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Alaska — Cruise and Road Trip

Author: Judy P.
Date of Trip: July 2003

ALASKA: ONE-WEEK CRUISE AND ONE-WEEK ROAD TRIP JULY 2003 Our anniversary vacation began with a dream-come-true, one-week cruise from Vancouver up through the Inside Passage on the Coral Princess. It was our first cruise, and we loved the entire experience.

We flew from Los Angeles to Vancouver and spent a night at a reasonably-priced, no-great-shakes, hotel near the airport (the Comfort Inn Airport (604) 278-5161, $60 per night, we called them upon arrival and they sent a van to pick us up at the airport. We walked across the street for dinner and had a good meal at a Mexican restaurant.) The next morning we took a bus tour of Vancouver (which the front desk arranged for us). It was a great four-hour tour that concluded with dropping us off at the cruise ship dock.

Our cruise stopped at the ports of Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Seward, and cruised through Glacier Bay and College Fjords. We enjoyed many new experiences along the way. (Not to mention tons of shopping!)

Since this trip had been a long-time dream, I researched and planned for a year in advance in order to arrange every day to its fullest. We wanted to see the highlights, enjoy some incredible adventures, and get in a little bit of R&R. It turned out perfectly! We even had warm (up to 85 degrees), beautiful weather for sixteen of our seventeen days in Alaska.

I’m going to give the prices for most everything we did. It may not be politically correct, but I believe that inquiring minds want to know! We splurged on a mini-suite with a veranda. ($3,878 for both of us — remember that includes all your meals and even all the room service you could want!) It was heavenly. The entire ship was beautiful and we absolutely loved our cruise!! (I’m sure that those fabulous scalp massages [$24 each for ½ hour] helped to sway my opinion!)

Upon landing at Seward, we rented a car (Hertz was the only rental car agency there at that time — about $700 for the week) for our second week on land. We visited the town of Seward, then headed north to explore part of the Kenai Peninsula (Cooper Landing), Girdwood, Talkeetna, and Denali. It was very different from our life in the suburbs of Los Angeles! The scenery, wildlife, people, fishing, and adventures were amazing!

NOTE: If you’re planning on traveling to Alaska — not on a cruise — you really should purchase a coupon book that’s sold on line, available through www.toursaver.com. It costs $99, but it will save you hundreds! It seems too good to be true, but it IS true! It’s amazing the deals that are offered in this book. There are lots of one-night-free-with-2-night-stays at many nice hotels. That right there can save you $249, so even though you spent $99 for the book, you’ve already saved $150! The list goes on and on. Really. Get this book! Watch out for some of the coupons, as there are some restrictions listed on the backs of each coupon. I used it to gauge where I wanted to be on what dates. And the coupons have phone numbers to call for reservations for each item. Not only will you save tons of money, but it’s also great because it gives you more ideas of things to do in Alaska. The only drawback to this book is having to carry it with you everywhere! The coupons are not valid if they’re torn out of the book. I kept it with me at all times in a fanny pack.

CRUISE PORTS
We arranged all of our cruise port excursions through Princess Cruises on their web site a couple of months prior to our cruise. Booking your arrangements through Princess may be a bit more expensive than buying tickets from someone as you get off the ship, but I chose to spend the extra money to guarantee that we could do what we wanted when we wanted, and also so that we had peace of mind that we were with reputable guides and that we wouldn’t be left behind if we were delayed for some reason. If you’re not on a cruise-related adventure, and you’re late getting back to the ship, the ship WILL leave without you!

Ketchikan — (Deep-sea fishing, lumberjack show, horse-drawn carriage ride, shopping)

Our first port was Ketchikan. When we first docked and looked out at the city from our balcony, we were disappointed — old, industrial looking. But as I became familiar with the town, it took on a charm of its own. The shops beckoned me, “Please spend all your money!” I tried really hard. This is the place to spend the big bucks; touristy doo-dads, mega jewelry … you name it! Dan enjoyed an ocean salmon-fishing trip ($167). He was lucky enough to catch a few 25-pound king salmons, while I took in an entertaining lumberjack show ($29) (great for kids, with lots of audience participation), a peaceful and informative horse-drawn trolley tour ($25), and shopping galore ($$$).

