Northbound Alaska Cruise on the Island Princess and Cruisetour
6/4/14 to 6/18/14
Due to the length of the review, it is in four parts to help with the download time. The links to the other pages are at the top and bottom of the page.
Page 1 - Embarkation; Ship; Cabin; Dining; Entertainment
Page 2 - Activities; Ports of Call: Ketchikan, AK; Juneau, AK; Skagway, AK; Glacier Bay, AK
Page 3 - Ports of Call: College Fjord, AK; Whittier, AK; Land Stops: Kenai, AK; Mount McKinley, AK
Page 4 - Land Stops: Denali, AK; Fairbanks, AK
College Fjord, Alaska
Our visit to College Fjord was supposed to take place between 5:30 PM and 8:30 PM. Since I knew there was no way I was going to spend that same time in the dining room rather than seeing natural beauty, we booked the Crab Shack dinner at 8:30 PM, which I thought would provide us plenty of time to see the fjord. My logic was that it would take 1.5 hours in and 1.5 hours out, so therefore we should be at the highlights at 7:00 PM. I should have known better.
With the last day of the cruise mainly being a sea day, Carol was packing away for the land tour; while I was out on deck much of the day watching for sea life and appreciating the beauty of Prince William Sound. With it being a very cloudy day with temps in the upper 40’s, the breeze was not refreshing.
During the whole day, I only saw one humpback whale, but he was kind enough to show his pectoral fin.
We did get a few moments of sun to light up the mountains; but they were few and far between. It was a gorgeous place.
The ship naturalist, Jules, had told us in one of his seminars that he would be up on deck 15 in the afternoon watching for sea life and he would also point out the sights in College Fjord. The speed of the ship kept the breeze quite brisk. It was not pleasant. And it got even worse when the light rain started. I went down to one of my favorite protected areas on the promenade deck. I was in good company, since Jules and many of the people that had been upstairs had also decided that it was a better place to watch the glaciers. The only downside to being on the promenade deck was that everyone had to go back and forth to port and starboard to see what was happening. We kept asking Jules when the glaciers would begin and his estimates kept pushing the time frame later. The main tidewater glaciers would be on the port side. Finally around 6:30 PM, we saw the first glacier.
The ship was moving very slowly. Before long, we came to several glaciers in the mountains on the starboard side. I am not even going to try to guess at the names of the glaciers. There were so many smaller glaciers in the mountains in College Fjord. The hazy weather made it difficult to get decent photos; but I was most impressed with the beauty of the area.
Finally around 7:30 PM, we could get a glimpse of the main tidewater glaciers up ahead. It took a half hour to get to them, since the captain was taking his time. I presume to make sure we didn’t hit any large chunks of ice.
We never did get real close to the largest one, the Harvard Glacier at the end of the fjord.
But we did get nice views of the others. Many of them had lots of dirt in them that the glaciers had dragged along with them in their move to the sea.
In College Fjord, the number of glaciers was most impressive; as were the beautiful mountains. Prettier weather would have made the day even more enjoyable; but we had been lucky most days, so I couldn’t complain. I had been standing outside most of the day and it was almost dinner time. I had cut it close with the dinner reservation time. I was ready to get back into the ship for dinner and was also excited about the land tour that would start in the morning.
We didn’t have to leave the ship until 8:30 AM. I went outside to see where we would be going once we stepped onto land. The area looked mountainous.
I was most impressed by how Princess had pretty much provided a covered walkway from the ship to the terminaland on to the train station. Since Whittier was primarily a transfer station, it made a lot of sense. They would move people by bus and train to the airport or to their lodges. Having the train station right next to the port was quite convenient for those taking the train.
Since we had cruised several times with Princess, we had achieved a loyalty level where we were able to wait in the Explorers Lounge. This was very nice since, there were very few people there and it was quite comfortable. Rather than calling out numbers, Circle Host, Julie James, had taken the disembarkation info from us when we came in. When it was time, she walked over and took us to where we needed to leave the ship. It was very nicely handled.
Upon leaving the ship, we were directed to one of the busses that would take us to the Kenai Wilderness Lodge. It was a comfortable bus with adequate legroom. We were surprised to see what looked like a cute little teenage girl sitting in the driver’s seat. Tina assured us that she was an experienced bus driver and was actually 23 years old.
