PART ONE - LAND PORTION
This adventure to Alaska started in May, 2007. We had recently moved to an active adult community in Bridgeville DE. Our community started a travel club and this was the first "big" trip planned. We used ... Read More
PART ONE - LAND PORTION
This adventure to Alaska started in May, 2007. We had recently moved to an active adult community in Bridgeville DE. Our community started a travel club and this was the first "big" trip planned. We used a local travel agency. After much discussion, we voted on a southbound trip on a smaller vessel. Also, we were looking for a good pre-cruise package and liked Princess' Heart of Alaska 12 day cruise/tour. The tour portion of the cruise included 2 days in Fairbanks, 2 in Denali and 1 day in Talkeetna. The cruise portion was 7 nights. Approximately 30 people joined our group, all over 55 years old..
We departed home early June 4th for our flight out of Philadelphia. We were booked on Northwest Airlines with a connecting flight in Minneapolis into Fairbanks. Our flight out of Philadelphia was delayed about 2 hours. We were concerned about connecting with our Minneapolis flight. I was assured ny NWA ground personnel that they would hold that flight since Princess had 70+ passengers connecting and they would not leave without them. NWA was true to their word. We made it to Minneapolis with minutes to spare and we literally ran to make the connection. Both flights were jammed. We arrived in Fairbanks tired at 8:30 p.m. local time. Sun was still shining!!! Princess had several buses waiting, but none for us. There was much confusion with ground help saying we had to wait for another bus. When we finally got on the bus, we were given an envelope with our hotel name (Bear Lodge) room key and next day's schedule and luggage tags. Check-in was a breeze. Very nice. NOTE: take bug spray. The mosquitos are HUGE.
June 5. NOTE: weather cloudy and in the low 50's. Sunrise 3:23, Sunset 12:13 a.m. VERY hard to get use to this much daylight.
We had 2 Princess tours this day - El Dorado Gold Mine and The Riverboat Discovery Tour. The latter is a Binkley family-run business. Some of the highlights of the 4.5 hour tour was: demo of float plane taking off and landing on river; Iditarod champion Susan Butcher's (she is deceased, but her husband and two daughters raise the dogs) sled dog demo; a stop over in the Chena Indian village for various demos/talks about life in Alaska during the gold rush. Here there is a spot where you can photograph caribou as well as beading done by Athabascan Dixie Alexander. Her work is beautiful and she was teaching a young girl her skills, passed down from generation to generation.
We returned to the hotel between tours for a bite to eat. No time to rest!! We only had an hour before the bus returned for us to take us to El Dorado Gold Mine where you board a miniature train to go through the area. The ride lasts about 20 mins. All along the way there are various demonstrations about mining gold. This part was interesting with different speakers in the various areas. When the train pulls in to the station, you are escorted to a theater type area where you can watch employees panning for gold. They show you how to do this. Then they lead you off to a covered area and give you a sack of dirt and let you pan for your gold. Anything you find you can keep. Fortunately, the water was warmed, which made it tolerable. The art of panning is definitely an acquired skill. I needed help as did most of the people around me. The you take your tour into the shop to convert it. At the end, I ended up with a whopping $14 worth of gold. Now mind you, they did not offer to give me the money in exchange - only the opportunity to put this gold into a fine necklace or earrings!!! Big sales pitch here. Took all the fun out of the tour. I did find a lot of souvenirs here and the hot chocolate and warm cookies hit the spot before heading back to the lodge. On the way back, we stopped at a point on the Alaskan Pipeline. My DH found this very informative. BTW, on one of the Trivial Pursuit days, the question was asked "how long is the pipeline".
June 6 - NOTE: weather cloudy, but no rain in forecast. Morning temps hovered around 47.
Morning train from Fairbanks to Denali. Sun broke through on part of the ride. After an early breakfast, we departed the lodge at 7:30 for the train depot. You are told to only take one carry on. This isn't true. Many people had other bags; you just need to be able to stow them under your seat. You sit 4 to a table - two facing forward and the other twosome backwards. The scenery in the beginning of the 4-hour trip was boring - all trees, no mountains. But the closer we got to Denali, the more you saw snow-capped mountains. Riding in the top of a double decker train can be hot. We were in the last car and it wobbled a lot - so if you are prone to motion sickness, I would take a Dramamine. We were told to eat in the hotel before getting on the train. But others were late and had breakfast on the train - they said it was a fantastic meal and the same price as the buffet in the hotel - $10. We arrived in the Denali Princess hotel around 12:30. Once again, Princess outdid themselves with the hotel info. On the train we received an envelope with our room number, tour info, and a Princess Patter for the Lodge. Nice touch. As soon as we got to the hotel, off we went to freshen up and get ready for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Our suitcases were to arrive while on tour. We went to The Salmon Bake across the street from the hotel in Glitter Gulch. This was recommended to us by one of the train's hostesses - they say they lived for the time off in Denali. We had fish and chips made from halibut. Very good.
We were picked up for the TWT by our driver, Tom Richards. He has been in Denali for over 20 years and his love of the area showed. When we boarded we were given a box lunch consisting of salami, cheese, croissant, bottle of water and a granola bar. Not much for a 10-hour trip. There are plenty of extra bottles of water on board, but no other food. So if you think you need more, buy it before boarding the bus. We saw in no particular order: rabbits, caribou, Dall's sheep, 3 different sightings of grizzlies, eagles, a den of playful fox and owls with their babies high in a tree roadside. Due to the weather, we did not see the mountain. The bus ride was more comfortable than I anticipated. The seats are not very wide and the bus was full, so no chance of changing seats. There were 4 stops to stretch your legs, take a bathroom break and of course, for photo opts. I think the mountains were the most beautiful around the Polychrome Pass stop.
June 7 - Free Day. Boy, did we need this after the long day and the TWT until 11 p.m. Sunrise: 3:58, sunset 12:10. Really hard to get any sleep. After the TWT several of us decided to close down the Lynx Creek Tavern! When we left, it was still daylight at 12:45 a.m. After awaking at 8:30 on the 7th, we headed to The King Salmon restaurant for breakfast. DON'T MISS THE OPPORTUNITY. This was Belmont Day, so the afternoon we met up with several friends and headed back to the Lynx Creek Tavern to watch the horse race. For dinner we decided to take in THE MUSIC OF DENALI. Cost: $55pp. The food (ribs and salmon) was just ok. It is served by the singers and dancers. The show itself was pretty good. But all in all, I felt rushed (another show started at 8:30). I don't think it is worth the money.
June 8 - travel day from Denali to Talkeetna and the Mt. McKinley Lodge. NOTE: Weather, overcast (what else is new?). Temp in the a.m. 46. Sunrise: 3:55a.m.., sunset: 12:14 p.m. Luggage out by 8:00.
Today we traveled by Princess Rail from Denali to Talkeetna. Another 4.5 hour train ride. First another breakfast in the King Salmon restaurant. They call it a hearty meal. You need to check out the stack of 3 blueberry pancakes. Also, before leaving, look for the Salmon chandelier. Pretty big and very nice. We transferred to the train depot by buses. This was the only transfer by Princess that was unorganized. No one seemed to know where to go, what bus to get on, etc. I finally found someone who said - go get in line, the buses will come and when one fills up, another will come!! They did not load us by train car like the other time. Oh well, they can't be perfect. This portion of the trip was beautiful The scenery was amazing. We had bear sightings and a trestle bridge to cross. It seemed most of the nice scenery was on the left side of the train. We sat in the same configuration as before and this time, lunch was offered on the trip down to Talkeetna. We arrived in Talkeetna and once again, boarded a bus for a 1 hour drive to the McKinley Princess Lodge. Some chose to stay in Talkeetna. But as best I could tell, the town is pretty small and not much to do here unless you pre-book an excursion. The McKinley Lodge is new and simply breathtaking. The great room overlooking Denali is wonderful, as is the deck. If only Denali had cooperated and come out from under the clouds. But it was not meant to be. There was a low ceiling all day, but still no rain. Am I jinxing myself?? We decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner in the Mountain View Restaurant. I am totally convinced the halibut encrusted with asagio was the best meal I ate throughout the course of the cruise/tour. Cost: $30. PART TWO - CRUISE DAYS 1 - 4
6/9 Transfer from Mt. McKinley Lodge to Whittier to board ship. NOTE: cloudy, overcast. Still no sighting of Denali. We stayed out on the deck watching, waiting and hoping. We were scheduled to leave the lodge at 11:30 for the bus ride back in to Talkeetna to board the train at 12:30. Temp: 49.
The train ride from the mountains down to sea level and Whittier could have been Anywhere USA. There was a 2 mile tunnel that was a one-way tunnel used by both passenger cars and trains. Ouch - wonder who was controlling that traffic signal?
BOARDING: Once again, Princess managed a fantastic turnover. Just short of the port, they boarded several Princess ground crew for each car to process the passengers. They checked our passports, on-line credit form, handed out cruise cards. All we had to do when we arrived was go through security and get our picture taken on the ship as we boarded. Nice work, well coordinated. Of course, we arrived on the ship at 8:15 p.m., just 15 short of making the lifeboat drill. So no time for dinner until after the drill.
We were in Cabin A408 Portside. Regular size cabin, but it did have a partial obstruction. There was a metal cage (I was told it was for the window washers) hanging from deck 14. It appeared to be in front of Cabin A400. It blocks any pictures you try to take looking forward. Also, you can hear the runners above you!! I would not book this cabin or any on Aloha deck because of the noise.
We chose Anytime Dining. More on that later.
6/10 - College Fjord. NOTE: Temp, cold, overcast and 55. This is the first formal night. We overslept. By the time I awoke at 7;30 we were already in College Fjord. The Patter said we would be there from 6:30 to 8:30. So we missed all the talk from the bridge. I found the Fjords mysterious. The low ceiling - maybe 600 feet, contributed to this. No wildlife sightings.
Since this was formal night, we planned to eat at Sabatini's. Nice food, long slow meal. Plan to be there 2.5 hours. Just too much food. Cost: $20pp.
Misc. Note: Laundry was $1 per load for either the washer or dryer. Soap, bleach and fabric softener available for purchase. Same price.
6/11 - Glacier Bay cruising from 8:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. NOTE: Cold 45 but wind chill on deck must have been around 39. The park ranger boarded early in the a.m. and he had an on again, off again commentary. However, when we were near Marjorie Glacier he stopped said to just listen to hear the cracking. While on our way in we saw both humpback and Minke whales. Also a bald eagle sitting on ice berg. We stayed at the glacier portside in our cabin in order to hear the cracking prior to calving. Smaller calving may precede a larger one. I had the camera ready and caught a big calving. (caught on a Canon with a 75-300 zoom set on sport mode.) The captain rotated the ship so that the starboard side could have the good view. GREAT MEMORABLE DAY.
6/12 - Skagway. NOTE: Cold 45. Started out overcast but cleared on our way up the mountain. Still no rain!!
I had booked privately the White Pass-Yukon 9 hour rail trip directly through Chilkoot Charters. Our guide, Shawn, was a little late, but Capt. Larry met us at the appointed spot and hour. Shawn gave us a ride and our marching orders for the day. We would be on the train in our own car with the other 9 members of Chilkoot Charters. I thought this was better than the 2 train rides we had on Princess. It was actually more comfortable since we could spread out. We went to Frazier, then on to Bennett in Canada where we had lumberjack stew. This was so-so,probably because it was luke-warm. Cole slaw and apple pie finished off the lunch. Then we had about 1 hr. to browse around. Not much to see here - Bennett is an old dead mining town. We left around noon after the southbound train passed us while we sat on the side track. Then off to Carcross in the Yukon. At this point we reboarded our bus with Shawn and set off to Emerald Lake. Beautiful deep color. Nice photo opt here and the sun was shining. NOTE: You will need bug spray on this trip around Emerald Lake. On our way back to Skagway, a mother black bear with 2 cubs was on the side of the road. We stayed there for about 10 minutes watching and shooting photos. Great day. Weather on the train portion turned out beautiful with a high around 60 and sunny!!! When we made it back to Skagway we had about 90 minutes left before we had to board. But we were tired, so returned to the ship without walking the town. I HIGHLY recommend Chilkoot Charters. Small group and personal attention. Cost: $229 pp PART THREE - CRUISE DAYS 5 - 7
6/13 Juneau - Formal Night. Arrived in port at 6:30. We had a 7:30 whale watching excursion with Harv & Marv that I booked directly. Cost: $136.50 pp. NOTE: weather cold (what else is new?) about 45. On the water, it was really cold while underway. My hands were cold when I was on deck. So dress in layers. We got great photos up close and personal with humpback whales. Our captain, Jay, said he can never head directly toward the whales and he always stayed a safe distance away from them so that we did not disturb them. We did not see a whale breach. After reading so many entries on CC, I decided not to set myself up for failure. However, our group that went out after us with Jay did see a whale breach. Lucky them. We saw many bald eagles as well as an eagles nest. And on one buoy, there was a bald eagle on the top and sea lions around the base!! Great picture. One of the sea lions decided to check us out and swam over to the boat. He came up, stopped and looked at us. He was no more than 4 feet away. NOTE: H & M run a 30 foot boat driven by 2 115 H.P. engines. Once again I HIGHLY recommend Harv & Marv. In looking back on the excursions, this was my highlight based on my likes.
Our second tour of the day was with Coastal Helicopters with a glacier landing on Herbert glacier. The ceiling was low, but we went off anyway with our pilot, Steve. However, all of the Princess tours cancelled their flights. Once we were "outfitted" in rain gear and spiked boots, we were off to our helicopter for a 15 tour taking us over Mendenhall glacier. After we landed on Herbert, we had about 10 mins on the glacier to take pictures. The landing was so smooth you hardly knew you were down. This was so much fun. Look for the pools of blue water. This is where the ice is so dense it turns blue.
We ended our day in Juneau at the Red Dog Saloon. What a fantastic day. NOTE: I wish Princess would schedule more time in Juneau.
We opted out of Formal Night, again. This time in favor of Bayou Café. This restaurant had a $15 pp surcharge. Food was good and worth the cover charge.
June 14 - Ketchikan. NOTE: Weather: overcast and 47. It was cold on the balcony. I was under 2 blankets drinking my morning java. In port from 10:00 - 6:00 p.m.
We disembarked around 10:30 to walk Creek St. Nice, quaint area. We did not see the salmon running in the creek. A lot of souvenir shops up here. We had lunch downtown before our pick up by Island Wings for a 2 p.m. float plane flight to Misty Fjords. Once again, I found Michelle and Island Wings after reading about her on Cruise Critic. She came highly recommended by many and I will add my 2 cents. We were only 4 in her 6-passenger plane. We could look out both windows without an obstructed view. Michelle is a one person operation. She owns her own de Havilland Beaver. She does not hire part time summer pilots like many of the cruise ship vendors do. She has flown over 16,000 hours. The flight into the fjords is nothing less than breathtaking. At times we flew at 3200 feet. She gave us a choice of 3 different landings. We ended up choosing a small lake where we could get off on an island to stretch our legs and take pictures instead of the standard of standing on the plane's pontoon. Michelle said she is one of the independent pilots that pay the fee to the park service to actually allow passengers to get off on land. This was my second most favorite excursion.
June 15 - day at sea. This was a much needed rest day. Stayed on our balcony a good part of the day just soaking in the beauty. It was warmer. Also, we had to pack and have our suitcases out by 6 p.m.
DISEMBARKATION - June 16. The Island Princess was the only ship in port on June 16. We chose to pay the additional money to transfer our luggage directly to the airline. It was worth it to us. We never handled a suitcase from 8:00 p.m. 6/15 until we arrived in Philadelphia at 11:00 p.m. 6/16. At 8:30 a.m. we disembarked with the other passengers on EZ check-in. There were 4 groups and we were the first off the ship. Each group was escorted to a bus, the bus was sealed and off we went to the airport. We stopped in a lot where we were boarded by Canadian authorities. Passports, declaration forms, tickets and hand luggage (for bottles over 3 oz.) was checked The luggage check was on the honor system. Once the bus was cleared we were driven to the tarmac and a secure entry to the airport. Here we went through U.S. customs as well as a regular TSA security check point. I asked the officer if this was saving me time. He replied that when a lot of ships were in port, it could save you 2 to 3 hours. GLITCHES: our luggage was tagged to Detroit only. On the dock it was suppose to be retagged with our final destination. Two of our three suitcases made it to Philadelphia. The other was left in Detroit and came in the following day. My husband requested a wheel chair to be available in the Princess theater. It never came. He had to walk the whole way, making it a slower disembarkation. We did not receive our boarding passes and luggage tags until around 7 p.m. on 6/15. Apparently it takes Princess a long time to get this processed by the airlines. We had to rush back to our cabin after dinner in order to get our suitcases out.
DINING - We chose Anytime dining. I think this is a misnomer You can eat from 5:30 - 5:45 and from 7:30 to 7:45. Any other time you are at the mercy of availability. We did talk with the Maitre'd and requested a table for 4 at the window. We reserved it for every evening except the 2 formal nights. They did hold it for us. However, I found the wait staff to be downright unfriendly in our section. None of the camaraderie of the same waiter every night. This was a first attempt at Anytime Dining and my last. I thought Bayou Café was better than Sabatini's.
ENTERTAINMENT - I missed both production shows. I saw Piano Man on a prior cruise. Some in my group did not think it was great. Comedy Magician, Garry Carson - very good and worth it. The comedian, Hal Spear, also very good. Comedian Scott Wyler was excellent.
We did not have any experience with the children's programs. However, there were a lot of children on board, so I am sure it is very active.
CABIN - A 408. Regular portside balcony cabin. The showers are nothing but SMALL. Even the comedian made a joke about sticking to his shower curtain. Plenty of storage space. The bed was comfortable. Our cabin steward, Nemia, was very nice, but did not go above and beyond with extras. I would not book this deck again because of the proximity to deck 14 and all the noise.
WEATHER - Seas were calm all week. Temps and other conditions are noted above. Read Less