Juneau — (Helicopter over glacier, dog sledding, shopping)
The better part of our day in Juneau was spent braving a helicopter ride over four different glaciers and landing on Norris Glacier to experience mushing our own dog sled. ($399 per person) I have to say that I’ve always been a big scaredy-cat, but the flight was smooth and beyond beautiful, and the dog sledding was a blast! Dogs can’t really run too fast, so it was not a scary ride. Again, we arranged it through Princess when we booked the cruise. I have heard that it’s a very popular thing to do, so it books up quickly. Don’t wait till you’re on the ship! Unfortunately, the cost was about $400 per person, but it was worth every penny! It was quite cold and windy on the glacier while riding the dog sled, and we were glad we took our snow boots, jackets, gloves, and hats. (They do supply boots if you need them.) After that incredible adventure, we went back to the ship, ordered room service (the best hot dogs and French fries), and changed out of our snow clothes to prepare for the 80-degree weather in town. Juneau was charming; freshly-painted shops, flower boxes adorned the window sills, ornate street lamps boasted brightly-colored flags, and clean, nicely-landscaped streets were ideal for strolling. I thought it was perfect!

Skagway — (White Pass & Yukon Railway, shopping)
The port at Skagway is a tall, rocky, side of a mountain covered in graffiti, which happens to have been done by captains of past cruise ships. It was not exactly what we were expecting to see. But the White Pass & Yukon Railway ride ($94 each) was gorgeous. I have since heard that there’s a road that pretty much parallels the railway, and I would rather have rented a car when we got off the ship, and driven it ourselves, for several reasons: The train was nice, but there were noisy kids running all over, people were packed onto the viewing platforms in-between cars trying to take photos, it was a tad claustrophobic, the PA system was difficult to understand, and there was no food allowed. They did sell bottled water for $2. Taking photos from inside the railroad car was difficult for many reasons — not being able to prepare for a photo because you couldn’t see far enough ahead of you to know what was coming, the head of the person in front of you blocking your view, and the reflection of the window causing unwanted glare on your photos. I would take the car next time. The town itself is sort of a cross between the Old West and Russia. Interesting and charming, and filled with the usual touristy shops.

Glacier Bay — (Sight-seeing on ship)
Glacier Bay was beautiful! We were lucky enough to see and hear the glaciers calving. It was like being in a thunder storm. I was expecting more glaciers — was even a little leery of cruising through the area, but it’s not solid ice as I had envisioned. It was a gorgeous day — crisp and windy, but sunny with deep blue skies. My only disappointment was that many of the glaciers are very dirty. I thought they would all be white and blue, not muddy looking.

College Fjord — (Sight-seeing on ship)
College Fjord was my favorite part of our cruise. I had never heard of it, but the scenery was spectacular! There were beautiful emerald-green mountains, pristine glaciers, turquoise water, and blue skies with white, puffy clouds. It took my breath away.

Seward — (Sea Life Center and shopping)
The final stop of our cruise was Seward. We didn’t want to leave the ship that had spoiled us so well, but at least we still had another week to explore. We enjoyed the small but quaint town of Seward, with its modern Sea Life Center at the bay, and lots of touristy stores and restaurants.

