Seeing Alaska by public transportation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Q: I'm thinking of taking a trip to Alaska via the Inside Passage. Do the Alaska Marine Highway ships spend much time near the coast, or are coastal views just a distant rumor?

A: The ferryboats of the Marine Highway System that ply the waters of the Inside Passage of southeast Alaska are one of the great public transportation deals in the United States, offering // dramatic views of mountain scenery, as well as the occasional whale sighting.

The peak season for touring is from June to August, but there is one caveat: You must book early. The summer schedule is issued in November, and summer bookings open on the first business day in December; the ships are often booked up by April. Reservations are required for cabin and vehicle space and for walk-on passengers from the terminus in Bellingham, Wash., about 80 miles north of Seattle.

The four largest of the eight "blue canoes," as the state-run ferries are nicknamed, provide observation decks, bars, lounges and food service in addition to solaria with deck chairs. Staterooms can be rented for overnight trips on the Columbia, Malaspina, Matanuska and Taku. Passengers can bring along their cars, campers and pets. Two smaller craft, which do not have cabins, go to the less-frequented villages between the main stops.

The Alaska Marine Highway offers service to 32 ports along the 1,080 miles from Bellingham to Skagway. Stopovers are free, but must be arranged with exact dates, when you reserve or buy tickets.

The first stop for the ferries is in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the gateway for the stunning mountain scenery on the way to Ketchikan, Alaska, and points north. Other stops include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, Haines and Skagway. Representatives of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the United States Forest Service are on board many of the sailings to point out sights like bald eagles, sea lions and calving glaciers.

This summer, fares from Bellingham to Skagway, one way with no stopovers, are $246 for an adult, with an additional $239 double occupancy for a two-berth cabin and $581 for a vehicle up to 15 feet long. You are allowed to sleep in the deck chairs in the solarium, or pitch a tent on deck.

For more information and to make reservations, write to the Alaska Marine Highway System at Post Office Box 25535, Juneau, Alaska 99802-5535, or call (907) 272-4482 in Anchorage, or (800) 642-0066 in Alaska, the continental United States and Canada. For a free, 38-page color brochure on how to plan a trip along the Inside Passage, write to the Southeast Alaska Tourism Council, P.O. Box 20710, Juneau, Alaska 99802, or call (800) 423-0568.

Q: Since I was recently widowed, I am back in the singles world. I dearly love to travel, but refuse to pay single supplement. I would love to be able to see the Mayan ruins of Belize or the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. Is there an agency that caters to singles or that matches up traveling partners?

A: Single supplements -- the extra charge that tour operators impose on a person who occupies a room alone on a tour where double occupancy is standard -- is the bane of the lone traveler. The extra cost usually starts at 15 percent of the lodging cost.

First of all, it's worthwhile asking tour operators if they will arrange for participants to share lodging with others traveling alone to avoid the single supplement. This is known as a "share rate."

Some organizations that help travelers find their own companions:

The Travel Companion Exchange, P.O. Box 833, Amityville, N.Y. 11701, (516) 454-0880, publishes a bimonthly newsletter in which its 2,000 members place listings of about 50 words in length, describing themselves and their travel interests. Members can ask for a profile that single travelers fill out when they join. They get a profile a month, and pay $2 for each additional profile. Dues are $36 for six months for members seeking travel companions of the same sex and $66 for those looking for companions of the opposite sex. A sample newsletter with travel tips for singles is $4; a one-year subscription without matching services is $36.

Partners in Travel, 11660 Chenault St., Apt. 119, Los Angeles, BTC Calif. 90049, (310) 476-4869, publishes a semiannual traveler's directory with 100 to 150 listings arranged by age, with a first name and a code number. The organization forwards letters from respondents. You need not be a subscriber to place a listing.

Travel in Twos, 239 N. Broadway, Suite 3, North Tarrytown, N.Y. 10591, (800) 692-5252, a subsidiary of ATC travel agency, puts members in touch with one another by using questionnaires about such data as age, preferred destinations and favorite activities such as museums or the beach. Members can then plan their trip in a conference call with the agency. The $10 registration fee includes a quarterly newsletter listing group tours for singles; members are obliged to use the agency to make travel arrangements.

Q: Do you have any information on tours conducted in New York City and the surrounding area? Two years ago, we were on a tour that used Gray Line in New York. The driver was lost most of the time, we missed our tour appointments, and the windows on the buses were so dirty you couldn't really see the buildings. We would like to try again.

A: Alas, any tour is only as good as its guide and driver. It's not possible to predict the expertise of drivers and guides, and they vary even within the same tour company. As for the dirty bus you boarded, most of the big tour operators keep their vehicles fairly clean.

When looking for a tour, ask the hotel's concierge or hall porter for a recommendation. If they can't help, go to the places where tours originate and talk to people getting off buses after their tours.

The city has some dandy publications, free on request, that can help visitors. All the city's sightseeing services are included in a quarterly Calendar of Events brochure; send a postcard request to NYC Visitors Bureau, 2 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y. 10019, phone (212) 397-8222.

Also available: New York Visitors Guide and Map, a hotel guide, restaurant guide and 1994 directory of hotel packages.

The quarterly schedule of events includes Broadway shows, sports events, exhibits, museums, services like the sightseeing companies', children's activities, and nearly everything else a visitor wants to know.

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