Date of Trip: September 2007
We’re back recently from a trip to Alaska. The first week was on a Princess cruise and was carried on www.cruisecritic.com. This is the section pertaining to the land section of the trip. It’s pretty much a log of the trip but I have summarized my views at the end. Hope it’s useful!
Saturday, September 1
Disembarkation is always rather weird and this time even more so as it seemed that most of the passengers were gone by the time we got off, though I don’t think that was so. After breakfast and a swift walk round the deck, we spent a few minutes playing table tennis before we decided to take a lounger down by the “inside” pool. I went off to get some coffee and ran into Sabin the former National Geographic guy who had been our commentator the day before. I took the opportunity to thank him for his work and for bringing the names of Harriman, Muir and others to my attention. We spoke about Bentley, the snowflake photographer who opened up so much knowledge about these tiny wonders and agreed that the true heroes of the piece were his parents, prepared to back their son in the idea of taking photos of snowflakes. His story should be told to parents EVERYWHERE, because I’m sure that the world would be a better place if all parents truly supported their kids in the way that really mattered and didn’t just show up when they were upset (bit of soapbox there Steve, climb down).
Off the shop and almost seamlessly onto the motor coach to meet our driver, Mary. Well she’s an ex-teacher from Houston so I’m bound to like her aren’t I? But she was a breath of fresh air. Knowledgeable, friendly, patient, she made sure that nothing was missed from the bus. However, before we got started we had to wait for the 10am green light on the tunnel. That gave Mary the chance to run through the airline safety talk for the bus. We were all suitably attentive, especially when she pointed out that her bus was equipped with an International toilet. Puzzled looks around so she explained, when you’re on your way there your a Russian, while your in there European and when you come out you be Finnish!
There’s not much to tell about Whittier. I mean what do you say about a place that has one big building housing school, city hall, police department, prison, housing and all the rest? Can’t be a one-horse town unless it’s the wooden horse of Troy!
After our wait we got through the tunnel and headed over to the Begich Boggs Visitor Centre. Here I picked up a cracking little booklet for free which I would thoroughly recommend to all travellers on the Seward Highway. The road is its title and, among other things, it gives double page spreads of the road route together with excellent information about campgrounds, fishing sites, viewpoints and hiking trails. Later on we were to meet a seasoned guide to the area who had never seen it before but vowed that he would get some for his future passengers as soon as possible.
At the centre they have a wealth of information, some interesting displays and a small souvenir shop. There’s a snack cafe nearby and some easy, pleasant strolls along the lakeside with good views to Burns and Portage glacier. Although it was an early stop straight after the tunnel, I was delighted that Mary had chosen to give us an hour here and would have happily stayed longer.
Heading out for the Kenai Princess Lodge we drove down the Seward Highway, onto Stirling Highway towards the township of Coopers Landing. The scenery was delightful and the sun had now come out to leave clear skies. The valleys were crisscrossed by numerous creeks and streams, interspersed with pine forest and marshland plants. The red fringe of Fireweed, which we know as Rose Bay Willow Herb (or a pest) looked especially attractive in the sunlight. Occasionally the trees would be broken as we flashed by a lake and, because the day was so still, they all looked like glass mirroring the reflections of the surrounding slopes and peaks.
On arrival at the Lodge we were delighted. Four parties each assigned to a log cabin divided into four generously proportioned apartments with 2 big double beds, a log burning fire (and logs/firelighters supplied) and TEA MAKING FACILITIES. Okay so it’s coffee usually and the water still won’t boil but at least it’s to hand and we’re in charge.
The afternoon didn’t start well as we discovered that Princess Head Office at Seattle had ignored our bookings for land tours, but as I’ve posted a separate thread about it I’ll leave it at that. Besides, bad news is only as bad as you want it to be on holiday. Suffice to say that Robert at Kenai Lodge Tour Outfitters desk was a real star and helped us to contact the other lodges where we hoped to undertake excursions and by mid afternoon everything was back on track.
We decided to walk the nature trail at the back of the property. Its a simple little stroll made the more interesting by a series of informative boards and the early warning that this is bear and moose territory! There are two options. The basic walk is about 1/2 mile, while there is a longer loop which extends it to 1 mile. With danger afoot we decided to go for it and did the long version. It’s a very untouched forest area with ample signs of previous weather damage, animal visits to trees and any number of fungi. There are glimpses of the Kenai river some way below, but not clear enough to form a memorable view. We didn’t take chances as I carried on inane conversation for minutes at a time in a loud voice, and Joan rattled her specs case with gusto whenever I paused for breath! Needless to say we saw no wildlife.
Having completed that trail we then went for the whole hog and did the walk down to the river. The walk follows the river shore and has a series of viewing platforms situated at convenient intervals. We stopped to watch several fishermen out in the stream either wading or fishing from boats. I must confess that fishing has never held any appeal to me, but if I had grown up in Alaska I know full well that it would have been the natural thing to do! In addition to human activity, we were amused by the upstream struggle of three Loons, and watched them for several minutes. It was around then that we discovered the most enormous set of footprints in the gravel at the bank, and they weren’t mine. Discretion being the better part of valor, we retreated to the lodge.
You can phone for a buggy to give you a lift from the riverside back to the lodge and with the walking done and Joan’s replacement knee, I assumed that that was what we would do. However, Joan comes from Manchester, up north, where the men are tough and the women are tougher and she decided that if we took our time she should do just fine. We even beat the bear to the top – just kidding.
That evening we ate in the lodge. Surviving just on entrees seemed a real come down though to be honest it was a good job that we had to provide our own meals as we had eaten way too much the previous week. And I have to report that the food was very pleasant. Retired to the cabin where Joan had decreed that we needed a log fire, so who am I to disagree with that?
Sunday, September 2
Much as though we enjoyed Kenai Lodge and the facilities on offer, we weren’t sure that there would be enough to interest us for the full day. However, that brought up an issue. The Lodge is just what it says, a wilderness lodge. You are a long way from anywhere and so finding alternative activities away from the Princess Tour Outfitters Desk is not easy. We’re not horse riders and Joan’s knee replacement advises against rafting so we plumped for a visit to Seward. Whether this was the best use of the day, I’m not sure, but there were a number of positives.
Straight off I have to praise our guide for the day, Bill Fort. He was, without doubt, the best guide we had throughout the whole trip and plied us with lots of interesting and worthwhile information.
Apart from an unscheduled loo stop and a stop at Tern Lake for photos against an almost mirror like flat lake surface, it was a pretty straight there trip in the morning. On the way we passed through a place called Moose Pass, and Bill was saying that he’d only ever seen moose there twice when, whoa, there’s a moose calf! I was on the wrong side of the mini-bus, but Joan saw it from her side and was pleased to be one up in the wildlife stakes!
Once at Seward Bill took us to the Sea Life Centre, which is included in the excursion price. It proved to be thoroughly interesting. The centre was set up in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Apart from providing a home to damaged animals, they have a breeding programme for creatures at risk following the massive oil spill. Talking to one of the guides there it appears that they’ve been very successful, except in the case of the Harlequin Duck. Despite their best efforts, the birds returned to the wild have not thrived and still give a cause of concern after all these years.
Of course the birds and mammals on display are of great interest, especially the Stellar Sea Lion who is very aware of his audience. As soon as he senses a good crowd he cavorts in front of the viewing windows to coil himself into the most complex shapes before floating back towards us as if to say, can you do that? We were fascinated by a series of discovery trays with sea anemones, urchins and starfish inside. We were encouraged to touch them and it was a fascinating experience as they inevitably felt exactly the opposite to what we imagined. Spikes turned out to have a quite rubbery texture, while seemingly soft shells were quite hard to the touch. Quite simply, this big kid was having such a good time that we ran out of time, and had to rush to catch the bus to go for lunch!
Lunch at Ray’s waterfront Restaurant was enjoyed by all and we ate quite widely on the menu. I’d certainly recommend it. However, it does detract from the available time. It’s not part of the ticket and does take time to get to and from, plus there’s service time too. We could have made do with a sandwich when truth be told.
