Seeing more of Alaska
A cruise is an ideal way to reach those ports that are inaccessible or have difficult road access. However, there is much more to Alaska than the cruise ports, and we wanted to explore some of those places. The simple way to do this is with a pre- or post-cruise tour. Being on the Celebrity Millennium, we selected one of their offerings – tour #13.
Day 1 – Ship to Anchorage
Disembarkation was a breeze. We simply waited for our group to be called and went directly to the waiting bus. No worries about luggage as that had already been gathered and packed for us. We needed only find the proper bus and boarded to see the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, which was the final port of this trip.
Alaska Sea Life Center
The Alaska Sea Life Center as its name suggests focuses on the Alaska water world. There are exhibits with puffins, seal lions and seals as well as information about the earthquake that nearly destroyed Seward. The Sea Life Center is not huge, so we had plenty of time to explore it, in fact, we had too much time to explore it, but that allowed extra time to walk the streets of Seward. Oddly enough, we were let loose to go into the museum, but nary a word was said about what to see or do in Seward.
We were one of the last in our group to leave the Sea Life Center, but we still had a lot of time left, so one of our group asked the tour guide if we could leave earlier. Of course not. He indicated that there couldn’t be too many buses in Anchorage at the same time, so we had to keep to our schedule. What? Is Anchorage so small that there is a limit to tour buses allowed on its streets? That was very hard for us to believe, but we passed the remaining time in Seward and finally boarded the bus. On the way to Seward we heard tales of our guide’s skiing adventures. That’s interesting to a point, but none of us would be able to take advantage of this and few of us were interested in the first place. We wanted to hear more about Alaska.
We finally came to Turnagain Arm and were fortunate enough to see some Beluga whales there. Arriving in Anchorage, we stopped at a small and somewhat strange mall, where we had some time to explore. We were given the option to walk to our hotel, the Marriott, from there or wait for the bus to pick us up a few hours later. We chose the first option as Anchorage is very walkable and very compact. Not really sure why we were dropped off at this mall, we figured it was just to kill some time before our 4 pm check-in.
We walked around Anchorage and found something quick to eat. It should be noted here, that some admissions and the hotels, of course, are included in the post tour. No meals are included except for a boxed lunch on the Denali Excursion. Be sure to add on these costs and keep in mind that Alaska prices are high.
We found the Marriott perfectly adequate, but likely one of the least conveniently located hotels in town – and that was not too significant since Anchorage isn’t that large.
Day 2 – Anchorage to Fairbanks
We had free time in the morning and in the late morning went to the Anchorage Museum of Art. Several in our group pooh-poohed this museum after having looked at a small exhibit on the first floor. They left without exploring the very-well done exhibit on the second floor, which looks at different cultures, industries and geographic areas of Alaska. After this, we had to board the bus to the airport for our late afternoon flight to Fairbanks. Now, this was a point of contention for us. First of all, we would be returning to Anchorage on the last evening of the tour and most flights leave Anchorage very late at night and after midnight, so we would have a full day in Anchorage upon our return. Secondly, why the heck didn’t we just drive to Fairbanks right from the ship? We could have enjoyed the scenery and gone with the luggage, which oddly enough left on our empty bus. Maybe only so many passengers are allowed on buses between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
With the late arrival in Fairbanks, we had little time to see this town. Our hotel was near the airport, not conveniently located to the city at all. But, lucky us, the hotel offered a $5 per person shuttle. This didn’t sit well with many of us. The shuttle was a small van and we were lucky to get the last two seats on the first run in. We had organized a bicycling tour and needed the last part of daylight to complete it. Because of our late arrival, we had to forego the earlier paddling part of this paddle and pedal adventure. We just made it for the 6-9 pm tour, although Bradley the owner is very flexible with scheduling.
We got our bicycles and visited old homes and cemeteries and headed down the bike path along the river to the Pioneer Village.
Fairbanks Bicycle Path
Bradley recommended Big Daddy’s for dinner and we enjoyed the local atmosphere at this restaurant known for its BBQ. Fortunately, the shuttle offers pick-up service back to the hotel. Unlike others in our group who had to wait over two hours to get the shuttle back to the hotel, our driver arrived in about 15 minutes – the time it takes to get to the restaurant from the hotel. We missed the museums in Fairbanks that we wanted to see, but will have to save that for the next time.
