Alaska, The Final Frontier. I’m sure you’ve heard it a thousand times, but now that I have been there, it is truly the final frontier. Glaciers, salmon, rain forest, miles and miles of untouched parkland where grizzly bears, caribou, moose, bald eagles, fox, dall sheep and many more animals are the residents. Alaska is spectacular.
We started our adventure flying from New York to Vancouver, Canada. We spent a full day there before we boarded the ship. Vancouver is a very nice city. We stayed a the Blue Horizon hotel where we received great service, a clean room, nice pool and a restaurant on site. We took a tour with one of the hop-on-hop-off busses to get a feel for the city. This one made a loop around Stanley Park and West End. We got off and had lunch at Granville Island, then took the red line through Gastown, Yaletown and Chinatown before getting back to the Blue Horizon.
It was all very nice to see, but the thing that struck me was the rose garden in Stanley Park. It was beautiful. Different color roses everywhere. I haven’t ever seen anything like that.
For dinner, we had to go to Joe Fortes. This restaurant has been in business for over 29 years. It has award-winning seafood and steaks. When you walk in the front door, you immediately see all the awards. It’s extremely impressive. The food lived up to the reputation. We had a little bit of everything. Calamari, Oysters Rockefeller for appetizers. Steak, Salmon and Halibut for entrees. Fabulous!!
The next morning, we had breakfast in town, then took a taxi to the pier to board the ship. We booked the Princess Cruise Line. The Star Princess will be our home for the next seven days. After lunch in the Cafe, we joined the bon-voyage festivities at the mid-ship pool. Music, dancing, ‘drink of the day’ in hand. All we’re were waiting for is the Captain to sound the horn to signal the official start to our vacation!!
We had an amazing suite at the back of the ship. The cabin was surprisingly very spacious with a large balcony. There were four of us in the room and there was plenty of room.
When you came in the door, the bathroom was on your left, then there was a small mini-bar and TV. The couch was against the wall, and a matching chair.
Opposite the couch were these two beds. There was a counter on the far wall. To the right was another TV, a large closed and the other entrance to the bathroom. The bathroom had a full tub and a separate shower on one side, and the toilet and sink on the other side.
Our first port was Ketchikan. Ketchikan is the southeastern most city in Alaska. It is also called the Salmon capital of the world and the rain capital of Alaska. I was watching the weather forecast for a month before I went on the trip and most of the time it was raining in Ketchikan, however the day we were there it was bright sunshine.
We didn’t book any excursions before we set sail because we couldn’t tell exactly how much time we would have in each port. Once we got off the ship, there were numerous booths set up with different excursions all around the town. We booked a tour of the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary and the historic Creek Street. Before we got on the bus, we had an opportunity to walk through the town. Here are some pictures of the day.
Here you were able to go and have salmon sent back home. This was mostly in cans. I had filets sent home from the Wild Alaska Salmon & Seafood Company. There were different choices, but I choose the wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon. It was at my house in NY within 5 days after I got home. I ordered 5 pounds and it came in 6 individual portions.
The rainforest was beautiful. The guide told us all about the vegetation as well as the insects and animals. She tied everything together showing how the everything needs one another. Very interesting and beautiful.
At the height of the gold rush, this was Ketchikan’s red-light district. Creek Street had about 30 bordellos.
The next stop was Juneau. The capital of Alaska. The most interesting thing about Juneau is that it is only accessible by boat or plane. There are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska. There are cars in Juneau that come by ferry service. There are no roads due to the extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city.
We took two excursions in Juneau. A bus tour of the city and the salmon hatchery in the morning and whale watching in the afternoon. It was good to see around the city. We saw the capital building and the Governor’s Mansion as well as local schools and neighborhoods. I got a good idea of how the every day life would be like living here. We also took the Tramway which is 1,800 foot ascent to the Mountain House which provides amazing views of Juneau. Unfortunately, it was a bit foggy that morning and we didn’t have a great view. The Salmon hatchery was very informative and eye-opening.
Here’s the short version of how the hatchery works. Each year the hatchery collects hundreds of millions of eggs from returning adult salmon. They fertilize them and place them in incubation trays to develop. Once they develop and become fish, they go through the smoltification process. During this process, the fish are classified into two species. The fry: Pink and Chum and the Smolt: King, Coho and Sockeye.
