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Eureka! Gold Rush in Alaska

Author: Thomas M
Date of Trip: May 2009

Can a couple in their mid-70s find happiness in a cruise and land tour in Alaska?

Our vacation started out with a pre-cruise stay in Vancouver. Holland America (“HA”) did the selection of air from Honolulu to Vancouver. While we can understand HA buying bulk airline tickets, I wish that they would consider a relative straight line or non-stop flight. As it was, we flew to San Francisco, had a layover of a couple of hours and flew from there to Vancouver. Flying back was from Anchorage to Seattle and from there to Honolulu. Air Canada could have flown us directly to Vancouver and Alaska Air directly from Anchorage.

Vancouver has a terrific airport – unbelievable in its architecture and its various displays. I was not able to fully appreciate it as my wife had a mishap and fell injuring her hand. But Frances, HA’s representative, came to the rescue, got the airport’s paramedics (Ivano and Paul) to assist with ice packs and ace bandages and eventually we were on our way to the Fairmount Waterfront hotel, which was just across the street from the cruise ship terminal.

We were impressed by Vancouver and our stay there. We had been on two previous Alaskan cruises with the usual couple of hours stop in that city but this time we had time to explore the city. Incidentally, Hawaii usually has a reputation for great buffets, but the Heron in the Fairmount easily tops Hawaii’s best.

The Volendam is a sistership to the Maasdam which we took last year from Fort Launderdale to Montreal. The crew on the Volendam was efficient and polite and service was good. My wife and I usually eat at the buffet (Lido deck) at lunch and in the main dining room in the evening. Unlike the Maasdam, for whatever reason, there were no trays or even silverware available in the buffet line. I don’t know whether this was some sort of attempt to prevent people from piling on food on a tray but it was bothersome and rather irritating to only take one dish (fruit), grab a table, get up to get coffee and juice and return and get up again to get your main course.

The shows were entertaining but certainly not the cast of thousands found in the bigger ships. In the main shows, there were only six or eight performers that could fit on the stage. But the Volendam is not one of those mega-ships but its small size makes it more comfortable.

The ship sailed through the inland passage and tried to get up to the end of the Tracy Arms/Sawyer Fjord but was prevented by the large amounts of ice in the waters. It was a cold, wet day but it did not prevent the cruisers from crowding the decks watching our passage through the fjord. Landing in Juneau also was wet and cold but that did not prevent many of the women passengers from hitting the shops! Incidentally, you really can’t see Russia from there!

Skagway was our second and last stop. The bus that picked us up at the ship took us on a tour which included the Old Cemetery. We did go over to the U.S. Park Service where a very knowledgable Ranger took us on a walking tour of the old city.

Skagway was the usual stop for the intrepid gold-rush miners before they started over the White Pass to the Klondike. It is estimated that of the 100,000 or so brave souls who tried to cross over the Pass, over 70,000 perished. And when they reached the goldfields, most of the claims were already taken!

A previous Cruise Critic writing about Princess’ cruise/and tour is that the best way to handle a trip to Denali is to go to Fairbanks/Anchorage FIRST and cruise last so that you can relax at the end. The HA tour we took was much more of a trek than that for Princess – as far as I know – but if we had to do it over again, we would take the land tour first and the cruise last and besides, it would be a slightly longer cruise!

Taking us from Skagway all the way to our final stop at Anchorage was HA’s Gabriel Prestella who was absolutely super taking care of all the needs of his wards.

Alaska is called “The Great Land” for a good reason. It is 2.5 times larger than Texas. The trip by motor coach and train covered 175-200 miles each day!

The trip from Skagway to the Canadian border was by train up the steep incline which the miners had to climb with one-ton of supplies which was mandated by the Canadians who did not have food or mining supplies on their side of the border. That was during one of the bitterest and coldest winters in history. There are many pictures of those miners struggling through the snow with their supplies climbing a 45 degree incline. Over 70,000 of the estimated 100,000 (gold) stampeders perished climbing up the White Pass.

At the top, we were greeted by Tom, who tucked us into his huge motor coach, and took us to our first stop at Whitehorse with a few stops for photo-ops and coffee. In total, this was 8-9 hours. From Whitehorse, we went to Dawson City, again about 8 hours travel by motor coach – some 340 miles.

Dawson City is a town of perhaps 1800 people during the spring/summer and if you seen enough Westerns, you will recognize Dawson City with its wooden boardwalks, false fronts, and it is hard to believe that over 30,000 people inhabited this City during the gold rush. Dawson City has two museums that are worthwhile visiting – one municipal and one run by the First Nation Cultural Center. Great places to eat.

Two of the disappointment of this visit to the Yukon Territory was the inability to go on a river boat cruise – the city of Eagle was hard hit by ice and floods which destroyed a great part of the town and damaged the boar and the absence of the famous Northwest Mounted Police with their distinctive red uniforms.

To “make up” for the river boat ride, HA decided we should travel on the highway on top of the world which was really a dusty road built on the crest of the hills and obviously a road less traveled – During the roughly 200 miles to Tok, we were passed by only 16-17 cars. One of our stops was in the town of Chicken which consisted of 4-5 outhouses and 3 stores but it did have WiFi for those who had to check their e-mail!

Tok is 1300 strong and (I believe) exists only for the reason that distances in Alaska are long and that this town is at the junction of two major roadways.

Our next stop was Fairbanks – about 200 miles from Tok and home of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It has a great museum there and the campus is absolutely beautiful. The museum is a “must”.

Denali – the major reason for this trip (though the history of the gold rush, Jack London, Robert Service notwithstanding). We boarded a observation type train for the park – about two hours or so from Fairbanks. We arrived in somewhat foggy and mildly wet weather and Mount McKinley was not visible. So our plans to take a flight tour was going down the tubes. However, we were assured that the weather in Denali is one of those “wait 30-minutes and it will change”. We took the flight and it was perfect!!! On cue, Mount McKinley made its appearance. It is the highest mountain in North America and arguable the highest in the world if you measure it from the base to the top. (Under that criteria, local pride must point out that Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the largest, its base being the bottom of the ocean).

HA gave a 7-hour wildlife tour the next day. We spotted grizzly bears and cubs, goats, moose, caribou, and a wolf who casually walked across a bridge near the bus, and then started rolling in the dirt for a while not more than 3-4 feet from the bus!

The next day before we left Denali, we visited Husky Homestead and Jeff King, three-time winner of the Iditarod (he came in second last year), got a chance to hold puppies, see their training and he talked about the race and is a tour that I sort of dismissed but found it absolutely fascinating. Recommend it highly!

I hate to put down Anchorage but after our trip to Denali, everything is anticlimatical!

Aloha from Hawaii.

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