She was indeed a good driver and just a pleasure. She provided us lots of information on the way to Kenai; as well as telling us some cute stories. We also got to see more glaciers and scenery while waiting to go through the Whittier Tunnel.
It is the 2nd longest highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles and the longest mixed use tunnel. It is only one lane and can be used by cars, busses and trains. They actually use a jet engine to keep the air flowing in the tunnel. Tina displayed her driving skill when we finally got to go into the tunnel. It was very narrow. I’m not sure how comfortable that I would have been driving my car through it, much less a bus.
But when we exited the tunnel, the scenery was just gorgeous. This was going to be a very nice ride to the Lodge. We also saw some of the markers on the road to keep drivers within the road when it was covered by snow.
Tina told us that before we got to the lodge we would be stopping at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, AK. It is a center of refuge for orphaned or injured animals. It is quite a place with so many different kinds of animals set in a beautiful environment.
The highlight was the grizzly bear that was being shy when we first got there. He finally showed himself for a little while.
The large visitor center has stores and restaurants and most importantly plenty of restrooms for the travelers.
We stayed there for an hour to provide the lodge with plenty of time to get ready for our arrival. The ride was just a pleasure, a lovely highway indeed. Tina had told us that the lodge manager, Dan, would get on the bus when we arrived to tell us about what to expect. She also told us that Dan owned a large furry brown dog named Bella that sometimes scared people because they thought she was a bear.
We finally got to the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. It was much smaller than I expected it to be with only 86 rooms. The area was very pretty and it looked like a great place to spend a couple of days. When we got off the bus, I got a brief glimpse of someone petting Bella. She did look a lot like a small bear.
Dan had told us that their shuttles would pick us up anytime we needed to take us to our cabin or bring us back to the main lodge. We were glad to hear it, since our lodge was up the hill. We were so pleased during the stay with how pleasant and helpful the various shuttle drivers were. They couldn’t do enough to help the guests. We were in cabin 1101, right at the end of the building. When we walked in, we couldn’t believe how large and comfortable the cabin was. It was beautifully decorated with a high cathedral ceiling. It felt like a cabin in the woods; which it was.
It even had a wood stove if we needed it. A large stack of wood for the building was right outside our front door.
The full size bathroom was most welcome after using the small bathroom on the ship.
There was a small porch at the back door.
The only problem with the room, which we would find out when we went to sleep at night was the skylight at the peak of the ceiling. With the very long days, one side of the room stayed pretty bright most of the night. The room really needs to have a blackout curtain that can be easily opened and closed. It turned out to be a minor issue; since we loved the room so much.
We had to call maintenance to get one of the heaters to work. He told us that our group of cabins had just been renovated. I don’t know what they looked like before; but they were now first class in our opinion.
As soon as we could get back to the lodge we headed to the Eagles Crest Restaurant. It was 1:40 PM and we were hungry. We had a wonderful waitress, Mariah, who was most helpful and had a great personality. We would end up having her as our waitress for several meals. We couldn’t have been happier with her. I ordered the Bison Chili. Being from Texas, I am very particular about chili. This stuff was really good. I am still disappointed that I didn’t get to have any the next day.
The main lodge building felt so homey with all the wood. The registration area had a nice large fireplace. Frequently during the day people would be warming up around it.
In addition to the restaurant, Rafter’s Lounge had lighter fare and was the main bar.
There was a large porch that looked out over the beautiful Kenai River Valley. It was such a lovely combination of beauty and tranquility. From the photos I had seen before arriving here, I had no idea how nice this lodge really was. It is a gem and was our favorite of all the Princess lodges.
Across from the lodge is the Trading Post Gift Shop. It was well stocked with various supplies and souvenirs.
Dan had told us about the main walking trails on the grounds. I was most interested in taking the one that went down the hill to the river. We had been told that there were walking sticks available to use.
I used the stick to make a lot of noise while walking, dragging it behind me to alert any bears that someone was coming. I certainly didn’t want to surprise a bear if there was one around. The trail was mainly a dirt road, which got much narrower as I got closer to the water. There was lots of horsetail fern in the woods along the road. It was such an enjoyable walk. I was enjoying nature.
I ran into other walkers while on the path. It was fun to discuss what each of us thought of each of the different overlooks; as well as how to get to the next one. Two of the overlooks had nice wooden decks, while the other was just dirt. The views of the blue glacial water river was really nice. Some rafters were also enjoying it.
