Cruising past the noble of ALASKA

Even at 10:30 p.m., the Promenade Deck on Sitmar Cruise Line's Tss Fairsea seems aptly named: Surely the ship's entire population is strolling here. They've come out to watch the sun. Or, more correctly, the sun set. And just a few minutes later it does. It disappears behind a cloud, thence the horizon. The landscape turns lavender and smokey . . . flat in this light, almost as if painted by the hand of a second-rate artist.

Not that this scenery is second rate. "To the lvoer of pure wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. No excursion that I know of may be made into any other American wilderness where so marvelous an abundance of noble newborn scenery is so charmingly brought to view," wrote naturalist John Muir of his first visit here is 1870.

"On many voyages there is nothing but sea for days," comments the Fairsea's captain, Giuseppe Quartini. Not so here, he adds. In the narrow fjordlike setting of the Inside Passage to Alaska, spruce-and-cedar forested mountains rise steeply from the water's edges. Waterfalls and waterfowl come into camera-ious denizens of the deep -- otters, harbor seals, porpoises, humpback and killer whales. Overhead an occasional bald eagle floats on currents of cool air, his majestic wingspan almost dwarfed by the Fairweather Range around him.

There is other wildlife here: bears and mountain goats and marmots. They share the mountain's upper flanks with ice fields and, curiously enough, new-growth scrub and wildflowers.

It's no wonder, then, that even at 10:30 p.m. many of the ship's 900 passengers are vying for space at the rail to get a good look at the natural diorama. Few of us have seen sights like this outside of museums and the National Geographic magazine. Fewer still have seen the sun this late in the day.

The Fairsea makes seven trips to Alaska each year. In 1981 she will leave San Francisco on June 6 and 20; July 4 and 18; and August 1, 15 and 29.For these cruises early reservations are advisable.

The two June sailings fall into the "value season" and, as of now, prices will run from a low of $1,895 to a high of $3,475 (the difference is figured on location of deck and whether you want an inside or outside cabin). Peak season prices run $1,995 to $3,575.

Prices generally are based on double occupancy. For children over 2 and under 13 sharing a cabin with two full-fare adults, the fare will be $695 (value season, $665).

If the price seems steep, consider that it is the only price you pay (excepting shore tours). All meals are included and all entertainment -- and there are as much of both as you can handle:

For instance, there are several lounges for dancing -- as well as lessons for those who can't -- and several types of music, so just about every musical taste can be satisfied.

There are professional entertainers aboard who put on shows nightly and there are first-run movies.

There is space and equipment for deck games and skeet shooting; there are two card rooms and, if you tastes run to, say, Scrabble, the gameboards are provided.

There are library and child-care facilities (the latter include a teen disco and "clubroom" for younger children. The kids even get their own swimming pool. There are several counselors aboard who do an excellent job of keeping them out of mischief andm out from under adult feet).

There are two other swimming pools, plus the ship is equipped with a small but fairly well-appointed gym.

The Alaskan towns Fairsea visits seem to have to fight nature for their very existence. They are strung along narrow spits of land, forced to sprawl lengthwise because the mountains won't let them move inland. We steamed past Ketchikan for three-quarters of an hour before reaching our anchorage off the downtown area. And Juneau, "the longest city in the world," stretches some 40 miles.

In Ketchikan, be sure you have some salmon. In Juneau, the Alaskan capital, you can take a well-laid-out walking tour of the city or, right near downtown, pick up a road that leads you straight to Perseverance Trail on Mt. Juneua. Ten miles or so of pleasant hiking feels good after a week on shipboard.

Juneau is the gateway to Glacier Bay. And Glacier Bay may just be one of the wonders of the modern world. It is a reserve of nearly 5,000 square miles wherein can be seen 16 active tidewater glaciers and ice-choked waterways.

The natives call Alaska's glaciers "white thunder." And, indeed, their immense presence, white and silent, has a thunderous effect. The only noise except our own is the gunshot crackling of an occasional calf -- a chunk of the glacier that breaks loose and crashes into the sea.

The glaciers here are remnants of a general ice advance which began about 4, 000 years ago. The ice fronts reached their maximum limits about 1750, but since then the slowly warming climate has brought a general meeting. "When Captain Vancouver was here in 1794, this was all ice," Captain Quartini says of one inlet we cruise through.

Our next stop is Sitka, which has a strong Russian heritage, easily seen in the city's onion-domed churches. And, finally, Victoria, British Columbia, the garden city (a shore tour to Butchart Gardens is a must).

Shore tours in general on this Alaska voyage are good and not out of line pricewise. They tend to add to the scenic thrills and, maybe, offer a little extra adventure: In Juneau, for instance, you can board a float plane at the end of the ship's gangway for some icecap "flightseeing" ($50). In Ketchikan, you can cruise the waterfront in a small launch ($24) or head for a fresh salmon feast ($15).

An important practical hint: Do take warm clothes on your Alaska cruise. To residents of the Lower 48 the very word "Alaska" conjures up pictures of fur-clad Eskimos, and while summer temperatures in the southeastern part of the state reach well into the 60s, sometimes the 70s, a cruise to Glacier Bay might just require similar attire to you. The sea breezes are cool even when you are in direct sunlight. When there is no sun . . . well, most cruise lines plying northern waters each summer suggest their passengers pack raincoats. Certainly Sitmar does.In Glacier Bay it rains eight days out of ten.

It would be well, too, to dress in layers. That way you can stay comfortable with the simple addition or subtraction of a sweater or jacket or both.

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