We decided to start our trip out with a land tour and finish with an Glacier Bay Inside Passage southbound cruise that would end at Vancouver. We chose Princess Cruises because we had read many good reviews of their Alaska tours. Also after reading many reviews we were encouraged to book the land tour and ship and excursions ourselves. This saved some money and we were also able to customize our trip to our personal tastes. It was also a more intimate time for us, going out and discovering this beautiful place on our own. Our planning began over a year in advance which gave us a lot of time to read and research our trip. We found driving the roads to be very easy (be sure to check Alaska driving sites for their particular driving laws.
Our land tour started in Anchorage. We picked up a rental car closer to the hotel and away from the airport to save money (also saved money going through my employee discount site several months ahead). On our way to our hotel we saw that the Saturday Market was still going and stopped in. We enjoyed speaking to the locals and seeing their handiwork. We bought some items and went to check in at the Comfort Inn Ship Creek. We chose this hotel because of its proximity to the train station as well as reviews. We found the hotel comfortable and clean and liked having breakfast provided as this saved more money and time (the breakfast was more than ample and tasty). The staff was nice and accommodating, helping us locate a convenient pack-and-ship place and giving us directions as well as directions to some local restaurants, and we loved smelling the complimentary fresh baked cookies each evening when we returned to the hotel. Although salmon season was just starting when we were there, the hotel provides fishing poles to try your hand just outside in Ship Creek. We ate at Orso Restaurant that night, nice atmosphere, good food (I enjoyed the Cashew Crusted Halibut!) and good service. The close parking is scarce unless you want to pay a good bit for the private parking-$10-$12. There is a public parking garage but you have to walk a little farther.
The first morning we ate breakfast and checked out and headed on our driving tour of the Mat-Su Valley. We stopped at Eagle River Nature Center-a pretty place where you can walk out over the water on boardwalks and see the fish and get great views of mountains. There are some walking trails as well. Then we headed to Thunderbird Falls, an enjoyable and easy hike (about 30 min) led us to the falls. Beautiful and so peaceful. We continued from there on the Glenn Highway toward the Matanuska Glacier. I recommend a travel guide to fill you in on some of the things you will see on your road trips-my favorite-The Rough Guide to Alaska 2007 version. The scenery along the way was amazing, the glacier, although disappearing fast, was still impressive and there is a little park where you can get out and walk closer to it and get some good pictures. It was suggested by a CC reviewer to drive about 15 minutes after the glacier and we couldn't believe our eyes! We saw some of the most awesome views of our trip-beautiful snow capped mountains, pretty rivers and lakes. Breathtaking! We headed back the way we came and saw our first moose crossing the road in front of us. (Drive safely, a lot of moose get run over in the Mat-Su Valley). We had no problems, however and got onto the Parks Highway headed toward Healy where we would stay for the next 3 nights. We took a side trip into Talkeetna because we had read that some of the best views of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range could be seen there. Coming over the hill we saw an amazing view of the range. We couldn't tell which one was McKinley at that time (little did we know that it was covered by clouds then). We drove into a little pullout on the side of the road and took pictures and then continued on our way. Not too long after we spotted the range again and pulled over at a mountain view inn and cafe to get a better look. There we saw McKinley in all of its glory, the clouds had moved away and the sun was shining on the range. There was no mistaking which on was "The High One" this time-it was the most incredible thing I think I had ever seen-we were in awe. We became members of the 30% club (only about 30% of visitors ever get to see McKinley because it is so massive that it makes it own weather system and is often covered by clouds) so glad we did-I will never forget it! That is also a good reason to plan to spend about 3 days there-it will give you better odds of seeing it. We spoke to the owner of the inn-a very pleasant lady-and shopped in her little gift shop. She said that her grandmother had chosen that site to homestead because she thought it was the best view of the mountains. We continued on past Denali National Park and about 10 minutes farther to Healy and Denali Lakeview Inn where we stayed, eating some dinner at Black Diamond Grill on the way in - good variety on the menu, decent food and plenty of it, and nice folks there. We arrived and went up to the Moon Dream room and after unpacking and settling in, opened the curtains to our private balcony that overlooked a lake with the mountains behind it-so tranquil and beautiful. We kept our curtains open all the time so that would be the last view we saw at bedtime and the first when we awoke. The room was clean and very comfortable for 2 people.
