A new rush to Alaska

AS THE days grow shorter in Sydney, my thoughts turn to Alaska and the 2012 season which starts this month. It's a fascinating region that remains popular with Australians; according to the current figures from the International Cruise Council Australasia, more than 19,000 of us took a cruise there in 2010, an increase of 8 per cent over the previous year.

Having cruised Alaska for three consecutive years, it's easy to see why its appeal endures. There's the wow-factor of its dramatic landscapes but there's also the opportunity to enjoy many one-of-a-kind experiences - dog-sledding on a glacier, flying around the peak of North America's tallest mountain and bear watching among the highlights.

What's new for cruise fans this year? If you enjoy combining native food with luxury, Silversea Cruises has invited the celebrated chef, Kirsten Dixon, on a special cruise from Tokyo to Seward, Alaska, to open its season. Dixon, a graduate of the French Le Cordon Bleu school and an Alaskan culinary legend, will give cooking demonstrations, host market trips and mastermind a five-course grand gourmet dinner.

The departure points for Alaska cruises are also expanding. Veteran of the region Princess Cruises has seven of its fleet cruising Alaska this year from Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco, offering the option of a pre- or post-cruise stay in one of these dynamic cities.

Another major player in the region, Holland America, has three new cruise tours available including a three-night stay at one of the state's most popular attractions, Denali National Park. From 10 to 20 days, these tours combine an Inside Passage cruise with an overland tour.

And finally, Alaska welcomes a newcomer in American Cruise Line this season. The 100-guest American Spirit will operate seven-night round trip cruises from Juneau, with the added bonus of free shore excursions.

Package of the week

Carnival Splendor will reposition from Los Angeles to New York next year by way of South America. As a result, Cruiseco has three cruise sectors to choose from, including return flights and pre- or post-cruise land stays.

The first sector, departing on February 3, is a 21-night package including a cruise from Los Angeles to Valparaiso, priced from $5370, and the second, departing on February 20, is a 17-night package including a cruise from Valparaiso to Buenos Aires, priced from $4690. Departing on March 5, the final sector is a 22-night package including a cruise from Buenos Aires to New York, priced from $5220.

All fares are per person based on twin sharing. (02) 9492 8520, (02) 9492 8506, cruising.com.au.

In brief

Due to increasing demand for river cruising in the US, American Cruise Lines has announced it is building another new river boat. This yet-to-be-named third vessel will have a paddlewheel, wi-fi throughout and staterooms with private verandahs.

Voyages to Antiquity is adding historical-themed itineraries in Asia starting in November. There will be 10 cruises from 15 to 21 days on the 378-guest Aegean Odyssey, visiting countries including India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brunei.

MSC Cruises is continuing its expansion. MSC Preziosa will become the 13th member of its fleet next March and the fourth ship in the Fantasia class, with 1751 staterooms, four main restaurants and four pools. The ship is expected to cruise the Mediterranean.

Norwegian Jewel

LAUNCHED 2005 PASSENGERS 2376 REGULAR HAUNTS Alaska, the Caribbean, Pacific Coast, Panama Canal and Florida. BEST FOR Families THE DETAILS A 17-night Panama Canal cruise from Los Angeles to Miami, departing on September 27, is priced from $4449 a person, twin share, including a pre- and post-cruise stay, and flights. 1300 362 599, creativecruising.com.au.

Need to know

1 The namesake of Norwegian Cruise Line's Jewel class ships, this ship was a floating test for many land-based resort features on a cruise ship, including a martini bar and electronic restaurant reservations system, expanding the line's Freestyle Cruising concept.

2 Jewel made its debut in Alaska on May 19, joining sister ship Norwegian Pearl to operate weekly Sawyer Glacier cruises departing from Seattle on Saturdays between May and September.

3 Jewel has an impressive range of accommodations to suit all budgets, ranging from small inside staterooms sleeping up to four, to lavish suites and villas in an exclusive area called The Haven.

4 There are 16 dining options that operate like restaurants; you choose to eat where you want, when you want. Top picks includes Chin Chin Asian restaurant, Tango's tapas Latin restaurant and the 24-hour Blue Lagoon for burgers and fast-wok dishes.

5 Packed with facilities, don't miss the Bora Bora Health Spa, the Cirque Bijou featuring acrobats and entertainment, Nickelodeon character breakfasts for kids and the ship's two pools as well as six hot tubs.

Port watch: Santander, Spain

Need to know

Located in northern Spain on the Bay of Biscay, Santander is a natural harbour surrounded by a landscape rich in history. Its mild climate, beaches and sightseeing have seen it grow as a destination among cruisers in recent years. Ships dock at the passenger terminal in the city centre, where taxis are available.

Do not miss

Santander is best explored on foot and top pick of the sights include the restored cathedral, the casino on Sardinero Beach and Magdalena Palace, which was a summer home for Spain's royal family until 1930. There are some lovely beaches, in particular Sardinero. For some spectacular coastal views, however, head for the lighthouse Faro de Cabo Mayor, which is about two kilometres from town. Further afield, consider an excursion to Bilbao and the famous Guggenheim Museum.