Dan had said that if we got down to the river and weren’t able to walk back up, there was a phone at the bottom where we could call for a shuttle to pick us up. I toughed it out and walked back to the top. When I got there, I immediately went to the outside deck and planted myself in a rocker with an Alaskan Amber Beer. I wasn’t alone. Everyone was very friendly and talkative. One of the couples I had chatted with near the river was seated right next to me. They pointed out some Dall Sheep that were way up on the side of Mount Cecil.
I could have stayed there all afternoon. It was so peaceful and relaxing. Every new person that came out was friendly and talking to everyone else. It is the lasting memory I will have of this wonderful lodge. It was by far the most enjoyable of the four lodges we would stay at.
That evening we had a very nice dinner in the restaurant with our tablemates from the cruise, John, Louise, John and Virginia. We would see them many times over the land tour and would eat with them again. The food was very good and I was pleasantly surprised that the food prices weren’t as outrageous as I had read about. It seemed like normal hotel food prices to me. I have included menus and some food photos in the “Menus” link here and accessible at the top of the page.
Kenai – Day 2
The main reason that we had booked a land tour that included the Kenai Lodge was to be able to visit Kenai Fjords National Park. It was supposed to be quite beautiful and one of the few places in the world where we would be able to see Puffins.
While waiting to get on the bus for our day’s tour, I got a kick out of the outside light decoration on the lodge. It did seem appropriate.
When we boarded our bus, we were thrilled that our previous day’s bus driver, Tina, was going to be driving us to Seward where we would be taking a boat tour of the national park. Once again the drive was beautiful. It took about 1.25 hours to get to Seward; but the views and her narration made it go by quickly.
The town of Seward looked like an interesting fishing village to explore. We had a little time, so we started to check everything out. The large anchor was dedicated to the people who died in the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. 139 people died in the 2nd most powerful earthquake recorded by seismograph at 9.2. We would see evidence of this earthquake and hear about it the whole week we were in Alaska. It had quite an impact on the state and on many peoples’ lives.
There were several cute stores; but most of the buildings were for tour offices.
I liked the large mural on one of the buildings across from the square. It looked like a preview of coming attractions.
It was fun to walk around the harbor area to see the strategically placed wood statues; as well as looking at all the small boats.
The boat we were to be on for the tour was the Callisto Voyager. It was a brand new 83 foot catamaran, which holds 150 people. The interior was very spacious and people were on three levels.
It was very easy to move around from level to level; but I preferred to stay outside on the upper deck, even though it was cold.
The boat was very quiet and quite fast. The tour guide provided lots of info about where we were going and what we were seeing over the loud speakers. The area was quite nice. He had a way of keeping what he said interesting. He wasn’t just talking to fill the time.
Not far from the dock, he pointed out an otter. It would be the first of many we would see.
He recommended that we eat our provided lunch now before we got into the good stuff. He was right. We wouldn’t have had time to eat with all the wildlife and scenery we had to see. The lunch was a chicken wrap, with carrots and a breakfast bar. Although it doesn’t look like much, it was real good. They also provided cold drinks.
The tour guide spotted the spout from a whale. We saw the tail in the distance; but he wanted us to get a better position behind the whale for his next dive. The boat was easily maneuvered into position and the whale showed his stuff.
We moved further into the park and pulled along an island with steep rock walls. There were birds all over it and seals laying on the rocks.
Then he pointed out the puffins. I was thrilled. We hadn’t realized how small they were. There were some swimming and others walking on the rocks. It was difficult to get good photos because the puffins were moving and the boat was also moving up and down.
They were so cute. In a puffin sort of way.
At the next island we saw a dall sheep high up on the rocks; and then not far away a bald eagle.
We could see a glacier in the distance; but it wasn’t one we would be going close to.
I then looked down and saw a puffin swimming near the boat.
We then came upon a large pod of orcas. They weren’t as friendly as the group we saw in Juneau; but they did hang around for a little bit.
We next saw a fin back whale. During the day we would also see a gray whale. So we saw four different types in one day.
We continued on toward the glacier we would be viewing. We were passing through some beautiful surroundings and other glaciers too.
In front of us was the Holgate Glacier. We watched for calving for a while; but only had some minor drops. We thought there was going to be a big one, where it looked like a large chunk was just hanging on; but it never happened.
