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DIY Alaska Adventure

Author: olddocw
Date of Trip: July 2013

My wife and I had always included Denali on our bucket lists, but we could not find a Cruise Tour that offered what we wanted to see. So we chose to sail with HAL (see my separate review of the msStatendam on Cruise Critic, “Exceeded Expectations”), and then plan our own land portion. I will focus almost exclusively on the land portion of our vacation, as I have covered the cruise in some detail in my other posting.

This was my third trip to Alaska. My intro to cruising, sixteen years ago, was an Inside Passage cruise aboard the Celebrity Horizon with my father. About a year later my wife and I took a repositioning cruise from Vancouver which only had stops in Juneau and Victoria. Having only a one-day exposure to Vancouver before that cruise, we both wanted to explore the city some more. Together with my sister-in-law and her husband (first time cruisers), we flew into Vancouver three days before setting sail.

My sister-in-law found us a wonderful apartment in a residential neighborhood through VRBO. Our first full day in Vancouver was spent exploring North Vancouver and West Vancouver via rental car. One of those hidden gems I discovered in my research is Park & Tilford Gardens in N. Vancouver. What a beautiful small garden in the midst of a shopping center – and it’s free! We then drove to Lynn Canyon Park, enjoyed a picnic lunch, took in the small suspension bridge (high enough for this acrophobic), and hiked some of the trails. It was a short drive to the northernmost part of Capilano Park, where we visited the Cleveland Dam and hiked to the Salmon Hatchery. We then followed Capilano Rd. to Hwy. 1, which took us out to West Vancouver. Along the way, we had a short detour up Cypress Bowl Rd. to Quarry Lookout for some fabulous views of Vancouver, including Canada Place (where two cruise ships were docked), and Stanley Park. We followed Hwy. 1 all the way to where the ferry docks, then returned via Marine Drive along the shore with a quick stop at Lighthouse Park.

Our second day in Vancouver started off with a visit to the University of British Colombia’s Botanical Gardens. Don’t miss the Greenheart Canopy Walkway, where you are literally up in the forest canopy, suspended 50 feet or more above the ground. We spent the afternoon at Stanley Park. We had seen the aquarium before, so we focused on the gardens and the Perimeter Seawall, the totem poles and the Prospect Point Lighthouse. Our final morning in Vancouver included a visit to Queen Elizabeth Park, a real gem in the middle of the city. The park is free, but parking is expensive. However, you can park on the street just next to the park for free, and the walk is not far. The gardens are designed around two old rock quarries and it takes a good 1½ – 2 hours to see it all. Then it was off to the ship (after returning the rental car – more about that later). Embarkation was a breeze and we were soon enjoying a late lunch aboard the Statendam.

We did not purchase any of the excursion tours from HAL. We thought about taking the city bus to Totem Bight State Park in Ketchikan (costs $1 pp each way), but decided that we had seen enough totem poles in Stanley Park. Instead, we simply did some shopping, wandered around Creek Street, and took pictures of some bald eagles along the way. The highlight of Ketchikan for us was the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center operated by the Forestry Service. The $5 admission is well worth the price for the exhibits and a film about the Tongass National Forest (a deciduous rain forest covering most of the areas seen on an Inside Passage cruise).

We were the last of four ships to dock in Juneau, but we had made arrangements to rent a car from Juneau Car Rental. Our ship docked furthest from their office, but it was an easy one mile walk to pick up the car. The major car rental agencies all rent from their airport locations and are much higher. We headed south on Thane Rd. to take in the waterfalls and were blessed with spotting several bald eagles (both adults and juveniles) where Sheep Creek spills into the ocean. After getting lost in the maze of downtown Juneau, we found our way to Glacier Highway and headed for WalMart, where we purchased some snacks and the same souvenirs selling for much more at the stores near the pier. Our next stop was the beautiful Chapel-by-the-Lake at Auke Lake where my father and I had visited 16 years ago. We continued north on the highway to take in the Shrine of St. Therese and the Jensen-Olson Arboretum (another free gem for plant lovers). After a picnic lunch, we returned to town to see Mendenhall Glacier. On both of my previous visits, I was frustrated by the short time allotted on the excursion tours for taking in the glacier and its surrounds. The new visitors’ center is very well done and certainly worth the $3 admission price. We hiked several of the trails, including the Nuggets Falls Trail, but stopped short of actually taking off our shoes and wading in the water at the base of the falls.

