Quick: Which company operates the largest hotel in Alaska -- Marriott? Sheraton? Hyatt? Strangely enough, the answer is none of those but instead one of the best-known names in cruising: Princess Cruises.
With 640 rooms, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, located at the gateway of the spectacular Denali National Park, owns the bragging rights to No. 1 -- the flagship of a five-hotel network that adds a whole new dimension to Princess's tag line: "Escape Completely."
When my husband and I began researching cruises of Alaska's Inside Passage, we were surprised to learn that Princess, alone among the cruise lines, offers companion land tours designed around its own custom-built lodges. The tours, lasting three to nine nights, aren't inexpensive, but what in Alaska is? Our three-night tour, centered on the six million acre-plus Denali National Park, added roughly $1,000 a day to our tab.
One key differentiator is that a land tour offers a truer look at what lies beyond ports of call -- more so than any shore excursion could. Sadly, we didn't spot any moose or bear but we did see the often shrouded Mt. McKinley, afar from Anchorage and again up close when the vigilant front desk clerk at our first Princess lodge phoned guests on an "alert list" to announce there was a clear view of North America's tallest mountain (never mind that it was 1:45 in the morning). In late summer and fall, the lodge also offers a Northern Lights wake-up call.
A record 285,000 passengers -- more people than live in Anchorage -- will cruise Alaska on a Princess ship this season. More than half of them will also take a land tour, which in our case included a wonderful 10-hour ride from the interior to the coast on a train operated by Princess.
For anyone who has cruised with Princess, there will be some familiar linchpins on the land tour. There's the Princess channel on TV, an abundant offering of optional excursions from the cheerful "outfitters" at the lodges, and even the daily Princess Patter, with its listing of activities, dining choices and amenities.
What are different are the pace and the structure. Unlike the easygoing rhythm of a shipboard experience, a land tour can feel almost frenetic. You're on the road daily, with luggage pick-ups as early as 6 a.m. For that reason alone, we recommend doing the land portion first. Still, Princess has the logistics down to a science with an operation that succeeds in large part because of its almost military-like precision. At each arrival point, for example, guests receive a welcome packet with room key, a map of the property, the Princess Patter, and information about the next day's luggage pick-up and departure time. Another big difference is that meals are pay as you go. The good news is that each lodge has as many as five restaurants, representing a range of prices. It's also casual dress, another plus in our book. One surprising freebie: Unlike the ships, the lodges offer complimentary Internet access.
As for the lodges themselves, the two we sampled were pretty special. Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is just 41 miles from the peak of the mountain known locally as Denali or "The Great One." It has a rustic feel with an almost campus-like setting surrounded by woods and hiking paths. By contrast, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, located on a major roadway, has more of a resort feel. It didn't surprise me when I heard one guest characterize it as "Princess Town." One nice thing about the two properties is that each offers complimentary shuttles to nearby attractions.
Princess' three other lodges are located in Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula and at the edge of Wrangell-St. Elias, the nation's largest national park, which boasts nine of North America's tallest mountains. Only the Fairbanks lodge is open year-round. The rest, like the cruising season, operate between May and September.
Anchorage: All Lit Up
With its walkable city grid, great restaurants and mountainous backdrop, Anchorage is an amazing urban attraction. Plus, where else are you going to find a reindeer sausage stand next to a Starbucks? A place where floatplanes are almost as common as cars? Or, as when we were there in late June, a spot where total daylight lasts 19 hours, 15 minutes and 58 seconds?
With flight delays at their highest level in years, my husband Gil and I opted to fly in to Anchorage from the East Coast a full day and a half before our Princess "cruisetour," as the company calls it, was to officially start. And we're so glad we did. It gave our bodies a little more time to acclimate to the time difference as well as the ever present sunlight. By the end of our first afternoon, we had walked the downtown and feasted at Orso, a top-rated restaurant noted for its seafood, grilled meats and award- winning wine list. (To make a reservation or peek at the menu, check out Orso's Web site.) Glacier Brewhouse, just next door, is another super restaurant popular for its fresh Alaska seafood, rotisserie roasted meats, freshly made pizza and really good beers.
To keep our costs down while we were on our own, we overnighted at a Days Inn, then moved over the next day to the hotel Princess uses, the celebrated Hotel Captain Cook. Check-in was seamless, even though we arrived several hours early, and the Princess courtesy lounge, open 5 a.m. until 11 p.m., was humming.
