This cruise was in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary. We went with the idea that we would only go to Alaska one time in our lives, so we wanted to be there as long as possible. We chose a cruisetour that included a 5-day land portion before the cruise, going from Fairbanks, to Denali, to Talkeetna, to Anchorage and then to the ship. So we will start with the land portion.
We arrived a day early and flew into Anchorage so we could be in Anchorage for our anniversary. The next day we ate at the Snow City Cafe, which serves breakfast all day (awesome food!), and then rented some bikes and road the coastal trail. We are not exactly athletes, but we did manage to ride to Earthquake Park, which was about a 12-mile ride round trip. Not bad for us old folks! Then it was on to the airport and our flight to Fairbanks for the RCI land tour.
The lodging that RCI chose was very nice. We stayed at the Wedgewood Resort in Fairbanks, the Grande Denali which sits up on a mountain and overlooks the park, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge which has a grand view of Mt. McKinley out the back, and the Marriott in Anchorage. The restaurant at the Wedgewood was great, but we didn't eat at the others. The rooms were comfortable and clean, other than a slight oversight by the cleaning staff at Grande Denali--they left a dirty coffee cup and a used washcloth in the room, but no big deal.
Kudos to RCI for the excellent tour guide (Matt) and bus driver (Jim). They were outstanding. Jim was responsible for getting our luggage from one hotel to the other, and we never had to wait for luggage. By the time we reached each hotel, we were checked in and our luggage was already in the room. I'm not sure how he did that, but it was pretty amazing. He was on time for everything.
Two tours in Fairbanks were included. First, the Sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery, which was a really nice introduction to the area. Second was a trip to the museum at the local university. By that time, we were so tired that we could barely stay awake, so we only stayed for a short time and took the bus back to the hotel, had dinner, and spent the evening walking the trails behind the lodge for some much-needed exercise. We didn't take any of the optional tours in Fairbanks.
The domed train ride to Denali was awesome! The food was great in the dining car and reasonably priced. The train was definitely the way to go!
Denali was amazing, but I must admit we did not go on the natural history tour included in our tour. Everyone recommended an upgrade to the Tundra Wilderness Tour, but after a 4-hour train ride, we just couldn't bring ourselves to sit on a bus for any length of time. Instead, we took a free shuttle into the park and hiked the Savage River loop trail, which was about 2 miles. It was beautiful. And on the way back in the shuttle, we saw a caribou really close to the bus. In hindsight, we probably should have chosen a tour that spent another night in Denali. Had we done this, we would have opted for a bus ride into the park the following day. As it was, we only had a few hours the next morning before the train left at noon. We decided to take a private horseback riding tour in Healy, which was good, but we would have liked more time in the park itself. We would recommend a minimum of 2 nights in Denali for anyone taking a land tour. We ate dinner at the Salmon Bake restaurant in the little town of Denali, and the food was excellent!
Talkeetna was the cutest, quaintest little town. Unfortunately, we arrived at about 5, and the shops closed at 6. But just walking through the town was an experience all its own. It's like stepping back in time and it's wonderful. The mayor is a cat! We had dinner at the local brewery, and we were surprised that "last call" was at 8 p.m.! They said we could move to the restaurant, but the brewery section closed so the locals would have time to party. It was a hoot! Our only beef would be with the shuttle from the Talkeetna Lodge to town. The last shuttle ran at about 8 p.m., so if you went into town to eat or have a few drinks, you had to either walk back or find your own way, or get finished fast to catch their last shuttle. Fortunately, the brewery/restaurant offered a complimentary cab and all we had to do was tip the driver. The next morning, we wanted to eat breakfast at the famous Roadhouse which was featured on the Food Channel. We were a little put out that the lodge only started their shuttles at 9 a.m. We felt like the late start time and early end time was really their way of discouraging people from eating in town. That was a little tacky. But we were not to be denied and went anyway, and had a fabulous breakfast. We even saw a small herd of moose crossing the lodge driveway on our way to breakfast. We got back in plenty of time to catch our bus to Anchorage. Best part of all was that Mt. McKinley (or Denali as it is named by the Alaskans), was out in all its glory the entire day we arrived. What a treat! It was breathtaking!
Our trip to Anchorage was very scenic and lots of fun due to the great stories that our tour guide and bus driver told. We had a lot of laughs and enjoyed every minute of it. We went to the Native American Heritage Center, which was really nice. I would recommend this to anyone visiting the area for a great overview of the different tribes in Alaska. The demonstrations of native dance and Eskimo games were especially interesting, and there were local artisans there selling their own handmade items. Other than that, we only had time for dinner and a little bit of walking around the city, mostly shopping for souvenirs. We ate at Humpy's, which was featured on the Man V. Food show, and had some yummy seafood there.
The next day, we headed for the Seward to board the ship. We got there at about 1 p.m. Check-in was really fast--no line whatsoever. It was the fastest we've ever checked in for a cruise. Then we grabbed a bite to eat in the Windjammer and got off the ship for a private tour to Seavey's Ididaride. We wanted to go to this particular kennel because Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod this year. We were a little disappointed that it wasn't offered by the ship. We were going to book a tour before we left Houston for the cruise, but we had no idea what time we would arrive in Seward. For land tours, we would recommend that RCI provide more information about times so that this kind of planning can be done. As it was, along the way we discovered that our guide, Matt, knew Dallas Seavey. We asked him if he could check and see if they had any openings for us, and they did. The Seaveys had a shuttle pick us up at the terminal and they had us back by 5:30 p.m. It was one of the best tours we had. Very informative with the musher explaining how the dogs are trained and handled, and a lot of fun with the cart ride. We even got to meet Conway Seavey, who won the Junior Iditarod this year.
The cruise itself was great. Prior to this, we had only cruised in the Caribbean, so this was entirely different. There was so much to do in Alaska! We were off the ship more than we were on it. So we didn't spend our usual amount of time relaxing or sitting in the hot tub or participating in many of the ship's activities. The ports were great, the food was great, the service was great, the cruise director was great, and the shows we saw were great. But the real star was Alaska, which was AMAZING! We took the Guide's Choice Hike around the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, which was rated as strenuous, and it was! My feet were shot the next day, but it was well worth it. Juneau was our only rainy day, but still wonderful. When we got back to the visitor's center for the glacier, we went to the salmon viewing platform, and there was a mama bear and 2 cubs eating salmon. What a great surprise!
In Skagway, we took a private tour with Beyond Skagway. It was a really nice day with a little side hike that about killed me because my feet were so sore, but we went all the way into Canada, saw Carcross Desert and Emerald Lake, and then headed back to town.
In Icy Strait Point, my husband went on the Ziprider, which he absolutely loved. Then we went whale watching at Point Adolphus with Glacier Wind Tours. Now THAT was really something. There were whales in every direction. Really beautiful to see and fascinating to listen to on the hydrophone. There was also a whale bubble feeding right off the dock when we tendered in to Icy Strait!
In Ketchikan we went flightseeing over the Misty Fjords, and that was a fantastic experience. We landed on a lake in the middle of nowhere and got off the plane and onto a little rock island for a few minutes. Really cool!
It was the trip of a lifetime, and we'll definitely go back! By the way, we've cruised on several lines--Princess, Carnival, Norwegian and RCI. We always come back to RCI. Royal Caribbean, you are the best!