The salmon then go through an ‘Imprinting’ process. In this process, they memorize the unique chemical makeup of the water as their birth place. Imprinting is not just chemical; salmon also learn the location signature of their rearing site by using the Earth’s magnetic field. Using these and other techniques, the salmon are able to find their way back home for spawning.
The Chum and pink salmon are released into salt water while the King, Coho and Sockeye are released into freshwater. 90%-99% of what is released will fall victim to predation by birds, marine mammals and other fish. After 1-5 years a physiological and/or environmental cue triggers the salmon to return from the sea to spawn (reproduce) and they retrace the same path back to their point of release.
Whale watching was next up. I know that you can go whale watching in many other places, but I never did. This was my first experience with watching for whales. We used a great tour group called Juneau Tours & Whale Watch. The guides were really nice and the boat was fantastic.
When we woke up on day 4, we were in Skagway. We took the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad excursion, which everyone said you shouldn’t miss. This is 41 mile train ride through the White Pass Summit which is the US/Canadian border. The scenery was beautiful with lots of photo opportunities. This was a round trip ride, so anything that was on one side of the train on the way up was on the other side on the way down.
This was Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. The waitress uniforms are typical of what the ladies would have worn years ago. Very cute
Day 5 and 6 were all about the Glaciers. We sailed through Glacier Bay then to College Fjord. The day we sailed through Glacier Bay the Glacier Bay National Park Rangers at Bartlett Cove came on board and were our guides for the day. As we were sailing, they were on the PA system explaining all about the glaciers. They were on the main deck answering questions as we went along. The Rangers also had a PowerPoint presentation in one of the main theaters on the ship going into detail about the formation of the glaciers as well as how global warming has affected them.
That was the end of the sea portion of the trip. From here, we boarded a train from Whittier to Talkeetna. The trip was about 5 hours and thankfully, The McKinley Express was very comfortable. There was a guide onboard pointing out the various landmarks and a waitress who served drinks and a lunch of a sandwich, chips and a drink.
We had a fabulous tour guide named Lance. He was with us on the train answering any questions about excursions from Mt. McKinley Lodge as well as any questions or issues we had with the remaining portion of the trip.
We decided on two of excursions and booked them right from the train. The first one was a plane ride to the Glacier. The weather was absolutely perfect and this was our last opportunity to do it. The excursion was called ‘Glacier Landing Explorer’. The description said…Do something extraordinary! Land on a Glacier in Denail National Park. This was definitely what we came to do. When we were starting to make the plans to go on this trip, walking on the Glacier was one of the things that I definitely wanted to do, so I was thrilled!
As it came closer and closer to board the plane, I was starting to get just a bit nervous. I had never been on such a small plane. It seated 10 passengers plus the pilot.
It looked like the wing was going to touch the mountain tops, but the pilot was quick to point out that we were actually miles away from the mountain. It only looked as though we were close.
When we landed on the glacier, there were already other planes that had landed and a few more that touched down while we were there.
We stayed at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge that night. It is owned by Princess cruise line so the service and food was the same just as good as we found on the ship. The grounds were beautiful and there was shuttle service around the compound as well as into town. After dinner, we went out on the deck to find a spectacular view of Mt. Denali. All we kept hearing is how lucky we were to have such great weather. Typically it is rainy and foggy so you can’t see the mountain. Today it couldn’t have been better!!
The next day we got up, had breakfast then got ready for the next excursion. This one was called ‘Devil’s Canyon Adventure’. The write up said it was for the person who seeks the ultimate Alaskan river experience. This was on a jet boat that takes you 130 miles on the Susitna River into the nationally recognized Devel’s Canyon Gorge where we will enter into Class V whitewater. This turned out to be so much fun. The boat trip was thriling. We went at very high speeds, then into the rapids. This was worth the money.
This is the jet boat that we were on.The windows on all sides opened and the tour guide stopped and opened the front windows periodically so we could take pictures. You were also able to stand out on the small deck in the back while the boat was moving to take pictures.
This picture is where the runoff from the glacier meets the river. The river from the glacier silt is grey while the river is crystal clear.
It’s hard to get the feel of the water moving from a picture, but this is the Class V rapids. This ride was amazing.
In the morning, we boarded a coach bus for Mt. Denali Princess Lodge. Again the ride was about 2 1/4 hours. This was a really nice lodge. It had several buildings on the grounds. There was a main lodge, bedrooms, restaurants, shops and a theater all rustic log cabin buildings. The rustic feel followed through to the inside of each building as well.