When I think back on it, we packed a lot into our one full day in Anchorage, including two not-to-miss activities: a 90-minute narrated "grand tour" of the city we arranged in advance through Alaska Tour and Travel (800-208-0200) and a visit to the Anchorage Museum. Both, in their own way, provide a great introduction to Alaska's rich history, its natural beauty and its essential quirkiness.
There's something almost overwhelming about Alaska -- maybe because it's so vast, so naturally beautiful and at such a remove from the rest of the country. At the museum, I was struck by this quote from Karl Fortess, a Works Progress Administration (or WPA, created to provide economic relief during the Great Depression) artist who visited the Alaska Territory in 1937:
"The country itself ... it's grand. It's so damn grand. It's like trying to paint Niagara Falls or a brilliant sunset or the Grand Canyon or some other visual aspect of nature which can only be described by people who have lived in it, have soaked it up, have been in that environment long enough to assimilate it and understand it. It is very hard to look at something with your mouth open and at the same time try to think in technical terms: How do you control this image? How do you present it?" As I was to learn in coming days, Fortess was dead on.
The Road Trip Begins
Our bags had to be outside our hotel room at the Captain Cook by 6 a.m. -- normally not a big stretch but in this case it was. Basically, you have to pack for two trips: the cruise and the land tour. Luggage with a pink "Join Me Onboard Ship" tag goes directly to the ship while those marked "Travel With Me," along with a sticker denoting the next hotel destination, are transported to the lodge where you will be staying that night. Truth is, I hadn't given this as much thought as I should have and as a result I made some ill-considered last-minute decisions. Next time I'll do better.
Gil and I love road trips -- just the realness of them. It's the only way you're going to see local roadside attractions like Wal*Mikes, the 2-Go and the Time To Eat. On our three-hour motorcoach trip from Anchorage to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, Alaska's landscape began to unfold with long stretches of valley and wetlands populated with Shasta daisies, black and white spruce, cottonwoods, aspens and pink fireweed, the state flower.
The lodge, 460 rooms on 147 acres overlooking the Chulitna River, was bigger than we expected. Opened in 1997 (with four guest buildings added as recently as 2006), the Main Lodge has a dramatic lobby, a massive natural stone fireplace, and Great Room with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out toward Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range. It's a phenomenal view -- when you can get it. Due to changing weather patterns, only 40 percent of visitors actually see, at 20,320 feet, the highest point in all of North America.
As for the rooms, they're sizable and just what you'd expect: "rustique" with handsome prints of moose and other wildlife along with linens and woodwork that favor a natural palette of brown, forest green and tan. As with our next lodge at Denali, there was a TV, phone, alarm clock, hair dryer and that all-important coffee maker. There is no air conditioning or room service.
The afternoon we arrived, we accompanied state parks naturalist Larry Muir on a complimentary nature walk on one of the property's four trails. An expert in wolf packs, he pointed out green elder that natives once routinely used to treat flu symptoms; horse's tail, used as a poultice to draw poison and as a scouring pad; and Alaskan Spirea, whose blossoms are made into teas. Because of our short stay, this was our only outing.
The lodge does, however, have a tour desk offering over 25 optional excursions, including a "flightseeing" tour of Mt. McKinley's summit, a glacier walk, and a backcountry wilderness adventure.
There were several restaurants and we opted for the aptly named 20,320 Alaskan Grill, which has a varied menu that includes Alaskan salmon, $20; grilled steak, at $23 the most expensive item on the dinner menu; and pasta primavera, $16. The restaurant also has Alaskan beers, including Denali Red, brewed especially for Princess guests by none other than Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage. At this rate, we were starting to feel like locals.
A Denali "Miss"-adventure
After leaving overheated temperatures at home in the Mid-Atlantic, the grey drizzle that greeted us when we woke up was nothing short of pleasant. It was snowing in the mountains when we departed on our two-hour bus trip to Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, sweetly situated just one mile from the entrance to Denali National Park.
Along the way, our driver pointed out Troublesome Creek, known for its water clarity; Hurricane Gulch, something of a wind tunnel; and Honolulu Creek, with its teal-colored glacial waters. In one surreal moment in the Broad Pass Valley, we pulled over next to a white Ford van with Princess insignia, which was obviously waiting for our bus. There in the middle of nowhere, with Princess-provided sparkling cider in plastic champagne glasses and nature bars, we toasted Denali -- and, of course, received our welcome packets.