The next morning we were up bright and early, ate the breakfast that was left in our rooms and headed to Denali National Park for our Tundra Wilderness Tour (the shuttles do not pick up in Healy). This was my husbands favorite activity of the whole trip! Our bus driver gave us instructions about alerting him that we had spotted some wildlife so he could stop and we were on our way. Right away we saw a porcupine, snow-shoe hares, ptarmigans, some moose and baby, caribou, then a little later some Dall sheep right by the park road, a lynx, a grizzly bear and more! We stopped and got out for scenic views as well and bathroom breaks and at the park center where we ate our boxed lunch that was provided as well as water. We headed back an saw some more things although not as much since half of the bus was napping and I think the animals were, too! We both highly recommend this as a must do! We went from our tour to the visitors center near the front of the park and attended the free sled dog demonstration. It was fun seeing how excited the dogs got to pull the sled! The visitor center was worth checking out, too, if you have time. Back to Black Diamond Grill for dinner and to bed (we slept like babies, dreaming of all the things we had seen that day).
Up again the next morning, a little more leisurely, eating the breakfast that the breakfast fairies had left in our little frig (micro in room, too). There was fresh fruits, toast and jam, cereal, oatmeal, milk, juice, hot chocolate and coffee and fixings of course and muffins which we took with us sometimes for a snack. Plenty to choose from. Then we headed on our drive to Fairbanks (about 2 hours from Healy and a very easy drive) stopping at the little Healy post office to mail post cards. There was much more gorgeous scenery and enjoyed reading our Rough Guide about different interesting things we would see along the way. When we arrived in Fairbanks we went straight to the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center and got some information on a local camera repair shop-DH had found a spot on his pictures and was very distressed! Fix Camera took good care of him! The visitor center was where we would also meet for our segway tour of downtown with EcoSeg Tours. We decided this was a good way to tour and learn and see some of the highlights of the Fairbanks downtown area. We had never ridden a segway before and after a 15 minute training session, we were off! We had so much fun riding the segways and Peggy gave a very interesting and informative tour. We highly recommend it! We got to free ride in a large grassy area afterward and zip around and just have fun. Katie with EcoSeg took pictures of us on our tour and emailed them to us. Afterward, we dropped off DH's camera and headed to the North Pole. We had a whirlwind tour and wish we could have had longer but enjoyed seeing the Santa Claus House and shopping for a bit. Then back to Fairbanks, picked up the camera (no more spot!) and on to Pioneer Park. There weren't a lot of shops open yet but we enjoyed seeing the old historic cabins that had been relocated there as well as the old Nenana Sternwheeler that was being refurbished. We visited the Alaska Aviation Museum (very interesting) and then went to the all-you-can-eat salmon and prime rib bake there. It was good (wish I could've gotten my prime done a little more) and filling but not great. Back to Healy we headed, enjoying the scenes along the way and another pleasant night's sleep.
The next morning we ate breakfast and checked out and headed to Talkeetna where we would ride in a flightplane around Mt. McKinley. We saw caribou alongside the road and more magnificent views of McKinley along the way. In Talkeetna we chose Talkeetna Air Taxi after reading reviews and because they offered the glacier landing and would work with you to reschedule or cancel with refund if the weather was bad. We were blessed to have perfect weather and off we went. The staff at TAT was so friendly and accommodating and our pilot, Tyler took very good care of us pointing out many points of interest and giving some facts and history of the range and area as well. This was my hands down highlight of the trip!! You finally get an idea of the massiveness of the mountain range when you are up in the air and so close! I was awestruck and have never seen such beauty! We flew over a base camp, around McKinley and landed on our glacier (you have to add this to your flight!). We got out and got pictures and just breathed in the air and the views and threw some snowballs. INCREDIBLE! You must save up and splurge on this flight! After we landed we ate at the Talkeetna Roadhouse-interesting menu, good food and yummy cinnamon rolls (try the Razzy)! Then we shopped at some nice shops and headed back to Anchorage and the Comfort Inn Ship Creek.