We also rented a car in Skagway from Avis. We drove up the highway into Canada as far as Emerald Lake, following Murray’s Guide (which you can download off the internet for $5; he even lets you download the latest version again just prior to leaving on your vacation). Along the way we saw a moose about 40 yards away eating vegetation by the side of the road. Upon returning to town, we took the Dyea Rd. to the scenic overlook and got some great pictures of our ship and the other ships in port.

One of the highlights of the cruise was our day in Glacier Bay. Unlike the ports, where there were usually 3-4 ships docked, we were the only cruise ship in the bay that day. Our onboard naturalists from the National Park Service were really informative. We approached two large glaciers and sat there with the engines off for 30 minutes or so, watching the icebergs calve off the glaciers and the seal pups basking in the sunshine on the ice flows. We were allowed to enter an area not usually open to cruise ships to see Johns Hopkins Glacier from a vantage point six miles away (it still looked enormous). On our way out of Glacier Bay, we were entertained by a whole school of juvenile and adult humpback whales frolicking in the waters between the ship and the shore. It lasted a good 30 minutes, although most on board missed it by going inside for the evening meal on time! We had chosen “anytime dining” precisely for such a moment.

Our disembarkation in Seward could not have gone smoother. Since we were spending the night, we were among the last to get off the ship (about 8:30). The first group on Cruise Tours left the ship a little after 6 a.m. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the Lido and were allowed to stay in our cabins with our carry-on luggage until they called our group to disembark. There is no customs in Seward (you go through U.S. Customs when you board the ship in Vancouver), so you just pick up your checked luggage and take off. We had reservations at the Holiday Inn Express, a short ¼ mile walk away. We dropped off our luggage at the hotel and began to explore the town. We located the restaurant where we had dinner reservations and the Major Marine Tours office where we would be heading the next day. We talked to the rangers at the Kenai Fjords National Park visitors’ center, and then walked to the other end of town (about 15 min.) to take in the Alaska Sea Life Center. Tickets are good for all day, so we saw part of it and then headed to the Exit Glacier Shuttle office for transport out to see Exit Glacier, part of the Kenai Fjords National Park. After a pleasant ½ hour ride, we hiked to see Exit Glacier and then returned in time for a ranger-led walking lecture about the ecosystem. We returned to town and finished our tour of the Sea Life Center. Next it was checking into the hotel, an early dinner, and watching the Statendam set sail as we basked in the hot tub overlooking the small boat harbor.

The next morning there was a bald eagle sitting on a boat mast not 40 yards from our balcony. After breakfast, we made our way to Major Marine Tours where we had reservations for the 7½ hour Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise. We used the 2-for-1 coupons from Northern Lights and chose to eat their prime rib and salmon buffet ($16). Although it had been misty with low-hanging clouds most of our first day in Seward, the weather was absolutely perfect for our national park cruise. There was only one stretch of open ocean (which lasted about 20 minutes and made several people sick). My only complaint was their timing. As soon as we passed the roughest seas, they began serving lunch! Couldn’t it wait another 30 minutes? A few, including my sister-in-law, chose not to eat very much, but those of us who did were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food, and yes, it is “all you can eat”. The desserts weren’t much to brag about, but after 6 plus hours on that boat, anything tasted pretty good.

As to the tour itself, we approached two different glaciers, getting much closer than on the big ship. We saw some calving, but the wildlife were the real stars of the show. Many sightings of humpback whales, harbor seals on the ice flows, stellar sea lions basking on the rocks, taking in the rare sunny day. Saw some Dall Sheep up on the hillside of some of the larger islands. A group of dolphins enjoyed racing in front of the boat for about 20 minutes. Overall a wonderful experience which I would highly recommend. Even though we got back to the harbor a few minutes late, the Alaska Railroad and the two companies that offer the park cruises work together so you never miss the train. Indeed, we left our checked luggage with the folks at the Major Marine Tours office in the morning and never saw it again until we arrived in Anchorage. Forget about what the Alaska Railway website says about weight restrictions for luggage and the number of carry-ons. No one ever said a thing to us. We used the 2-for-1 coupons from Northern Lights for the train from Seward to Anchorage, which means we road in “Adventure Class”. No double-decked cars, but we could see just fine from where we were sitting, and the car was so empty we could move from side to side without difficulty, taking in wildlife sightings, waterfalls, and the beautiful scenery. We brought fresh fruit, drinking water, and other snacks on board, as the food on the train is very expensive and, from what I can tell, not that tasty. I found the narration rather trite and distracting, but the ride itself was a nice change of pace. Although we arrived in Anchorage at 10:15 p.m., it was still light outside. We took a cab to the Fairfield Inn and crashed for the night.