The lodge, which opened in 1987 and has been added to and made over since, was the first of Princess' wilderness lodges. Unlike the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge, Denali feels like a destination not unlike a ski resort. Just consider the huge two-level Main Lodge, completed in 2004. It's gorgeous and efficient -- and it reminded me a little bit of a fancy airport terminal or a train station because of its flashing signs announcing tour pick-ups outside: "Now Boarding" flash, flash "Your Tour!"
The complex itself is designed as a small village with nicely landscaped walkways linking guest buildings with gift shops, restaurants, a dinner theater, a rather modest fitness center and the lodge. It's perched between the Nenana River and a highway where you can find all manner of trinket shops, tour offices, a liquor store and even an urgent care clinic.
The highlight of our visit was a natural history tour of Denali National Park. Remarkably, there are only 90 miles of roadway in the entire park, a living ecological tapestry that blends the treeless tundra and the taiga, a northern forest. As the Alaska Natural History Association frames it: "Together, these two vegetation zones -- and the fringe that runs between them -- are places of struggle and adaptation, where hardship is a fact of life and quirkiness a badge of honor." It's amazing to think that this space has been inhabited by Alaska natives for nearly 11,000 years.
When we first boarded the bus, I wasn't sure what to make of our guide, a crusty French Canadian named Stephen Gese, who is something of a stand-up comedian. "If it ain't fun, I ain't doing it," he said after telling a couple of jokes. "You didn't want a stuffed shirt up here, did you?" As it turned out, beyond his silliness, Gese has a lot of great information and perspective on this wonderful park, with its abundance of grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep. The moose, caribou and sheep number in the thousands, Gese said, and there are 100 wolves in the park that run in packs of 8 to 10.
On our drive, which lasted several hours, we looked and looked for wildlife.
"Here moosey, moosey," Gese called out.
The result: one friendly rabbit and bald eagles.
I tried to take solace in a quote from an early park superintendent: "There is much to offer to those who understand the great silent places." (Tip: If possible, take this tour in the early morning, when wildlife sightings are said to be more frequent. Also, the lodge runs courtesy shuttles to park headquarters, close to several hiking trails and the site of daily dog sled demonstrations.)
All Aboard The Princess Train
By now, we had flown over Alaska, driven around it and we were about to cruise it. So why not throw a train ride into the mix? On our last land day, we experienced Alaska a little bit differently -- on the Denali Express. The 10-hour rail tour, from Denali National Park to Whittier, revealed some of the most spectacular scenery yet -- and the thrill we felt when we first caught sight of the coast was almost electric.
The train has five cars, and with nearly 500 passengers, we were fully loaded. Each car has a wraparound glass dome, which ensures unobstructed views. Seating, at four-top banquettes, is reserved. Each car also has an outdoor viewing platform, where you get a real sense of movement and sound with the pounding "clack, clack" of the rails.
The food and beverage service is definitely localized. Upstairs, where passengers are seated, there's an all-day menu that includes a breakfast bagel sandwich with reindeer sausage, smoked salmon spread on a sourdough baguette, and Railway Nachos, which is tortilla chips smothered in reindeer chili. Downstairs, in the club car, there's finer dining with white tablecloths, fresh irises on the table and a menu that's pure Princess -- including smoked salmon quiche, grilled pork loin, fettuccini Alfredo and prime rib.
And how's this for a cocktail? The Alaskan Mosquito Bite, named after the unofficial state bird, is a blend of vodka with orange and pineapple juices and strawberry puree. You can also purchase an "all-day soda" for $5. There's complimentary coffee and tea all day.
During the trip, an "Alaska Host" points out sites of interest -- like the moment we crossed Hurricane Gulch, at 265 feet the highest bridge on the Alaska Railroad. And I have to say it was exciting when, once we arrived on the coast, we spied the storied Aleutian Islands in the distance and, closer in, scenic Turnagain Arm. I'm also happy to report that when we got to the coast, we saw several Dall sheep on rocky ledges above the highway next to the rail line.
During the last part of the trip, a Princess outfitter -- in a matter of seconds, really -- swiped our passports and credit card through a computer, handed us our cruise cards and announced, "You're all done."
Not long after, as we pulled into Whittier, we got our first glimpse of Island Princess. One journey ends, another begins.
--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor