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In early April, the Inside Passage starts to awaken. Migrating whales begin to arrive from Hawaii, while hungry bears shake off hibernation and search the shoreline for food. It's also the start of Alaska's quieter — but increasingly popular — spring cruise season.
"People are starting to clue into the virtue of the shoulder season,” which includes both spring and early fall, says Zak Kirkpatrick, marketing director for the tiny Alaskan Dream line, whose sailings start unusually early — in mid-March. “It's a great time to come to see Alaska."
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Traditionally Alaska's cruises sailed from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but recently — as interest in Alaska has surged, with 33 percent more visitors arriving in 2017 than in 2008 — a few companies have begun to stretch the season, launching their cruises in March or April, and sailing until the beginning of October.
Keep in mind: It can be chilly. You may need to break out the puffy coats and fleece hats at times, with temperatures often peaking in the 50s, even in May. On the plus side, spring is the driest season. “It's a little bit of a lottery, but if it's beautiful, it's unbelievably beautiful in April,” says Bill Fletcher of Holland America Line.
Another benefit to choosing spring or fall sailings? More elbow room. You can explore ports and popular sites without crowds. “Not everybody wants to be in port with two other big cruise ships,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic, who has seen Alaska's cruise season “getting a bit longer every year."
"We literally had the wilderness to ourselves,” says Donna Higinbotham, an Arizona travel agent who led a group of 12 on an eight-day UnCruise trip from Sitka to Juneau that departed on April 27. “We were there before any of the big cruise lines started their sailings.”
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And on the first night of their voyage the crew woke them up to see the northern lights — a spectacle rarely seen in the summer. “It was an amazing experience,” Higinbotham says.