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Alaska Trip Review - Pre-Cruise Land and Ports Part 1 (LONG)


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We just returned from a 2+ week trip to Alaska, including 6 days in Alaska, a soutbound cruise on Celebrity Summit (will post review on Celebrity Board) and a long weekend in Vancouver. Just want to say that whatever is contained in this post are our personal opinions - don't want to start any arguments or debates, and by no means is our way the only way or the right way. It's simply what we thought best for us on this particular trip and what we personally liked and didn't like.


By way of background, 5 of us travelled together (meeting some cousins later on cruise), including husband and I in our 40s, 2 kids 9 & 11 and my mom. We prefer independent touring and I spent a lot of time researching, planning and organizing this trip (no travel agents involved - used to be one in my past life...). Not to say that by the time we got to Vancouver I didn't enjoy sitting back on a bus for three hours and letting someone else give us a brief tour.


Some general observations include:

If you can at all swing it, I definitely advocate spending some time in Alaska separate and apart from a cruise. The time spent in Alaska and that on the cruise were like two completely different trips, and at times on the cruise almost forgot we were even in Alaska. Not that we did not enjoy cruise, just that some time on your own in Alaska is very worthwhile to truly appreciate the vastness and magnificence of the state. If you did not make some effort in the ports to get away from the area where all the ships dock and do some excursions, you might as well be on any cruise anywhere. Very touristy, these areas exist solely for the purpose of selling to cruise ship passengers and felt very different than being in the local towns and neighborhoods.


Secondly, big propoent of doing land first then cruise. After a week of running around, it was especially nice to get on the ship and kick back a bit, and if you're planning on spending any time at the end of your cruise, after a couple of weeks on the road it was nice to end up in a nice city like Vancouver.


Thirdly, our dealings with most Alaskans were very pleasant and most of them were very nice. But there was a certain "laid-backness" that could get on your nerves after a while. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but when I'm spending this kind of money and have a limited amount of time, I don't appreciate after having booked tours, scheduled accordingly and paid (usually, lots) being left waiting around endlessly with no explanation or being given misinformation. Two tour companies that were especially professional and efficient were Temsco and The Alaska Heritage Tours.


Finally, the weather for the duration of our trip was just about perfect. This of course made for most outings to be extremely pleasant, making everything beautiful and putting most people in wonderful moods. Keep this in mind when planning in that some of our outings may have been not so worthwhile in poor weather.


This being our first trip to Alaska and the variety of ages and fitness levels in our group, we planned this to be more of an introduction (we definitely plan to return), just to get a sampling. Now that we know better what to expect and a better idea of the different areas, next time we will probably be more active in terms of hiking, kayaking, etc. We purposefully chose to skip going into Denali Natl. Park this time so that we could see a little more and not run ourselves too ragged. Aside from bears, which we never saw, we saw plenty of other wildlife on our other outings, and it's nice to have something to look forward to on our return.


We started out on a Saturday, flying out from Newark to Anchorage on NWA with a brief stop in Minneapolis (no change of planes). Great glacier and Mt. McKinley views as we were descending. Landed about 5:30 and rented a car from Budget. Car rental is not the most convenient - a lot of up and down from baggage claim to counter to car and Budget's car left a lot to be desired - fairly dirty, bad front end - but we needed a large SUV and there was little availability through other companies. When we got back to Anchorage on Monday night and didn't need such a large car anymore we switched to a Hertz car - much better.


Saturday night we drove up to Talkeetna. Gorgeous night, light past 11pm, then a full moon. Talkeetna Alaska Lodge was beautiful - comfortable rooms, good food and service. It had been so warm though that I found myself missing air conditioning, but it was not unbearable. Sunday morning was our only real encounter with poor weather. Heavy clouds upon awakening meant all flightseeing flights were grounded so we could not take our trip as planned. Instead we spent some time in the town, going to the small but interesting museum in town then taking a Jetboat Safari through Mahay's. Took a little hike halfway through with an informative naturalist who was on board with us and we all enjoyed. By the time boat ride ended weather started clearing and by the time we finished dinner sun was out and we had great views of the mountain range from our hotel.


Monday morning woke up to beautiful weather and spectacular views of Mt. McKinley. Decided we could see the mountain so well and did not want to take up too much more of our day there, so passed on the flightseeing that morning (something else to save for next time). Had just done flightseeing over Grand Canyon and had helicopter flight planned later in week, so figured we weren't depriving ourselves that much. We headed back towards Anchorage taking Hatcher Pass Road from Willow to Palmer. (No, there were no restrictions on taking this road from the car rental company - while unpaved, it is a regularly maintained road). This ride is truly spectacular and worth doing at least once. But don't be deceived by mileage - the fastest we could go on much of the road was 25 mph. Stopped at Independence Mine - kind of interesting, but great scenery. Then had lunch just down the road at Hatcher Pass Lodge. Good food, great setting. We hustled to get back to town in time for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which we felt way overpriced and overrated. Poorly maintained grounds and we've been to Natural History Museums that are more informative regarding Native History. If a museum is of interest to you, then maybe the Anchorage Museum might be a better choice (don't know for sure though...)


Eventually made it to the Anchorage Marriott - clean, new, comfortable hotel. We were in the McKinley Suite which had great views of the mountain. Ate at Glacier Brewhouse that night - very good, recommend reservations.


Tuesday morning we headed to Whittier stopping at the Portage Glacier(Begich-Boggs) Visitor Center. I highly recommend this stop. Very informative about the area, glaciers, wildlife, etc. And no admission fee (even the $1 for the movie was waived that day). The tunnel to Whittier was a kick to go through and we arrived in Whittier by 12 for our 1pm boat ride on the Klondike Express (Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise) only to be told that the boat was delayed at least an hour with no further explanation. Whittier is interesting to see briefly as you're passing through for a Prince William Sound boat ride or a cruise, but otherwise we were sitting in the hot sun with some heavy equipment working around us, kicking up lots of dust and a bunch of Porta-Johns. One small cafe trying to keep up with about 300 hungry, hot, thirsty people waiting for a boat. Eventually the Phillips office just locked up too. Finally some time after 2 the boat showed up and we were on our way. While Prince William Sound was beautiful and worth a boat ride on, I would strongly encourage you to look at one of the other companies offering boat rides out there. We were offered no real explanation for the delay, no compensation (at least a cold soda would have been nice), the tables were dirty, food was bad, and just generally uncomfortable. The boat moves almost too fast to appreciate the scenery and wildlife and you are not allowed on the bow while the boat is moving. The back and sides of the second deck which would be the best place to stand are filled with smokers and the top deck is extremely windy to stand for too long. My understanding is that some time last fall the company (Phillips) was sold and others on our boat who had been on it before said it hasn't been the same since.


Wednesday we were back on the Seward Highway (beautiful road by the way) going to Girdwood. Made some stops along the way, took tram at Alyeska Resort (lots of mosquitoes), hiked around, lunched in town at Chair 5 (very good), stopped at Crow Creek Mine ("okay") then headed back for our few hours (more than enough for us on this trip) of Anchorage exploration after returning our rental car. We checked out the Ulu Knife Factory (kind of interesting) and bought a few gifts, then had dinner at Simon & Seafort's (not bad).


Thursday morning we took the Alaska Railroad train down to Seward. This was great fun - very relaxing and great scenery. Even their dining car was a full service restaurant. I was expecting a Danish in plastic wrap...There were maybe 12 people in our car and each car had its own "guide" who served as a narrator and would answer any questions. We saw lots of Dall Sheep, Eagles and Moose. Yes, it would have been cheaper to keep the rental car and return it in Seward, but this ride was well worth it.


More later...

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