Trip Review: Connoisseur Land & Sea (RB8) June 19 - July 4, 2018

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#1
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
A little about us--DH and I have traveled quite extensive throughout the US and Europe, but only began cruising about 7 years ago. Since then we have taken several cruises with Princess and with Regent cruise lines. I am a highly organized trip planner who mostly plans private excursions in small groups.

My intention with the review is to pay back CC members whose reviews and comments have been invaluable to planning our trips. One in particular from caribill on this site is a few years old, but much of that info is still current. I hope to bring everyone up to date a bit and will happily answer any questions I can.

We are mostly DIY-ers. However, this tour came recommended to us by friends, and in reading about it, we were sold. We chose the longest (most expensive as well) land and sea tour Princess offered. We chose Princess because we wanted to experience their lodges and because Princess has been doing this in Alaska for a long time. This was a 15 day trip: 8 days on land and 7 days at sea.

Day #1: Fairbanks June 19, 2018
We used Princess EZ Air (and carefully watched the flights DAILY as they changed times over the course of several months, and that had to be taken care of with calls to Princess and Delta.) We arrived at the Fairbanks airport and were met by Princess reps. This was one of the unanswered questions I still had not been able to find an answer for before we left. Out tour package clearly stated and in capital letters TRANSPORT to hotel from airport. Yet our invoice from our TA indicated a charge for transfers. Two calls to Princess by her and one by me resulted in being told there were no transfers included. Then why does the itinerary clearly state this? No answer for that one. I had the TA remove the charges. Plan A was we'd be met by Princess reps and be taken by coach to the hotel. Plan B was that the Fairbanks hotel has a shuttle (as noted on their website) Plan C was to simply take a taxi the 1.5 miles to the hotel. Plan A worked out. The reps gave us a packet with everything we needed to know for that night and the next day. We were already checked into the hotel. Room keys were in the packet. Info in the packet further explained we would be meeting the next morning for breakfast and that we had this first evening free to wander the property on the Chena River. We had a comfortable room facing the river, and since it was June 19, there was nearly constant daylight. The drapes in the room do the best they can to keep out the light, but there is still an element of light always in the room. Couple that with jet lag and excitement for the trip, and it was near impossible to sleep.

We found that on the Connoisseur Tour we were allotted the premium rooms with the best views. A nice perk.
#2
Florida
1,789 Posts
Joined Jun 2010
Nice

question for you or others...I have seen post where people say they are 'following'

how do you do that, and what kind of notification do you get that there is a new posting?

and to the OP - yes, we also read carbill very detailed postings and sure will appreciate yours as well
#3
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Day #2 Fairbanks June 20, 2018
The weather was beautiful. Sunny and very warm.
This morning we arrived at the Copper Dining Room upstairs at the hotel and were met by our tour guide: Michael Moore. He is a delightful Irishman with a gift of gab, and as you will find out in this report, was without a doubt THE best tour guide we could have ever asked for. Michael has done this for 10 years, and he anticipated our every need well before we even knew we needed something. Simply outstanding.

We had a breakfast buffet and met the other 24 people who would be in our particular group. (Interestingly, there was one other tour exactly like ours running simultaneously--same number of people doing the same things--lead by Michael's wife Liz. According to them, an unusual situation. Each group has its own coach bus etc, but we did wind up staying in the same lodges etc. Both groups were great, and it was apparent the other group thought the world of Liz too.)

After breakfast and our self-introductions, we were asked to meet the bus downstairs at the entrance to take us to the Dredge 8 Gold Mining Camp. We had a delightful young bus driver named Faith, and she gave us the bus safety information by singing an original song and playing her ukulele. She was an absolute delight the entire day. I can't say enough about the adorable young people who take these seasonal jobs in Alaska. They are cheerful, kind, helpful and lots of fun. And this was truly a constant: everyone we met along the way were exceptionally pleasant and smiling.

As we traveled along, Michael provided great information about Fairbanks and how it was founded.

