Annie’s Alaska Escape

Alaska Cruisetour  —  July 2 – 14, 2010

We just returned from the first annual Annie’s Escapes “group escape” (to Alaska), and the detailed trip report is below. If you’re pressed for time, you can just scroll to the bottom for my overall impressions from the trip, or click here to see the photos.

We flew from Boston to Vancouver to meet up with the rest of our travel companions (a dozen friends and family, ranging in age from toddlers to grandparents) for this exciting 12-day “escape” to Alaska, and our first impressions – the Vancouver airport – were a great start! It’s such a big, clean, modern, beautiful airport that we asked if it had been recently remodeled for the Olympics. Nope, they told us, it’s just a great airport.

After a quick taxi ride we checked in to the St. Regis Hotel, in a convenient downtown location within easy walking distance of Gastown, the Canada Place cruise port, shopping, restaurants, and the SkyTrain station (literally one block away).  Our room was sleek and modern, with a HUGE bathroom and two comfy double beds. The hotel offers free WiFi, a very comprehensive included breakfast, and fantastic customer service. We were thrilled with it, and wished we were staying for longer than one night.

We dropped our bags and headed out to explore the city for a little while before meeting everyone for a celebratory “kick-off” dinner at the Steamworks Brewing Company. Local craft beers…fish and chips….a view of the cruise port… and a World Cup game on the TV over the bar – who could ask for a better start to a vacation?

The next day, with just one full morning to explore Vancouver, we opted to take a ride on the Vancouver Trolley, a hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tour around the city. We rode the red loop, and saw Stanley Park, the Lions Gate Bridge, Robson Street, and more. By noon, we were all itching to get onto the ship, so we checked out of the hotel and headed to the pier (some even walked with their luggage; it was that close to the hotel)

Diamond Princess in Vancouver

Since we arrived at peak time, there were lines to check in, but they did move quickly and we were on the beautiful Diamond Princess in no time! We headed straight to our cabins (a balcony for my husband and I, and an inside cabin across the hall for our two teenagers) and were amazed to see that our bags had beaten us there. In all of my cruises, that is the first time that has ever happened!

The rest of that day (and the next) was a blur of settling in, learning our way around the ship, and providing some “orientation” to all the first-timers who were sailing with us. We joined some activities (even won a trivia contest!), took in some evening entertainment (my brother was one of the “volunteers” in the hypnotist’s act), and enjoyed hanging out with the group.

Our first port stop (on Monday) was Ketchikan. I had pre-arranged a private salmon fishing charter for all of the guys (through Northern Lights and Ketchikan Charter Boats) and they had a blast! The captain picked them up right at the pier and everyone managed to catch something, from king salmon to rock cod. My mom, my daughter and I had booked a Misty Fjords flightseeing tour with Sea Wind Aviation, and I think we had even more fun than the boys did.  I even got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat as we soared above sheer cliffs, snow-covered peaks and sparkling mountain lakes. Even those who chose not to do an excursion had a good time. We had great weather that day, and they enjoyed poking around town and exploring on their own.

Salmon fishing in Ketchikan

The next day dawned cloudy and drizzly in Juneau, but we were prepared with the right outerwear, so off we went! My husband had been looking forward to this port for months, as he was signed up for an all-day “Photo Safari by Land and Sea” (through Princess) – and it MORE than lived up to his expectations. He loved the guide, he got to explore several different locations in and around Juneau, and he came back with some amazing shots (see the link below). My sister and I took my kids on an “Alpine Ziplining” adventure, which turned out to be awesome. The drizzle didn’t bother us at all, and we laughed our way through the treetops from platform to platform, challenging one another to spin, go hands-free, etc. Afterwards, we had time for a quick visit to Mendenhall Glacier, which was more interesting than I had expected (postcard-perfect vistas, a roaring waterfall, and an informative Visitor’s Center). The only big disappointment of the day was that my brother’s flightseeing/whalewatching excursion was cancelled due to the weather…but that just means he has to go back some time!

