I’ve heard Alaska called this my whole life. And, in my head, I knew what it meant, I just wasn’t prepared for the reality. In the summer, the sun sets late, at 11:00 PM more or less, and rises early, at 4:30 AM. Also, when the sun sets, it is really just below the horizon so nighttime is not dark, not ever. We were up at 3:00 AM for an airport transfer our last day in Alaska, and you could have read a newspaper outside by the sun light. Because of the four hour time difference from Atlanta to Alaska, we were up a lot of mornings really early and it was always light. Be prepared for these light nights and bring a mask to sleep in if you need darkness to be rested.
We just finished a ten day cruise and land package to Alaska. We covered 8736 miles during these ten days (some in our group covered more) – 1544 miles by cruising from Vancouver to Seward Alaska, 364 miles by train from Seward to Denali National park, 128 miles from Denali to Fairbanks and finally 6760 air miles from Atlanta to Vancouver (via Toronto) and then from Fairbanks back to Atlanta (via Seattle). There was some walking in there and a bus ride in Denali National Park, but 8546 is pretty accurate. This was an epoch journey for us and our group of 20.
Once again this summer, we were cruising with Holland America. This time we were cruising on the Noordam. This ship was launched in 2006 so it is newer than the Veendam however the Veendam had been completely refurbished in 2009 so the carpets and chair upholstery on the Noordam showed a bit more age. The Noordam’s deck count is amazingly short. Most of the public spaces are on decks two and three, while the pool deck (the Lido Deck) is on deck nine. Most ships we have cruised on have had the public spaces (casino, shops, most of the bars) starting at deck five and the Veendam’s public spaces are on decks seven and eight. It felt like we climbed stairs a lot less than we normally do on a cruise. We climb the stairs so we can justify the extra deserts we eat at lunch and dinner!
We boarded our cruise in Vancouver BC (British Columbia). Vancouver is a very busy seaport located in the lower mainland region of British Columbia (a province of Canada). Vancouver is one of Canada’s most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities with 52% of the people living there speaking a language other than English as a first language. There are many fine restaurants and hotels in Vancouver, and as we recommend arriving in your departure city a day before your cruise departure to take the worry out of air travel delays and cancelations, finding lodging and a fine meal will not be a problem. One thing about Vancouver that always stands out for me, is the appearance of the city. The glass towers of Vancouver are all built with green glass. Due to the hills of the city, you will nearly always have a great view of these very distinctive and beautiful green glass towers.
Leaving Vancouver, you will spend the first day of your cruise sailing the inside passage. This passage winds between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada. Land is close on both sides of the ship, and the views are magnificent. The land is tree-covered mountains that slope down to the ocean. Sea life often follows the ship for a time on this day. We saw a pod of Orcas swimming past the ship on a previous cruise, and on this one, we saw sea lions. If you have a sharp eye you will also see the white head of a bald eagle in the trees. This day is a great way to start the cruise if you came from the east coast and need time to adjust to the time difference. All the ships services are open just as if you were in international waters, so if you want, you can shop in the ships boutiques or try your luck in the casino. The weather was great on our day through the inside passage, if a bit cool, and many passengers spent time in the pools and hot tubs. Bar service was also available throughout the ship. We were traveling with a group of friends, and we all gathered together for dinner this night at the Pinnacle Grill for a special dinner. There is a small upcharge for this restaurant, and the charge is worth it. They serve amazing steaks cooked perfectly, huge shrimp cocktail, really tasty salads as well as great seafood like King Crab Legs or Sea Bass. The choices for desert include a molten chocolate cake, a banana tart and Crème Brule.
Our fist port of call was Ketchikan, Alaska, a city with an interesting history. The city is named after the Ketchikan creek, which flows thorough the town emptying into the Tongass Narrows just south of down town. Ketchikan was known in the early 20th century for the red light district centered on Canal Street which runs along Ketchikan creek. The district is a charming tourist area with a brothel museum (complete with a good natured working girl outside) along with some nice shops. This was our favorite tourist area on the cruise. We booked a private excursion for a close encounter with the American Bald Eagle. Six of us boarded a small boat which took us into the narrows to look for Eagles.
We were not disappointed – eagles are common in Alaska and our captain knew just where to go to find them. We even watched an eagle fish for his dinner. I got some great photos and video of this magnificent bird in his native habitat. As a bonus on this boat trip we encountered some Humpback Whales. Our captain told us whales were relatively rare in the waters around Ketchikan and we should see more in Juneau, and he was right. Some of our group took a float plane trip to the Misty Fiords, another spectacular site near Ketchikan. They landed in one of the fiords and said the scenery was breathtaking.
