If your Alaska cruise has been canceled and you don't want to wait another year before visiting the Last Frontier, there's good news for summer 2021: Land tours that stop at cruise line lodges will be up and running.
Holland America Line and Princess Cruises -- two of the giants in Alaska cruising, with decades of experience in the region -- are selling the land portion of their popular cruise tours, with trips available to Denali, the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and Fairbanks. The trips can be booked through partner Gray Line. The unique opportunity to do these land-only tours, which run from five to eight nights, is available only in 2021. (Typically, land tours are offered as an add-on to Alaska cruises and last just a few days.)
We've taken several lodge trips with these lines and think they offer an easy way to get the most of a trip to Alaska's amazing interior. Here's why:
When you take an Alaska land trip that stops at the HAL or Princess lodges, everything is done for you. Just like when you're on a cruise ship, your luggage is magically dropped off at the train station or taken to your coach, then appears in front of your hotel room when you arrive.
Having someone else take care of these logistics means that you can enjoy the ride, literally. There's no shortage of roadside or trackside scenery in Alaska, plus having the breaks between lodges gives you down time to relax between days filled with excursions. After the long pandemic period of fending for yourself and cooking, it's going to feel really nice to have someone else worry about all the details.
The distances between towns in Alaska are longer than you'd think, looking at a map. So being able to sit back and enjoy the scenery while someone else drives is a real high point of an Alaska lodge tour.
For the 2021 season, Gray Line is using the Alaska Railroad rail cars, as opposed to the private ones that Princess and Holland America Line use during a typical cruise tour. They are panoramic rail cars, with glass dome ceilings and a panoramic viewing area. All Escorted and Explorer tours include the upgraded Gold Star service, which provides beverages and meal service. Depending on what tour you choose, you can ride the train between Fairbanks and Denali, or Denali to Anchorage.
The scenery is incredible, and there's also an air of conviviality aboard, which gets more enhanced as passengers indulge in the bar cart. A Bloody Mary, with a side of mountain scenery? Sign us up.
There is no national park quite like Denali. The sheer size and scope, as well as the number of animals that you can see on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, are hard to wrap your head around. Having more days to explore Denali and making it a focus of the trip, as opposed to an add on, is a plus, in our book.
On one Denali bus tour, we saw six bears, including several cubs; five moose; five caribou; a plethora of Dall sheep; four spruce grouse; a very cute red fox and a wolverine. On a previous trip, we saw nine bears, including several quite close to the bus. Given that fewer people have been in the park during the past year means that the wildlife could be even more active. Your bus will also have fewer people on it, so you might not have to fight for a coveted window seat.
More time in Denali also makes it more likely that you'll actually get to see the mountain. The lore is that only 30 percent of visitors glimpse the peak outside of the clouds during a typical visit. Our experiences have been more positive -- we've seen the mountain multiple days, on multiple visits. Either way, it's nice to improve the odds, as Denali in full sunlight is a spectacular photo.
The overall hotel scene in Alaska leaves a bit to be desired. There are fewer upscale choices than you might expect, and prices can be pretty expensive for what you get.
The two lodges that Holland America Line and Princess have opened up -- the McKinley Chalet Resort at Denali and the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge -- are true self-contained resorts. The lines expect occupancy to be capped at the 25 percent to 35 percent range, so not all restaurants or attractions at the lodges will be open. But the lodges provide an excellent and comfortable base for the wilderness activities nearby, on very attractive grounds. (At that lowered capacity, there's plenty of room for social distancing.)
In Fairbanks and Anchorage, the companies are using HAL's Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and the independently owned Captain Cook Hotel, respectively. These hotels are in the heart of each city and allow easy access to nearby stores and restaurants that might be open. (Alaska has a very high vaccination rate, among the top in the U.S., so things could seem relatively normal in these major Alaskan cities by summer.)
There are signs that Alaska will have a decent summer season, as vaccinations prompt domestic U.S. travel. More airlines are adding airlift into the state. Alaska is being perceived as a success story, in terms of keeping COVID-19 numbers down and having a high rate of vaccination. The state does require a negative COVID-19 test to enter, which also adds an aura of safety to the trip.
Still, with lower occupancy at lodges and hotels, as well as fewer people on buses and excursions, the great big open spaces that are already a given in Alaska will make summer 2021 an even better experience. We've all learned to love a bit of solitude these past few months, and even if you're on an organized tour, 2021 will feel more like a private trip, without the hassles.
The HAL and Princess hotels and lodges in Alaska are hubs for different shore excursions; you can sign up to go fly-fishing, ATV riding, ziplining, rafting, mountain golfing, gold panning more. (Flightseeing is not on the list of offered tours for 2021, but weather can make those trips iffy anyway.)
One thing is for sure: Portage Glacier near Anchorage will be available for viewing, through boat tours, for an up-close-and-personal look at gorgeous ice. And in Fairbanks, a three-deck stern-wheeler Riverboat Discovery sails a narrated four-hour trip on the Chena and Tanana rivers.
There's no question that last year was one of the hardest years for Alaska, where tourism makes up a large part of the economy. Having the lodges closed in 2020 was difficult, in terms of local employment and revenue from taxes. With cruises themselves not sailing in 2021, there are still many Alaskans who will be hurting this year.
If you choose to travel to Alaska in 2021, you'll not only have the satisfaction of seeing the state's gorgeous interior with fewer people -- and probably more animals -- you'll have the satisfaction of restoring a local economy. Expect to see people who are happy to see you and eager to help you have the best experience possible in th