On the other hand I’m not sure what we would have done with the extra time if we’d got it. There wasn’t time to get to surrounding attractions such as Exit Glacier or the Iditarod centre that I had read about pre-cruise. Both are well within reach of Seward. The town itself didn’t seem that inspiring. It’s our fault that we found the museum too late as that might have given us a heads up about the impact of the 64 Earthquake, but their seemed to be little open information about the town. However, it’s clear that Alaskans love the place! There were numerous vans and trailers along the waterfront park areas and lots of people playing in the open areas. Of course, on a good day close to the end of season, that’s only to be expected.
It fell to Bill to make the tour. He took us to various out of the way places about town, found us the Harbour Creamery (where they do great ice cream) and the Billy Benton Memorial, which commemorates the young boy who won a competition to design the flag so proudly flown throughout the state. As we left town Bill stopped so that we could take a look at an eagle’s nest. Amazing structures, but I wouldn’t want to be underneath if it ever collapsed! Then it was back to the Seward Highway. It was a bright clear day and Bill gave us plenty of stops for vantage photo shots. Additionally, he was very attentive in answering our many and varied questions.
If you are doing the Princess Land Tour then this is an option worth considering, especially if Bill is at the wheel. If he is say Hi for me. On the other hand I suspect Seward is best visited independently and tucked into a visit to one of the other attractions in the area. If you are travelling with kids the Sea Life Centre is a definite, and if you aren’t, well go there anyway because these places deserve all our support!
Monday, September 3
A fond farewell to Kenai Lodge. The manager turned out to say goodbye to us all and several of the staff were at the windows to wave us off. I suppose the fact that there are only 87 rooms at the Lodge means that it’s easier to create a homely feel to the place, but we really enjoyed our two nights here. On the northbound land tour the lodge certainly raises the spirits as you contemplate the rest of the journey, and I want to take this opportunity to recognize the great job that this lodge does for Princess tours.
Back into the coach, onto the Stirling Highway and up to Seward Highway. Personally I love the fact that all the highways have names not numbers. It’s the “Thomas the Tank Engine” fan in me I expect! Mary continued her narration of the route interspersing with amusing little asides. Halfway up Turnagain Arm we saw the bore tide ripping its way up the bay. Not that high, about 2 to 3 feet, but I’m pleased to have seen it as we have a similar phenomenon on the River Severn, except that it only happens once a year. Not long after the bore Mary informed us that we might see Belugas and sure enough, out at ten o clock, there they are! That wasn’t something we expected, and although its only a series of white bumps breaking the surface, it’s another bragging right with the folks back home and another foot of video tape! Nearby we pass the aptly named Beluga Point where there are several quirky statues representing the varied beluga profiles that you might spot if you’re busy looking for them. Beyond that we pass Potter Marsh Refuge, a great looking boardwalk out into the marshes which, apparently, is great for bird spotting. Sadly, no time to stop, which is another reason to support the idea of an individual tour.
We pass on, and at Anchorage, Mary does a detour from her route to take us downtown. No time to stop but it gives us a chance to see life in Alaska’s largest city. Surprised to see a statue of Captain Cook identical to one we saw on Kauai when cruising Hawaii last year. Anchorage succeeds in being a big city without big crowds this day but maybe that’s because it’s Labor Day. It’s certainly the reason why Palmer, our midday stop seemed to be closed!
On the way in to town we pass the Alaskan State Fair and make our way to the Palmer Visitor Centre. We’ve got an hour for lunch and are given a map complete with restaurants etc. Trouble is nobody’s quite sure which ones are open. Fair play to Mary, she had phoned ahead to try to find out, but there were still several mistakes ahead before people could find food. We set off in one direction, found the place closed, turned round and saw nobody had followed us, did a 180-degree turn and headed back into town.
Here we found the Vagabond Blues Cafe where they did us an excellent soup and sandwich and we got boiling water for a cup of tea! Definite recommendation! Actually, my tomato and wild rice soup was beautiful, and Joan enjoyed her Chicken Chowder. As we had a few minutes to spare we decided to have a quick browse at the shops. Joan spotted a couple of quilting shops and set off in one direction, I headed off the other way having spied a bookshop.
