Where to begin. After spending a year planning this trip, I have to say that knowledge, research, and planning pay off. It was great to know what we wanted to see, and to seek out the best ways to experience this beautiful state and coastline.
Land tour: We had a guided land tour, spending a night in Anchorage, 2 at the McKinley Princess Lodge, and 2 at the Denali Princess Lodge. It was important to spend 2 nights there to be able to see more of the national park, without the limitations of travel on the second day.
On arrival at the lodge, we had lunch in the informal restaurant. The food was very good, and the service was fine. We were fortunate to view the peak of Denali for about a half hour. I found it interesting how people come to work in Alaska from so many places, and stay (in-season) year after year. The rooms are adequate, and the grounds have a retreat-like atmosphere. This was great for resting after busy travel-time.
My husband loves ATV's, so we did the four-wheeler adventure the first morning and had pure fun. The owners and guide were locals, and it was great to learn about the flora, fauna, and lifestyle. All of the gear and rain protection was provided, and if I can learn anyone can. We drove through a few streams, along rough paths, and the guide set a pace that was doable. It was a small group, and very manageable.
We then took the shuttle into Talkeetna for lunch. It is a quaint town. We ate at the Roadhouse, sharing our table with some locals, and trying the waitress's recommendations for food and local brew. The peanut butter balls came highly recommended, and served as a carry-out dessert as we continued to enjoy the town. The Denali Arts Council has an open air art show on weekends. It was nice browsing through some of the artisans booths and choosing a couple items as gifts. We were disappointed that our flightseeing tour with glacier landing was cancelled due to weather, but glad that the air tour companies there are honest and safety-concious.
We departed the next morning for the Denali Princess Lodge. We went to the Music of Denali dinner theater with friends and our tour group, and it was delightful. The food was picnic fare and served family style (all-you-can-eat). The performers had wonderful voices, and it reminded me of a very good high school musical. :) The pianist had played on Broadway, and set the tone during dinner with great, familiar tunes.
The next day was busy, starting early with the Tundra Wilderness Tour. We saw a lot of wildlife, and the driver/guide did a great job with the videography for those who may not have the best view. She would stop if wildlife was spotted, and stay until everyone had their fill. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, and alone worth the trip.
After supper, we went on the Husky Homestead tour, delighted that Jeff King picked us up in the van from the lodge. I highly recommend this experience for people of all ages. It is so much more than a "pet the puppy" experience, although you receive a puppy as you step off the van. You learn about the Iditarod from the master. It is great to learn how he trains for the race, prepares and cares for the dogs, and of his passion for the lifestyle, He still does many of the presentations himself. Highly recommended. He has written a book, artwork by his wife, and they have both signed them. I had them personalized for gifts, and had someone take our picture with Jeff to make it even more personal. Great guy, and an honor to meet him.
The next morning we were off in the domed train to Whittier. It is a long, beautiful ride. Lunch on the train is reasonable, and they have you sign a wait list during busy seating times in the dining car. They also had some items they served in the domed area.
Princess staff came aboard prior to arrival at Whittier, checked passports and boarding documents. Prior to arrival at Whittier, they give you everything you need for boarding, so you are on the ship straightaway on arrival.
We had a wonderful balcony mini-suite on the end of the mid-ship bumpout. Our daughter had arranged for chocolate covered strawberries, and they were there on arrival. The balcony was smaller, but the view was exceptional! We spent a lot of time there, just admiring the scenery. After all, that is what we came for! The mini suite bathroom has a full tub, which is a great plus according to those who have just the shower stall. There was plenty of storage and closet space, room for the luggage under the bed, and a safe in the room. The steward service was very good, and we could count on the cabin being serviced twice daily.
The Princess Patters arrived the evening before for the following day, so that is great for those of you who love to plan life aboard the ship.
The webcam channel (42) played classical music, and the naturalist or staff would announce wildlife or other special sightings. It's a great reason to keep your balcony door open for the ambiance and information.
