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Published Jul. 6, 2006

Distance and expense are two logical reasons for a Floridian to avoid a trip to Alaska. But the smashing scenic rewards is the one great reason to ignore the negative. Imagine Switzerland enlarged to giant size and bounded by oceans. That's Alaska.

You can walk on a glacier, do battle with a king salmon, watch high-jumping whales and fish-catching grizzly bears. You can pan for gold, try saltwater kayaking, and meet Eskimos and Indians in their villages. And (weather permitting) you can see the icy crown of North America's highest mountain.

First, though, some questions _ and the size of the list is an indication of the size of the destination:

What is your vacation budget?

How long can you be away?

Do you prefer touring with a group or on your own?

Would you enjoy a few days on a cruise ship? Or would you rather drive the Alaska Highway and go port to port by Alaska ferry?

What are your outdoor interests _ fishing, rafting, hiking?

The trouble with Alaska is that it is just too big to cover in one visit.

Spread across the top of the world is a frontier state 2,400 miles wide and almost 1,500 miles long from north to south. Add 33,000 miles of coastline, more than 5,000 glaciers, one (named Malaspina) that is bigger than Rhode Island.

And yet Alaska has only about one resident for each of its 586,400 square miles. That's less than the populations of Pinellas or Hillsborough counties.

Then there is the weather.

On any summer day it can be 90 degrees in the interior city of Fairbanks, frosty around Barrow in the High Arctic, and mild as Seattle or San Francisco in Juneau, the capital.

The challenge for visitors is to design an itinerary that samples the best of Alaska without fracturing the budget.

Package tours are convenient and relatively cheap; nearly half of the 1-million tourists a year travel on packages or travel-agent-arranged trips. But traveling independently usually is more fun than touring with a herd. You set the schedule. Check into snug bed-and-breakfast inns instead of tourist hotels. Get to know the hospitable Alaskans, close-up.

Sounds good, but roaming on your own can be a more-expensive way of getting around Alaska _ especially if you decide to take the family car or RV.

You may wish you were a kid again.

Because if you're young or young at heart, you can see Alaska on the cheap: Bike, hike, camp along the way. Ride the state's great passenger and car ferries from town to town. And board the regular passenger cars of the Alaska Railroad, instead of the tour companies' fancy dome cars that are hooked to the state-owned railroad.

Alaska's ferries are convenient for visitors on do-it-themselves itineraries. But they are not bargains for passengers with vehicles.

Example: Cost of carrying an RV in the 21-foot-long category just between Bellingham, Wash. (the southern terminus of the Alaska ferry system) and Ketchikan (Southeastern Alaska's gateway city) is about $550. This is in addition to a fare of $164 for each adult passenger.

To transport that same rig between Bellingham (about 80 highway miles north of Seattle) to Haines, Alaska (and connect there with the Alaska Highway network), costs about $870 _ plus $240 for each adult.

And then there is the hassle of trying to reserve vehicle space aboard the crowded ferries in the summer season.

Suggestion: Leave the car home and join the footloose foot passengers on the ferries. Don't bother trying to book a stateroom. Ferry cabins sell out for the entire summer in a just a few days after reservations open each December.

The Bellingham-Ketchikan trip of 740 sea miles takes only 36 hours. You will be on deck most the time, anyhow, to watch the scenery. The ferries provide big recliner chairs that are great for sleeping, or you can put the bedroll on deck and sleep there.

For those who have never taken a package tour, this might be the occasion: Booking package tours _ or segments of them _ may be the best way to save money touring Alaska. The major tour operators get volume discounts for hotel rooms and excursions; in some cases they own the hotels and lodges.

Example: One of the leading cruise-and-tour companies this year is offering a 10-day package tour priced from $2,190 a person that opens with a cruise through Southeastern Alaska's scenic Inside Passage. Book by Feb. 23, and deduct $500 per person. That lowers the base price to less than $170 a day.

That price would be hard to beat, compared with buying your own groceries, lodging and fuel on a swing through the north country.

Air fare is additional. But the major tour companies also can arrange budget-category air travel from their gateway cities in the "lower 48."

