Date of Trip: July 2013
My wife and I had always included Denali on our bucket lists, but we could not find a Cruise Tour that offered what we wanted to see. So we chose to sail with HAL (see my separate review of the msStatendam on Cruise Critic, “Exceeded Expectations”), and then plan our own land portion. I will focus almost exclusively on the land portion of our vacation, as I have covered the cruise in some detail in my other posting.
Our last day in Alaska was even more rare. There was not a cloud in the sky for most of the day. Our host says it only happens about 2-3 days each year. McKinley was there for viewing the whole way back to Anchorage. We must have stopped a dozen times for pictures, as the highway literally circumnavigates around the mountain and you can view it from all sides. Even the natives were out taking pictures on this most rare of days. We took a side tour to visit the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park. Don’t waste your time or the $5 parking fee. There’s nothing there, and the road is under construction so it took forever to get to it in the first place. After making it through downtown Anchorage, we drove south on the highway to Seward along the Turnagain Arm Inlet. You used to be able to spot beluga whales from the highway, but they have mysteriously disappeared. What we did see was the bore tide at Bird Point, which literally rushes up the inlet rather than slowly creeping in. The train from Seward passed by while we were eating our final meal in Alaska. Then it was on to the airport, taking pictures of the sun setting at 11:30 p.m., and boarding our flight for home.
I wanted to close by making a point of saying that (1) it did take quite a bit of work and time to plan this trip but, (2) it was well worth it. We spent far less than the HAL Cruise Tours and saw much more. If you plan early, and check back frequently, you can find real bargains on the internet sites of most companies. For instance, when it came to the rental cars, I rented a full-size from Enterprise in Vancouver for $36 a day (Canadian). The key was renting from the downtown office (4 blocks from Canada Place) rather than at the airport. Granted, I had to catch the bus down there, but that only cost $2.75 (you need exact change in Canadian currency; although the parking meters take credit cards, the buses do not, but the bus system website is quite helpful). In Juneau, we rented a compact from Juneau Car Rental for $45. In Skagway, a full-size for $99 (before taxes). And in Anchorage, we rented a full-size from Enterprise (again, away from the airport) for $39 a day (our whole four-day rental was less than the current daily rate!). It was worth the $15 taxi ride back to the airport after returning the car (after hours).
Same goes for the hotels. Remember, we used VRBO for Vancouver and Denali, but we stayed at hotels in Seward and Anchorage. There’s not much to choose from in Seward, but I had “points” to offset some of the cost of the room at the Holiday Inn Express and the view from our harbor-side balcony was beyond description. In Anchorage, with AAA discount, I found a room with 2 queen beds and full breakfast for $149. It just takes time (and a little luck), and early booking is the key. One final note, once you book your cruise, check back with the cruise line website frequently prior to making your final payment. They lowered the price of our cruise twice after we booked it and both times a simple e-mail to my AAA agent resulted in lowering the cost of our cruise. It ended up being 40% off the price we originally booked. It pays to do your research, starting with the excellent discussion boards and reviews on Cruise Critic. I hope that in some small way I have helped others by documenting what we experienced during our delightful land and cruise vacation to Alaska!