Day three of our cruise found us in Juneau, the state capital of Alaska. An interesting fact about Juneau is that the only way in or out is by plane or boat (ship in our case). Juneau is the only state capital without road connections to anywhere! You can’t get there by car. Our excursion in Juneau was whale watching from a jet boat. We had been told that there were more whales in Juneau, so our expectations were high. We were not disappointed. The whales were common, and if you missed one (they don’t hang around for tourists) you would get a chance in another moment. We saw them surfacing to blow, but also saw feeding activity. This was an hour that went by really quickly. We headed back into port and a whale was hanging around the port right there at the dock. This was a real close-up view of one of these huge mammals. Juneau is at sea level and is surrounded very closely by mountains up to 4000 feet. Atop these mountains is the Juneau icefield which spawns 30 glaciers. Two of these glaciers, Mendenhall and Lemon Creek, are visible from Juneau. The cruise lines offer excursions to the top of Mendenhall by helicopter. We have done this excursion on a previous trip to Alaska. Glaciers are rivers of ice and the opportunity to walk on one is not something you want to miss if you have an adventurous spirit. Juneau also has a famous saloon, The Red Dog. Spend a moment in this place to get a feel for old Alaska.ay four brought us to Skagway. This town was the gateway to the Yukon gold fields during the Alaska gold rush. Most of the town is devoted to tourism so if you’re looking for souvenirs of your Alaska cruise, this is a good place to find them. A very popular excursion in Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon railroad. This scenic railroad takes you to Whitehorse Canada and is an all day excursion. Skagway itself has preserved the look of the town from the days of the Alaska gold rush. Visiting this town is almost like taking a trip back in time (with tourists thrown in). We took an excursion to the Davidson glacier. This included an hour boat ride to landfall then a short bus ride to the guides camp (comfort stations “outhouses” were provided here), next a short hike to a glacier melt river and finally a canoe trip up the river and across a small lake to the glacier. As with all of our Alaska excursions, the scenery was beautiful and we saw much wild life. We actually saw a black bear swimming across the lake. The surprised looks and comments coming from our guides made this encounter very special as the guides told us they had never seen a bear swim the lake and they were amazed that they saw it happen. We then hiked up the glacier and actually got close enough to touch it. This made our guides especially nervous and they scooted us back as soon as they realized the danger. Ice can apparently fall off a glacier at any time. No one in our group was hurt. Then we retraced our steps back to Skagway once again taking in the scenery of Alaska.
Day five was a sea day cruising through Glacier Bay. We cruised through this bay for six hours or so and saw numerous glaciers, and if you were looking in the right direction you got to see the glaciers calving (ice breaking off the glacier to fall into the bay). Whether or not you saw the calving, you heard it! A loud crack followed by a low rumble and then a splash. You do have to be very lucky to actually see the glacier calve – I missed it, but some of our group saw some at the Margerie Glacier. This was the favorite day of the cruise for some of our group. Glaciers up close are just awesome sights. The wall of ice is really impressive. This was the last full day of our Alaska cruise.
We sailed through the night to Seward, Alaska. This is the terminal port for north bound cruises from Vancouver. This port is not very picturesque but on the good side, you’re not there very long. There are two ways to get to Anchorage from Seward – by bus or train. The busses are well appointed motor coaches with bathrooms, and the road from Seward to Anchorage is another scenic drive with mountains and rivers and wildlife to be seen. The train from Seward to Anchorage is really nice. The train cars have two forward facing seats and two rear facing seats with a table between them. The train ride was about six hours and the trip by bus is a bit shorter four and half to five hours (remember – Alaska is big). We actually played some bridge to pass the time on the railroad trip to Anchorage and the time passed really quickly. We arrived in Anchorage about lunch time and went to Humpy’s for lunch. This is a local place serving some really good bar food (sandwiches, fish tacos, wings). The place was filled with locals and was really good. We spent the afternoon walking around the town and doing a bit of shopping (replenishing necessities) at a downtown mall. For dinner we went to Simon and Seaforts. This is another local place serving aged steaks, oysters, and some amazing king crab. This place was not a budget restaurant, but it was worth the price. The place was really busy and since we had not made a reservation we found a table in the bar and ate there with another couple from our group. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city but we were able to walk through most of the downtown area and explore the city on our own using our feet. We walked to both restaurants, also.
We caught another early train for the ride to Denali the next morning. This train had double decker train cars with traditional forward facing seats up top and a dining area below. The upper deck also had an attendant serving beverages and lite snacks and a tour guide who talked us through some interesting facts and stories about Alaska (and some really bad jokes) helping to keep the train ride interesting. The dining area seats about half of the people on the train car so the attendants come and get you when it’s time for your meal. The train ride is nine hours and they serve both breakfast and lunch. We only ate lunch on the train. The food was good but the service was just okay; we had to wait a bit longer than we would have liked for our meal.