Exit Glacier — (Sight-seeing on foot)
Exit Glacier is about a 15 minute drive from Seward. (No charge.) It was very interesting. Along the drive up there, as you approach the glacier, there are signs that show where the end of the glacier was in past years. It’s sad to see how far it’s receded over time. The area around the glacier is dirt and mud. Not what I was expecting. We parked in the parking lot, then took the ¼ mile walk up to the glacier (a slight incline, but not bad at all). The last part of the walk got a little tricky, with the dirt/mud/water from the runoff of the glacier. Everyone was helping the ladies and kids get across the difficult spots. Once we got as close as we could, it was spectacular. The blues were just too much to believe. Unfortunately for us, it had just calved about a half hour before we got there, but it made for spectacular photos. We had plenty of space left on our memory disc, but the batteries ran out after we took only three pictures! I can’t stress enough to always have back-up batteries and film/cards with you at all times! On the way back down to the car, we took the other trail, the one to the right as you head back down to the parking lot. It was very pretty — much nicer than the trail up there. It meandered along a small river that was enveloped in green foliage. There was even an occasional bench on which to sit, relax, and enjoy the scenery. And, by the way, I didn’t see any mosquitoes there!

Cooper Landing — (Fishing, Kenai Fjords Boat Tour, sight-seeing, relaxing)
We spent three nights at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge ($244 per night). I made the reservations myself about 8 months ahead of time. (Don’t forget to use the coupon book for a big savings.) It was very nice. It was spread out over a hilly, green area, overlooking the Kenai River. It had a nice, overpriced restaurant, a bar, a patio with food service overlooking the river, and small indoor lunch area, a nice gift shop, and the front desk was very helpful and could help you book any type of activity. Our room was very nice, with a tub/shower, and a small kitchen/eating area. We even had a patio. The Kenai River makes for some great scenery, oh — and fishing too! I arranged for a halibut ocean fishing trip ($200) for Dan through the lodge when I initially made the reservations. He was shuttled from the lodge into Seward (about a 45 minute drive) for his fishing adventure. (He even saw a couple of moose on the road at that early hour!) He caught four 25-pound halibut, among other things! While he went fishing, I drove around the area and explored many small lakes and beautiful scenery. Do beware of mosquitoes around the lakes and river.

I also arranged (through our coupon book) for a three-hour Kenai Fjords Boat Tour ($35 each). It was a lot of fun. (Quite cold and very windy on the boat!) We saw dolphins, dall porpoises, whales from afar, seals, sea lions, otters, puffins, eagles, and even some mountain goats on the hillsides. During the tour our boat stopped and we had a tasty salmon dinner at a secluded lodge on a small island (Fox Island). After the boat ride, we drove around for a while, just exploring. On the way back to the lodge that night we spotted a huge porcupine waddling alongside the road. We pulled over and hustled to take its picture, but he shimmied up a tree, lickity-split. It was just shy of midnight. Still light enough for us to see, but too dark for photos! Erghh!

Girdwood — (Quick drive-through)
When we left Cooper Landing to head up to Anchorage and beyond, we stopped to see Girdwood and the fancy hotel — Alyeska Prince Hotel. It looked like a typical modern nice hotel, but we did not stop. The area wasn’t much to look at. It’s probably a beautiful sight when it’s covered in snow during the winter, but there wasn’t much to see during the summer.

Portage Glacier
We didn’t go to Portage Glacier. Bummer. It’s supposed to be spectacular. But on the way there, across the main street, we saw another place that caught our eye and lured us away. It was …

Big Game Alaska — (Drive and walk-through “zoo?”)
This place was a spur-of-the-moment detour during our drive up to Talkeetna. I believe it cost $11 per car. And there was a coupon in our book. In spite of all my research, this jewel had somehow eluded me. Someone at the lodge in Cooper Landing had mentioned it to me when I asked if there was a spot that I might most likely see a moose. I had read that there were 7,000 of them on the peninsula, but I never saw one during our three day stay.

