A very detailed review southbound.
Review Princess Alaska DB4 land tour, Eielson Park Shuttle, and June 11, 2016, southbound cruise on Star Princess
This was our second trip to Alaska. In 2012 we took our first cruise, it was on the Island Princess northbound to Alaska at the end of May. Post cruise we spent four days on land exploring the area between Matanuska Glacier and Seward in a rental car —it was fabulous.
Our 2016 trip was spectacular! We saw Denali for three days in a row and in Juneau followed an adult whale breaching repeatedly for about 25 minutes. The weather was glorious!
Now for the details!
We chose a land tour as we now need support with luggage and distance driving, and we so badly wanted to visit Denali National Park. (DH is 74 yrs old and I am 66 waiting for hip replacement surgery). This was our first organized multi-day tour ever. I took notes as we went along so that I could share things that may help others make their decisions.
The key decision we made was to select a land tour that included a full day and two nights at Denali. This allows for the longest day trips in the national park. We then decided to use the Eielson Park Shuttle, instead of the tours offered by Princess, and purchased the tickets in advance as soon as they were available. More on that later….
We booked an additional night in Anchorage through Princess.
Pre-land tour: Anchorage
We flew to Anchorage, on American Airlines, from El Paso, Texas, via Phoenix and Seattle. We planned a 3 hr break in Seattle so that we could have time for a sit down meal. We ate at Anthony’s and can highly recommend their chowder.
It was pouring with rain in Anchorage but knew it would be sunny the next day. (The NOAA website provided the most accurate weather forecasts). When we got to the Captain Cook Hotel the Princess folks gave us a packet that included all the luggage tags we would need for the first step of the land tour, room keys, instructions on times and bus assignments, viral precautions, and a mini-patter about Anchorage.
Our stay was in a room that looked over the inlet with a clear view of the Sleeping Lady Mountain. Amenities: bed was very comfortable with good pillows; full bath had a separate sink area; a small refrigerator was in a cabinet; and a Keurig coffee maker had both tea and coffee supplies. (I recommend folks take a binder clip and sleep masks when they visit Alaska as the long day light seeps around drapes —it was needed in the Captain Cook!)
Breakfast at the Captain Cook was excellent; the menu was extensive and included meals for many dietary restrictions —even paleo. We chose the oatmeal and it came with about a cup of fresh blueberries. Yummy…
We had booked an additional night at the hotel so that we could explore the museums of Anchorage. Our first stop was the Heritage Center via their free shuttle from the Captain Cook; when we arrived one of their presentations was taking place. The area has reconstructed buildings from the major native groups set around a lake. The shuttle then took us to the Rasmussen Anchorage Museum to meet cousins for lunch in this lovely museum. The museum has world class exhibits and supported what we had seen at the Heritage Center.
After a stop for a cup of tea we headed back to the Captain Cook for dinner. When I closed the drapes at bed time the sum was glistening over a snow-covered distant mountain range. With the binoculars I could see it was Denali —a wow moment indeed ….
Next morning we had to have luggage ready by 6:00 am as it travels separately from the tour bus. (My least favorite part of the land tour…..). It is picked up inside the room.
We chose to take a 25” bag each on the land tour and to send our rolling carry-on bags to the ship. This worked well for us. We use packing bags so it’s easy to select items for the day. (If we ever take a land tour in the future I would preselect clothing for each day and bag them separately). Princess provides coded tags with clear instructions.
We rested until about 9 then went outside, as it was warm and sunny, to wait for our 9:45 bus to McKInley Lodge.
Day 1 Land Tour: Denali unclothed and 4 Moose.
The drive to the McKinley Lodge was lovely; we had clear views of Denali several times on the journey. When we got off the bus we were given a packet with room keys, excursion tickets, luggage tags + instructions for the next morning, lodge map, and a mini-patter.
The lodge is set up like a campus with buildings (two-story) of guest rooms and large lodge buildings/restaurants. We ate lunch at the coffee shop (essentially a Starbucks) where they make freshly prepared wraps etc. —ours was ham, turkey, avocado, lettuce, and tomato ( a vegetarian one is available).
