We took a couple days before the cruise to tour the Vancouver, BC area. We arrive from Chicago to a lovely airport about 1 hour from Canada Place ' the cruise dock.
We took a private car from Aero shuttle
Curb-side, to the right of the glass doors. Look for the brown podium. $60 for limo, $50 for SUV going to Canada Place. Very nice driver. Took about 1 hour with heavy traffic and lots of red lights. Took credit card with hand-held device, very easy. For 4 of us it was cheaper than the train, but the train might have been faster.
Fairmont Waterfront Hotel
Nicole was very nice in check in. 'rented' bikes and toured Stanley Park and waterfront from Canada Place. The concierge, Lucas, was very helpful with locating a correct cell phone charger for us. Check out and luggage service to the cruise ship was fast and efficient. Tyler, bell hop was super nice. He comes in and checks your boarding pass and passports, helps with tags, and takes the luggage in a truck through customs for you. He said they would arrive on board about 3pm, it was 4-ish. When we checked out the bill amount was different than my reservation. When I asked at the front desk what the difference was she said it was an additional tax of $5/day. They also round up. They don't give you back or except 1 cent coins. So if the bill was .99 and you gave them a dollar bill, you would not get back the penny. I guess with the additional tax we are paying for their national health care system.
Nice location, walked from Canada Place. Had a window view which was lovely. Good seafood chowder. Very good burger, really good and large. The staff is friendly.
Fly Over Canada
Similar to California Adventure at Disney. After multiple lines and long waits you are ushered into a 10 minute standing multi-screened slide and movie presentation on two walls in a large room. Flashing mini lights can't help this weirdly compiled films of men jumping off buildings, walking through woods, a little girl in a wheat field with her grandfather, and a group of folk singers. What do they have in common? Nothing! What a waste of time Then you walk into another staging area to line up on circles and see a safety video on the mail fly over presentation. You walk either up 10 stairs or down and sit in a suspended seat. You are buckled in. It is very well done. This portion is like Disney. Great scenery ' it is Canada! But they failed to show some truly spectacular areas, like Banff, Jasper, Calgary, and the Alberta Mountains. It is not worth $22.
Prince of Whales Ultimate Day Tour
Check in at 8am. 90% of the group was there on time. Wilma, our naturalist, did wait for a family that was late, to start the briefing in the lounge area of the Westin Bayshore, down the hall from their office. The lemon infused water in the lobby was fantastic. The boat pushed off on time. In the bay they gave us a safety briefing. After the no-wake zone it was full speed ahead into the wind and even though there were no waves it was very bumpy. It stayed bumpy and cold (upper deck) for the 2 hour crossing, until you get between the islands. Then another 2 hours of cold, breezy ride. It got colder as we reached Victoria and a large fog bank. We did not see any whale, but the captain, Gavin, tired very hard to locate a Minke whale he heard about by Trails point. The boat was very clean Anthony, Wilma and Gavin were genuinely friendly and kind and tried to locate wildlife along the way. But, it was cold despite our layering of clothing and the 70 degree temps and sunny skies. At Victoria we opted to take the second, 2:20 bus. We walked (15 minutes) to Fisherman's Wharf as they said there was a fish and chips place. Barb's Fish and chips had a 25 minute long wait in line, so we ate next door at the Fish Store and got an excellent piece of halibut, fried, coleslaw in about 10 minutes. Also the Mexican place was very good with each dish made to order, from scratch. Ordered chicken and cheese burritos which was very good. You eat outside on picnic benches. Some of took the $5 shuttle back to 'downtown' and some walked quickly back to catch the 2:20 bus. We found Victoria not as pretty as imagined and very crowded. The waterfront was a mix of junkie vendors, cheap crafts with tents, and old, (not well maintained) buildings. The drive through downtown was like any bug city. There were beautiful baskets of flowers on every lamppost, but it was just a city. The double decker bus was clean but the driver was dull and boring. 75% of the bus feel asleep on the way to Butchart Gardens. Butchart Gardens was wonderful. For those who said 45 minutes was enough time to see the gardens are crazy. We strolled through the entire gardens with an occasional stop to smell the roses and pose for photos or 50, and it took longer than 45 minutes. It was hot in the rose garden, but we found shade and cooler temps the rest of the way. The sunken garden and Japanese were our favorites. Everyone said it wasn't a busy day, and there wasn't a parade of people on the path, so it was much more enjoyable than some visits. Just amazing flowers, shrubs trees, paths and waterfalls. Make sure to pick up a product guide. In late July almost every flower in the guide was in bloom. The boat ride back was not as crowded. Thinking it was going to be bumpy and cold we opted for seats inside the boat. WRONG. It was such a smooth ride!!! And we saw Orcas. The captain said if no one had to catch a flight he could go a little bit out of the way to locate Orcas. The crew really wanted us to see the whales. We were not disappointed. About 45 minutes back a pod of 5 entertained us for about 20 minutes. There were 5 other boasts floating along the same area of straight watching the family. A male, female and 1 year olds were swimming powerfully through the area. It was fantastic!! One hour later we were back at the marina, by 7:40pm. The crew were genuinely happy for us, that we got to see the whales. Anthony said he would e-mail us some of the photos he took of the whales from our trip, and he did. When I got home Anthony's e-mail was waiting for me. Thank you!!!