We could have spent hours and hours at Big Game Alaska! It’s a refuge for injured or abandoned animals. (Honestly, we couldn’t see that any of the animals were injured, so it wasn’t a sad experience for us.) There are several different wide-open spaces, sectioned off for different animals. You drive your car around on a dirt road and just pull over when you want to and get out to enjoy the animals. The fences are very tall, but they’re constructed of wires that are set five or six inches apart, affording camera lenses glorious, un-obstructed views. There were several bull moose with spectacular antlers, and cows too, in a huge area with dirt, grass, a stream, and some sort of barn structure. With the mountains looming off in the distance, the scenery was so incredible that you didn’t realize that you were at a contained area. This was the place of my moose dreams! I have to say that a woman was reaching in through the fence and petting a moose, which I thought was not a good idea, but then when she left with her arm still in tact, I couldn’t resist doing it myself! How often do you get to pet a moose?! The grizzly bear’s area had a double fence about 10 feet apart, with the inside fence being electrically charged, so that was the only pen that made it difficult to get a good photo — but hey — that’s o.k.! I would not have dared to stick my hand in there! We had so much fun photographing and watching the big animals — moose, caribou, deer, bears, elk, musk oxen, buffalo, porcupines, foxes, owls, etc. There was also a large, fabulous souvenir shop. We loved Big Game Alaska!

Talkeetna
— (Small-airplane flight over glaciers, sight-seeing, jetboat ride)
We spent one night at the Alaska Talkeetna Lodge ($213 per night). It was very nice. Our room was great, and had what would have been a spectacular view of Denali, but with the clouds in the sky, we were disappointed that we couldn’t see it. The lobby was gorgeous and grand, the coffee shop/restaurant ambiance was o.k., a little loud, overpriced, and the food was quite mediocre. The lodge is located atop a large hill and has a huge deck area out back from which to view the tallest mountain in North America. It’s located near the Talkeetna Airport, from which we took a flight on a Cessna 185 airplane. (I made that reservation through www.alaskatravel.com.) ($135 per person) The plane seats four plus the pilot. I was squeezed into the back of the plane, sitting by myself. I kept wondering why in the heck I was doing this, but I knew that I had to see it for myself. The flight was scary, but wonderful! Unfortunately, it was getting quite windy, and a storm was looming on the horizon, looking rather ominous. Darn! The wind prevented us from making our scheduled glacier landing, and the layer of dark clouds ruined our chance of seeing Mt. McKinley. Nonetheless, it was a great ride! (As long as I didn’t look straight down! Can you say “motion sickness?!”) I’m so glad that I got the nerve to take that ride!

After the flight, we drove around and walked through the small town of Talkeetna, which was rather “different.” It’s old, run down, and many of the homes have trash and junk piled up in their yards. Some say it’s the “real, charming Alaska.” We would sum it up as “pretty yucky.” To each his own, I guess.

The next day we took a jet boat ride on Mahay’s Jet Boat Tours on the Susitna River. (Again through www.alaskatravel.com) ($50 per person) The river looked muddy due to the glacial silt, we didn’t see any wildlife, and it started raining hard when we got out of the boat to tour a trapper’s cabin. This was not our best time in Alaska. At least the boat was covered and it was very nice. The captain gave us one thrill: a high-speed, hair-pin, U-turn that woke up the crowd!

Denali (Jeff King’s Sled Dog Kennel tour, bus tour of park, Cabin Nite Dinner Theater, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing)

Denali National Park was amazing. We stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort for three nights. ($268 per night) (Again I used my coupon for one free night.) I loved this lodge. Somehow our room reservations were not as planned, but we finally persuaded the manager to re-arrange things and we got our requested room for our second and third nights. Our room for the first night was kind of old, but kind of neat. For our last two nights, we were transferred to a much newer, nicer room with a balcony overlooking the banks of the Nenana River (which is very silty also and not necessarily so pretty). The lodge consists of many buildings scattered throughout the vast property, nestled amidst the forested hillsides, offering shuttle service for each building. (It’s quite a climb to the front desk!) The whole complex was very charming. Their Cabin Nite Dinner Theater was great. ($38 per person) (Again, I made this reservation from the coupon book and got one person free.) It was fun and informative; bringing to life the history of Alaska with energetic actors, all of whom had amazing singing voices. They performed their musical while eliciting comical audience participation. And I actually got to have barbequed food! (Best dinner for me during the entire trip!)

