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

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#21
36 Posts
Joined Nov 2014
Oh wow - loved reading your review as it brought back such great memories of our trip to Alaska four years ago - Michael Moore was also our tour guide. We found him amazing too and he made our holiday so memorable.


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#22
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Day #3 June 22, 2018
Another very early day.
We set the alarm for 4AM as we needed to grab a cup of coffee and bit of breakfast before meeting our group at the main lodge for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Our voucher was good at the buffet at the Denali Music Theater, or the small grab 'n go spot in our A/B building, or the slightly larger one in the lower level of the main lodge. We grabbed a cup of coffee and croissant at the little counter in the A/B building. We took the shuttle down to the main lodge, and only a few minutes later Michael showed up. He was not going on the tour with us, but he met us there early that morning to be sure all went well for us. (Have I mentioned how hard-working this guy is??)

Our bus arrived at 6AM and we were very lucky-- as we found out as we made our way through the 63 miles of Denali National Park-- that we scored Lisa as our driver. She told delightful stories of life in Alaska since she moved there in 1981, her life and home on Kodiak Island, and of all her various jobs including commercial fishing (which her husband still does). She displayed vast knowledge of the park, its founders and provided nuggets of history that kept us entertained the entire way. She was extremely conscientious about stopping at each possible rest stop. The bus was better than a school bus but not quite a coach bus (no bathroom onboard). Our bus was one of the newer park models wth padded seats. The seats were small and close together. Lisa shared with us that this new bus had a better camera system than the older ones, and the drop-down screen worked well.

When we boarded the bus the seats already our box lunches on them, which included a sausage stick, a granola bar, some crisp veggie chips and cookies. Bottles of water were passed out as well. Although there is a Subway across the street from the Denali lodge (as well as a liquor store if you care to have drinks in your room), no one brought any other food onboard, and the box lunch proved to be quite sufficient for our time on the road.

I took careful notes on all aspects of this trip from multiple CC threads, and one bit of advice was to sit on the left side of the bus. As it turned out, the left side did have more open areas and thus more of an opportunity to spot animals. The situation was, of course, reversed on the way back. Bottom line: it didn't matter too much.

Lisa instructed us to watch for animals and to shout STOP, quickly say either left or right and an approximate direction, such as 3 o'clock or 10 o'clock. If the command came from the back of the bus, it needed to be relayed to the front so Lisa could hear what was needed, what direction we were all to look, and animal we were all to look for. She then trained the camera on the area, and it showed up on the pull down tv screens in the bus. On our 63 mile journey, we saw 6 - 7 caribou, and several groups of Dall sheep, but by far the most exciting were the three Grizzly bears! Since Grizzly bears do not roam in packs, Lisa explained that the three were likely a mother and two cubs who were already a year or so old. Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for 2 - 3 years. It was hard to discern the difference among the three of them, all were pretty big. None of these animals were particularly close to the bus/road, but almost everyone had binoculars and some sort of camera to capture whatever images they could. Some people took photographs of the television screen since Lisa was able to zoom in on the animals.

The tour lasted between 7 and 8 hours. We had fairly good weather with a good deal of sun and temps in the 60's. But weather in Alaska and particularly in the mountainous/tundra areas around Denali, the weather changes by the minute. As we approached the turn around point where we might've been able to capture a glimpse of the mountain, clouds and drizzle developed. So although we felt we had a successful day in seeing animals, the mountain herself eluded us.

This evening Michael had our group scheduled for the 5:15PM Denali Music Theater dinner program. It consisted of six hard-working young people who served dinner and then provided a musical show about the first men known to scale Denali. We were seated in a large room at log tables with chairs. The six young servers/entertainers really hustle to get the food on and off the table and then perform the show. I wondered out loud if the same group of six do all three shows and servings for dinner every night, or if there are several groups of six. It would be pretty exhausting for the same six to do all that serving and clearing and entertaining. The food was okay. It consisted of thinly sliced beef brisket with some barbecue sauce, salmon with a sauce over it (by far the best of all the offerings), succotash, salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and pitchers of iced tea and water. All was served family style, and while you could request more of whatever the table may want, the service was rather rushed and there was little opportunity for that. Dessert was baked apple crisp and coffee.
The dinner and show sells for $69.95 per person and $34.95 per child. It was included in our Connoisseur package. It was an interesting addition to our day, but if it had not been included in the package, we would not have done it. I would have preferred a dinner voucher for the main restaurant as the food there was excellent.

It was only about 7:30PM when the dinner and show concluded, but these early mornings and long days and set lag are all catching up to us. We turned in early and were happy to fall asleep once again listening to the rushing rapids in the river outside our window.
#23
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by pisamoorings
Oh wow - loved reading your review as it brought back such great memories of our trip to Alaska four years ago - Michael Moore was also our tour guide. We found him amazing too and he made our holiday so memorable.


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Thanks so much! I've spent hours typing today and just posted day 3-- long ways to go, but I know how much I enjoy the detailed reviews from others of places I wanted to visit, so this is pay back.
Isn't Michael just the best?? I agree, he was a huge part of making the trip as wonderful as it was for us. I don't know if you can request a certain tour guide, but if I were to go again, I'd sure try to get Michael.
#24
106 Posts
Joined Aug 2009
Thanks so much for taking the time to give a current report on the connoisseur tour. Looking forward to the rest of your report as doing a 6 day connoisseur tour the end of August. Although several things will be different for us finding your report very informative.


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#25
24 Posts
Joined Aug 2017
World Traveler, Great info. First time I've seen advice for the paddle wheel boat. We will be having lunch on the train. Are there only 4 items at lunch or were their any additional items on the next page. No worries if you don't have that info.
#26
VA, USA
1,736 Posts
Joined Jun 2009
Thanks so much for the review. We are planning to do a connoisseur tour in the future (probably a long one like you).
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#27
144 Posts
Joined Dec 2014
WorldTraveler, Thank you so much for this excellent review. All of the time and detail that you are putting into this review are so appreciated. I will be following along till the end. THANK YOU!!!
#28
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by peachykiehn
Thanks so much for taking the time to give a current report on the connoisseur tour. Looking forward to the rest of your report as doing a 6 day connoisseur tour the end of August. Although several things will be different for us finding your report very informative.


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Thank you!
You will have a great time!
#29
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by cruises42
Thanks so much for the review. We are planning to do a connoisseur tour in the future (probably a long one like you).
So glad you are enjoying it!
We've not been sorry we chose the long tour.
#30
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by Midwestoalaska
World Traveler, Great info. First time I've seen advice for the paddle wheel boat. We will be having lunch on the train. Are there only 4 items at lunch or were their any additional items on the next page. No worries if you don't have that info.
We were there for breakfast, so I really didn't pay attention to the lunch options at all, but I looked at the photo again in larger form, and it looks to me like the options continue on the next page.
Glad you are reading along!
#31
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by tawlaw1526
WorldTraveler, Thank you so much for this excellent review. All of the time and detail that you are putting into this review are so appreciated. I will be following along till the end. THANK YOU!!!
Thank you for following along! It's nice to know readers are out there!
#32
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Footnote to Denali: When we arrived, Michael gathered us up in the courtyard of our A/B building with the mountains and the river in the background and had a photo taken of our group of 26. On our last night together, we all received a color 8x10 in a folder with a slip of paper inside identifying each of us by name and stating the photo was taken on the Summer Solstice: sunrise 3:30 AM, sundown 12:54 AM 21 hrs 24 mins of daylight, 2 hrs 36 mins of darkness.
It is really a nice keepsake of a great trip.
Michael also coordinated collecting an email from us all. It will be nice to keep in touch with several of the couples we spent a lot of time with. It was also nice while on the Coral for 7 days to already know and to see the other 24 people here and there.
#33
PA.
344 Posts
Joined Feb 2013
Wonderful review, thanks for sharing your journey!
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#34
Texas
2,159 Posts
Joined Aug 2011
Thank you Worldtraveler 4727 for a great review. In 2014 a group of us took this connoisseur tour and loved it. Another group of us are going to take this tour next year. Your review will be helpful to all the members of that group.
I think Princess sets high standards for the tour directors. The one we had in 2014, Jack Curtiss, was every bit as good as you describe your tour director.
I am looking forward to seeing the rest of your review as are the rest of my group.
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#35
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Day #4 June 23, 2018
We have apparently finally folded into more of a touring/vacationing routine, and were able to sleep fairly well last night.
This morning required that our bags be outside our room in the hall by 7 AM with the DPL (Denali Princess Lodge) tags off, and the new MPL (McKinley Princess Lodge) tags on ready to be transported to our next stop: McKInley Lodge.

Speaking of luggage...we met a couple on the lodge shuttle who said one of their pieces of luggage was lost for over a day and a night. She had been quite panicked about it, but it did finally show up. Honestly, it's a wonder that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often. The shuttling and shuffling of the massive quantities of luggage over literally miles of lodge rooms has to be a logistical nightmare.

Our breakfast voucher entitled us to a breakfast buffet in the Denali music theater, or a made to order breakfast in the King Salmon restaurant, or a much lighter breakfast at one of the grab 'n go venues on the properties. Since we had 2.5 hours before we needed to meet the bus at our A/B lodge entrance, DH and I decided to take the shuttle to the King Salmon restaurant and enjoy a leisurely breakfast. The restaurant is truly beautiful, and we were seated at a table for two by a window overlooking the trees at the back of the property. DH was fairly hungry and ordered the king crab stuffed omelette with pan fried red potato cubes and toast. I have a hard time eating early morning breakfasts, especially when we have dinner at 8 or later the night before. I ordered the yogurt with blueberries and granola. Quite enough for me this morning. After your meal, you just place your vouchers on the table, and the wait staff will collect them. Often we were asked to just sign the voucher on the back. Sometimes we received a paper receipt and were asked to sign that as well. The vouchers work very simply, and you can order whatever you'd like. I know the cost of the food is all folded into the cost of the package, but it was a real treat to look at menus and try new and different things. After breakfast we took the shuttle back to our room, picked up our backpack, and relaxed in the lounge area with the others until the bus showed up.

The coach bus ride was only 2 hours long and shortly after leaving the lodge, we came across a cow moose right on the shoulder of the highway like she was looking to cross the road! Michael told us that 300 moose are killed on this stretch of highway every year!


We reached McKinley Lodge, and Michael gave us our packets with instructions and room keys, and the bus driver took us to Building 18. We all found our rooms (ground level). Some were ready and some were not, but you were able to place your hand luggage in them and go about your day until later. When we opened the door to our room (#1811), it smelled just terrible! The room had its bed stripped and the windows were closed. The only way I have been able to describe the smell in the room was that it was like an animal had died in it--perhaps somewhere in the walls. We once had a mouse die in the walls of our laundry room, and it smelled like this. It lasted for a long time, and DH finally had to open the wall in the laundry room. We immediately opened the window in the room, and that helped a bit, but we knew we were not going to be able to stay in this room. There was a young lady in the hallway with a cart cleaning rooms, and I asked her to step into the room for a moment. When I explained to her that the room smelled terrible, she said, "Oh yes! We always have trouble with this room. It always smells bad like this." Okay. That was enough for me. I pulled out my phone and called Michael. He answered his cell phone immediately and asked us to come up to the main lodge. He would meet us there and take care of it immediately. By the time we got to the main lodge (about 5 minutes later) Michael was there with the manager of the lodge. They both apologized profusely and gave us another room. This one was far from the others, but it didn't matter. We were in Building 6 (#601). They also gave us two tickets for a coffee at any of the Princess lodges. It was a minor blip and could happen anywhere as these lodges are all in remote areas.

While we were in the main lodge, we went to the reception desk to give them our cell phone number and to ask to be put on the Call List. I had read that you need to do this EACH DAY. Reception will call you 24 hours a day if the mountain comes out. I had read that everyone just comes out in their pajamas to take photos if the mountain comes out late at night. That's what my research had told me. Reality was, the woman at reception asked only for our room number and insisted that that they will only call the rooms. So if the mountain is out, and you happen to not be in your room, you won't get the notification.

The lodge looks and feels much older than the Denali Lodge, and there are really no rooms with a "view." Almost all of the windows look out onto trees, shrubs and grass. However, from the outside of Building 6 we were able to see a bit of the mountain through the trees.

After we got our new room key, we decided to go out onto the balcony behind the lodge and to see if "Denali was out." It was a partly cloudy day with temperatures in the mid 60's. Very pleasant, but there were clouds at the top of the mountain so it wasn't totally visible. There is a part of the deck that is used for food and drink service. We were given a seat in the sun, ordered a couple beers and a snack, and relaxed and just drank in the atmosphere. While we sat and mountain-watched and people-watched, we looked over the information in our packets. One of the things we had wanted to do was to get up to see the Tree House built by Pete Nelson. They did an episode on Tree Masters on the Animal Planet cable channel a while ago, and it is now open to the public. DH and I grabbed a shuttle as far as it would go and then set out on foot the rest of the way. It was not easy going for the two of us with the serious joint issues we were dealing with on this trip. We made it as far as where the hard road ended and the gravel path began. We could see the steep gravel hill up to the Tree House, and there was simply no way either of us could make it up or down that trail, so we had to turn around. It was disappointing. The view of the area is supposed to be wonderful from the Tree House.

After that mis-adventure to the Tree House, we returned to our room, and there were some chairs on the boardwalk outside our room. We had a room on the far end. The rooms in this building are motel-like in that they all have separate doors leading outside. (Building 18 where the others were had doors all inside a hallway, more hotel-like.) It was a beautiful afternoon, and we spent it just relaxing. We could see snippets of Denali through the trees from where we were sitting, so we kept our eye on it hoping the high clouds would dissipate. (Can you see the mountain in the background?)
#37
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Originally posted by nukesubsailor
Thank you Worldtraveler 4727 for a great review. In 2014 a group of us took this connoisseur tour and loved it. Another group of us are going to take this tour next year. Your review will be helpful to all the members of that group.
I think Princess sets high standards for the tour directors. The one we had in 2014, Jack Curtiss, was every bit as good as you describe your tour director.
I am looking forward to seeing the rest of your review as are the rest of my group.
Perfect! Let me know if you have any questions.
#39
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
At 4:15 we caught the shuttle and went over to the theater building to see Todd Huston speak. He is a mountain climber and inspirational speaker. He lost his leg as a teen in a boating accident and went on to climb the highest peaks in all 50 states in, including Denali, in less time than anyone else. He was truly inspiring.

From there we went made our way to the deck in the back of the lodge and joined new friends for cocktails and to take a look at the mountain. The clouds had been clearing for most of the day. It was a windless, sunny afternoon. We were able to get a good look at the mountain. There were some low-level clouds near the bottom, but it was very clear midway and to the top. Michael stopped by our table, and I asked him if with this view of the mountain we could consider ourselves in the "30% Club." (It is said only 30% of everyone who tries to see Denali actually succeeds) He said he would consider all of us in the 10% Club! Yay! The shuttle drivers had mentioned to us that for the past two weeks the mountain had not been visible AT ALL. We felt very fortunate that we got to see it on this beautiful day.

#40
Wisconsin
333 Posts
Joined Aug 2012
Once again our paperwork for today indicated the couple Michael paired us with for dinner in the North Fork Restaurant inside the main lodge at 7PM. He found us a little later in the afternoon and explained that the other couple had decided to go to a talk and wanted to have dinner much later, so Michael made reservations for just DH and me. This was our best meal so far. DH had the Tenderloin Oscar, and I had the Crab-stuffed Halibut. Both were out of this world. We decided to share half-and-half and had a bit of a surf and turf meal. I chose the salad with blueberries and candied pecans, and it was outstanding. DH chose the French onion soup, and it too was very good. Sometimes restaurants make this soup with a very salty dry mix, but this French onion soup was very, very good.