Took a taxi to get there before the free bus loads arrived. Well worth the money. We had the place to ourselves for about 1 hour. Especially walking across the suspension bridge. There was a long line to just get on the bridge as we were leaving. Start at the back and work forward. We did have a wait at the cliffwalk but you can loop around and the second time was less crowded. A must see.
Al Porto Ristorante
Half way down an ally in the basement of a building is a charming restaurant with really pompous staff. We had a window view of the train tracks and the engine of the 6:20 train to Seattle. Food was mediocre. Pasta served is al dente whether you like it crunchy or not. Prices weren't bad and the bread was good.
Hudson House Souvenirs
Thought I would try the Canada True Dark chocolate Icewine because of it's history. Had to have been at least a year old chocolate bar. $4.99 plus 25% GST tax = $5.24 and tasted terrible. Beware of old candy.
Pita Express ' food court
Downstairs of Fairmont Waterfront was the best breakfast food around. It is a little hard to find. It is tucked into a corner around from McDonald's; towards the Canada Place underground walkway. Real eggs, any way you want them with fresh fruit ' berries, melon all for $7.95.The man was always pleasant and accommodating. He even sold us a case of water when the other stores in the area said no! He tape it us for us to ship with our bags to the cruise ship.
SATURDAY - We walked across the street to the terminal at 11:30am and was through customs, health card form, re-check of boarding passes and passports, room key and map distribution, cruise photo, room key photo and security swiping the card in less than one hour. All inside with lots of places to sit ' if needed. Jerry, our steward, was supper nice and explained the room. The bathroom is tiny. The closet spans the entire length of the bed wall ' huge! Hidden shelves behind a full length mirror with a large safe. Phone, hair dryer on the desk. We had aft room A751 and A749 so he put the divider down between the room on the balcony. Deck chairs were very uncomfortable. They were either too far back or straight up and down for weird back support. We explored the ship. Very clean, and every crew member was friendly. Especially the first day they would ask if they could assist us' we must have looked lost.
At the Horizon Buffet there was mandatory hand sanitizer stations, with crew watching before entering. A couple of stations for hot meat, sides and cold salads and toppings. Fruit which was always delicious and a separate dessert buffet with cakes, pies, puddings, etc.
We had a muster drill at 3:15pm on deck 7F. All very professional and serious with our safety in mind. Lots of crew around for questions and very organized. They checked everyone's room key to make sure you attend. There is another muster drill for those who may have missed this one later in the day.
The luggage arrived while we were out. Jerry also put egg cartons on our beds, re-making them for us and left two chocolates on the pillows. We unpacked in about one hour with plenty of hangars in the closet, shelves and drawers. We found there was enough shelves and counter space in the bathroom. We brought anti-slip material for the table tops and counters. We also brought two extension cords to be able to charge phones and camera batteries. One by the TV and one on the desk to run an alarm clock.
We had signed up for 5:30pm dinner seating for 4 (with friends) in the International DR. By 6pm they had not taken our order. By 6:30pm our appetizers and salads had only arrived. Looking at the others in the dining room, most were finishing their main entrees. We didn't want to miss sail-away so we informed Benjamen and Marco to cover our meal when it did arrive. We returned to find others at the table had finished their entr'e and ours was still warm. It was very good, but we could not understand why it would take 1 ' hours to get a meal. We were here to see the scenery, not the inside of a dining room. They apologized and continued to give multiple excuses.
As the sun set the sky turned pink and house lights on the islands started to lit up the dark forests.
SUNDAY ' We knew the sailing day would be boring, unless you wanted to see demonstrations, talks, jewelry shows, eat or go to the casino. We walked a mile on the promenade deck, keeping watch for whales, eagles, seals. We did see a family of porpoises, orcas and lots of loons.
We went for breakfast in the International DR, but sat by the window. Order off the menu and again waited 45 minutes to be served. OK ' we learned our lesson. Even when it is not busy it's a leisurely meal. For some that is just fine, but for us it was a waste of time.
Lunch we sat by the window in the Horizon Buffet. I think the food is good. Tried the chocolate sauce over a brownie ' to die for!! Continually watching for wildlife, it turned cloudy, foggy, misty and chilly.
The boat does rock even though it is in the inner passage. It is more like short shakes like airplane turbulence; not the up and down, nauseous kind of movement.
MONDAY ' Ketchikan ' Sunny! Wow! Arrived on time and departed to wait for Family Air excursion to Anan Creek and bear watching. We arranged this on our own, not through Princess. W called Dave Rocke at 6:30am to let him know we were early. No answer on the phone, but went to voice mail. He didn't call back. At 7:15am, the scheduled pick up time we called again, and it went to voice mail. Just as I was leaving a message the van pulled up. It drove right past us. So we walked back towards the boat to get in. If they had answered or listened to thei messages, they would have know it us the four of us on the street corner waiting for them. It took longer to get into the SUV then to drive to their office. It was 50 yards from the front of our boat. Took off for a quick 45 minute flight to Anan Creek. Landed and got the safety briefing from the National Forest Ranger. A beautiful 20 minute hike through a lush rain forest to the observation deck. It would have been a more enjoyable walk if we could have stopped to listen to nature, but not knowing of there was a bear around the corner you have to keep moving and make noise the entire time. Once there you have the option to sing up for 30 minute time slots for the lower observation deck. We actually saw more bear activity on the upper deck then below. But if a bear does come to feed in the stream below, you are right on top of them in the lower blind. Also the eagle activity from the upper deck is unbelievable. The eagles fly right up the stream, all day long, feeding, flying, fighting, perching on rocks and trees, right in front of you. There were over 10 eagles in the area at one time. All morning long! We saw 10 black bears with a new female that the rangers had never seen before. There was also a brown female, Bridget, with her 2 cubs playing near the mouth of the creek, in a flat sandy area where there was a another 6 eagles. Right at 11:45am (on time) Dave showed up and we flew back to Ketchikan. After we arrived we asked if they could drop us off at Creek Street. We quickly walked up and down the famous street, saw salmon activity and made it to the ship for 1:30 all aboard. We found the staff of Family Air not very friendly or extra helpful or informative, but were flown to Anan Creek safely and on time. The National Forest Rangers were careful and observant of our safety and bear activity. They made sure we could get to the outhouse safely, if needed.
Sapphire Princess Ship In General
I can't find a lot of bad things to say about the ship or the crew. The minute you get on board you know you made the right decision. Very clean, everything sparkles, no worn carpeting. Friendly and helpful crew. Jerry, our steward, a gem! We did find the deck chairs uncomfortable and at first glance the stateroom very small. Again, first cruise, comparing it to hotel rooms. After a week it didn't seem so small and we were not in the room that much. Loved the AFT views from our own private balcony. We didn't have to stand elbow to elbow with strangers on the deck. We could see from side to side as well as behind when looking for whales. There was never a breeze to cool you (in Alaska a good thing), we were protected from the cold air as the boat moved. We saw both sides of the channel and cruising North the moon glow (looking South) over the water at night was beautiful.
By the third day we were experts on finding the right deck and elevator/stairway to use. The toilet is an air pressure system. It sucks everything down the drain. We never found the stateroom or bathroom smelly. We feel they could have made the shower a little bigger and the shower curtain a couple inches wider. We did bring clips to weigh down the bottom of the shower curtain and it stayed in the stall better Water pressure was good as well as temperature setting with the lower nozzle.
The refrigerator in the cabinet with the door attached makes it hard for the unit to cool itself. There is no circulation of cooler air or holes for the heat to escape from inside the cabinet.
We brought two extension cords. One was very helpful as we used it to plug in a cell phone we used as an alarm clock. One on the desk and one behind the TV for charging batteries.
We chose 5:30pm dinner seating in the International Dining Room. A few times that time conflicted with the best times to view whales or scenery. But we didn't want to eat at 8pm because it is too late. A lot of times we just ate at the Horizon Buffet. They served a lot of the same entrees as the sit down places and we could eat as quickly or slowly as we wanted and still could see outside.
I now know I could never go on an over the ocean cruise. Two days at sea was plenty for me. The over night sailing from glacier Bay to College Fjords (by afternoon) was too rocky. The ship swayed and it wasn't even high seas. I did not get sick, it was just a light headed feeling as the boat swayed.
I think it was Thursday dinner there was three forms of veal. That was over kill on veal really didn't leave room for another option in meat in the trays at the buffet. That was a salad night for us.
Friday's lunch at the Horizon buffet had over ten types of fish. Spicy salmon dip on crackers, mousses, white salmon, king salmon, red, fried, smoked, baked, saut'ed, hot or cold and a sushi bar. That was my favorite lunch. Tried everything and everything was fantastic!
We tried the pizza. It was ok, but not over the top great as some described.
The wildlife and scenery were our entertainment. We did not go to any shows in the evening. Thursday night we saw multiple breaching whales and tail slapping. We did scan the horizon for hours, that was our entertainment.
If I cruise again, I would get a min-suite. There would then be more room to sit inside. It also looks like they have nicer lounge chairs outside. I did like the AFT balcony views. When leaving a port, the bays or fjords we had a personalized view of the scene. We didn't have to stand shoulder to shoulder on the cold decks to see the view. If it is rainy you also have that protection to see the view.
TUES ' Juneau
The boat arrived early.
Juneau Rental Car
Nice customer service. Easy to walk to from the dock and had no problems with the car. A little old model year car, but clean and worked fine.
The visitor center had a really nice movie with great photos. Nice presentations and displays of wildlife, glacier facts and you were allowed to touch a 200 year old piece of ice. They 'harvest' it about every other day and display it to touch. There is an admission fee and you are given a wristband. I did notice some people did not pay and were not wearing a band to walk on the paths. Really people?? Shame on you! The paths were well maintained. The path to Nugget Falls turned into sand and seemed to be the more popular hike. The end opens up into a large sandy beach right next to the falls. Some people climbed on the rocks next to the falls, or just lounged in the sand. Great view of the glacier from across the water. The buses started to arrive as we were leaving and it was getting more crowded. Go early because it is a very popular place.
Shrine of St. Therese
The entire area was peaceful and spiritual. The chapel was beautiful. We walked the stations of the cross and each was well appointed in their 'own space'. Around rocks and trees, with great views of the bay. Huge evergreen trees surrounding the area. We walked along the coast as we heard their was whale sightings in the channel. We did not spot any of them.
Drove to Eagle Beach. The tide was low and the shore was really far out ' away from the parking lot. So the birds were a long distance away from the street. With binoculars we saw eagles. Some flew over us to get to the trees on the other side of the highway. It was worth the drive out there. Wish we could have stayed longer or had time to hike the shoreline.
Lunch at Utter Culture. Great homemade old-fashioned chicken noodle soup and Potato Chowder. The chili dogs were huge and loaded with toppings. The ham and swiss cheese sandwiches were very good. You get free refills on fountain drinks. The staff was very friendly. It was kind of hard to find. There is not a sign on top of the building only in the window which you can not see from the road. Look for the library sign. It was busy with a steady stream of customers, mostly locals. Nothing fancy, but good food.
Macauley Salmon Hatchery
This was a very interesting stop on our touring of Juneau. Outside were fish ladders that salmon jump up to be counted, harvested or released, dependent on the type of salmon they are. there were thousands waiting their chance to swim up the ladder. Most are released back into the ocean to return back next year. Inside the hatchery they had a large Alaskan fish aquarium and gift shop with samples. Worth a quick stop.
Drove across the bridge to Douglas Island to take photos of Mendenhall Glacier and Juneau from across the channel.
Water Flume Trail Hike
Wound our way up the streets of Juneau to Bristol Road to the water flume trail hike. Wonderful stands of trees shading an easy, flat, planked trail, except where nature has covered it with rock slides. Peaceful, delicate waterfalls join the stream below with tinkling sounds among the quiet of nature only a couple blocks from downtown Juneau. I am sure it is different in the spring with water running down the steep hillside under the flume. The flume is covered with huge boards that form the trail.
WED ' Skagway
We had an 8:30am Skagway Yellow Taxi tour. Our driver and tour director was Charity. Charity was an actress, dressed up in old fashioned clothes who gave the running commentary of the tour. Charity was very likeable and friendly, but her 'schtick' didn't sit well with us. We didn't find her humor funny. We wished the 90 minutes was filled with more facts and less jokes. We first viewed the other docks on the bay for 10 minutes, which was a waste of time. Then RV Parks ' who cares? Main Street was fine. Overlook was ok. You could see the very cute town below with their international airport. Her house ' again, who cares? It was one of the nicer homes in town, so she must get good tips. She did tell us of their winter activities which was perfect because that is the kind of stuff you can't get in books. But 90 minutes is way too long. The Gold Rush Cemetery had hokey speeches on the crooks buried there. Way too much drama for our taste. The vehicle was clean and well maintained. You couldn't take a photo of any of the buildings because she drove to fast past them. Take a walking tour instead; the town isn't that big.
We bought tickets for the 12:30 train of the White Pass Yukon Railway. We bought our tickets on line and it said to pick them up that morning. We walked the 20 minutes to the train station from our ship that morning. We waited in line to find out you needed your passport to pick up the tickets. It did not state anywhere in the paperwork to bring the passports to PICK UP the tickets. We understood we needed it for the trip, but not to pick up the tickets. The train station was way too confusing. No one knew anything. With three different trains leaving at almost the same time and tour groups with different colors trying to stay together it was unorganized. Who is in charge? They said they would make an announcement at 12:15 for the 12:30 train. There were blue groups, purple groups, etc. signs and announcements, but no sign for the White Pass Frasier Rail ticket holders. After asking 4 of the staff, one finally said to stand at Purple. Just put it on the ticket and we would wait where you wanted us to wait. It was a beautiful sunny day to take the train trip. The train was clean and comfortable. They handed out cool bottled water to anyone who wanted it. We saw mountain peaks of every possible mountain around. Our platform was the most crowded of the ones we could see. Men standing in everyone's way, and refusing to move. The vistas were great. I can see why this is the most popular attraction. A couple of steps and you just sit there! It was interesting to see the original trail of the Gold Rush. How difficult the terrain was for those men on foot. The photo platforms need to be 3 times as large. We were glad we didn't do the round trip (Beyond Skagway driving tour on way back). The commentary was excellent with the upcoming views and the voice was very understandable and clear.
When I called Beyond Skagway Tours they suggested we take the train up to Frasier and drive to the Yukon and back to Skagway. What a great idea! After the train ride up to Frasier Kevin picked us up as planned and drove us to Emerald Lake, past Carcross and over the Yukon border. Kevin was a delight! A truly genuine nice guy. Very informative with interesting tidbits and fun facts. We stopped at all the turnouts worth stopping for photographs of the beautiful vistas. He patiently took photos of our group as many times as we wanted. Great scenery, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, flowers! Definitely the way to see beyond Skagway. Kevin drove us back down toward Skayway, almost to Dyea to see if the whales were in the channel. Just a couple of seals, but no whales. The 5 hours flew by. Kevin was safe, respectful, funny, friendly and got us through customs (twice) fast. We can't say enough good things about him and our tour with him. He told us about the hikes he has been on, his aspirations, and his many projects on his house and property. A real down to earth guy and we wish him the very best!!!
Debarkation was well organized. The night before you receive instructions on luggage tags and times/location. Everything from 6:15am to 9:45am you may have to be leaving the ship. You must leave your room by 8am. You also receive your final statement. You can print out a statement at any time from the kiosk near the customer service desk. Our scheduled time was 8:45am in the Savoy dinning room. The room was right next to the exit ramp. We arrived about 8:15am and it was half filled. About 8:50 they called our group, scanned our cards at security and ran through the sheets of rain to get to the first covered walkway. It was raining sideways in Whittier. I guess this is a normal occurrence. You will get wet even if you are prepared. The walkway is not 100% covered ' not with the rain and wind we had. You then enter a large building and look for your sign. They check you off another list and assign you a bus. Off to our land portion of the trip.
Kaitlyn was our perky coach driver/ tour guide. We got a safety briefing on the motor coach and we were off to wait in line for the tunnel. 20 minutes after we got through the tunnel we stopped at the Wildlife Conservation Area. What a nice surprise. Moose, bear, elk, lynx, eagles all close up. A must stop even in the rain! 90 minutes after that we arrived at Kenai Princess Lodge and met the manager. He hops on the bus to welcome us and explains the set up of the lodge. He was very nice and it was a nice personal touch. The lodge is situated on 40 acres above the Kenai River. Buildings 100 to 700 are up one lane. Rooms 800 and up are scattered up the hill. We were in room 805. It was a great suite. Clean, comfy sofa and chairs and a table. The furniture was rustic looking but new. There was a free standing fireplace with plenty of wood provided. The room smelled of cedar. The nicest room we will have for the all of the Princess hotels. The hotel is isolated and in the middle of nowhere. There are two nature trails. One is 5 mile long and the other one 1 mile. There is another hike down to the river with a couple vantage points coming off the main trail.
We had lunch at Eagles Crest Restaurant. Kyle and Jessie waited on us promptly with a smile. Good food. Huge burger, large portion of salmon sliders and halibut tacos.
Dinner at Rafter's Lounge. The half portion salad was enough for a light dinner. The KPL salad and panzanella salad and Caesar salads with grilled shrimp were good too. The bison chili came in a huge bowl. Calamari appetizer was very good. If it had been warmer and sunnier we would have eaten on the deck. Oh and their Alaskan mixed drinks ' virgin or not ' were good too.
SUNDAY ' Kenai Fjords tour
The bus left at 9am for a one hour ride to Seward. It was raining but the town was very cute with a seaside main street. Clean cute stores lined the marina with a mix of fishing boats, sailboats and tour boats. We were assigned the Glacier Explorer. Two decks with comfortable chairs with tables. 11am we push off. About one hour into the cruise they serve chicken Caesar wraps, carrots and a granola bar. Later we got free hot chocolate (or coffee) and fresh baked cookies. Snacks, candy and other drinks were reasonably priced. It was cold and rainy with low clouds all day. We never saw the tops of any mountains. We did see humpback whales, sea otters, harbor seals, all sorts of birds and of course the glaciers at the end of the fjords. The crew, Kate, Tommy, Nick and the captain Steve did a good job to make us feel safe and welcome. We felt Captain Steve truly loved his job and tried his best to locate whales, etc. for us to see.
Dinner at Eagles Restaurant was fantastic. Halibut (2 different ways), seared scallops were excellent. 3 different types of sauces for each dish. Amazing! Salmon chowder was great! Way too much food to have room for dessert ' even though the blackberry pie sounded delicious!
Breakfast at Eagle's Crest. The waiter was half asleep and not very accommodating. Same old selections.
Bus pulled up at 8:45am. Most of us were lined up at 8:30am, ready to leave. Kind of a too quiet hotel. Very clean and nice but too remote. Dan came on the bus with his dog, Bella, to say good-bye. Left at 9am with a 2 hour drive to Anchorage. 2 hours to spend in Anchorage, and then 3 hour drive to McKinley Wilderness Lodge. We arrived at 4pm.
We stopped at 11:45 in Anchorage in front of the Egan Center. Right across from the Town Square, a small park with beautiful flowers and fountains. We walked to Alaska Experience and saw two shows. Alaska Experience and Earthquake of 1965. Both were just okay. Nice scenery in the Alaska movie. The earthquake experience was strange. The mounted seats were more annoying than adding anything to the movie. We did see the beginning of the Northern Lights movie, and that looked more enjoyable. The displays were the most interesting. Viewed some murals along the walk back to the bus. The 2 hours went quickly.
We had time to eat in the foodcourt of the 5th Avenue Mall. There was everything. Had a quick look in the store, Alaska Wildberry, but the line was too long and we didn't have the time.
Easy check in at the McKinley Wilderness Lodge. The room was very nice (1602), very clean. Did find a mosquito, or did the Mosquito find me? in the room. We got a welcome package with the itinerary for tomorrow and the train assignment. Building 1600 is right along the road to leave the lodge. All the buses, trucks, cars drove by, all evening long.
Dinner at 20,320. Pizza was good. Veggie panini was good too. Berry pie was good but not home-made.
The registration desk was loaded so I went to the Tour Desk. Aaron Snyder said they don't handle the Denali call list, but called the desk for me after I told him the line at the front desk was 30 deep. That was above and beyond his duties. Thank you! Also found out that a large camera bag will fit under the train seat.
We sat on the deck waiting for the mountain to show. Interesting to hear other's stories on whether they have seen it or not? Will it show tonight? We also sat around the fire pit. That was fun. Can buy marshmallows for toasting!
The morning (7am) was very foggy and chilly. The bags needed to be out by 7:30 even though they weren't picked up until 8:30.
Breakfast was good; veggie omelet with fresh spinach. The juice glasses were larger, like a medium size milk glass compared to the previous lodge (and ship) for the same price. Denali, the mountain, finally started to appear, just as we needed to board the bus to Talkeetna and the train. The station is a small building on a long paved roadway about 1 hour away. We waited for the train about 55 minutes. We would have preferred to wait on the deck of the lodge and the beautiful vista than along a roadway with bus fumes. Boarding the train was easy as seats were already assigned. Had to show a photo ID to board. Drink service was at your seats. Meal service by appointment was downstairs. Live commentary for the entire trip by Helen. She had fun stories to tell. They did not allow the large camera bag on board with a couple of other larger rollies. They stowed them in a small compartment right by the door. We had Chena Club car ' Row 16 ABCD. The car was actually Holland's car, not Princess. So far the left side, seats AB, were the better side for sites along the river. The windows are large and you can see views from either side. The ride was fairly smooth and quiet with a large comfortable area for your legs and feet. There was the ability to climb over the person sitting next to you without disturbing them. We did notice that towards the back of the car it was nosier with plate/meal service noise. And towards the front the blender noise for mixed drinks was prominent. Abby was our drink server. Smoothies were $4.75 and very good. There is a total of 22 rows, 4 across.
Clyde and Mary Lovels have lived in the middle of nowhere for decades. They still come out to wave to the train as we pass. Mary has written two books on her life in the wilderness and can be purchased on the train.
The buses to the Denali Lodge took just minutes. We got the welcome package on the train. We walked to Wolf H 206. They give you a map of the complex. The stairs to the second floor were worn and very dirty. The keys did not work for the east side of the complex. Quickly rectified by a cheerful woman from the first floor office area. Thank you! The rooms had new carpets, but the rooms keep getting smaller. The window was large and opened fully. If I was not on a tour, I do not know if I would book a room here. The next room's shower (as yours is) is right on your wall with little insulation between. So you hear when they are taking a shower ' and it is loud. The doors close automatically so they slam shut. The grounds are beautiful and clean, but the buildings are right on the highway so you get road noise, even though the highway wasn't that busy. If your building is near the lodge you get bus engine and back up noises. And what I really did not like was there was only one wastebasket in the room. I know! Really??? The shopping and hotel area was safe with walking paths to the main lodge, etc.
Dinner at King Salmon Restaurant. Huge restaurant with pleasant views. Justin was our really fun and funny waiter. Food was excellent. Halibut was great, coconut halibut appetizer was very good ' huge portion for an appetizer. Salmon salad was huge. Sirloin tasty and not fatty. Ate too much for dessert.
Breakfast at the King Salmon Restaurant took forever. Michele finally came to our table 10 minutes after we were seated, with no water, no coffee, no juice. Menus is the same as other Princess breakfast menus. NO surprises, good food. They had no regular tea. The entire complex was out of regular tea. Then it took 10 minutes for Michelle to take payment after we were done. 1 hour for breakfast? 10 minutes for the first greeting? We saw other waiters at their tables. Where did Michelle hide?
Noticed a tear in my luggage. I had duct tape so I patched it. Then when I went to pick up the bag I noticed that the top handle was torn off. The front desk gave me a claim form to contact Princess when I returned home. This wasn't a good morning at the Denali Princess Lodge. Luggage was suppose to be out at 8:30; picked up at 9:35. This was okay with us. We could finish breakfast, brush our teeth and pack the brushes back in the luggage.
Eielsen Shuttle in Denali National Park
Took the Denali Taxi at 5:30am to the Wilderness Access Center in Denali NP. The driver was on time and very talkative. The 6am shuttle to Eielsen Visitor Center left on time. We opted out of the Princess Natural History (see nothing) tour of Denali. It was $99 and only went 17 miles into the park. Our original schedule trip was for 1pm. Wanting to see as many animals as possible we knew the early bus was the way to go. The shuttle was $44 each and we got to see 66 beautiful miles in the cool morning. We saw ' in order of appearance ' a porcupine, ptarmigan, moose, bear, momma brown bear and cubs carefree running in the meadow, caribou and wolf (wolf stalking the caribou) more caribou, more bears. All animals were within 100 yeards of the road (except for momma bear and cubs). We also saw Dall sheep up on the mountain tops (tiny dots). As we heard the Princess tour only saw a moose. Polychrome Overlook was fantastic with the morning sun enhancing the colors of the hills. And Stony Hill, our first great view of the mountain, was magnificent. Breath-taking views! The mountain stayed fairly clear for us the entire time we were at the Eielsen Visitor Center. What great viewpoints and display at the center. Wish we could have stayed here all day. But, after a quick bite to eat (brought our own sandwiches) in an inside eating area, we were back on the bus (#559 with Mike Riggenbach) for the journey back. Mike was very good with pointing out the campgrounds, stream crossings, mountains in the distance and updates on how long until the next stop. 1 hour and 20 minutes goes by fast. He was patient to let us view and photograph the animals and when others did not return on time. He was courteous, friendly, polite and safe and very likeable. It is very important to go early ' you can sleep at home. We saw 7 moose in one spot, but on the way back (in the afternoon) there were not any. The day we were there was sunny and dry, which makes the road very dusty. If you plan to hike along the road you may want to be prepared for the dry, dusty conditions. The bus seats were comfortable, not like school bus bench seats.
I did not like the rooms in the lodges did not have irons. With all this packing and unpacking things get wrinkled.
Overall, the staff was very friendly and helpful ' waiters, drivers, tourguides, bell hops, not a dull one in the bunch. They all seem to love what they do and living in Alaska!
Bus to Fairbanks was on time with Jeff as the driver. An unexpected stop at Neenana Cultural Center, gift shops, and bathrooms for 20 minutes (turned out to be 30 minutes). Then we got dropped off downtown Fairbanks, not the hotel. Stopped at Golden Heart Plaza for one hour. We ate at the River City Caf' and sat outside. You can access it from either street. Good soup and meatball sandwich and French dip. Desserts looked really good.
Walked towards the river walk and Yukon Quest. It was really nice and informative for a quick stop. The staff love their dogs and were very friendly. You can meet the mushers, and sled dogs. You can donate money and buy a dog shoe and they will tell you which team will be wearing your shoe. Good Luck!! Run Fast!!
Arrived at the Princess Fairbanks Lodge. Looked new from the outside. This lodge is least 'Alaskan' of the 4 Princess lodges we stayed at. It is bright and cheery on the inside. The room was simple but clean. Larger, much larger than the Denali PL. New carpet, old and low light lamps. No overhead light in the main area of the room. Fairly small window, but did open up to a green area. At 10:30pm heard a helicopter land. Then a few minutes later a small plane taking off. But the window was open. When we closed the window it was quieter from the airport noises. But at 6am heard a jet engine taking off.
We didn't hang around the hotel much. The sitting area was in front, by the parking lot and bus drop off area.
UAF Museum of the North
Excellent historical and art museum. Great displays ' some hands-on. The sounds of the day room was a very interesting experience. Great views with the university being built on a hill overlooking the beautiful valley. Haze from the wild fires made it difficult to see the mountains in the distance. This museum is not for the very young and please don't bring them as it spoils the experience for others.
Terrible service, okay food. This place was recommended by the driver and we were so disappointed. 20 minutes to get a drink order and bread, even though the waiter saying it was coming. Good salad and mediocre pizza. Good halibut and seafood pasta. We sat outside, it was a beautiful evening. Occasionally you would hear a bus rumble by. It took another 10 minutes to get the check picked up. Nice guy, but overwhelmed with just ' tables filled.
Sad to say but the previous reviews were right on. A nice piece of property that is under used. Less then 20 cars in the parking lot and they were having a car show the afternoon we went. The Salmon Bake did not look like it was worth the $29 charge. It was more picnic fare. It is kind of different to sit outside on picnic benches around large tables with strangers.