Our room was 1717 — a spacious family room with bunk beds and a king-sized bed. Fans were in the ceilings and standing ones were available. The coffee pot here was one that took pods (not k-cups) and tea bags were provided.
That evening we had scheduled a 5-10 pm river jet boat ride through Princess. It meant taking the 5 pm Princess shuttle to Talkeetna. Moose #1 crossed the road on our ride. The shuttle stops at Mahay’s boat ride office where we picked up the tour ticket and then got on the Mahay’s blue school bus for about a 10 minute trip to the dock. The confluence of the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna rivers is a few minutes away and then we blasted down the river. Moose #2 made an appearance on the river bank. Then we stopped to see an eagles nest, saw the entrance to a King Salmon stream, and docked for a nature walk to a reconstructed salmon camp. I found it very calming. Our guide has his bear pistol with him as some had been in the area recently. On our return boat ride we looked back along the river to see the three big mountains unclothed and sunny —Denali, Foraker, and Hunter.
We were back at Mahay’s office for the 9 pm shuttle from Talkeetna —sadly no time to get an ice-cream. Moose #3 (Momma) and #4 (little one) appeared on the roadside as we drove along. We were quite hungry by 10 pm when we got back to the lodge and went to the grill to munch on chicken wings and divine Triple Berry Crumble (made with fresh fruit) and ice cream while we watched Denali and the lower mountain ranges in the late day sunshine.
Day 2 Land Tour
Bags had to be ready by 7:30 am outside the door this day. We chose to have a lazy late breakfast instead of going into Talkeetna as planned. There was a 25 minute wait for either restaurant so we headed for the main lodge and watched the mountains by the fireplace as we waited. DH had salmon eggs benedict with Copper River lox, and I had simple eggs and potatoes. Both were well prepared and had potatoes just the way I like them. The executive chef bought out DH’s breakfast as it was a little delayed and I had the chance to speak with her later about the secret to the potatoes —she only uses Yukon Gold potatoes in the McKinley restaurants!
Denali was covered with its’ own clouds that morning so we sat in the lodge, sipped on good coffee and watched the lower mountain range while we checked our e-mail and read. It was a lovely location to have some down-time.
We shared a wrap for lunch then headed on our bus to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge arriving at 4 pm. Lots of buses were lined up to drop passengers off. Once again we received our check-in packet but this time no luggage tags as this is where we put on the ship’s tags that we print off.
For dinner we had selected that Denali Musical Theatre which was hokey but fun; the singers are the waiters. The meal was fine — mashed red potatoes, succotash (surprisingly good), a pink salmon with a sauce (little dry) and bbq chicken with a sweet apple cobbler for dessert.
After dinner we pre-ordered and paid for box lunches at the lodge coffee shop. (The lunch includes a sandwich of choice on a bread roll, chips, orange, Oreo cookies, and a bottle of water.)
At the coffee shop we also picked up instant oatmeal -in-a-cup, spoons, and a banana for breakfast —easy to make using the in-room coffee maker or a travel kettle.
We knew there would be sun the next day, no luggage to put out, so slept well.
Day 3 Land Tour: Eielson Shuttle in Denali National Park
The NOAA weather web site was accurate and we woke to sunshine at about 5:30 am. After our oatmeal and tea breakfast we headed to the lodge flag poles to pick-up the free 7:00 am Princess shuttle to Denali National Park. The first stop is at the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) where we picked up our pre-paid shuttle tickets and received a $20 refund as we have a National Park pass. (Only two folks in line!). We had a cup of coffee and snack at their Starbuck coffee shop —no line!—then waited for the 8:00 am shuttle on the rear deck. Surprisingly the bus was not full —apparently many folks prefer 9:00 am. We each took a padded window seat and started off on our great adventure into the park.
Our bus driver provided commentary when appropriate and pointed out Denali where it was viewable. It was “out” for most of the morning.
We stopped to view moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and a brown bear foraging in bushes; we could only take photos from the bus unless it was at a designated rest stop. :
The scenery was stunning; The time flew by. After about a 20 minute break at the Eielson visitor center, where we used the flush toilets and filled up water bottles, we took the road back and eagerly watched to see the Denali wildlife and glorious vistas.