Up until this point, it seemed that we were just wasting time and many of us felt that our itinerary could have been better organized. Today was basically spent visiting a museum and flying to Fairbanks, but not seeing much of it.
Day 3 – Fairbanks to Denali
Finally, it seems that we are doing something. We boarded our train this morning and headed to Denali. Celebrity has its own train cars hooked to the Alaska Railroad. The cars are comfortable and clean with the seats all on the upper level. The dining room, on the lower level only accommodates 36 people, so the group has to be divided into two seatings. We had picked up bagels at the store and opted not to eat on this day, but those who did eat breakfast said that it was good. Our guide had told us that only Celebrity had train cars that had open glass all the way to the center of the top of the car and of course, Celebrity does the cruise tours best. A Holland America Cruise Tour is so far in the past that it was difficult to recall what was included in that, but it sure seemed like some meals were included. That will require further investigation.
Wilderness Express train car
We arrived at Denali close to lunchtime and had been advised by our guide to pick up some extra food, because the box lunch provided was small. We walked around the visitor center and watched a film about the park and waited for our bus to arrive. How the buses have improved since the last visit, when a real school bus was the vehicle of choice. These newer buses have individual rather than bench seats and the windows do come down for better photos. We lucked out with the weather as it was not too cold and only partly cloudy. We went with great expectations of seeing Mt. McKinley, a real rarity. We figured it would be good if we saw some wildlife. This venture into the park proved quite eventful. We saw much more wildlife than on the last visit, when moose and dal sheep were the only animals seen. In fact, this time, we could see that there were mountains all around, something not noticeable on a drizzly, fog-shrouded day. What a difference the weather made. Our list of wildlife spottings included: bear, moose, lynx, wolf, coyote, dal sheep, eagles, red fox and more. The only animal on the Big 5 list that we didn’t see was caribou and that was because they were migrating and not in this area of the park. The provided lunch turned out to be ample size, but maybe big eaters wouldn’t approve. Because we had seen so much wildlife our driver decided to extend our tour and take us to the very end of the road. This was his last tour for the season and he was a happy camper to see such a variety of wildlife on his last day. The bus does have a video camera with a good zoom, so it was possible to get good views on the drop down video screens of the wildlife even when it was on the other side of the bus.
Bear from Video screen on bus.
They do request that you let others from the opposite side of the bus get a chance to take photos from your window. We carefully did this when we ventured to the other side, trying not to knock those people unconscious while snapping shots. That courtesy was definitely not extended to us. Crusher, the large person seated across from us, squished me against the window whenever getting shots from our side. I held tightly onto my camera for fear of losing it and my photos when the last breath was squeezed out of me. So, word of advice – sit across from your friends or people without cameras.
After our exciting day in the park, we headed to our hotel several miles outside of the park. With nothing but trees and magnificent scenery, we were a captive audience there, although there are shuttles offered into the commercial area that has sprouted up because of the park. We were in a new section of this lodge, which was on a river. We enjoyed the quiet nature of the place and wish that we had more time both in Denali and here at this spot.
Day 4 – Denali to Talkeetna
The day looked bright and clear and we so hoped to get a view of Mt. McKinley as the train headed to Talkeetna. The train has a very small viewing platform at the back of the car. It was no easy feat to get photos there. Next time, advance preparation in the form of growing a foot and gaining 100 pounds would help solve this problem. Or easier might be to go on a HAL cruisetour which had cars with bigger viewing platforms.
We enjoyed lunch on the train and found the portions large, which we had heard from other passengers, so split our meal. Our fellow diners found the meals good as well.
The desserts are as large as the main plates and deserve a try. There is a beverage service on board, which includes soft drinks, coffee, specialty coffees, beer, wine and alcoholic drinks.
The train has guides for each car. Our first guide was very good, but the last few left much to be desired. The highpoint according to one guide was some folks who homesteaded along the tracks. They moved there from some other part of the country. They painted their house blue. Their blue house is along the tracks. Guess that there is little of interest in this area. Too bad that we have forgotten the name of this notable family that lives in a blue house along the tracks.
