Bill and Kathy’s Trip to Alaska – June, 2001
The following is a lengthy journal of Bill and Kathy’s journey to Alaska with Radisson Seven Seas Cruises http://www.rssc.com/ aboard the Seven Seas Mariner departing from Vancouver, BC, June 4, 2001. I’ve tried to record information on shore excursions for anyone visiting Alaska, and specific information to answer questions asked about the Seven Seas Mariner. If you’d prefer the shorter version, scroll down to Final Reflections at the bottom. I hope to prepare a Photo Album in the near future. I’ll post that when it is finished.
June 04 – Departure. I suppose every trip needs an airline transportation story and ours came right at the beginning of this trip. As we passed through security at DTW (Detroit Metro) my wheeled carry-on bag aroused suspicions under the x-ray machine. The personal politely but firmly asked us to step aside while they picked up the bag and carried it to a table at the side. They then asked permission to open it and look inside. As they proceeded to check inside cosmetic bags and shaver cases I mentioned that I did have a small Swiss Army Knife packed, but that it had never previously caused a problem. No, that wasn’t it, they replied. They asked for our permission to run the entire bag through x-ray once more. That was when my brain finally engaged and I asked, “Oh, could it be my ankle weights?” Sure enough, those lead weights made for a mighty suspicious piece of carry-on luggage. I told them of the leg exercises taught to me by my physical therapist a few months ago to cope with degenerative osteoarthritis in my knees. They had fit so nicely between the handle rails in the bottom of the suitcase. They came back home packed in our check through luggage!
The Vancouver airport is an architectural beauty. It is adorned with waterfalls, rock ledges, ponds and wooden sculptures. It took close to an hour to retrieve luggage and make our way through customs.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises met us outside customs, and showed us where to wait for the motor coach transport to their hospitality suite at the Pan Pacific Hotel. This room was not well marked, and we received different directions from various people in the hotel before we found it. Coffee, tea and cookies were available along with limited seating. You could leave your bags there and wander around until it was time to transfer to the pier. We were able to board about 4:00 p.m. We were happy to find our three pieces of checked luggage and a bottle of champagne on ice awaiting us in our stateroom.
Radisson’s Seven Seas Mariner is the first all-suite, all balconied luxury cruise ship. She has a capacity for 700 passengers. We booked the lowest cost suite and were extremely pleased with our accommodations. In fact, being on deck seven made it much easier to travel to the various public sections of the ship on levels seven, six and five by simply using the stairways and not bothering with the elevators. We only used the elevators when going up to decks eleven and twelve. (Those of you reading this who were on the first few sailings of the Mariner this year will be pleased to learn that they had removed the tacky strings of extra lighting along the spiral staircases sometime prior to June 4th.)
After a brief break for rest and champagne in our suite we took our first tour of the ship, turned in our shore excursion form at the tour desk and made dinner reservations for both Signatures and Latitudes (two of the Mariner’s optional, reservations only alternate dining venues.)
We dinned our first evening in the Compass Rose, joining a couple who we had met on the transfer over to the ship. The wait staff (table 15) was very attentive, courteous and efficient. Our waitress took the time to explain the extensive menu of the Compass Rose Dining Room. It changes every evening, and has three full pages of numerous choices. You may choose the six course Menu Degustation, or any combination of selections from any part of the menu. You also have an excellent possibility of ordering just about anything not on the menu that you can think of. We were absolutely pampered! Each evening they serve both a white and a red wine, keeping your glass full until you assure them that you have had enough. (Nine days and eighteen days later, we had only found one wine that was not outstanding). My only small criticism here is that our wine sommelier kept coaxing the one non-drinker at our table to try a little wine. I finally suggested to him that he should learn to take “no thank-you” as a “NO”.
Here’s a helpful hint about using the television: Don’t turn off the TV by using the power button on the remote. Push the power button on the TV. Once it is off, you can push the power button back on, and then when you are ready to watch again you use the channel selection on the remote to advance the channel to wherever channel you want. If you turn the TV off by using the remote, you must unplug both the TV and VCR, then plug them back in and try again! We learned this trick from our steward the first morning when we were unable to turn the TV back on.
June 05 - Victoria, BC. Last night we placed our breakfast order on our door for room service. The instructions seemed to say to place a separate order for each person, but this is not what they expected. You should only use one form for the cabin. While eating breakfast at our table beside the door wall to the balcony we were rewarded by sighting about a dozen Dall Porpoises swimming past us. What a delightful experience!
When we met Roberto and Fatima (our room stewards) this morning I was able to explain my request for a sheet and blanket on the bed to replace the duvets, which we found entirely too hot. They had not understood this strange (to them) request in my note the previous night. Roberto gave many apologies for not providing them last night, and they both provided us with gracious service the remainder of the cruise.
Instead of booking the ship’s excursion to Butchart Gardens just outside of Victoria, we contacted Enchanted Tours http://www.victoria.about.com/aboutcanada/victoria/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http://www.sightseeing.ca/ They had a driver meet us at the dock area and drive us into town to join their 9:00 a.m. mini-bus to the gardens. Our driver was a 5th generation Victoria resident, and he provided a very through commentary throughout the approximate 30-minute drive to the gardens. Our weather this day was a light misty rain, but the gardens provide clear plastic umbrellas for everyone so we were quite comfortable.