The next morning back we drove down the Turnagain Arm to Seward for our Kenai Fjords boat tour with Major Marine Tours. Another easy and very beautiful drive! Major Marine was first class and took good care of us. Right away we saw Dall porpoises, Orcas (two of them breached the water), otters and bald eagles. We went to a glacier and stayed for a little while and watched it calve. We also saw humpback whales, sea lions, mountain goats, seals, a bird rookery and more! It was awesome! The park ranger was very informative and helped us spot the wildlife and Captain Nicole invited us up to visit with her. We had the prime rib and salmon buffet and really enjoyed it with dessert a little later on the tour. (All-you-can-eat). Another great outing and highly recommend! Back to Anchorage and bedtime - slept great and didn't hear the trains any of the time we were sleeping.
The next day was a relaxing day in Anchorage, visiting the Anchorage Museum of History and Art at the Rasmusson Center. We especially enjoyed the Native Alaskan and historical exhibits but everything was interesting. We missed the Northern Lights show at the planetarium (check the show times when you get your ticket because you have to purchase it up front) and we ate at the Muse cafe - good lunch menu and we enjoyed it. Then we did some souvenir shopping around town and headed back to repack and get ready for dinner at Simon and Seafort's Saloon. Very tasty, nice atmosphere and view and great service. The restaurant will validate your parking ticket if you park at the public garage about a block and a half over.
The next morning we checked out and walked over to the train for Whittier. We reserved this independently (contrary to what the Princess customer service rep tells you, you can book independently on any travel means you wish and get on the boat. For the train, just drop your bags off with the porter and tell him your going on the cruise and next time you see your bags will be at your cabin door! And you will get off the train at the same place with everyone else, right in front of the dock. The train ride was fun although a little squished if you have any bags with you (there is not much room to store bags on the train). We chose not to do any excursions there as we wanted to get on board the ship and explore and do our first weeks worth of laundry. Embarkation was easy and we picked up a soda pass for the week (yes, they are around every corner asking if you want a pass but unintrusive - just get your cup right away and carry it around and they will see it and not ask!). We found that we didn't really save money for ourselves with the soda pass-we only filled it up about once or twice a day and got the extra milkshake pass but only got a few milkshakes but if you are going to use it and be on the ship a lot it would be worthwhile. There are some cans of soda and water in your fridge that you can purchase if you like. We would have probably been better off doing that. We explored while we waited for our luggage to arrive and got familiar with the ship - we thought it was a beautiful ship and never felt crowded. Then we did our laundry which was just down from our room on Caribe deck aft and port side (the best side for the southbound cruise). We had a balcony that was half covered and half open (we could stay under when it was rainy or misty and move out to get better pictures when it wasn't). We are so glad that we splurged for the balcony because you could look out and step out whenever you were in the room and it was awesome for Glacier Bay day. Everyone was out on their balconies and it was like a glacier and wildlife viewing party! We saw (and heard) a lot of calving at the glaciers as well as bald eagles and sea lions. Wonderful! I recommend making reservations that first day for the specialty restaurants if you are interested as they book up later on in the cruise. We ate traditional dining which was good but recommend anytime dining because it gives you more flexibility and you can make reservations and