I’ve mentioned the scenery of Alaska quite a bit in this blog. Words can’t really describe how beautiful and massive this state is. Except for the cities, Alaska is huge, and the views you get on the train and bus rides are really hard to describe properly. You see huge U-shaped valleys carved by glaciers with mountains on both sides or braided rivers of glacier melt that look just like braided hair. You never really feel closed in on this trip. The mountains are always in the distance looming over everything and the forests run unbroken for as far as you can see. And you can see forever, it seems. We saw where two rivers came together, one river was glacier melt and looked almost like really loose mud flowing, the other river wasn’t glacier melt and it was as blue as could be. These two rivers came together and ran for miles, brown on one side and blue on the other. Needless to say, the mountains were covered in snow and ice and stay that way year round.
We arrived at our resort, the McKinley Chalet Resort, in the late afternoon. The Chalet is located on the banks of the Nenana River, less than two miles from Denali National Park. The rooms have a rustic theme and our room had two bedrooms. The Chalet has two full-service restaurants, The Canyon Steak House, where we had breakfast one morning, and Karsten’s Public House. We had dinner at Karsten’s with some of our group; wings and brisket and a glass of the local beer. The meal was excellent. The Canyon Steak House is a fine dining restaurant that we didn’t get the chance to try. Others in our group said they ate there and that the steakhouse served an excellent meal. We had booked our excursion to Denali through Holland America, so we didn’t have to worry about booking it at the hotel. However, we did book a white water rafting trip for the next day after our tour of Denali, and booking it was simple. We booked our white water rafting trip through an agent on the train while traveling to Denali from Anchorage. On the eight hour bus tour of Denali, the only thing included in the tour is a small bottle of water and a snack box. They recommended purchasing a lunch box from the coffee bar at the Chalet, and we were glad we did, because the lunch box included an additional bottle of water along with a sandwich, chips and an apple (plus a cookie). Do this – you will be glad you did. The bus ride is on a modified school bus. The major modification is a more comfortable seat. On the Denali tour, remember you’re driving and looking for wild life, and there is always a chance you won’t see much. The tour the day before us saw wolves (eating a kill), bears, caribou, moose and eagles. We saw one moose (leaving the park), also some caribou and some bears. However the trip was in no way disappointing. Denali is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen and we saw both peaks of Denali Mountain (Mount McKinley). Only 30% of visitors to the park see even one of the peaks, and we saw both. Even if we had not seen the peaks the tour would have been amazing, because the views of Alaska are breathtaking.
After our bus tour of Denali, we went white water rafting on the Nenana River. The Nenana is a glacier melt river and in early June, the river was flowing enough to give us a great ride through class three rapids. The water was cold, as you can imagine, however the rafting company provided dry suits to all rafters and we never really got cold, except for our feet. Wear extra socks, you will need them. Our guide was really experienced and took us on a great ride. We hit all the rapids just right to get maximum white water. This was a really long day so we skipped dinner and went right to bed after the rafting trip.
The next morning, our last full day in Alaska, we boarded a motor coach for a two hour ride to Fairbanks. There was one stop in Nenana Alaska, a small railroad town with bathrooms and a bakery and small gift shop, plus some really cute puppies available for petting. We arrived in Fairbanks and went straight to the dock for the Riverboat Discovery. We ate our lunch here at the riverboat dock in a family style restaurant. Everything is served on the table and you load your plate as you want. The meal included salad, roasted vegetables, beef stew and bread. Also included was dessert. The food was hearty and good. If you have eaten at a family style restaurant before, you will know what to expect. After lunch we boarded the riverboat for a three hour journey up the Chena River. The boat travels up the Chena to the home of Susan Butcher, the first women to win the Iditarod sled dog race. Susan died a few years ago from cancer but her husband greets the riverboat and shows some of their dogs, and later he boards the boat to greet tourists and sign books. The riverboat also visits a recreated Chena Indian village, allowing you to immerse yourself in the ancient Indian culture of the area. This was a nice diversion and we enjoyed it.
The sense of size that you get from Alaska is hard to describe. The mountains were always there looming in the distance. I really think that the emptiness of Alaska is what makes the countryside seem so huge. The lack of people and towns of any size just emphasizes how big this place can seem. I’ve had experiences in empty places before – horseback riding in Uruguay through the empty pampas where you could not see evidence of people, and the lack of people in the Straights of Magellan are two examples. But the views of mountains, valleys, and rivers of Alaska stand alone in majesty. This was a long trip and not everyone can take two weeks for one trip. The cruise would be a great trip by itself, and the land package also would stand as a great trip without the cruise (with a few added days for the Yukon, perhaps), but putting the cruise together with a land package seems to be the most popular way to see Alaska. And working through the cruise line was easy. One last note, Holland America has the logistics of this trip down pat. Our bags were in our hotel room when we arrived at every destination, every time. We never had to wonder where our bags were.
Alaskans are proud of their state and love to show it off. Give them a chance to show you their state. A chance to see bald eagles in the wild is special for us in the lower 48. Watching whales feed is something you won’t soon forget and the sight of a grizzly bear in the wild is thrilling. Condor Tours and Travel is experienced in booking Alaska and we have multiple options for visiting the Land of The Midnight Sun.