Bookshops are among my favorite wastes of time, I can get lost in them! My favorite is Foyle’s on Charing Cross Rd in London. Recently they’ve tried to straighten it up, but it still rambles a bit and you can be in there for hours. In Palmer I came across Fireside Books, a small emporium but with a number of less obvious titles, and what a gem I discovered.
You remember how I commented on the heroic Bentley who photographed all those snowflakes? Well I found a book which is a reprint of a magazine review he wrote. It contained 72 plates of his photos and a brief outline of the photographic process he used. Just over $11 it was a bargain as far as I was concerned, although Joan did a fair bit of eye rolling when she caught up with me!
We were near the end of the motor coach section of our land tour, and after a short stop at the Talkeetna spur road to transfer off some people for excursions or a look around Talkeetna itself, we were on our way to the McKinley Wilderness Lodge. We chose not to bother and folks who did get off reckoned we made the best decision.
McKinley Lodge is a much bigger place than the Kenai Lodge. It’s in the wilderness, well away from anywhere, but it can’t avoid the big town centre feel. The rooms are little more than motel rooms, but there’s a reasonable range of eateries and other public areas. Its shop is probably the biggest of all and it has a small lecture theatre where we heard an interesting Park Ranger talk about dog mushing. Being so much larger it is impersonal and not really in keeping with its surroundings or our expectation of what we were coming to. But it did have one redeeming feature.
I have now seen Denali and I know of some of its ways.
I’m British. Why should I get worked up about some lump of rock in the USA? I remember from my visit to the Grand Canyon a few years ago seeing a quote by a president, FDR I think, that every American should see the Grand Canyon once in their lifetime. Good morning, America, I’m here to tell you to save up a bit more bread!
The trouble is, there’s no guarantee, and even if it’s there you don’t necessarily get it. Too many riddles? OK let’s go on.
Having settled in our room we made our way through the impressive great hall of the lodge onto the viewing platform. Fantastic view of the Alaskan range but only peaks up to about 5 or 6000 feet in view. The High One, we are told, is in cloud. Or is it? Slowly we get the feel for “Where’s Denali?” and it’s a fun game. Somebody is saying something about the whitest cloud and you find it out, but there’s something odd about it. You wander over to the viewing telescope and take a peek. The white cloud is smack in the middle of the view, but since when did cloud have striations? That’s it somebody says, but it’s all you can see because it’s obscured by cloud. But you’re in the game now and your role changes. You can stand there looking on smugly as the newcomers arrive. Then as one comes and asks you where it is you get the satisfaction of pointing it out.
“You see the second tallest fir tree, behind the fence post? OK look straight up about three feet and then six inches to the right. Can you see the very white cloud with diagonal marks on it? That’s Denali!”
So they follow this mumbo-jumbo, wondering if this is some kind of emperor’s new clothes for a minute or so and then tap you and say, hey, you’re right! Now they’re in the game and your role changes again. You’ve got someone to exchange smug looks with. And you get to roll your eyes in unison at the poor guy who just can’t see it! You’re in front of one of the biggest peep shows in the world, and gagging for more!
A letterbox appears in the cloud and a western flank gleams through. You look further west and see the cloud breaking more. You get into “if only” conversations, but nothing seems to shift. But you’re hooked as slowly the clouds shift, eastwards and upwards and you all know you’re only feet from the summit and you can see the eastern slope now.
Suddenly, a point arrives when you know the wait is nearly over, and you know you’re not going to have a Marjorie Glacier moment again! That camera will run! And as you look and the last wisp of cloud lifts off the summit like the last wisp of smoke off a volcano… 20-3-20, it’s there! And there are cameras clicking and appreciative murmurs all round. And there’s this feeling of warmth and wonder around the deck. And you can’t help but feel a sting in the eye and a clack in the throat, for you have seen the High One!
We don’t do stiff upper lip all the time!