it is basically the same menu. All the waitstaff was awesome even in the Horizon Court buffet, clearing plates, bringing you drinks,etc. Our favorite things we did on the ship was the Lotus Spa Thermal Spa Pass - you can use the thermal grotto steam rooms and fog and rainshower showers and the wonderful heated loungers (we bought our pass at the beginning and did this every night before bed and slept like babies),DH and I would often take my showers here because the showers were larger and they had the shampoo, conditioner and shower gel dispensers in there as well as towels and the spa personnel gives you a robe when you check in, and a nice changing area with lockers. The women's dressing room also had its own steam room and sauna that you could use. We also enjoyed the afternoon teas (the scones are to die for!)and participated every day that we could. DH liked the photography Scholarship at Sea and was able to ask the photographers some questions he had. I got the Sole Delight Pedicure at the spa and it was great and my toenails were beautiful! We enjoyed the ventriloquist, the illusionist and the comedian shows. It was nice having different styles of music all around the ship. And we also enjoyed whale watching on the deck (bundle up! very cold!) when we went in and out of the Glacier Bay area. It was fun dressing up for formal nights and getting pictures taken (most do dress up, although some eat at the buffet and do not). There were some really good movies playing at the Movies Under the Stars but too cold (although some brave souls bundled up and got the provided blankets and watched them, the ship pops popcorn for you!). The nice thing is most of those movies played in your room later on that night and different times of the day so you could watch in comfort if you wanted.
Our ship excursions we also booked ourselves because we wanted to go in smaller groups and pick what we wanted.
Skagway-Yukon and Emerald Lake tour with Dyea Dave-they pick you up at the dock, a tour through the town and then on into the Yukon on a small van. Dave gave a lot of interesting and comical facts and history on the area and stayed ahead of the big buses. We stopped at many scenic sites such as Bridal Falls and a short shopping trip in Carcross and to get our passports stamped, and had lunch at a nice little resort along the way (get the specials-good soup!-then to the beautiful Emerald Lake and then back to Fraser where we got the White Pass and Yukon Railroad train that took us down the mountains and back to Skagway where Dave picked us up and continued the tour or dropped you off wherever you wished. We got dropped off in town and did a little souvenir shopping-cute town.
Juneau-whale watching with Harv and Marv's-we were picked up at the docks and our nice driver gave us some interesting information and pointed out things about Juneau on the way to the marina. We boarded our 6 man ship with Captain Liz and she gave us a great whale watching adventure - everyone looks out for the spray coming up from the whale's spout but it was usually Liz who spotted them. We were then able to go out on the deck or stay in the warmer cabin with windows or sit on the bow. We saw many humpbacks (some with babies) and got some great "whale tail" pictures! We also saw bald eagles and sea lions. Drink and snack were provided on board. Then we got picked back up at the marina-one couple was dropped off for a brewery tour and the rest were taken to the Mendenhall glacier-impressive! This was worthwhile as it was one of the rare chances to get really close to a glacier, they had a nice visitor center there but we did not have time to view the film about the glacier that others on the ship said was very good. Then we chose to get dropped off at the Red Dog Saloon with another couple who wanted to eat there but we went shopping for souvenirs for all the grandchildren. Juneau had some good kichy souvenir shops, one store near the docks had a big selection of Tshirts and other things and the best prices on the trip.