whale's tail in Juneau

We had barely caught our breath from Juneau when we arrived in Skagway the next morning and headed off on our “Eagle Preserve Raft Wildlife Quest” through Chilkat Guides.  It began with a ferry ride across to Haines, a quintessential Alaskan town and the setting for the filming of the Disney movie “White Fang”. The town itself, and our quirky guide Tommy, were worth the trip — but the eagle preserve blew us away.  We floated down a glacier-fed river, surrounded by gorgeous mountain peaks, and saw dozens of eagles patrolling the riverbanks looking for salmon.

bald eagle

The following day – Thursday – brought us into Glacier Bay, which is a highlight of any Alaska cruise. The onboard naturalist had advised us that the most dramatic sightseeing would be first thing in the morning (4-5 am!) as we came through Icy Strait into the bay itself, and my dedicated photographers (my husband and my daughter) were there on deck to capture the scene on camera. Some of us slept in a little, but were still treated to a full day of eye-popping scenery as we sailed slowly past giant tidewater glaciers, pods of orcas, humpbacks and seals. We were fortunate to have amazing weather that day (sunny, clear and relatively warm), and we even managed to get sunburned!

Glacier Bay, Alaska

Our final day at sea featured scenic cruising in College Fjord, which provided yet another perspective on glaciers. We again had great weather (the best she’d seen in eight years, according to the naturalist) and we were able to sail extremely close to the impressive Harvard Glacier, at the end of the fjord. There, surrounded by floating icebergs and sunbathing seals, we waited with baited breath for the thundering cracks that signaled an imminent “calving” (when a piece of the glacier breaks off), and then cheered the impressive splashes as they crashed into the sea.  That afternoon, my husband and I participated in one of Princess’s signature events, their “On Deck for the Cure” walk to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation. We completed a scenic 5K walk (something like 8 or 10 laps around the ship, I forget the exact number) in support of his mom, who is fighting this terrible disease, and we helped raise money for the cause.

On Saturday, when we would normally have been trudging back to the airport for the sad return home after a cruise, we were instead heading off to the next part of our adventure – a four-day land tour to Denali and Fairbanks!

Princess really has this process down to a science, and I have never experienced a better, more-organized disembarkation. We had tagged our bags and left them for the stewards the night before, so we just strolled off the ship at the appointed time with carry-ons in hand, walked along the covered walkway that protected us from Whittier’s ever-present drizzle, and boarded our rail coach on the McKinley Express train. Our group was all seated together at several tables in the same glass-domed  rail car, and we thoroughly enjoyed the 5 ½ hour ride to Talkeetna. The onboard tour guides provided commentary and context about the towns we passed through, and they even passed around their own personal photo albums of life in Alaska. Food and drink were available for purchase (and served at our seats), and the trip actually passed too quickly!

We arrived in the funky little town of Talkeetna at about noontime, and were all ready to stretch our legs a little, so we opted to stay in town for a while rather than continuing on to the lodge right away. We had lunch at the West Rib Pub and Grill (and even sampled some caribou meatballs), did a little souvenir shopping, and soaked in the colorful atmosphere of this uniquely Alaskan town (the jumping-off point for most climbers headed to Mt. McKinley). Later that afternoon we took the Princess shuttle to our hotel (the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge) and checked in. The property has breathtaking views of Mt. McKinley….but we did not get to enjoy them because (as is often the case) the mountains were shrouded in fog/clouds. We did leave a “mountain call” with the front desk (they’ll call you at any time of night/day if the peak becomes visible), but it was just not meant to be.

Sunday morning we ate a hearty breakfast at the lodge, checked out, and boarded the bus for the two-hour ride to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. As with all of the transfers on this trip, we had a knowledgeable driver/guide who shared personal stories and experiences with us along the way. This lodge was much bigger and more spread out than the McKinley Princess, with some nice little shops/galleries onsite and a cute little “town” across the street, with restaurants, shops, etc. Some of the group headed off to go whitewater rafting or take a nature walk on the outskirts of Denali Park, but my mom, my daughter and I spent the afternoon playing with my two-year-old niece so her parents could go on an excursion. While I was babysitting, my husband and kids took advantage of the lodge’s “Arctic Blast” experience – donning parkas and entering a room that’s chilled to 40-below to see what happens to hot water and soap bubbles at those temperatures. So cool! 