Tuesday, September 4
At 6:16 am we remembered we’d asked to go on the Denali watch phone list yesterday afternoon! And here it is, the mountains out. I’m tempted to say it’s OK we saw it yesterday, but Joan’s up and out and I’m soon following. This time it’s different. This time it’s full frontal! Denali in all its majesty. Not so much a game more a visit to an exhibition.
Over the next 45 minutes, as the sun rose the shades changed and the river mists floated away we were treated to the most fabulous vista. The full Alaska Range dominated by Foraker, Hunter and Denali. From soft, muted pinks, through pale peach shades we progressed to the full stark whiteness of the full mountain view, and once again I vastly increased my video-editing task!
Faced with the minor task of putting luggage out and getting breakfast we tore ourselves away. But we still sneaked a few more pictures afterwards!
Have I whined much on this post? I don’t think so but you’re the judges for that one. But after all that, I got really teed off at McKinley at Breakfast! You will recall my tea issue – I’ve tried to steer away from it! We’d found salvation by asking our servers for the hottest water possible and we’ve generally got a decent cup out. So we did the same in the Alaskan Grill at breakfast. Come check out I look at the bill and they’ve only charged me $1.75 per person for hot water!
I mean here we are with the magnificent Princess Cruises, multi national, self-proclaimed market leader, proudly caring for their customers and they have to charge me for hot water! We even brought our own tea bags!
I know, it’s less than a quid, but why bother. You don’t get charged for cold water in the evenings and there’s an electricity charge for making the ice…
Ah the heck, it’s a holiday and we all know that if you look after the pennies the pounds etc etc
Right, one whine over, bet I get flamed for it!
Down to Talkeetna and onto the train. Did you get a map of the route? You may not have done because there was a run on them at Talkeetna. I’d seen one on the web and was determined to get my hands on one. So I sauntered down to the booking office and asked if they had them in Princess cars. They replied that they didn’t but they had some right there and I could have one gladly. Once I got back to the waiting area I unrolled it and started perusing the map. Suddenly I was besieged! Where did you get that! So I told them. And I told them that princess carriages didn’t have them. And suddenly there was a stampede!
The lady at the kiosk was most obliging but towards the end people were coming back saying that she’d only let them have one! Some guy offered to sell his until I demanded 10% of his profit seeing as I had introduced him to it!
There was a run on maps at Talkeetna, and I started it!!!
Once on the train we found ourselves sat with a lovely couple from Wyoming. No announcements were made about changing sides but halfway through they (sitting face forward) offered their seats to us (facing backwards) and we were happy to change. There was no general announcement as I had read on the boards, and lots of tables stayed where they were, but we weren’t to know the make up of each table group.
The journey was very good. Lots of fine scenery, good and less expensive food than we had expected, great conversation (we virtually put the world to right in 4 hours) and all in reasonable comfort. The dome cars give good wide views wherever possible and there weren’t many stretches of non-stop tree! Our commentator Michelle was very good and always seemed to get messages across in time so that cameras could be at the ready. In addition she had a good thing going with bar tender Ryan and they kept up an entertaining patter through the journey. I’m not much of a lunchtime drinker, I’m usually still sleeping off the previous evening, but Ryan seemed to keep his customers satisfied, with a good tally on empty vodka bottles! As a result four hours wasn’t that long at all and we were soon at Denali Lodge.
Denali Lodge – shudder! What a place! It seemed to us that the accommodation was getting worse and worse as we travelled north. There is nothing wilderness about a glorified motel in a strip mall! We even got interconnecting rooms complete with rowdy neighbors at 11:15pm! Denali Lodge is a good reason not to do the Princess land tour! However, there’s plenty of good stuff to do. We heard great tales about McKinley Flyover trips and rafting rides, and we had a great time at Jeff King’s Husky Homestead. So that’s another reason for promoting the kind of independent land trip that we didn’t do!
I’m a big sports fan, and have always had huge admiration for the long distance eventer. I’m not talking marathon running, although Paula Radcliffe SHOULD be queen. I’m not talking decathlon, although Daley Thompson is still the greatest living Englishman. I’m talking the events that go on for days. As a kid I loved to see highlights of the Monte Carlo Rally. I have long admired the Tour de France, despite all its recent troubles. I suppose it’s the same thing with enjoying 5-day cricket matches. Its just respect for those athletes who can sustain their level of fitness and meet the mental challenge of day after day.
I had never heard much about the Iditarod, but I’m a fan now after a steep learning curve. When you meet up with an apparent legend of a sport, see the glint of competitive spirit in his eye and listen to the fervor of his words, you know you are in the presence of greatness. Step forward Jeff King!
On arriving at the Homestead we were welcomed by his wife, Donna, and a whole pack of enthusiastic husky pups eager to be petted. Numerous of photo opps later, and a glimpse of some 6 day old melt your heart puppies, and it’s on with the show. One of the staff takes us over to the dog kennels to explain how they are trained. The bond of dog and trainer is evident, and as the staff prepare to demonstrate a training technique the dogs are bursting to do show and tell! Once selected they’re also up for a quick na-na-na-na-na at their mates! When one of the staff moves over to the quad bike used for training runs the mood is positively deafening with all the dogs yapping and yelping determined to get their chance for a run! But funnily once the buggy sets off all is quiet!
Next up Jeff’s daughter Cally took us inside to talk to us about her experience growing up in Alaska and you really got a feel for the difference. She also explained that she now has her own dog team and has competed in and completed the Iditarod. Each of the speakers gives 100% credit to the dogs and sees themselves as minimal in the process but you know it can’t be like that, but then Jeff comes in.
As I commented, you know you’re in the presence of greatness. Remember, I don’t know this event, this person, this country, but I know what I see. Jeff King comes in as a slight man but he’s really a giant of an athlete. He invites our questions and he answers them one by one with patience and politeness. All of the time his energy and enthusiasm burns through, but he never fails to entertain as he gives us an experience that I would heartily endorse to all fellow cruisers. Patiently, he poses for photos and signs books, videos and other mementos acquired by his visitors, but it’s all over too soon and all that is left are the memories. But I tell you this, I know whose name I’ll be checking out at www.iditarod.com next March!
Wednesday, September 5
When I first came across these boards I discovered a great review by Larry Feinberg. At the time it was both entertaining and informative and I used many of his tips along the way. I faced this day with trepidation, for it was here that he became “Stuck inside Denali with the Larry Blues Again!” (Sorry Bob). Now he became afflicted because of his lack of awareness of the importance of the left hand seats in the park visit buses, and I determined that that would not happen to me. Sadly I was struck down earlier.
Breakfast was a terrible experience. Our fault perhaps, but King Salmon was heaving, the food was stodgy and the service was non-existent. Others in our party stayed up at Kings Canyon and had a passable breakfast snack in the lobby. If our impression of Denali Lodge was bad before, it was sunk without trace now.
Onto the buses, ON THE LEFT HAND SIDE, we set off to the Wilderness Visitor Centre where we watched a very good film about the early establishment of the park. They used lots of archive film and commentary to put together a very enjoyable presentation, but that was pretty much as good as it got.
In fairness, wildlife can’t be guaranteed, so the fact that we saw virtually none would not be good reason for getting the sulks. It was a collection of things. It was the constant inane drivel from our coach driver. It was the excruciating “in Character” performance by one of the park staff at a wooden hut masquerading as a pioneer cabin. It was the awful stand up routine of the guide supposed to be bringing to life the life of the Athabascan tribe in the park. All of these just added to the sense of “we could be doing something else infinitely more rewarding”.
In truth I hadn’t the patience to stand listening to infant school jokes from the ranger at Primrose Ridge and I wandered away from the crowd. It was the best decision I could have made. There I was above the valley floor looking out over miles of wilderness. Goodness knows how far I could see. Goodness knows what acreage I looked over. I’m sure that it’s possible that the entire animal population of Denali Park could have been within the range of my sight just then and it still wouldn’t have been possible for me to disturb them. There was just so much! That’s when you have to recognize the vision and determination of those pioneers who set about establishing this land as a protected space. It’s not words that count, it’s just the width of your own eyes, and you can drink it in.