The next morning I walked two blocks to the Enterprise office to pick up the rental car. We headed off to WalMart again for more souvenirs and snacks, then stopped at a grocery store to stock up on food for the next three days. The drive to Denali was delightful. Although it was cloudy, we stopped several times to take in the scenery at the turnouts in Denali State Park. We had just left one of these when my wife spotted the car up ahead swerving and stopping. Right by the highway, not 70 yards ahead, was a female grizzly and two cubs. The mother stood up on her hind legs and turned to look at our car. Once the pups had retreated into the woods, she quickly followed. It happened so fast I couldn’t get my camera out, but it was a rare treat (one you wouldn’t see from the train going from Anchorage to Denali).

My sister-in-law had made housing arrangements through VRBO for our stay in Denali. We enjoyed a lovely second floor apartment about 8 miles from the park entrance. Our host drove one of the buses in the park and was a great resource for what to see (and what to avoid). In addition to comfortable beds, we had a full kitchen and washer/dryer to use. We would pack picnic lunches each day and eat our other meals at the apartment.

Our first full day at Denali was rainy and cloudy. Fortunately, that was the day I had chosen for mostly indoor stuff. We went to the visitors’ center, watched the film and viewed the exhibits, and took in the dog sled demonstrations (which I enjoyed more than I had expected, even if we were standing in a light rain the whole time). There is also a short film at the Wilderness Access Center where you pick up your bus tickets.

Let me pause at this point for a brief excursis about the tours at Denali. After 14 cruises, I think I am fluent in “cruise-speak” (e.g. “deluxe motor coach” means “riding on a bus”). Denali is not like the other national parks. This isn’t Yellowstone, where you drive your own vehicle through the park. You can only drive to Savage River, about 16 miles into the park. To travel further along the single road, you must ride a bus. There are the off-white tour buses that have upholstered seats, a narrator, and a box lunch, but you don’t get very far into the park on them. The Natural History Tour doesn’t even go past Savage River (which you can drive to on your own). The longer Tundra Wilderness Tour only goes as far as Toklat River. The only wildlife we saw between the Wilderness Access Center (which is a euphemism for the bus station) and Toklat River was a moose on the side of the road about two blocks from where we began our tour. The vast majority of the wildlife we spotted was between Toklat River and the Eielson Visitors’ Center. The latter affords the best views of the north side of Mt. McKinley (if it is not shrouded in clouds). So don’t expect to see much if you sign up for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. We chose the shuttle buses instead, and were very glad we did. They are much less expensive. Although they don’t have upholstered seating, they are plenty comfortable. Those roads are rough, even with padding! And with some planning, you can bring along your own picnic lunch for a fraction of the cost. Again, there was plenty of room to move around on the bus. All of the fancier tour buses we saw were packed full with everyone sitting down staring out the windows.

So let’s talk about our second day in the park. Our bus driver was Beth. She has been driving these buses for seventeen years! Although these drivers are not required to give any narration, she was an invaluable resource for enjoying the park. She made it clear from the outset that it was our job to look for wildlife – hers was to get us safely back to the Wilderness Access Center. We chose the 6:15 a.m. departure. Don’t worry, with sunrise at 3:30, I was awake by 4:30 without an alarm clock! We left on time and were not ¼ mile down the road when we can across a female moose by the side of the road. It was cloudy when we started, but the forecast was for partly cloudy skies and no rain, so we crossed our fingers. The first section of the road is rather unremarkable. After a short pit stop at the Teklanika River, things get more interesting. The next section of road is, quite frankly, rather scary. It quickly becomes quite obvious why they only allow people who know the road and are communicating constantly with each other to drive on it. Sheer cliff, narrow road (two-way at that), and another sheer cliff down to the valley. We all had our seatbelts on without being reminded! It was still rather overcast when we stopped for pictures at Polychrome Overlook. Unfortunately, the buses don’t stop there in the afternoon when heading back to the park headquarters since the pullout is on the north side of the road. It was only after the next pit stop at Toklat River that we really started to see the wildlife. Between Toklat at Eielson we encountered both caribou and grizzlies, some literally right on the side of the road. I was sure glad that I made the decision to buy an extra memory card for my camcorder in Anchorage. I was able to just turn it on and follow the animals for the longest time without worrying about running out of memory! It was on the way to Eielson that the clouds first began to break up and we could get an occasional glimpse of Mt. McKinley. They say it is only visible about 30% of the days each summer, so we were really lucky. In fact, by the time we got to Eielson Visitors’ Center, the clouds had lifted completely and we were able to get some awesome pictures of Mt. McKinley as well as the other mountains in the range.