Although the wonderland that is Butchart Gardens http://www.butchartgardens.com/ has never shown a profit, they maintain a staff of 500 employees (including 65 full time gardeners who keep the plantings in prime condition.) The colors are vibrant. Everything seems to be at least 50% larger than the same plants seen growing anywhere else. Tuberous begonias with orange red blossoms as large as saucers. A few of the azaleas and rhododendrons were past their prime, but most were still in their glory, proudly showing off rich shades of pinks, yellows, oranges, scarlet, fuchsia purple and white.
We asked to be dropped off at the Butterfly Gardens http://butterflygardens.com/ on our return trip. This was an option offered by Enchanted Tours. We were able to tour this delightful little tropical garden where we walked among numerous free flying butterflies and birds. The only snafu in this plan was that the bus the following hour was not able to pick us up, and we had to stay at the Butterfly Garden a second hour before getting our ride back to Victoria. (Cost of tour including admission to Butchart Gardens $32 U.S. each/Butterfly Gardens admission an additional $6.25 U.S. each) By the time we returned, we were too tired to bother touring that lovely city, and simply returned to the ship. Since we had not bothered with lunch on our own, we ordered pizza from room service that afternoon.
Bill located the ship’s library (extremely well stocked) and club.com where it is easy to stay in touch with the rest of the world at a very reasonable cost via the Internet. Our son, Rick, got us good on two separate occasions by sending messages that by their subject title lead us to believe that our second grandchild had arrived during our absence. I’m writing this report on June 22nd, and we are still awaiting babies’ arrival.
This is the one-day that we choose to order all of our meals in the room. I had read that the harbor around Vancouver and Victoria were prime sea life viewing areas, so we ate dinner (delicious four course meals ordered from the Compass Rose menu) keeping a close watch out for whales and porpoises. We saw numerous porpoises between 7:30 and 8:45 p.m.
June 06 – Cruising Inside Passage. I awoke at 4:45 a.m. and noticed we were approaching Seymour Narrows. Within ten minutes, Bill and I were dressed and up in the Observation Lounge (along with two of our ship mates). We passed through the narrows just after 6:00 a.m. We stayed up here for the misty views until about 7:00 a.m. We found that continental breakfast treats are set up here by 6:30 a.m.
We attended the first Tour Talk with Penny Zeilman, the Tour Manager, this morning. She gave a very informative talk punctuated with numerous slides neatly organized using her computer. We learned that the ships’ tour from Ketchikan to Misty Fjords by seaplane sold out the first night aboard ship. (I did find out that while in Ketchikan the next day, she was able to book additional spaces for Mariner passengers for the remainder of this season.)
*BE ADVISED; BOOK YOUR SHORE EXCURSIONS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER BOARDING THE SHIP!
We chose to eat both breakfast and lunch in the Compass Rose today. Service continues to be extremely courteous and efficient. When we enter, we are asked if we would like to dine alone or with company. We usually choose the ‘with company’ option. Often times they’ll seat just four persons at tables for six, so that all four dining together also have a view out the window.
At lunch I told Francois that I’d like to place a somewhat unusual order. He told me to go right ahead. I think that he did not believe he would be hearing anything he hadn’t heard before. I ordered the curried potato and Leek Soup with Spinach (just perfect flavor, not at all heavily spiced) and a main dish of Tuna Flakes Marinated with Celery and Tomatoes Served on a Bed of Garden Greens. And for dessert I requested the Chilled Cream of Strawberry Soup. Judging from the amused look on his face, we surmised that I had managed to surprise him with my request.
Spent a lazy afternoon in our suite. At five they announced that we were passing between Denny Island on the starboard side and Campbell Island on the port side. We went up to the open deck on level 12 and spotted more than a dozen bald eagles perched in the tops of the tallest trees. One flew in, and two flew away, providing a nice aerial pre-dinner show for us.
Terry Breen is a cultural anthropologist by training, but she prefers the title of ‘Storyteller’. She gave several informative talks during the cruise, which were available, both in person in the Constellation Theater; and by tape, later played over the in room TV. She also gave commentary from the bridge several times such as when we were cruising Misty Fjords, Hubbard Glacier and College Fjord.
We missed the captain’s welcome reception tonight because we had made 6:30 reservations in Signatures (the first restaurant at sea to be staffed by chefs wearing the white toque and blue riband of the Le Cordon Bleu of Paris. This meal was near perfection. Again, as in Compass Rose the staff was extremely helpful in explaining the menu. The Camembert Quiche appetizer is outstanding. We were happy to know that we would be returning here another evening. Since we prefer eating early, it was no problem for us to make reservations two nights in this venue.
June 07 - Cruising Misty Fjord; Ketchikan. Misty Fjord lived up to its name this morning as we quietly cruised past numerous long waterfalls tumbling down the misty mountainsides whose snowy peaks were hidden among the clouds. Mariner cruised all the way to Burroughs Bay where she turned around, then headed for Ketchikan.