On our return to the lodge we saw a moose. It was our second brush with wildlife, the first being a Ptarmigan near the security gate below Primrose Ridge. Our coach driver stopped and we enjoyed a few minutes watching it about 200 yards south. After a while we noted a second and there was some thought that a sparring session might begin, but no animation was forthcoming.
Once back we wandered around the shops for a while and ran into our Wyoming friends from the previous day. They had skipped the Nature trip and had done a flight around the summit of Denali instead. Clearly, they had had a good time! Soon we boarded the train and were heading for Fairbanks. The journey was dull. After a promising start the scenery died away and all we had was mile after mile of trees. Occasionally we would pass signs of life but all too often our commentator, who seemed as lifeless as us, missed it. We had declined the chance to eat initially because they wanted to take us down to the restaurant car at 5pm – way too early! However, not long after 6 they came back up to say that they had finished serving everyone who had wanted so if anyone else was interested they would be happy to find them a seat. We figured that they would be pushed to serve before 6:30 and since we wouldn’t get to Fairbanks until 8, now was as good a time as any! That was a good decision. Both food and service were excellent and I must say that the restaurant car quite impressed us both days.
On returning to the dome car we swapped places with our table companions, a friendly couple from Idaho, and completed the journey facing backwards. I was only sorry that we hadn’t told them to move before we went down. Towards the end of the journey everyone was starting to flag, but we were all animated when one of the guys yelled “COWS!” It was the first life we’d seen since a Dall Sheep just outside Denali. Shortly afterwards the cry was “Moose!” and we were all up again. Sadly this meant that Joan didn’t see a thing as she was on the wrong side of the carriage. Shortly afterwards we pulled into Fairbanks a little later than expected and transferred to the Fairbanks Lodge.
At the lodge I met someone who had travelled from Denali by motor coach. It had taken them two hours. I went to bed!
Thursday, September 6
Last morning and breakfast in the Englewood Dining Room. I had slept well the night before and felt very much more rested. The room was standard layout but a little better proportioned than the previous lodges had appeared. The breakfast was again buffet style and similar fare but not as overdone as at Denali. Simple reason, fewer people. And the service was very good. The young lady in question turned out to be a self-confessed football nut (world style!!!). She supports Arsenal (which is OK), mentions Manchester City before Manchester United (very astute) and knows that Aston Villa has defeated Chelsea the previous weekend (big tip coming up!!). Sorry USA, I know this is inane to you but as a famous English Football team manager once said, “Football’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that.” Once fed it’s out to the coaches for our trip to the Riverboat Discovery Paddle Steamer.
I sniffed tourist trap a mile off and was all set for a second day’s grousing, but none of it. This was great fun. The boat is comfortable, the events relevant and interesting and all of the commentary is first rate. They’ve even got strategically placed video screens so that you can get a good focus on things happening. The whole thing is pulled together by the narrator, whose name I never noted and would love to get from someone if anybody out there knows it. I had the good fortune to spend a few minutes with him. He’s a very keen inland waterways man and told me of his hope to come to sail some of the UK canals one day.
The Discovery plies along the Chena River passing some prime Fairbanks real estate encountering some excellent demonstrations reflecting life inland in Alaska. First up it’s a pilot who takes us through his repertoire taking off and landing on the river beside us. A little later he swaps his floatplane for a bush plane and shows us his skill in landing his plane on a sandbank.
Next up we pull alongside the home of Dave Monson and the late Susan Butcher, 4 times Iditarod winner, where he puts the current pack though their paces for us. However, it’s the small pups straggling over logs that seem to steal a lot of people’s hearts. Dave’s talk was very interesting and adds to the knowledge we had gained from Jeff King a few nights before.
A little further we come to the Chena Indian Village. From the water we see their collection of reindeer and a reconstructed Athabascan Village masterminded by Dixie Alexander, a lady of no small talent. As we watch she fillets a salmon in about 15 seconds running a commentary all the time! After this we pull into shore and enter the village. We are divided into four parties and slickly move our way around several exhibit areas.