Hertz Fairbanks Airport
The counter woman was very good. Helpful, friendly. Felt like we were gold members,
Bus to the Riverboat/Gold Dredge day left on time. Jill was our driver. Talked about the Riverboat staff really enjoying their jobs. The fire from the Steward River 2 by the Chena Hot Springs caused such a large smoke cloud that the sun was cut out this morning.
The Gold Dredge and Riverboat is owned by the same person, Charles M. Brinkley. They try to keep up high standards. It is called 'touristy but not cheesy.'
George was our tour director on the train that takes you to the gold dredge area. George has been with them for 14 years, and 18 years in Fairbanks. The train ride was short and very interesting. You learn about the gold extracting history of the area. George was a great aerator and host of our group. You could tell he loves his summer job. We had a couple of hours to pan for gold, shop, eat free cookies and hot beverages, tour on our own the gold dredge itself and the old appliances around the building. Mikayla helped us ship a couple things home that we purchased. Our suitcases were too filled for anything else, so this worked out great. (And they did arrive home!) We also got information on the pipeline that runs through the property. I learned a lot that I didn't know about the oil pipeline itself and its impact on the Alaskan economy. We then took a bus ride to the Riverboat.
When we got to the Riverboat loading area we were served lunch family style of cheese ale soup, beef stew, rolls, butter, pasta salad, brownie, water or ice tea. Our hustling waitress, Becca, re-filled buckets of stew and rolls as well as pitchers of tea. She never stopped moving! It is all-you-can-eat. It was very good.
We bought a few t-shirts and the girl that helped us was very personable. Very nice, not just a cashier which was a nice change of pace.
Then off to the Riverboat. I was so surprised ' I actually liked this! A nice, smooth ride down the Chena River. Viewing beautiful houses, a float plane demonstration, and the Susan Butcher dog kennel. The riverboat turns around where the Tenana River and Chena Rover converge. The boat stops at the Athabascan Village. The boat splits up into three separate groups that view 3 different parts of the Athabascan history. Darcy, an 18 year old Athabascan and Alaskan Eskimo, made the demonstrations fun and entertaining. She was so poised and intelligent. Easy to immediately like her! There were husky puppies to pet, caribou to view, and Susan Butcher's husband, David Monson, sat and signed their book. Such a touching story. This is not a tour for the young. They cannot run around anywhere and need to be silent so others can enjoy the commentary. But I ate my words. I can't believe I had a great time today in Fairbanks! The Charles Binkley family does a fantastic job, on all levels, on the excursions!!
Cookie Jar Restaurant
Off the beaten track and kind of out of the way but it is worth the drive. Extensive menu and this evening they had halibut that had not been frozen. As a special. Excellent! The halibut burger had two filets on a bun, beef stroganoff was good and a huge chef's salad. We feel bad that we didn't get a dessert. The home-made chocolates looked delicious and large selection of DARK chocolate pieces.
Alaskan Tails of Tundra with Mary Shields
Mary Shields came to Alaska at 21 and tells of her life and love of dogs in her garden and home. She was honest and unassuming, peaceful and pleasant, and very interesting. First she introduces you to her dogs (and puppies). They run around and jump all over the kids in the group. She shows you her garden and kennels. She invites you into her lovely home for cake and punch and tells of her tales of Alaska. Her adventures sound magnificent! A not to be missed adventure in Fairbanks. It is hard to find her home, but harder to leave. She makes you feel so welcome and she is so interesting!
Large Animal Research Station (LARS)
We made the 12:00 tour. It was interesting but kind of lame and not worth the $10 entrance fee. Other than you get to get close to the animals and the money does go towards the care of them. Not a good place for photographs. There are 2 sets of fences between you and the musk oxen and caribou.
Chena Hot Springs
Well worth the drive on a nicely surfaced road through a State Park. The grounds were beautiful. There were flowers and gardens everywhere. Take the paths around the hot springs area, in back. Very pretty. There were a lot of Japanese tour groups. The signs were in Japanese and English. The ice museum was very cold (they give you coats to wear) but small and disappointing. Buy the postcard instead. The hot springs was very warm and sometimes too hot in places. The locker rooms were clean. There are lockers for rental to keep your clothes. There was a nice adult area. The other pools were too crowded with screaming unattended children. The restaurants had GREAT salads. The clam chowder was more like a clam stew ' thick, rich and creamy. The halibut was too large of a portion to finish. The burger was excellent beef. There was a long wait to get in. We actually left and came back one hour later, and got in. the staff was pleasant. Take a look at some of the interesting tables.
We drove back to Fairbanks with plenty of time to spare for our late evening plane. Our bags were on the curb waiting for us when we arrived at the airport. One young man was watching them. If you time it right it won't take long to pick them up. Just don't arrive when a bus lets people off.