisting 4 1/2-hour trip, preferring to save money by taking a bus from downtown Anchorage to their ship in two hours. Too bad for them.

They could have spotted bear, moose and eagles from the train, which follows the coast eastward along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, then southward deep through the wild interior bush below glacier-strewn coastal peaks to the Bay of Alaska. The mountains loom close over the twisting line, affording sights you can't see from the highway.

Except for its start at the brand-new Alaska Railroad terminal at the airport, the Cruise Train follows the route of the Coastal Classic (which begins at the downtown depot in Anchorage). Each day it carries a different load of passengers for whichever liner – Holland-America, Princess, Celebrity and so on – has docked at the lone cruise liner quay at Seward. You get off the plane, hop on the train, and debark right at your ship. That couldn't be more convenient.

Two of the five cars are full-dome cafe lounges with tables for passengers willing to pay a little extra. An attendant serves a decent light lunch and drinks all along the route. There's a locomotive at either end of the train so that it doesn't have to be turned at each terminal – and I'm not sure it can be anyway.

The ride is a slow one, with a lot of 30-m.p.h. running – the best kind for sightseeing. What's more, the vestibule windows are kept open for. photography, something you'll never see aboard super-safety-conscious Amtrak in the Lower 48. (The engineers of the Cruise Train will yell at you if they catch you with your head or camera out the window. They had to do that dozens of times throughout the trip. Of course I was not one of the guilty, was I now?)

I do think the smart cruise passenger will opt for the Cruise Train, which costs a first-class supplement of $48 per person over the bus. It's one of the least costly items on the Alaskan shore-excursion menu, and in my opinion one of the best.

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