We were extremely lucky to see all the wildlife in Denali, but our luck continued when in the distance, Mt. McKinley exposed its majestic self to us. We heard different figures about the chances of seeing North America’s tallest peak with the highest being at 15%. The clouds gave way and we saw intermittent bits of its snow capped top from the train. Our guides advised us that we would have an excellent view from our lodging for the night, the Talkeetna Lodge. We hope that the cloud cover didn’t roll in before we reached our destination. Another stroke of luck for us as McKinley was in full view. We couldn’t get enough of it and thought that we had better enjoy it since it is so unlucky that we ever see it again.
Mt McKinley from the train
We had planned a hike around Talkeetna Lake with Howard, so had to leave the scenery behind. We had hiked in many of the ports that we visited and some of them were rather intense hikes. What a relief to have such a pleasant hike around a lake; one that offered a variety of scenery and some climbs, but nothing extreme. The well-maintained trail was easy to follow and offered plenty of mushrooms for our viewing pleasure. Our guide described the remnants of an Athabascan Village and the process of developing this trail. This hike through the forest was the perfect ending to a perfect day.
View from Talkeetna Lakes Trail
It’s easy to access from Talkeetna Lodge, but don’t expect to simply call a cab, because right now, the only cabs are in Wasilla and cost a fortune due to the great distance from Wasilla to Talkeetna. We finished our hike just in time to miss darkness and returned to the lodge to have dinner. We put in our request for a wake-up call just in case the Aurora Borealis appeared this evening. We were disappointed that the light did in fact appear, with proof of a photo from somebody who had seen them, but we never received that anticipated call.
Day 5 – Talkeetna to Anchorage
They said that it was about a 2-mile hike into town and we opted to walk on such a fine day. Again, McKinley showed its face, so we had a pleasant view ahead of us as we walked into town. We found a map for a walking tour and discovered some of those spots and made sure that we stopped in at the highly recommended ranger station where we watched a short film about climbing McKinley. We continued to the river where we had yet another view of the Great One and then headed to lunch at the brew pub where we met up with some fellow passengers. After tasting their stout and dark beer, we found our way back to the lodge, once again walking. In a pond along the way, we saw two trumpeter swans gliding along. We arrived, took another short walk around the grounds and then boarded the bus to the train station where we would catch the train to Anchorage.
Day 6 – Anchorage
Yesterday was the official end of the tour, but we had a full day to explore. Our plan for the day was to bike the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a path that extends for 11 miles from downtown to Kincaid Park. The weather looked iffy at first, but we finally decided that it was now or never. We walked over to Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals and were thrilled to find that Pablo’s offers panniers and other accessories for carrying your stuff. The first few miles ending at the airport stay relatively close to the shoreline and pass through parks. The Earthquake Park does a nice job of explaining the effects of the quake that hit Alaska in 1964.
Beyond the airport, the trail goes into the woods, but the airport is very much a part of the trail as jets fly overhead. In this part of the trail we saw several moose, even a cow and her calf lying right along side the trail. We carefully pedaled on without being able to get a good photograph. Moose are wild and dangerous animals and being charged by one wouldn’t make for a pleasant outcome to an otherwise enjoyable ride.
Towards the end of the trail, the path starts climbing up to Kincaid Park, where there is a lookout and good view of the area and downtown. As we headed back to return downtown, we met a local who showed us a nice detour from the path with an overlook over the water. We enjoyed the scenery and then headed back to town. We can highly recommend this trail whether you decide to bicycle it or take a stroll. We returned our bicycles and headed back to the hotel where we waited for the last shuttle that Celebrity provided to the airport. Considering that many flights leave Alaska very late in the evening, we were surprised that a later shuttle wasn’t offered.
Overall, we enjoyed our cruise tour and felt privileged to have such great weather. We weren’t really sure why we needed a guide who was with us only a very small percentage of the tour time. We spent more time with the guides on the train and we could certainly check ourselves into our hotels, although it was definitely nice to have somebody just hand us a key to our rooms as we entered our lodging for the night.
It’s now time to investigate the Holland America Tour from several years ago and see what was included with that.