Arctic Blast at Denali

That evening, we enjoyed a “Husky Homestead” tour to the home of Jeff King (four-time Iditarod-winner and breeder/trainer of champion dog sled teams). We loved cuddling the 6- and 7-week old puppies, learning about how they train them, and hearing Jeff’s stories about the race.

husky Homestead

The next day was our much-anticipated natural history tour into Denali National Park itself. We saw moose and caribou, we learned about the history of the park and the park rangers that work there, we finally got a good view of Mt. McKinley and the surrounding peaks, and we enjoyed a fascinating talk by an Athabascan (one of Alaska’s native tribes) whose ancestors had lived in Denali. Afterwards, we boarded the bus for our final destination, Fairbanks.

Alaska’s second-largest city (after Anchorage), Fairbanks looked and felt a little bit more like what we’re used to in the lower forty-eight, with box stores, shopping centers, and supermarkets. Our hotel, the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, sat on the banks of the Chena River, within close proximity to the airport and various sightseeing attractions. We headed into “downtown” that evening for a very forgettable dinner at a local restaurant, and then turned in early to rest up from our travels.

Riverboat Discovery, Fairbanks, Alaska

Our last day in Alaska included a morning excursion on the Riverboat Discovery. This sternwheeler cruise along the Chena River included a visit to a Native Athabascan Village, a bush pilot’s demonstration, and an opportunity to meet Susan Butcher’s famous Iditarod sled dog team as well as the inspiring Iditarod champion (and cancer survivor) Lance Mackey. After a quick lunch back at the lodge, we picked up a rental SUV and headed out of town to explore a little on our own. We took a beautiful 60-mile drive out to Chena Hot Springs Resort to check out the springs and take a nature hike, but soon discovered that the drive was the best part of that trip (I don’t recommend a visit).  Along the way, we crossed and re-crossed some scenic rivers and saw several moose…swimming across a lake, grazing by the side of the road, etc. Absolutely gorgeous!

Wednesday morning came all too soon, and we drove ourselves to the airport, returned the car, and embarked on a LONG journey home (Fairbanks to Anchorage to Chicago to Providence).

If you’ve made it this far in the trip report, here are some of my overall thoughts, impressions, and recommendations:

  • We chose Princess Cruise Line because they do such a great job in Alaska, and we were not disappointed. Every piece of this trip, from the cruise to the transfers, guides, and lodges, went seamlessly. I would highly recommend Princess to anyone considering an Alaska cruisetour.
  • Most  people recommend doing the land portion first (because it’s more busy and hectic) and then doing the cruise, so that you can relax and recover, but we chose the reverse because it saved us some money. The verdict? It worked absolutely fine, and I’d do it that way again any time if it helped to bring down the overall cost.
  • We lucked into great weather, but you never know what you’ll encounter in Alaska. We had heeded everyone’s advice and packed layers (fleece, rain jacket, etc.) and I think the only thing I would do differently is to pack fewer nice clothes (since no one really cares what you wear to dinner) and one more pair of jeans (since I wore those almost every day).
  • Binoculars are a must-have. We brought two pairs, and they got LOTS of use.
  • Once you’re off the ship and on to the land portion of the trip, your food is no longer included. And prices in Alaska are definitely higher than here at home, so be sure to budget for some pricy meals. Once way to help with the cost is to get out of the resort property and eat at local restaurants. Ask the summer workers (most of whom are college kids living on a shoestring) for their recommendations. If you’re traveling with kids, you can probably get away with a fast-food meal here and there as well (there was a Subway in Denali and several chain restaurants in Fairbanks).
  • My favorite of the three lodges was the Denali Princess, and my least favorite was the Fairbanks Princess. While we enjoyed the riverboat excursion there, I might skip Fairbanks next time in favor of more time in Denali. Or a visit to the Kenai Peninsula, which we did not get to see.

There are two sets of photos from the trip.  Here’s the link to the gorgeous landscape/wildlife shots my husband took with his good camera. And here’s the full photo gallery that includes the more casual snapshots of the people, places, etc.

If you’re interested in experiencing Alaska first-hand, give me a call!

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You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)