Ketchikan-After stopping at the visitors center to get a map and information we went to the Ketchikan post office to ship off our souvenirs (2 1/2 weeks later we still haven't received the box) then went on a quick walk through Creek Street and then a floatplane sightseeing trip of Misty Fjords National Monument with Island Wings. We were picked up in close proximity to our dock and met Michelle who took us on a fabulous ride through the monument. Gorgeous and she pointed out different things about the area as we went along and had inspirational music playing on our headphones when she wasn't talking. We could ask her questions along the way, too. We landed in a very picturesque and serene cove surrounded by the mountains and waterfalls and she took the extra time and effort to allow us to get out on a small island in the middle of the cove (this sets her apart from other tours and one of the reasons we chose her company). It was rainy at first but then the rain stopped and Michelle took pictures of us and we took all the beauty and serenity in and then loaded back up for the return trip. This was worth every penny, the flight was smooth and it was amazing scenery! We were driven back to our pick up place although our driver took others that wanted to eat lunch to his favorite eating place. We wanted to catch "The Bus" (the blue one) to Totem Bight State Park to see the totem poles. There are other places to see the totem poles but our timing allowed us to catch this bus and take the ride out. It takes about 30 minutes to get there about 45 minutes to tour the poles with a self guided tour pamphlet that tells about the totem poles and the replica clan house (impressive collection and on a nice setting on the water), and then the bus picks up an hour later and 30 minutes back. Download a schedule or ask at the visitor center right off the ship. $1.00 each way. the buses do tend to run a little bit behind when it is busy so allow time for this. Or you can visit the totem pole park as a ship excursion along with the lumberjack show which others on the ship said they enjoyed. A full and great day! One recommendation on all the small boat and flight tours - if you are prone to motion sickness take some meds about 30 minutes beforehand and if you are real prone, take another one later on. We only took one on the Kenai Fjords boat trip as recommended and we were fine. We are not super sensitive to motion sickness but did not see any others getting sick on this tour either although some teenagers had gotten ill on another whale watching trip and our floatplane trip.
The cruise to Vancouver along the inside passage was very picturesque and you could be looking out the windows or from on deck at any time and see whales, sea lions, etc. Then it was time to pack up our suitcases and place them outside our cabin after dinner and sleep. When we woke up we had just gone under the Lion's Gate bridge (wish I had awoken a little earlier to get pictures) and we were getting ready to dock. We had breakfast at Horizon Court and went down to our disembarkation point in the Pacific Moon dining room. It was a little slow but we were comfortable and they provided hot tea and coffee or water while we waited and I got out my Nook and read and DH grabbed a magazine to look at so all was well. Those that booked excursions or had early flights out got off earlier. Then through customs and waiting in a long, but fast line for a taxi to our hotel. The Blue Horizon was a nice hotel in a good location on Robson Street. The staff was nice and helpful and we were able to get an early check-in. (They will store your luggage for you if you can't check in early). The room was very roomy with a nice view of the city off our balcony. The bathroom wasn't real big but very ample for an overnight or two. We were going to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and we bought our tickets right outside the hotel and got picked up there by the free shuttle. This was a lot of fun and a very pretty place to visit (although the bridge is a little scary-it does wobble and sway-if you are afraid of heights like me! But I made it across and back and got a certificate. We went throughout all the treetop walkways and cliffhangers and then had lunch (yummy hot dogs) and headed on the public bus to Grouse Mountain-$2.50 exact Canadian change and your ticket is good for 90 minutes. The customer service center at Capilano made some change for us) We rode the tram up Grouse mountain when we got there, saw the wolves out below us and then went to the bear habitat and saw the end of the lumberjack show there. We watched the bird show - very fun and interesting information about the birds and getting to see them up close. Great views on top! We had a beaver tail and then headed back down the mountain. The ziplining looked fun but didn't have time but we did take the public bus and got off at Stanley Park and walked around a small area of it - beautiful park! Wish we had more time but we caught another bus and got off near our street and walked the rest of the way to the hotel, windowshopping at the stores on Robson St. DH wanted some italian so we looked up and found good reviews for Zefferelli's, just a block and half from the hotel. Yummy, food, plenty of it and great service. We were fortunate to get a booth but you may wish to make reservations as it looked liked it was getting pretty busy (it was a weekend day). Then to bed. Slept well, very comfortable room although a bit dark but you can open your curtains if you wish. Up the next morning for our taxi ride to the airport (they do have a rapid rail system that you can take if you don't have a lot of luggage). Vancouver is a beautiful, clean city and wish we had more than a day to visit. But off we were on our flight back home filled with memories that we will never forget!! And although we planned as if this would be our only time that we would get to go, we now know that there is so much more to do and to do again, and we have to get back to Alaska!