After we walked off the ship in Ketchikan (the rain capitol) we checked the city’s prominent “Liquid Sunshine” gauge. It showed 84 inches of rain year to date. But we were blessed with partly sunny skies and 65 degrees at 4:00p.m. We heard that it was the first nice day there in six weeks.
We toured the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center (admission $5 per person); where I learned that Old Sqaw Ducks, champion divers, pounce on marine invertebrates 240 feet below the surface! That explained why many of the ducks that I had noticed diving into the sea, I never spotted coming back up. I was expecting them to resurface quickly like the mallards I’m used to watching at home.
At 4:45 p.m. we met Lorraine of Island Wings Air Service http://www.islandwings.com/ for the short ride to their seaplane ramp. One week earlier, I had learned of Island Wings through the Internet and contacted them about flight seeing. They had an opening between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. I hesitated, fearing that we might not make it back to the ship by our 7:30 p.m. deadline. Lorraine assured me that in ten years of business, they had not yet missed a ship.
What a fantastic flight we had with Jeff Carlin in his DeHaviland Beaver. I was the lucky passenger up front beside the pilot for the panoramic views over the mountains, sea and lakes. We landed on a lake to pick up another couple that Jeff’s partner, Michelle, had dropped off earlier that afternoon for some hiking. Then we took off for our flight continuing back over Misty Fjords (which was no longer misty) and landed on a beautiful alpine lake. He glided the plane over to an island on the lake and we all got out, stretched our legs and took lots of photographs. When we returned to the seaplane dock, two bald eagles were perched on some rocks and we were able to get to within about twenty feet of them. That provided our closest viewing of live eagles on this vacation. The whole trip lasted exactly two hours, and we were back to the ship by 7:10 just as promised. (Cost of flight: $179 per person) This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, but it is not for the faint hearted. You just had to trust that your pilot knew what he was doing as he seemed to fly straight at mountainsides before turning the plane to yet another marvelous view.
We were impressed with the quality entertainment aboard the ship. The pianist, Kemble, and harpist, Shirley Dominquez, were both excellent. I don’t personally care much for magicians and we only caught one of the two shows offered. Kenny Smiles “The Mad Welshman” is the comedy vocal entertainer. He does his entire show while moving among the audience and bringing those he chooses into the act. Watch out if you’re sitting where you might catch Kenny’s attention!
The eight person Peter Grey Terhune Singers & Dancers, accompanied by the Tower Band, staged two different shows during the nine-day cruise. I was impressed with both their talent and the quality of the costumes and stage designs for a cruise ship show. We had no interest in either the art or bridge lectures that were also available throughout the cruise.
Neither did we patronize the casino, nightclub, spa, beauty salon or gym or infirmary (thankfully), so I do not review these areas in my journal. The Constellation Theatre offers seating with unobstructed views for all passengers in one sitting. We appreciated this amenity as our only previous cruise experience was last year aboard NCL’s Norwegian Sea where if you wished to obtain good seating you had to line up outside the theatre thirty minutes ahead of time.
June 08 – Juneau. This morning we see a whale spouting off in the distance from our balcony. We attend one of Terry’s lectures where we learn that the original town of Valdez was built on glacial silt (the pieces of rock that break from the mountains as the ice moves past). So, when the 9.2 earthquake rocked southern Alaska on Good Friday, 1964, much of the town simply slipped into the sea. The current town was rebuilt west of the original. Terry tells us that the Hubbard Glacier is seventy-six miles of ice and seven miles across at the base where it meets the sea. We’ll also be cruising College Fjord on this journey, home of the greatest concentration of tidewater glaciers in North America.
Beautiful warm and sunny weather continued for our afternoon in Juneau (72 degrees at 2:00 p.m.). About 2:30 p.m. we were picked up by one of Coastal Helicopters http://www.alaskaone.com/coastal/ vans for transport to the Juneau airport. We were in for a real treat this afternoon. Two other passengers from the Mariner joined us for a 90 minutes Adventure Tour that turned into a 95-minute tour, which included two landings within the massive Juneau ice field! This area receives 80 to 110 feet of snow per year. The density of the compressed ice causes the beautiful blue colors. We flew over the Mendenhall and Herbert Glaciers and then further north to the Gilkey Glacier. At some point we also flew over the massive Taku Glacier. I can’t remember now when that was during the flight. The first landing was on a small outcropping near some of the mountain pinnacles. On my third step away from the helicopter, my right foot broke through the snow and I suddenly found myself sitting in the snow, as I was in deeper than my knees. A few more steps, and we were able to walk around on some rock to get a good look around. What an awesome world our great God has created! There were some fresh bear prints in the snow, but no other sign of those large furry creatures. When our pilot lifted off from there he scouted around for a suitable landing area right on Gilkey Glacier (elevation 3,900 feet). He put us down in an area where we were able to step over a few small crevasses and walk beside some open water, which BTW is a beautiful clear aqua color. This ice is not slippery, so we were able to walk around quite a bit fully enjoying this awesome experience. It was almost warm enough to not need our jackets, but since they were with us, we kept them on. As we were returning to the airport Jack, our pilot, said “It’s a little close between these peaks, but if I turn the ‘copter like so we can go right through.” Yes, it was a thrilling experience! (Cost: $255 p/p)
All the helicopter tours from Juneau were very popular. We do know that some folks were able to wait until our ship docked and were still able to make reservations from vendors on the pier. This may be because all of the other large cruise ships left Juneau by 4:00 p.m. and Mariner’s lucky passengers had the town to themselves after that. It is advised to book ahead if you want to include helicopter flight seeing on your vacation.