Firstly, one of Dave’s staff introduces us to her Husky pack and tells of her Iditarod experience. Next we are taken to a hut surrounded by animal skins. We are told of Dixie’s decorative skills with these pelts and see some of her fantastic handiwork. Lastly, we go into an area with several different house constructions each representative of the different types of dwelling the Athabascans might use in different circumstances. In addition there is a canoe and there are a group of reindeer to pet if you can get near enough. I’ve got long arms! There’s just time to pick up a copy of “Granite” by Susan Butcher and Dave Monson, which he gladly signs for our grandsons and then we’re back on the steamboat.
On arriving back to the Riverboat Discovery there’s a huge shop with all manner of souvenirs. However, there’s no pressure to buy and if you just want to walk through to a bus that’s just fine. We take a moment to view the exhibit at the back of the store commemorating Susan Butcher’s life and achievements, and then it’s back to the lodge.
Another trip is planned for the afternoon but we’re shattered and feel that this one will be a tourist trap and so decide to spend some time getting our luggage prepared for the route home. During the afternoon we walk round to Fred Meyers, described as an upscale Walmart, and do a bit of grandad shopping for the grandkids. Usual thing, last thing bought is an extra bag to fetch it all home!
When we get back we run in to some people who have done the El Dorado Gold Mine trip that we skipped and they confirm what we suspected. The evening is spent at Pike’s Landing for our last Alaskan fish meal (absolutely fabulous) and then it’s back to bed. We’ve got a 3am call and it will be well over 30 hours before we get back to Manchester, but you don’t want me to post that now do you?
Next morning we met up with our colleagues from the past week and discover that two of the party went on a flight to The Arctic Circle late yesterday and had a total blast! For a minute I’m regretful but no..
To travel is to never regret, for others will never be there.
We were lucky that the weather was with us 100%. We had better weather than we’ve experienced for much of the summer up here in the English northwest! The bits of less good weather: the rain in Skagway, mist in College Bay just added to the experience, but I’m sure that it would affect some people badly if bad weather had shut down excursions and limited all the cruise ship passengers to the towns.
The land transport was mixed. Our motor coach was comfortable enough and the driver great, but the need to be in the right place at the right time just makes for an edge which can spoil the experience. The trains were a similar mix. One day great, one day so so. It was near the end of the season and maybe people’s eyes were casting homeward so maybe I’m just a touch harsh on the second day’s trip, but it wasn’t good. Just for future reference anybody, Princess seem to load up each coach in alphabetical order so you’re either right at the start of the queue for food or right at the back. To make matters harder to predict we as Cs had one day last up and one day first. If you’re MNOP then it’ll probably be mid trip, the rest of you – sorry!
My biggest concern would be the land tour. At a combined cost of around $2000 for the two of us, Princess did not give value for money as far as we were concerned. I would not use any of the accommodation or use the restaurants again except for the Kenai Lodge. McKinley, Denali and Fairbanks are just too big to give good service. I appreciate that we weren’t there to stay in the lodges, but they don’t come anywhere close to the cruise experience, despite being on the same ticket. The service was quite patchy and the front desk approach was off hand to say the least. The need to get up and go every day came as a drag to us and, though we knew beforehand and tried to plan our packing, we still found ourselves scrambling through our case each day a real pain. The one good thing is that it’s put us off any idea of doing some kind of extended coach tour.
I should confirm that none of these comments are aimed at Kenai. And there’s the rub, the small establishment adds to the experience. Frankly, as I read on another board, do it independently, it’s not as though it’s a foreign country. Well it is for some of us but they do speak the same language, most of the time!
But finally, we’re there for Alaska, and it doesn’t disappoint. Travel with your eyes open and you will not be disappointed, there’s always something happening out there. Equally, travel with your mind open and talk with the locals. Even the summer staff get the personality. They want you to have a great time, and they know how to help you. So many native and migrant Alaskans did so much to make this a wonderful trip for us. I’d love to thank them all one by one, and who knows, one day I just might do that.