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The best ways to see Alaska

A travel agent once told me that Alaska and Hawaii were the two places in the world that everyone must visit. Since he had traveled extensively around the globe, his words had quite an impact on me - and on the vacation I was planning.

I had to be in Anchorage for a weeklong meeting, and my husband and I were thinking about an Alaska cruise before or afterward. Let me rephrase that: My husband was all excited about taking a cruise. I was dragging my feet; I'm not a big fan of cruises. But I wanted this to be a memorable vacation for both of us.

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And, thanks to the advice of the travel agent, it was. It ranks up there with our best vacation ever. Even today, if you want to get me talking nonstop, ask about the best way to see Alaska.

What I'll tell you is what the travel expert told me - take a cruise; you'll regret it if you don't. But realize that what you're seeing on a standard cruise - Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, etc. - is what I think of as "tourist Alaska."

If you want to see the real Alaska, spend an extra week in the state before or after the cruise. Get a guidebook, plan to see the places that appeal to you (remember that driving distances are very, very long), and rent a car. Or, at least hop aboard the Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park are unforgettable. Plan to spend a day there (more if you're a hiker).

To absorb the history of the state, visit the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, and the Museum of History and Art and Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. All are outstanding.

We welcome your travel advice, too. If you have tips from a favorite trip or you'd like to comment on the Monitor's travel section, e-mail us at csmtravel@csps.com.