After arriving at the WAC we quickly got the next Princess shuttle to the lodge and stopped at the pizza pub for dinner.
Bags needed to be out by 6:00 am with cruise tags so we set the alarm for 5:30 and got ready for train day!
Day 4 Land Tour: Train Day
We love train rides so this was a special day for us; both our fathers were train engineers.
Our information packet said that we were on the 7:45 shuttle to the train depot but when we arrived at the bus area around 7:10 am we were told we could get on the next bus going out —apparently it’s general boarding and the times are to prevent long lines forming.
The train arrived soon after we got to the depot and after a few minutes was open to boarding. As we were the first to arrive at our assigned table we chose to be forward facing. Our table companions did not seem to mind traveling backwards; the host asked that we be considerate of such issues. We appreciated the cloudy day in the dome car. Snacks and light meals were available all day in the dome car so we had a breakfast sandwich with coffee then sat back and enjoyed the view. We chose not to eat downstairs but spent the day watching the views, reading, and having a snooze.
We arrived at Whittier about 5:30 pm to pouring rain. Cruise cards were handed out before we left the train. Feeling cold and damp we navigated the maze of covered walkways to security screening. We were soon on the ship and onto the next step of our adventure.. After a quick check in our cabin we headed out for dinner. As muster drill was around 8 pm I took our life jackets with us. We were assigned to the Amalfi dining room, close to our muster station, so ate there. It was early night for us as we were tired and looking forward to getting up at our own speed.
Day 5 The Cruise: Scenic Cruising Hubbard Glacier.
Today was our Meet and Greet day in Skywalker Lounge. Twenty of the roll call joined in and we chatted for about two hours. Several of the officers came, including the Captain, who quietly met everyone. I had ordered tea/coffee service (my cost) and was surprised to also see two trays of pastries for us.
Our favorite place to eat lunch is the International Cafe so we headed there; soon we were approaching Hubbard Glacier. It was stunning in the sunshine with lots of icebergs.
This was our first formal night and were shocked when we got to the Amalfi dining room to find that we were at a table for 6 instead of our requested table for 2. After letting the head waiter know my thoughts, and him taking down my name, we enjoyed our meal.
(The next day we received a note from the Maitre D’i with a table change. Early dining on this cruise was at 5:30 pm (not at our confirmed 6 pm) and several folks had decided to change to Anytime Dining. The Maitre D’i reconfigured the seating and created a table for two for us that we used for the rest of the cruise.)
Day 6 The Cruise: Glacier Bay
Another sunny day. DH went to the dining room for breakfast and I headed to the International Cafe and Coffee Bar around 9 am. They have my favorite Bircher Muesli….. I also grabbed some fresh raisin bread —the pastry chef on this cruise was excellent!
I sat in the bar area by the window to eat and saw a big splash in the distance —no binoculars with me —but could clearly see a whale breaching over and over again.
I spent most of the day at the balcony rails with my binoculars watching otters, seas, mountains, and glaciers. Marjorie Glacier was calving so we would hear a crack-bang then see ice falling into the sea. The ship rotated about three times so that everyone could clearly see. Johns Hopkins Glacier was majestic and we got a view like this https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johns_Hopkins_Glacier#/media/File:John_Hopkins_Glacier_Bay_Mount_Orville_Mount_Wilbur_Alaska_2014.jpg
This was our first night at our table for two and after a leisurely meal I was back watching from our balcony.
Day 7 The Cruise: Skagway
Today’s excursion was with Chilkoot Charters to Bennett Lake. In 2012 we had been on their Yukon tour and really enjoyed it. As we got off the ship we immediately noticed bugs attacking us —not sure what they were but quickly applied bug spray and stood under a shelter while we waited for our mini bus. Our driver was James, born in Cork lives in Tuscon and a great raconteur. He took us to the train depot where we got into the Chilkoot coach (padded seats) and headed up the mountain. It was overcast but pleasant so we had clear views. Our train continued on after Fraser to Bennett Lake where we walked on the trails and watched a Bald Eagle swooping.. Once back on the train we were given a lovely large box lunch. Water bottles were provided on the train so we had lots to drink. We got quite chilly as folks kept going in and out to take photographs from the open ends of the car. James met us in Carcross where we had a quick restroom/hot drink stop and then headed back to Skagway on the mini bus. After a few miles we came across a Black Bear munching on dandelions at the side of the road. (Black bear come in different colors —this one was cinnamon colored).