June 09 – Skagway. Third clear day in a row! Started with room service breakfast as we were scheduled to meet on the dock at 7:30 a.m. for our ship’s tour: Eagle Preserve Float Adventure & Cruise, a raft float trip down the Tsicku and Chilkat Rivers. (Take your binoculars). We began with a ferry trip back down the Lynn Canal to the picturesque little town of Haines. Then we rode a school bus to where the twenty-three of us were divided into three groups for a sedate river raft trip. Each raft had a guide, who did the rowing, and seven or eight passengers. We saw a few eagles in flight and perched up in the trees. Some artic terns were diving down to feed on salmon fry. It was our guides first day on the job, and he was embarrassed to miss the main channel at one point and so he had to bring the raft to shore and, with the help of another of the guides, pull our raft around to where it needed to be. We got to do a little rock collecting on the flats as we portaged across two streams. It was all fun. We had a nice picnic lunch (assemble your own deli sandwich) at the take out spot. Going later in the season, you would be wise to have a good mosquito repellant along with you for this spot. As we returned to the ship at 2:00 p.m. we found the temperature in Skagway to be 78 degrees. We were wearing extra socks to deep our feet warm inside the rubber boots that are supplied for this trip (your shoes are clipped together and transported in barrels). But today was warm enough that even those who forgot the extra socks were comfortable. (Cost of ship’s tour: $158 p/p)
We skipped the trip into town and returned to our suite and enjoyed one-hour naps. (With twenty four hours of daylight in Alaska this time of year, we found ourselves going to sleep later than usual and waking up earlier than usual. Anxious to see new sights and experience new activities every day of the trip, I soon became sleep deprived.)
Greatly refreshed by the needed sleep, we went up to teatime in the Horizon Lounge where we listened to Skagway entertainer Steve Hites presenting “Klondike Stories and Songs”. Steve has also performed at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. He’s quite good.
Tonight we returned to Signatures for our second dinner in that venue. We started with lobster salad that was light, healthy & delicious. Bill had one of the best filet mignons of his life, and I had the quail, which was fine.
June 10 – Sitka. Large ships anchor off Sitka and tender their passengers ashore. Those of us going on the Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest boarded directly onto our touring craft rather than a tender. There is space for about 100 passengers in the comfortable main level cabin equipped with large viewing windows. There are two stairways at the rear of the tour boat that take you to the upper, mostly open, deck. At 8:00 a.m. this morning the temperature was 54 degrees; at 3:00 p.m. it remained the same. We had a light rain and drizzle most of the day. Being dressed in warm raingear as we were affords you the very best of viewing opportunities from the upper deck. We first sighted a few sea otters enjoying their breakfast. Next we quietly passed by some rocks with perhaps thirty sea lions lazing upon a rocky outcropping. A few of them slid into the ocean as we came closer, but most were content to continue their Sunday morning rest upon the rocks. We spotted both a loon and a few cormorants, some resting on floating debris and others in flight. Soon the first whales were noticed. We eventually counted four humpback whales engaged in active feeding, so we observed their tails above the surface of the water numerous times. Not long after moving past the humpbacks, Orcas, or killer whales, were spotted. This viewing was different in that they were likely moving to another area know to have seals (it was approaching lunch time.) The Orcas would sometimes spend several minutes under water before re-immerging quite some distance away. Finally we were rewarded with one whale breaching (jumping most of the way out of the water), but this did not occur very near to our boat. As we neared Sitka’s harbor on our return, there were dozens of eagles in the trees on the many small islets to our starboard side. (Cost: $105 p/p) We were dropped off at the edge of town. When we reached St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church we were disappointed to learn that it would be closed that afternoon. Fifteen of their students have graduated from high school this year and today is reserved for their special celebration. (New friends we met on the ship did get into St. Michael’s during the one small window of opportunity that afternoon and were kind enough to bring us a few postcards of the ornate interior.) We did a small bit of shopping and then returned via tender to the Mariner.
ML and Karl, our new friends from North Carolina, informed us that we had been missing a wonderful lunch opportunity, as we had not yet eaten on the eleventh level La Veranda Restaurant. So today we finally joined them there. Sitka Harbor provided a beautiful view for this casually elegant buffet. We started with jumbo shrimps and cocktail sauce then ate our way through several delicious salads and hot entrees. It would have been nice to have selections better labeled. There was an ample supply of six to eight different desserts.