Once we got to Dredge 8, we were met by George. He is a full time social studies teacher during the school year and works at Dredge 8 in the summer. I'm sure he is a great teacher as he was very engaging and was able to tell the stories of mining in the area and truly make it come alive. He has written several books on mining, and his latest was available in the gift shop. We boarded a little steam engine which took us to the mine. Before we got off we were given a demonstration on how to pan our "poke" for gold flecks. As we disembarked from the train, Faith and several other young people were handing out the cloth bags (pokes) of dirt and gold. I teasingly told Faith that since it was my birthday that day to please hand me one that had a big nugget in it. LOL We took our pokes to panning area and began the process of trying to use the water and the pan and a certain motion with the pan and water to separate the gravel and dirt and leave the gold flecks--which are heavier than the gravel and sand--on the bottom of the pan. It's harder than it looks, I can tell you that. Cute little Faith came by to see what kind of nugget I got in my poke and helped me and DH sift down to the few flecks we did get. From there you put your tiny flecks into a container much like an old 35mm film canister and take it into the store to be weighed. Together DH and I panned $33 in gold. At this point Dredge 8 would like to see you something to put all that gold into. Many of the ladies were buying charms, earrings and necklaces to put their gold in. We just brought ours home. There really wasn't enough to do anything with. I'm sure it's one of those souvenirs that I'll find years later and wonder again what to do with it.

We walked around the complex of gifts shops, enjoyed a complimentary cup of coffee and several of their cookies--chocolate chip, oatmeal or snickerdoodle.

#4
Chico, California
11,388 Posts
Joined Sep 2012
Originally posted by voljeep
Nice

question for you or others...I have seen post where people say they are 'following'

how do you do that, and what kind of notification do you get that there is a new posting?

and to the OP - yes, we also read carbill very detailed postings and sure will appreciate yours as well
Just use the "Thread Tools" button on the upper right and subscribe to the thread. You can choose your notification options - anything from no notification to weekly digest to instant notification by email when there is a post.
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Thrak

Not Elite but having fun working on it...





#5
Florida
1,789 Posts
Joined Jun 2010
thanks thrak...i'll follow here until the thread really slows down, then maybe opt for the email updates...this is definitely on our "list" - looking like summer 2020 now at the soonest......but will give my wife plenty of planning time amongst the others...
#6
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
On to the steam ship paddle boat ride....
I had thought (and had read places) that these two activities are a bit hokey. I actually thought they were fine. We had great weather, and it was all pretty entertaining.

When we arrived, we were given tickets for both the boat ride and for lunch. Lunch was family style inside an ENORMOUS room with picnic table style tables and benches. Hundreds of people (literally) from Princess and Holland America tours filed into the room and took the next seat available. Our tour group fit at one long table. Lunch was beef stew, salad, bread and a brownie with pitchers of water and iced tea on the table. It was not bad at all.

There were several steamship paddle boats and we were assigned to #3. As we boarded we took a seat indoors in the shade on the LEFT side, as was recommended by other reviews I had read. Michael also told our group to sit on that side. This side has a better view of the float plane and dog sled demonstrations. The commentator on the ship had an excellent speaking voice. He was easy to listen to and informative about the houses on the river we were passing etc. By far the most entertaining part of the ride was seeing and listening to Susan Butcher's daughter. She stayed on shore and takes through a microphone. She and her family are continuing the legend her mother was so famous for in the Iditarod. She and the ship's commentator told the story of one of her mother's most famous dogs: Granite. Susan Butcher wrote a book about him, a three time race winner. There are books available on land, and Susan's daughter will dedicate a book to you or someone you wish to buy the book for. Then she tied a team of dogs up and they pulled an ATV without an engine around her land. You can also see the team run on the overhead screens inside the boat. Just as you see on TV and other places, it is so apparent these dogs live for this job! They are so excited to be chosen to run. Every human should love his job like these dogs love theirs! They took a lap around a small lake and then she released them. They all ran into the river to cool off and to get a drink.