Another lovely day.
Day 8 The Cruise: Juneau
We woke up to beautiful clear sunny skies and watched the ship berth at AJ dock. I had ordered room service breakfast for 6:00 am as we needed an early start; It was our 7: 20 am Harv and Marv whale watch on a six-person boat. Our captain was Brandon and although new this season provided a great trip—actually it was spectacular. We started out and within ten minutes was watching a whale lunge feeding by the small island next to the harbor. Then another whale showed but was not too active so we went out further. The sea became quite choppy so Brandon decided to turn around into calmer waters, saw a few spouts and then we saw a big splash in the distance. Brandon sent the boat in that direction and we followed a large adult whale repeatedly breach on and off for about 25 minutes. Breathtaking!
Afterwards we were taken to Brotherhood Bridge where we got this view https://www.google.com/search?q=brotherhood+bridge+juneau&espv=2&biw=1192&bih=782&tbm=isch&imgil=ZOrpwtI1an00YM%253A%253BeEZuhhwcXINXXM%253Bhttps%25253A%25252F%25252Fwww.pixoto.com%25252Fimages-photography%25252Flandscapes%25252Fmountains-and-hills%25252Fmendenhall-glacier-from-brotherhood-bridge-juneau-ak-6754001915740160&source=iu&pf=m&fir=ZOrpwtI1an00YM%253A%252CeEZuhhwcXINXXM%252C_&usg=__ubrejsBl3Ko-rI2XcmbXO39TFv4%3D&ved=0ahUKEwjVuZ7M4sHNAhUY0WMKHThpBpYQyjcIVA&ei=-bttV5XZLZiijwO40pmwCQ#imgdii=ZOrpwtI1an00YM%3A%3BZOrpwtI1an00YM%3A%3B_xxdDOi2ub3yGM%3A&imgrc=ZOrpwtI1an00YM%3A
Some of our group were going back into Juneau to take the bus out to Mendenhall which we had seen in 2012. We had other things to do in Juneau —lunch at Twisted Fish (the Halibut fish and chips is enough for two) and get smoked salmon from Taku smokers. The free shuttle got us back onto the ship for a well deserved nap.
We originally were scheduled for the Crown Grill this evening but when I saw it was Beef Wellington night we changed our reservation. This was our second formal night.
Day 9 The Cruise: Ketchikan
This was our cloudy damp cool (55F) day. We took breakfast in the MDR as we did not dock until 10:30 am then began our Princess Wilderness Exploration and Crabfeast tour. There are lots of college students working for the summer in Alaska and our driver was a well informed young man from Utah. The drive along the coast from Ketchikan took about thirty minutes with a few Bald Eagle sightings. At George Inlet there are 79 steps down to the boat — I decided I could do that but a shuttle was available….. The next part of the excursion was a 30 minute boat trip to see eagle nests and how Dungeness crabs are captured. It was very educational. The boat captain threw out a herring and a Bald Eagle came down to grab it. When we got back to the lodge we were greeted with hot apple cider then were offered a choice of drinks —we chose an Alaskan Amber beer. The feast began with a green salad followed by a lesson in crab eating before the main course was delivered. The crab was delicious. I saved space for their cheesecake with blueberry sauce.
We arrived back on the ship and had a cup of tea in the MDR before a nap. It was Italian Night in the MDR but we ate lightly after our large lunch. Ran a load of laundry after dinner to be ready to pack for Vancouver.
Day 10 The Cruise. Sea Day
Packing day. Lazy day. This part of the cruise is lovely if it is sunny as we sail past wooded islands and pretty bays. We had both the pub lunch and our dinner in the Crown Grill as we glided past the beautiful scenery.
A lovely end to our land tour and cruise.
Day 11 The Cruise. Disembarkation.
All I can say is that is was fast and easy. Carts are available (free) when picking up luggage.
We stayed a further two days with family in Vancouver where we visited the lovely Van Dusen gardens and the Vancouver Aquarium before safely heading back to hot New Mexico.