My husband loved the buffet. (He is a buffet lover, so in his heaven). I had to make him dress up for formal night to celebrate our anniversary, and have a picture pouring at the champagne waterfall event. (I always wanted to do that). The photo came out so good, I bought it. We ate at the Anytime dining restaurant three times. Service and food was always good, and I tried caviar and escargot for the first time. I also had the pizza twice which was good. We had the champagne breakfast one morning and it was tasty, and too much food for 2 people.
We lost a little bit of money in the casino, but we only brought what we could afford to lose.
We pre-purchased an internet package and got extra minutes doing it that way. Very few problems with internet access although it was slower that what you probably have at home. But that was expected. The internet cafe manager was very helpful.
The library area and card room have good areas to read a book or play a game, while viewing the scenery. The Movies Under the Stars (MUTS) were generally simulcast on TV for you movie lovers who don't want to brave the elements/cool air. You can always stop by and get some popcorn, and a couple blankets to take up to your room balcony.(we did) I have to say there were people in the pool/hot tub most of the time (not us).
Being on the ship was our down time, so we didn't fill it with shows, activities, etc. We enjoyed the view.
Speaking of views, there were great areas on baja deck (and others also) fore and aft for viewing. Brave it and go out those doors. Absolutely wonderful, and a great way to meet the few people who know about them. :)
We did the Ultimate Ship Tour on the morning of the final sea day. It was wonderful to learn more about how the ship and it's crew work and live. It was an honor to meet the captain, see the bridge, the production area, the galley areas, the engine control area, the area where they dock the ship from. Everyone was friendly and informative. There were tasty treats and drinks presented along the way. Later in our room, we received plush bathrobes, chefs jackets, and photos of our tour group with various staff from areas we visited. Well worth the "excursion" price for the 3-hour tour.
One word to describe Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier...AWESOME! Find yourself a front row seat and enjoy some of the most spectacular views you've ever witnessed. We were fortunate enough to see calving, seals floating on the icebergs, sea otters, gulls, whales in some of the entrance areas... I wouldn't have missed a moment of it. They pilot the ship so both sides can view the areas, and speak to wildlife that they note.
While in Skagway, we really wanted to see Emerald Lake, so went with Chilkoot Tours to take a van ride up, eat a BBQ lunch at Carcross, do a fun little dogcart ride, and then ride the train back from Fraser. This could easily be done by driving yourself in a rental car, or with other vendors also. It was wonderful to see all the scenery, get good photo opportunities, and learn about the history of the town, gold rush, characters, and the trail.
In Juneau we took the MGT bus out to Mendenhall Glacier. Absolutely beautiful, especially the icebergs floating in the water. There had been a recent historic event with some flooding near the glacier that we were able to learn more about through staff talks and photos. The visitors center is a great place to visit. We didn't have time to hike, as we then went with Harv and Marv's on a whale watch. Binoculars were provided, and the captain did a great job. The smaller boats with 6 or less passengers was appealing to us, but the whales will be there despite the size of the boat so it doesn't make a difference. All of the tour companies know where to go, and how to find the whales. We were fortunate enough to witness a group of humpbacks bubble netting. Quite a happening, and better than the best fireworks I've ever seen.
In Ketchikan we wanted to go to Anan, and Dave with Family Air had permits for the day. He did a nice job piloting his floatplane through the misty areas to the entry area for Anan Wildlife Observatory. This was the highlight of our trip. We hiked along a 1/2 mile boardwalked path with many steps into the observation deck area. Get your camera ready. Honestly, you don't even need binoculars...the bear are that close. You may even meet them on the path on your way back and forth. The ranger briefs you on what to do should you encounter a bear. There is a second ranger at the deck. Bear would come within feet of the deck, including moms with cubs. We were fortunate to see both black and brown bear with cubs, countless eagles, and bear catching salmon in the stream...awesome, like I said before. We were able to be there for 3 hours before needing to make the hike back to the entry to meet Dave again for the trip back.
So, our experience was fabulous and meant to be once in a lifetime, BUT I can think of many other things I'd like to do should we see Alaska again.