The boat then left for an Indian village where we disembarked and walked around to various areas where short lectures were given on native housing, clothing etc. It was an absolutely gorgeous day: full sun and 75.

(I managed to copy and paste one photo --above--from my MacBook Air, but am not having any luck with other photos. Any help copying and pasting photos from my MacBook Air would be appreciated.)
#7
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
We arrived back at the Fairbanks hotel with about 45 minutes to freshen up before dinner. We met in a dining room on the second floor and tables were marked for "Michael's group" and "Liz's group." We were met at the door of the dining room with glasses of champagne. This was to be a set supper with wine pairings. We sat at a table for 8, and they brought out the first wine, a red one with the salad. This was followed by a white one for the halibut course and another red wine for the beef tenderloin entree. The dinner concluded with the chef coming into the dining room to make flaming Bananas Foster.

It was an exceptionally full day as were many that came after. It was 9pm when we got back to our room, and the sun was still quite high in the sky. As we prepared for bed, I asked my DH, "Was it just THIS morning that we met our tour guide, had a buffet breakfast and met the others on this tour? It seems like three days ago!"

Day two was to be no less busy, and we set the alarm for 5AM.
#8
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Fairbanks to Denali June 21, 2018
Our luggage needed to be tagged for suitcases that were to be sent to the ship and suitcases that were going to follow us to the next lodge at Denali. All was to be in the hallway by 6AM. We decided not to send anything on to the ship and to keep our two pieces of luggage with us as went went lodge to lodge. We also had a regular sized backpack that we carried along with us on the train and coach busses. There is very limited space to store things, and this was the recommended piece of "luggage" to take with you daily. In it we carried a bottle or water, granola bars, binoculars and the paperwork you need for that day. (With all the food provided, you do not need any granola bars etc)

Note: You will normally get to the next lodge by 2Pm or so, but your luggage will not show up until at least 5PM, so take what you'll need till about 5 in your backpack.

We were to meet the bus at 7AM to take us to the train depot. Interestingly, Princess had made an error. In our packet of info for today, there were breakfast vouchers for anywhere in the Fairbanks hotel--either the buffet breakfast or the small coffee shop inside the gift store. Also included today was breakfast in the dining car on the train. Some people opted for two breakfasts--the buffet in the hotel and on the train. DH and I got coffees in the gift shop and opted to have breakfast on the train. Michael jokingly said this double breakfast situation was training preparation for the cruise. Ha!

We reached the glass-domed train and were seated in a Gold Star car (we even got Gold Star train pins). Our train tickets assigned us to specific seats. All seats were comfortably padded and ALL seats faced forward on the train. None with forward and backward with a table between them like I had seen and read about. One of the conductors came aboard and introduced us to the bartender in our car and told us that he would be beginning at the front of the car and moving backward asking those of us who wished to have breakfast to go to the lower level of the car where dining was available. We received two drink tickets each for the trip. DH and I got a Bloody Mary and a vodka and orange juice and settled into our seats to watch the Alaskan scenery go by and to wait to be called to the dining area for breakfast. Meanwhile, Michael walked around with our packets for the Denali lodge. This included room keys and vouchers for the King Salmon restaurant for lunch and for dinner there the next evening. There were also instructions for breakfast, for the Tundra Wilderness Tour (included in this Connoisseur Tour) and for the Denali Music Theater dinner.
Michael had previously asked us what time we preferred to have dinner: 5 - 6:60 or 6:30 - 8. We chose the later time slot. In order for everyone on the tour to try to get to know the others, Michael assigned us with two other couples for dinner that evening. He made reservations for our groups every evening in every restaurant.
Everything on this tour is extraordinarily orchestrated and exacting. We were not quite sure how we would react to all of this shuffling from bus to bus to train to bus to ship on an organized tour like this, but it was truly lovely and delightful and relaxing to be able to sit back and have it all laid out and taken care of.
Michael also sent around a questionnaire regarding room assignments. For example: Are you able to climb stairs if no elevator was available? DH and I had to reply "no" to that question on this trip. DH is struggling with needing knee replacements, and I am set for hip replacement #1 this month. Michael made sure we had ground floor rooms.