This 10-day package includes:

Cruising on a liner from Vancouver, British Columbia (the turnaround port for most cruise ships sailing Alaskan waters), with Alaska port calls in Ketchikan and Juneau.

A small-vessel cruise north from Juneau to the old gold-rush town of Skagway.

A ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad into the high country above Skagway. The narrow-gauge line is a genuine nugget left from the Klondike gold stampede almost 100 years ago.

Bus transportation to Whitehorse, capital of Canada's Yukon Territory, then north via the Alaska Highway into Alaska's interior.

A side trip by bus to mountain-rimmed Valdez, where tankers load crude oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline. Then a day cruise across glacier-studded Prince William Sound from Valdez to the port of Whittier.

From Whittier, passengers travel by rail and bus to Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. That's Day Nine.

The next day, the tour members fly from Anchorage to Seattle.

Or, they can pay $475 more for a two-night extension from Anchorage to Denali National Park before flying home. Denali's jewel is 20,320-foot-high Mount McKinley, the continent's highest peak.

That's just one Alaska sampler. Tour brochures list dozens of itineraries for the season ahead.

But here is a Plan B strategy for mixing some group travel with a generous helping of exploring on your own:

Book passage on a small vessel (such as the 80-passenger Sheltered Seas of Alaska Sightseeing Tours/Cruise West) for a five-day voyage through the Inside Passage. The ships are close enough to spot bears on the shoreline, seals on the tiny icebergs next to the great glacier walls.

This is the part of the trip when you treat yourself to the high end of the budget for one of Alaska's choice experiences. Fares begin at about $825 a person, including lodging, most meals and most shore excursions. Sheltered Seas passengers stay ashore at night and cruise only in daylight hours, so as not to miss the sights. Some of the large cruise ships cannot navigate the Inside Passage so they sail along the outer shores, often at night.

When your smaller ship pauses in Ketchikan, go sea-kayaking with an instructor from Southeast Exposure, a local outfit. Cost is $50 for a three-hour outing. Or go salmon fishing; half-day trips range from about $100 to $150. Ketchikan has several charter offices.

Petersburg, a tidy fishing village with a Scandinavian heritage, is a highlight of Sheltered Seas cruises. Activities there include a smorgasbord dinner and a close encounter with a nearby glacier.

In Juneau, catch a helicopter for a walkabout on another glacier. Cost is about $145. Then feast at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake; prices are $22 for adults, $15 for children ages 12 or younger.

You could fly home from Juneau. But first, a suggestion: As long as you're already in the heart of Southeastern Alaska, catch a ferry from Juneau to Sitka, the former capital of Russian America. It's a nine-hour crossing. And then head for gold-rush Skagway, just 4 { hours by ferry from Juneau. In Skagway, look up Steve Hites ,owner of the Skagway Street Car Co. He can tell you all about the gunfight that ended the career of "Soapy" Smith, Skagway's outlaw leader, back in the days of '98.

And come again some day. There's more of Alaska to discover.

Stanton H. Patty, born and reared in Alaska, is the retired assistant travel editor of the Seattle Times.

If you go

For more information on Alaska, contact the following offices. When making phone calls, take into account the time difference, which can be six hours earlier that Eastern Standard Time.

Alaska Tourism Marketing Council haws a free, 120-page vacation planner; call (800) 862-5275, or write to the Council at P.O. Box 196710, Anchorage, AK 99519-6710.

Alaska Division of Tourism, P.O. Box 110801, Juneau, AK 99811; phone (907) 465-2010.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game (for sport-fishing information), P.O. Box 25526, Juneau, AK 99802; phone (907) 465-4112.

Southeast Alaska Tourism Council, P.O. Box 20710, Juneau, AK 99802; phone (800) 423-0568.

Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, 131 Front St., Ketchikan, AK 99901; phone (907) 225-6166.

Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau, 134 Third St., Juneau, AK 99801; phone (907) 586-2201.

Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1600 A Street, Suite 200, Anchorage, AK 99501; phone (907) 276-4118.