If I had to do it over again, I probably would not have gone as far as Wonder Lake. True, we did get more views of McKinley, but “Wonder Lake” is a misnomer, and the brochures are deceptive. They show a picture of the lake with McKinley reflected in the water. Wrong. That picture had to be taken from the north side of the lake, whereas the bus stops on the south side of the lake, so you are between the lake and the mountain! You won’t have time to notice, though, because all of your energy will be focused on getting away from the mosquitoes! They are enormous and there are a gazillion of them. Thankfully, we had taken the advice of others and purchased the mosquito nettings that go over your head at the WAC (the best $4 investment out there). Even with long sleeves, the netting, and bug spray for our hands, it was a miserable 20 minute layover there. How can anyone camp at that lake? The one highlight of this section of the trip was seeing a caribou in the road ahead of the bus. We followed him for maybe a mile as we made our way to Wonder Lake.

It was on the return trip from Eielson to Toklat that we experienced the highlight of our trip. Up on the mountainside, probably 300 yards away (but within distance of my zoom once Beth turned off the bus engine), there was a mother grizzly laying on her back nursing two second-year cubs! It almost felt like we were intruding on something we shouldn’t be seeing. It was surreal, just like watching one of those nature documentaries! Later down the road we spotted two other grizzlies by the river feasting on a caribou carcass (probably brought down by wolves, but then the grizzlies run them off – life isn’t fair). Each time we spotted wildlife, the driver pulled over and often turned off the engine so we could observe (and take pictures/video) for an extended period of time. The tour buses would stop, but only briefly. Although you can get on and off the shuttle buses at will (not just at the rest stops) and hail another bus later on, we stuck with our own driver the whole way. The stops were adequate, and besides, the tour we booked lasted 11 hours! It didn’t seem like that long, though, since we had enough food for two meals in our backpacks. BTW, you can refill your water bottles with potable water at Eielson.

Our last day in Alaska was even more rare. There was not a cloud in the sky for most of the day. Our host says it only happens about 2-3 days each year. McKinley was there for viewing the whole way back to Anchorage. We must have stopped a dozen times for pictures, as the highway literally circumnavigates around the mountain and you can view it from all sides. Even the natives were out taking pictures on this most rare of days. We took a side tour to visit the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park. Don’t waste your time or the $5 parking fee. There’s nothing there, and the road is under construction so it took forever to get to it in the first place. After making it through downtown Anchorage, we drove south on the highway to Seward along the Turnagain Arm Inlet. You used to be able to spot beluga whales from the highway, but they have mysteriously disappeared. What we did see was the bore tide at Bird Point, which literally rushes up the inlet rather than slowly creeping in. The train from Seward passed by while we were eating our final meal in Alaska. Then it was on to the airport, taking pictures of the sun setting at 11:30 p.m., and boarding our flight for home.

I wanted to close by making a point of saying that (1) it did take quite a bit of work and time to plan this trip but, (2) it was well worth it. We spent far less than the HAL Cruise Tours and saw much more. If you plan early, and check back frequently, you can find real bargains on the internet sites of most companies. For instance, when it came to the rental cars, I rented a full-size from Enterprise in Vancouver for $36 a day (Canadian). The key was renting from the downtown office (4 blocks from Canada Place) rather than at the airport. Granted, I had to catch the bus down there, but that only cost $2.75 (you need exact change in Canadian currency; although the parking meters take credit cards, the buses do not, but the bus system website is quite helpful). In Juneau, we rented a compact from Juneau Car Rental for $45. In Skagway, a full-size for $99 (before taxes). And in Anchorage, we rented a full-size from Enterprise (again, away from the airport) for $39 a day (our whole four-day rental was less than the current daily rate!). It was worth the $15 taxi ride back to the airport after returning the car (after hours).

Same goes for the hotels. Remember, we used VRBO for Vancouver and Denali, but we stayed at hotels in Seward and Anchorage. There’s not much to choose from in Seward, but I had “points” to offset some of the cost of the room at the Holiday Inn Express and the view from our harbor-side balcony was beyond description. In Anchorage, with AAA discount, I found a room with 2 queen beds and full breakfast for $149. It just takes time (and a little luck), and early booking is the key. One final note, once you book your cruise, check back with the cruise line website frequently prior to making your final payment. They lowered the price of our cruise twice after we booked it and both times a simple e-mail to my AAA agent resulted in lowering the cost of our cruise. It ended up being 40% off the price we originally booked. It pays to do your research, starting with the excellent discussion boards and reviews on Cruise Critic. I hope that in some small way I have helped others by documenting what we experienced during our delightful land and cruise vacation to Alaska!

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