When the first set of people finished breakfast, they came back up to the top of the train in the observation car, and more people were called down. We were seated with a couple we had dinner with the evening before. A delightful couple from one of the Chanel Islands between Britain and France. Three of us ordered the stuffed French toast. It was excellent and our very first experience in a dining car on a train. We went back to the observation car after breakfast and continued the train ride to Denali. Along the way we saw four cow moose. After about 4 hours, the train went around a corner, and there was the Princess Denali complex. Michael pointed out that we would be staying in the newest of the buildings on site and that the Denali Princess Lodge is the largest hotel in all of Alaska.

Our room was beautiful (and if I can figure out how to post pictures I'd like to show you the room and the view). It overlooked the Nenana River. It was warm again today--mid 70's--and this hotel, unlike Fairbanks-- does not have air conditioning. Fortunately, the large windows opened up providing a lovely breeze.

We had a voucher for lunch, and there are several places on the property to use the voucher. One is the King Salmon restaurant, another is Lynx pizza. We decided to try the pizza since we were going to King Salmon that evening for dinner. DH and I each had a small salad, sodas, and shared a medium vegetarian pizza.

Note: Each of the vouchers entitles you to an appetizer, or soup, or salad--an entree--a non-alcoholic drink--and dessert. We did not find out until the final dinner in the final lodge that you can ask to "trade" one for another. For example, if you don't want dessert, you can choose a soup AND a salad. Or skip dessert and have an appetizer AND soup. Etc.

After lunch we walked up to the main lodge and waited for the bus to the park's Visitor Center. Once there, we caught another bus to another part of the park to see the dogsled demonstration put on by the National Park Service rangers. The dogs train during the summer, and they work all winter with the rangers patrolling the park. It never gets old seeing their exuberance and love for their job. We were able to walk among the dogs and pet the ones closest. Such sweet animals. After the demonstration, we caught the bus to the Visitor's Center and then another one back to the Lodge.

Note: Each of the lodge properties is huge, and each provides a on-site shuttle service to take you where you need to go. Even though Kenai is the smallest, there is still a shuttle service. We only had one problem with any shuttles and wait times and that was at McKinley when the shuttles were having some mechanical problems.

Michael had made reservations for us at the King Salmon restaurant for 7:30 with two other couples from our group. DH and I left for the restaurant area a little bit early and stopped at the Grizzly Bar for a couple drinks. One of the other couples we were meeting for dinner was out on the deck overlooking the river and we joined them. Stunning setting overlooking the river. The four of us the walked over to the King Salmon restaurant right next door to the Grizzly bar and met up with the other couple from London joining us for dinner. We were seated and within 10 minutes placed our order. Two of us chose the Crab Trio; one chose the king salmon, and one chose the halibut. On my Crab Trio was one king crab leg half, one Dungeness crab and one Opilia carb. All three crab were room temperature at best when they arrived. The small pot of melted butter was just room temperature as well. I asked the waiter to bring another one, and that one too was just room temperature. I am not a huge fan of crab, but from other reviews, I had wanted to try the Crab Trio. As it turned out, it was my least favorite of all the dinners we had all 15 days. The King Crab was small, and the rest took a great deal of work for very little yield, in my opinion. The salmon and halibut were all reported as very good. We were all quite full but wanted to give some of the desserts a try. I saw another table with an interesting chocolate cake. I don't remember the name the restaurant gave it, but by its size we all agreed it should have been called Denali Mountain Chocolate Cake! It was TALL, moist and chocolatey.

Dinner concluded just the second full day in Alaska--and what a full day it was again!
#20
Wisconsin
329 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
A note about mosquitoes. There weren't very many. The tour guides suggest repellent if you are going out hiking. They can be very prevalent in woodsy areas. If you aren't hiking, you can leave the repellent at home and save some space.