The night we arrived in Denali, we took a tour of Jeff King’s Sled Dog Kennel. ($20 per person.) (He has won the Iditarod four times, including the most recent one — 2006.) I made the reservation for this tour through www.alaskatravel.com. The kennel sent a van to pick us up at our hotel, and drove us there — about a 25 minute ride. It was neat to hold the precious puppies, watch them run on their giant hamster wheel, to see the dogs’ houses and exercise area, and interesting to hear from Jeff King himself about racing in the Iditarod. While we were there it started snowing. It was the first time it had snowed there during July in twenty-some years! It was Dan’s first time in falling snow. Ah, what memories.

The next morning we were lucky enough to see a winter wonderland during our shuttle bus tour ($15 per person) of the park, which later cleared to blue skies in the afternoon, granting us a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley! (Only one-third of visitors actually see the mountain.) The night before our bus tour of the park, we stopped at a small grocery store across from our hotel and stocked up on sandwiches, snacks, and drinks to take with us on the bus ride, since there are no restaurants inside the park and we would be on the bus for eight hours. During our bus ride we stopped to watch a mother grizzly and her cub for about 10 minutes. We also spied numerous animals that were just a little too far away for us to photograph successfully. The shuttle bus seems to be the ride to take through the park because you can get off of it at any time and catch another one at any time to go back. They stop to look at wildlife, but won’t let you exit the bus and disturb the animals at that time.

I reserved our tickets for the shuttle bus ride only a few days ahead from Talkeetna. I called the park and reserved the tour time I wanted, which was the first bus out in the morning (I think 5:15 a.m.), so that we would hopefully see more wildlife — as they tend to come out more in the early morning and evening. Our bus driver was very knowledgeable about the park, and very friendly. I was glad I sat up front so I could hear what she was saying. There are loudspeakers on the bus, but with other people talking and poor-quality speakers, it wasn’t always easy to understand what she was saying. The busses are not exactly luxury — they’re old school busses. Beware that some of the bus ride can get a little scary, driving on narrow, dirt, winding roads with some steep cliffs. I just kept telling myself that they do this all the time!

To top off our Denali visit, one night around midnight, Dan and I took a drive as far into the park as we could (which isn’t very far since a special pass is required for car travel inside the park, which isn’t available to the general public) hoping to catch a glimpse of my revered “wild” moose that had so far eluded me during this whole trip. We just happened upon a bull moose and three females (cows) within twenty minutes of each other! It doesn’t get any better than that! (Well, maybe if it had been light enough to get THOSE pictures — photos of glowing eyes in the darkness are not my favorite!)

On our last day we went horseback riding at the Tumbling B Ranch ($65 per person) and enjoyed more incredible scenery. (I made those reservations through www.alaskatravel.com ahead of time.) You can’t actually ride in Denali, but we went about 10 miles north of the park in a green, hilly area that was very pretty. Luckily we had slathered on insect repellent before the ride — the mosquitoes along the trail were slightly smaller than your typical Boeing 747! (That was the second time we had a mosquito encounter of the bad kind; the other incident occurred while we were walking through the trees at the banks of the Kenai River during sunset — duh!. Those bites swelled up like golf balls — o.k., a slight exaggeration.) Mosquitoes aside, Denali was totally awesome!

Anchorage
After driving from Denali to Anchorage and stopping along the way for photos here and there, we were so exhausted that we just went to our hotel and crashed out. (Coast International Inn, (907)243-2233 near the airport — pretty decent, but hard to find in a strange, maze-like area — $160.) Dan woke me up about 10:30 p.m. to see a beautiful sunset outside. We ran out and took a couple of photos to serve as closing shots for our soon-to-be Alaska photo album. Perfect. The next morning we flew home. (We flew from LAX to Vancouver and then from Anchorage to LAX on American Airlines — total for both of us was $1376.) Unfortunately, we didn’t really spend any time in and around Anchorage. Maybe next time. There will be a next time, I’m sure!

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