We had reservations in Latitudes this evening. Opinions of our fellow passengers vary in regard to Latitudes, the other reservations only alternative dining room. Some like the set sampler menu very much, while others do not. I’m in the later group. The two items, which I enjoyed tremendously, were the King Salmon (one of the two main entrees) and the Cherry Clafourtis (one of four desserts). The meal began with five appetizers, which were followed by three soups. It also included a lobster salad, which to my tastes fell short of the marvelous lobster salad offered some nights in Signatures.
June11 – Cruising Hubbard Glacier. Another cold and misty dawn. Mountains and glaciers certainly do create their own weather. As the ship began to cruise up Yakutut Bay we began to see bergy bits of ice floating in the sea. Most of these bits were white; some still carried the gray mountain moraine. But my favorites were the aqua ranging in color intensity from crystal like clear to a rich deep color. This morning we made full use of all of our cold weather gear. You do not need a winter coat so long as you can layer sweatshirts or sweaters under a good rainproof jacket. But knit hats, gloves and fleece scarf come in very handy if you wish to be up on an open deck while cruising the glaciers. Outside temperature was 45 degrees this morning. I have no idea what the ‘wind chill’ rating would be; the wind and mist were certainly a factor in how cold it felt. The Mariner slowly made her way to about one mile off the face of the Hubbard Glacier. Hubbard’s terminus (width across at the point where it reaches the sea) is seven miles wide. We were thrilled to hear the loud cracks (similar to the sound of a rifle being fired) of calving and watched as large portions of glacier broke off and tumbled into the sea, causing large splashes. Some produced short-lived waterfalls behind them.
We again ate lunch up in La Veranda. But the selections were not as appealing as yesterday, and this time we were virtually ignored by the servers.
June 12 – Valdez; cruising College Fjord. This was the only port where we did not choose to take an organized tour. (Temperature at 9:00 a.m. is 54 degrees) We took advantage of the free shuttle bus into town and were entertained by Clarence, our bus driver. I expect he could make a decent living as a comedian if he were to choose that career. He possesses an excellent dry sense of humor, with perfect timing and delivery. We toured the Valdez Museum (admission $3 p/p). Among the many fine displays in the museum are several homemade quilts, some of which are for sale. “At Home in the Woods” had previously been available but was now labeled as sold. I inquired about this quilt at the desk and was told that it was the first quilt made by the artist and that she had not really wanted to sell it so she had priced it at $3,000 not expecting that anyone would pay that price. It sold almost immediately. (Hope my photo of it turns out.)
We returned to the Compass Rose for lunch today. We even took a bottle of champagne from our room to enjoy with lunch. With the excellent wines which were included with all the dinners, we had not used the liquor that was supplied to our stateroom or this bottle of champagne sent as a welcome aboard gift by our travel agent.
Bill and I went up to the open deck on level twelve for the beginning of our cruise up College Fjord, which began about 4:00 this afternoon. We didn’t need the hats and scarf this time, but gloves were still nice for keeping our hands warm while holding binoculars. If I remembered these correctly, the major glaciers, that we saw, were as follows (beginning on the left, or Port side): Wellesley, Vassar (with moraine at the base), Bryn Mar (where the rock face appears as a Y in the middle) and Harvard straight ahead at the end of the Fjord. Yale is to the right of Harvard.
At various times during this day I packed for our debarkation from the ship and for our four-day overland tour that would begin tomorrow. We were booked on Radisson’s ‘Denali Experience’ package.
June 13 – Debarkation in Seward; beginning of Land Tour. All the passengers who had booked post cruise land tours with Radisson met together in the Constellation Theater at 9:00 a.m. (We were required to have our check on luggage in the hallway outside our staterooms by 11:00 the previous evening. And we needed to vacate our staterooms by 8:00 this morning. Breakfast was available in all four of the regular venues, but with more limited times than usual.)
Shortly after 9:00 a.m. we formed the three different groups taking the three separate tours. By 9:54 a.m. we were comfortably seated on our motor coach along with Joy Zimmerman and her assistant, Kristen, our charming and competent escorts for the next four days. Joy told us that only 20% of visitors to Alaska go inland, and only 2% do so as part of an escorted tour. Our pampering was to continue! I admit this is the expensive way to go, but for our first trip to Alaska we felt it was worth the cost. If we do future trips to Alaska we will probably do the land tour on our own. With the four-day tour, which we chose, we did not have the opportunity to explore the captivating Kenai Peninsula.
Anchorage is a three-hour drive from Seward. Our motor coach made a stop at a wildlife center where we enjoyed close up views of a yearling bear cub (Hugo had been found orphaned and suffering from porcupine quills in her paws and mouth. Unable to feed herself, she would have died if not rescued), a pair of two week old moose, many elk, caribou and birds. Bill turned away from photographing Hugo to find himself face to face with a fellow he’s known for close to 30 years while they each worked at Ford Motor Co. Alaska may be big (it could be divided in half and Texas would still be third in size) but this encounter was proof that it’s still ‘a small world after all’!
My major complaint about Radisson’s Alaska Land Program is that unlike the cruise portion for which you can easily gain answers to many questions ahead of time, details on any portion of the land program only come to you in small bits and pieces just shortly before each portion occurs. I had made many inquiries prior to the commencement of our trip in an effort to gain details on what we could plan during our two days at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge to no avail. Perhaps this is because although we were under the care of a Radisson escort, all of the arrangements were operated through Princess Tours. Joy did an excellent job taking care of all details for us, but I felt guilty for pestering her with my numerous questions. For instance, when we boarded the motor coach at the dock, we were handed a list of eight restaurants in Anchorage where we could choose to use our dinner vouchers that night. The list only supplied names, addresses and phone numbers. I asked if more details were available and I was one of the few that got to see a scrapbook with reviews of the restaurants and some sample menus. (Scrapbook passed around an almost fully loaded motor coach tends to park itself with some folks. I asked to see it while we were still at the wildlife center and everyone else was still occupied elsewhere.) I made the Marx Bros. Café http://marxcafe.com/ my first choice (that name alone would never attracted me) and later found that it was the best possible choice for our tastes. We had a fantastic dinner of King Salmon filets and Caesar Salad for two prepared by one of the owners. (Also pigged out on tasty appetizers and desserts) It is very small, so only a few of us were so lucky to dine there that evening.
The ride through Kenai Peninsula is a visual treat, especially as you come near to Anchorage and are driving between the Chugach Mountains and the waters of the Turnagain Arm. There is a 32-foot difference between low and high tides in the Turnagain Arm. The tides change twice a day. We passed by nearly at low tide. People are constantly warned not to walk out on the mud flats for they can be worse than quick sand if you are out on them at the wrong time. But despite the warnings, some folks still go out on them, and some folks drown there every year. (Seats with the best views are on the driver side of the bus.) The coach driver gave us a short tour of downtown Anchorage before parking at a convenient location and allowing us one hour to get out and grab a quick lunch or do some shopping. Then we drove out to the Anchorage Native Heritage Center. If you drive here on your own, you could easily spend half a day to listen to the different native culture groups explain their individual village sites attractively arranged around Tiulana Lake. (This is the first time on our trip to meet up with the Alaskan state bird – the mosquito! At least the ones we encountered here flew very slowly and we smacked all but one without being bitten.) I think we had 90 minutes here (sorry that I can not remember for sure.)
We were in our large, tastefully and comfortably decorated room at the new Anchorage Marriott by 5:30 p.m. Our check on luggage arrived at our room just before 7:00 p.m. Many in our tour did not get theirs until shortly before midnight. Apparently, all the bags got mixed together at the port and although they all were transported to hotels hosting Princess guests, they did not go to the proper hotels on the first try! Hopefully, this situation has been corrected for the remainder of the season. The bellmen at the Marriott were going crazy when they got the first load of baggage and none of the names on the tags matched the names of the guests on their list!
Bill and I walked the seven blocks to the Marx Bros Café and thoroughly enjoyed our dinner there. We definitely needed the walk back to the hotel after indulging in the feast. This was June in Alaska, so of course it was still daylight.
June 14 – Midnight Sun Express to Denali. I tuned in the local news on TV and heard the weatherman report “Everyday is a good day and some are better than others. This is one of those days.” Forecast was mostly sunny with a high of 66 degrees. We had our choice of breakfast at the hotel, or on the train. We had originally been informed that since there was only room for one small carry-on per person aboard the train, Radisson would store our large check through luggage at the Marriott for the two days we would spend in Denali. Yesterday we got the good news from Joy that since the Marriott did not have available space to store all that luggage for two days, it would be sent by coach and be available to us at the Denali Princess Wilderness lodge. We did need to have those bags packed and ready in the hallway by 6:00 a.m. We met in the lobby at 7:15 a.m. for a 7:30 departure (bags were still sitting in hallway when we left the room). The train departs Anchorage at 8:15 a.m. Joy arranged for our entire group to more than half fill the Princess Ultra Dome C car, the car with the largest viewing platform at the back. It also houses the gift shop on the lower level along with our dining car and restrooms. (She claimed that it is an Alaskan state law that you never be more than 20 feet away from a gift shop! At times, this seems to be true!)
Bill and I chose breakfast on the train. During our land portion of our trip we for the most part ate a late breakfast and an early dinner, skipping lunch. After the ample food aboard the Mariner this worked fine for us. People will tell you that the food aboard the Princess cars is wonderful. Guess what, they are right! They serve large portions of premium quality food.
The eight-hour train ride is pleasurable. We had a lot of interaction among our tour group. The scenery is breathtaking. I tried using my binoculars to search for wildlife, but found it difficult to focus through them from aboard a moving train. We viewed numerous beaver dams and beaver lodges. Our views of Mt. McKinley were unobstructed by clouds. The guides and bar tender/guide will alert you when the best viewing opportunities are coming up.
The majority of the time aboard the train you will be seated on the second level at assigned tables for four, one bench facing forward and the other facing back. The only storage space is that which is under your seat. If you have long legs, too much stuff or extra large persons, you may feel a bit cramped. Our group was so friendly that we were able to stick some long legs out into the aisles and walk the aisles freely. I don’t know if this would always be the case. Each Princess rail car has it’s own upper level bar. In addition to a large selection of mixed drinks, available with or without alcohol, they carry Henry Weinhard’s Premium Root Beer – Yummm.
The Denali train station is an extremely busy place! We made our way past the crowd waiting to board for their move on to Fairbanks that afternoon, and boarded our coach for the short transfer to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. I had read some critical reports of this lodge on some Internet sites, so my expectations were not very high. What a delight when we were shown to our room (our large bags awaiting us) in part of building 6, one of the more secluded and quieter locations! We had no complaints in regard to this property.
You may choose to dine at the 5:30 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. sitting for the Denali Music Dinner Theater Show. Yes, this is a bit like Disneyland, but we enjoyed a fun time. You sit at long picnic tables, and are served hearty food family style (the barbeque ribs were my favorite) by a wait staff that also performs in the show following dinner. The cast was all talented singers, which made for pleasant entertainment even though the show was a bit corny.
June 15 – Denali. Included in the tour package is either a visit to Jeff King’s Husky Homestead or the three-hour Natural History Tour into Denali National Park. Since we booked the longer six to eight-hour tour into the park for this afternoon, we chose the Husky Homestead Tour for this morning. Jeff is a triple winner of the Iditarod race, having finished first in 1993, ’96 and ’98. He and his talented wife, Donna Gates King, have made their home in Denali where they have raised their three daughters in addition to hundreds of Alaskan Husky puppies. Jeff and some of his associates provide a very informative tour that begins with an opportunity for all dog lovers to hold a pup from one of their current litters. I was pleased to hold a docile four- week old pup that was not intent on licking and nibbling anything within reach. It was a riot to watch a litter of eight- week old puppies running in their exercise wheel and then working furiously at untying Robyn’s hiking boots laces. All puppies born here are kept until they are at least two years old. Even with that length of time to evaluate, Jeff has sometimes sold a future champion dog to a competitor that has gone on to beat him. Don’t be alarmed by news reporters who write that only half of the dogs that start the Iditarod finish the race. This is a true fact, but it is all planned this way. The dogs have excellent care and are doing what they love to do. No substitutions are allowed in this 1,000 mile long race. You only need eight dogs to run it, but most mushers begin the race with sixteen dogs and begin withdrawing dogs at stops along the way. I won’t bore you with all the other facts we learned, but will just say it was fascinating. Jeff finishes with a hilarious story of how he looks for a dog with a good appetite.
We used our dinner voucher for lunch in the Summit Dining Room since the only Tundra Wildlife Tour (cost: $76 p/p) Joy was able to arrange for us departed the Lodge at 3:00 p.m. I had tried to book this tour from home two weeks prior to leaving home but was informed that all tours for the entire season were sold out. It does help to have a tour escort in your corner! This longer bus tour does include a box lunch (but take along additional water) and makes several rest stops along the way. Our ½ pound cheeseburgers at lunch were tasty and the servers congenial. After Nathan dropped a tray on the floor, other servers helped salvage what was salvageable and quickly replaced the rest with fresh food from the kitchen. Kaycee cheerfully announced “You have never had a true wilderness experience until you’ve eaten off our carpet.” When I mentioned to Nathan that I felt the accident was handled very well his reply was “Kaycee is awesome.”
Bill and I were the first passengers onto the bus and able to select the best seats for unobstructed views, the front seats on the right side. This meant restricted leg- room at the window seat, but it was a better than even trade off. From these seats we were able to spot the rabbits, ground squirrels, ptarmigans and even the tiny vole that ran across the road in front of the bus. After the driver, we were the first to spot the red fox that crossed in front of the bus around 9:00 p.m. The driver said we were close to the fox’s den. The usual turn around location for this six to eight hour tour is the Polychrome Overlook at mile 53. But this afternoon the tour buses were continuing to mile 62.25 because this turn around provides a magnificent view of Mt. McKinley (which is 42 miles distant) on clear days such as we were enjoying. I told our driver that it was the most spectacular view for a picnic we had ever been privileged to experience (we spent about 30 minutes at this stop). Our bus ride out to this location lasted 4 1/2 hours. When any passenger spots wildlife along the way they are encouraged to holler, “stop”. The driver then slows or stops as soon as it is safe to do so. Employing this method we saw countless caribou and Dall Sheep along the way, although most were quite some distance from us. We also saw one Bull Moose, a golden eagle and a mother bear with her cub, in addition to the smaller animals Bill and I saw through the front window. We made the return trip in three hours, arriving back at the lodge at 11:05 p.m. (still plenty of daylight). On the way back, we saw one more bear and numerous sheep and caribou. Our driver also pointed out a falcon perched atop a pinnacle. In addition to the fox that ran across the road we spotted a large marmot. According to the book I purchased, these marmots grow to be 20 pounds. The one we saw surely must have been a trophy specimen!
June 16 – Return journey to Anchorage. The only down side to this fantastic trip was the problems with the air conditioning aboard the Princess rail cars on the eight hour train ride back to Anchorage from Denali. The bar tenders and guide along this ride continually apologized (since they were working, they were even more uncomfortable than we were), and our Radisson escort (Joy) kept an open bar for us; but it was almost a grueling experience. I would suggest that if taking this trip you wear a tank top under another shirt, so that if necessary you can dress down. Princess should consider stocking more repair parts in Fairbanks. They knew there was a problem with the compressor the previous day, but had to return to Anchorage to make the necessary repairs. Since they were nearly fully booked, that meant passengers in the affected car had to endure. Could they figure out some way to install sunshades like many restaurants do?
Joy told us that of the more than 50 escorted tours she has lead to Denali, this was the first time that Mt. McKinley was free from cloud cover for the entire three days. We should have some excellent photographs in addition to the many images that are still vivid in my memory.
Prime Rib dinner aboard the train was excellent albeit uncomfortably hot. I pitied the kitchen and wait staff. I gave our sweating waiter my permission to remove his necktie, but he needed that ok from a higher authority.
We returned to newly assigned rooms back at the Anchorage Marriott for the night.
June 17 – Return flights back to Michigan. Enjoyed our final meal in Alaska, delivered by room service at 6:15 a.m. Joy bade us farewell as we joined another couple from our group headed for the same flight out of Anchorage. We left the hotel two hours ahead of our scheduled flight. We had a change of planes in Minneapolis/St. Paul and landed close to schedule in Detroit around 10:00 p.m. About 40 minutes later, all our check through baggage finally appeared on a luggage carousal in the very crowded baggage claim area.
11:25 p.m.: back to our own home, tired but feeling extremely blessed to have enjoyed such a marvelously beautiful vacation.
Final Reflections This trip was all that we had hoped it would be. Alaska is spectacular! God certainly did create a marvelously diverse world and populated it with abundant wildlife before He created man in His image and placed us here. We are so grateful that we had this opportunity to see Alaska. The tropics remain our favorite vacation destination, but everyone who has the means should try to see Alaska at least once. I know many would make Alaska their first choice.
Radisson knows how to run a cruise line. They made every effort to see that all needs were met. We were provided with a questionnaire mid way through the cruise to fill out if we had any areas of concern. The few passengers we spoke with who filled these out and turned them in were contacted the following day and their concerns were handled courteously. If we are so fortunate as to take another cruise to Alaska I would gladly sail with Radisson again!
We were happy that Radisson changed the evening dress code on their Alaska itinerary to ‘Country Club Casual’. One sports coat, tie optional, with a colored shirt and pants will work for the men; and a few dresses and/or pretty pants outfits for the women. This provides room in your luggage for those layers of casual clothing you’ll need during the days.
I took the opportunity when filling out our questionnaire the final evening aboard ship to mention that my only irritation was in regard to the original air arrangements Radisson booked for us. Instead of utilizing the direct flight from Detroit to Vancouver, they had booked us on a connecting flight that did not leave Detroit until the afternoon and was due to arrive in Vancouver at 7:20 p.m. That would have made for an extremely long day, not to mention the fact that we would have missed the first dinner aboard ship. We had to pay a change fee to switch to the direct morning flight. Apparently, they had booked several other passengers with similar late arrivals and the ship was not able to leave Vancouver until after 1:30 a.m. when her final passengers were finally on board. (It had been scheduled to depart at midnight.)
TAKE PLENTY OF FILM! Bill and I each carried a camera and enough film for one 24- exposure roll of film p/p per day. We went through 23 rolls of film. I’ll admit that was a bit extravagant, but it made us happy. We sent our film to PhotoWorks http://www.photoworks.com to be developed. We’ve already received the first batch of prints. We chose their complete package, so we have been able to view our photos on the Internet, and in addition to the prints, we have a CD of each roll. We’ll also be able to order our own photo DVD from PhotoWorks if we choose to. All this without yet having our own digital camera!
I’m glad that we included an escorted post cruise land tour. If we return to Alaska again, we would probably arrange the land portion on our own. We could spend a little more time at a lower cost per day.
The excursions were definitely the highlights of the trip. I could not choose between the seaplane and the helicopter as my favorite, they were both extraordinary and I’m so glad that we had perfect weather for both. The scenic views of misty fjords and alpine lakes from our seaplane were so peaceful (although Jeff did know how to provide some excitement by flying close by some mountain faces). What a pleasure it was to land on that serene alpine lake. It was thrilling to fly in the helicopter above the spectacular vastness of the mighty glaciers and then land right down on one. I’d also repeat a quiet float trip down a quiet river and take any opportunity to see wildlife from a smaller boat. Since we got such good views of Mt. McKinley on this trip we feel like we’ve ‘been there, done that’, so we would likely spend more land time exploring the Kenai Peninsula. From previous trips to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, we know that Colorado provides a better opportunity to see wildlife up close and personal than we experienced at Denali. (Although I’m content to not have any close encounters with bears.)
I hope that my journal has been helpful to those of you who have taken the time to read through it. I’m sorry that it is so very long. I suppose part of the reason I included so much is my fear of forgetting some of this as I grow older and ‘senioritis’ takes a firmer grip on my memory. At 56, I’ve already had lapses that worry me!
Carol, I copied all of this from my Microsoft Word document and it seems that the URL's will not be clickable. If you or someone else know how to do that and have the time, great! If not, don't worry. I apologize for not making them clickable myself.
Edited by Kathy_Z on 6/23/01 00:28 AM.