This is the first day that we didn’t do an excursion. Instead we went shopping. There were a bunch of shops across the street from the lodge. So, after the bus ride we grabbed some pizza for lunch and went shopping.
There was a planned event that evening that we had to get to pretty early. It was a dinner show called ‘Music of Denali Dinner Theater’. It was family style dinner where the waiters and waitresses were also the actors and actresses. The dinner was an all you can eat meal consisting of salad, vegetables, potatoes, salmon and smoked pork. All of which was very good. For dessert we had apple cobbler. They served water, iced tea and coffee with the meal. There was a cash bar if anyone was interested.
The next day, we had breakfast then went to an all day tour of Denali National Park. We went by bus 66 miles into the park. This was a full day tour that lasted approximately 10 hours. They provided a box of snacks along the way, but we brought a boxed lunch for the trip.
As you can imagine, the scenery was unlike any other. Land that the only occupants are animals. The view of the tundra and the mountains was breathtaking. There were all the animals that you would expect to see just walking around. We saw lots of caribou, dall sheep, moose, bear, willow ptarmigan (the Alaskan state bird),fox and of course bald eagles. If you are someone who likes the outdoors and wildlife, you must put this on your bucket list. I think it a place that everyone should see.
After breakfast, we’re off again. This time it’s to the Fairbanks Princess Lodge. This ride was a little bit longer, 3 1/2 hours. The coach was very comfortable so we were able to sleep most of the way. We decided to go on another excursion today. We headed out to the Chena Hot Springs and the Aurora Ice Bar. That was so much fun. I hadn’t been in either one before, so this was again a first for me.
The Ice bar was just so interesting. Who would believe that everything was made from ice. Not only was there a bar here where we were served an appletini, there are bedrooms that people can rent (and they do) to stay overnight. After we drank the appletini, the superstition is to go outside and make a wish and smash the glass on the pavement. Of course we did it.
Once we were good and cold, it was off to the hot springs. And let me tell you, they were hot. There was a fountain in the middle to spray cold water because it was so hot. The other thing to keep in mind about these pictures is that its about 10 pm at night and the sun is shining bright. While we were on the cruise and on land, the sun didn’t go down until after midnight. At times it was hard to get accustomed to because, you never slowed down. It always looked as thought it was still early in the day with the sun shining.
Our last day had arrived. Princess had arranged for the activities for today. We were scheduled to go on the Sternwheeler Riverboat Cruise and Gold Dredge 8. We also got a first hand look at the TransAlaska Pipeline. I was excited to see the pipeline that I had heard so much about growing up. But first up is panning for gold.
From there, we went to the pipeline. Here are some interesting facts about the pipeline:
1. The pipeline carries an average of 1.8 million barrels of oil a day.
2. It was build by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. It is a group made up of 7 oil companies.
3. The pipeline is buried in some areas except in the areas of permafrost.
4. The pipeline was built in a zigzag pattern so that it becomes flexible if needed, like when there is an earthquake.
5. The pipeline encounters more than 800 river and stream crossings along with passing through three mountain ranges.
6. It was constructed in 1975. In 1977 the first oil left Prudhoe Bay through the pipeline.
The pipeline sits on a two-part system of “shoes” and “anchors” that hold the pipeline in place at weak areas that earthquakes have occurred, yet allow it to move enough so that it does not fall off its supports if the ground moves.
At this point, we boarded the coach again and headed to the water to board the riverboat. There was lunch waiting for us at the riverboat. It was family style with a delicious salad and beef stew and stewed vegetables. It was surprisingly very good. Throughly enjoyable.
After lunch, we boarded the riverboat. This took us down the Chena and Tanana rivers. We saw a bush pilot perform a takeoff and landing in the water, a sled dog demonstration and a stop by the Old Chena Indian Village for a glimpse into Alaskan life and history.
And with that, the trip comes to an end. This was two glorious weeks. The ship was luxurious, relaxing and full of wonderful people to help make your stay spectacular. The lodges were perfect for the landscape of Alaska. We were out in the wilderness, but felt comfortable and pampered when we got back to them. The tour guide was not only knowledgable, but he was helpful, funny and great to be around.
This was truly the trip of a lifetime that will never be forgotten.