While waiting for calving, one of the crew members pulled a chunk of glacier ice out of the water. He walked around the ship seeing if anyone wanted to touch it. Carol couldn’t resist. It was cold.
Not far from the Holgate Glacier we could see two other smaller glaciers.
Another tour boat was waiting for us to leave so that they could view the glacier, so we backed up. By doing this we could get the perspective of how large this glacier really was compared to the large boat in the lower left corner.
We could see whales in the distance while cruising through the park at various times, but they were too far to try to get to. There were just so many whales in the National Park, that we didn’t have to go to too much effort to see them; but we did get close to some others.
While looking for wildlife, we were passing by some gorgeouos scenery. It was easy to see why Kenai Fjords is a national park. We even got to see another puffin in the water.
After seeing a bald eagle on the rocks, I put my camera up and moved into the warmer interior of the boat. I had tried to stay behind a wall on the upper deck to avoid the wind from the boat movement most of the day when I could; but when they headed back to the docks, it was too cold for me.
It had been a long thoroughly enjoyable day. We had seen so much wildlife and I had finally seen my puffins.
Mount McKinley, Alaska
The next morning we were to board a bus to take us to the McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. While waiting for the bus, Dan brought Bella by to see the guests. I was so glad I finally got to see her face. She looked like a very friendly bear.
We were thrilled when once again we had Tina as a bus driver for the day. She was also pleased to be going with us. She had gotten familiar with the group. It was going to be a full day, since we were leaving at 9:00 AM and arriving at the lodge at 4:00 PM. We would be stopping in Anchorage for lunch. The ride to Anchorage was very familiar in part, since we had been on the road several times in the last three days. Tina recommend some restaurants to the group including the one that I had already picked out before the trip, the Glacier Brewhouse (www.glacierbrewhouse.com).
We were going to get some salads that sounded quite good; but when we saw some of the big hamburgers go by, we changed our mind. It went very well with Alaskan beer.
After lunch, Carol went shopping and I went sightseeing. I had read about Resolution Park which was a short walk from where we were. The park is named after Captain Cook’s ship, Resolution, which he used to navigate the area in 1778. There is a statue of Captain Cook as a center piece of the park. The park is supposed to have views to Mt. McKinley and other large mountains 100 miles away on a clear day. But this was no clear day. As a result the view was nothing much to see. I can imagine on a clear day it would be a great place to visit though.
On the walk back to the bus, I did get to see some pretty flowers.
I was particularly pleased to be able to smell a lilac bush. I haven’t had lilacs where I live since I was nine years old. I always loved the smell of the lilacs around my childhood home.
I took a few photos of the city itself, which was much larger and nicer than I expected. I was impressed with Anchorage.
At 4:00 PM we rolled into the lodge and it was drizzling. The only appeal that this lodge has is a great view of Mt. McKinley if the weather is right. They say that you can see Mt. McKinley from the lodge about 30% of the time. There is a sign that you can stand in front of to see where the mountain is supposed to be. Of course that doesn’t do much good if the weather doesn’t cooperate!
The lodge is in a pretty building; but it is just so large. Especially after being in the peaceful Kenai Lodge. McKinley has 465 rooms compared to Kenai’s 86. Everything was so much more crowded and rushed. As soon as we walked into the lodge, everyone was getting in lines to make dinner reservations. Since we were going to eat early, we didn’t need to make any. As with all the other Princess Lodges, there were metal wildlife statues all around.
The lobby is broken down into several sections.
There is a snack bar on one side of the main building.
There is a large sitting area on the deck to watch the mountains or to wait for McKinley to show. The lodge is on a river; but it can’t be seen from the deck. The sitting area was very crowded and noisy the following day when the sun was shining.
The main restaurant is the Mountain View Dining Room. We had an enjoyable dinner. The food was good and there were different items available than the ones at Kenai.
The Grizzly Bar had lighter food items and similar drinks to what was available at the Kenai Lodge.
They also had another restaurant called 20,320 Alaskan Grill in a separate building. It got its name from the height of Mount McKinley, 20,320 high.
As with all the lodges we would stay at, there were large stores on the premises.
After the great room we had in Kenai, the normal type room at the McKinley Lodge was a letdown. We were in a larger building, which had its own little lobby area.
The room was very clean and quite adequate. Also the bed was quite comfortable.
The bathrooms were all equipped the same in each lodge with the same dispensers in the shower/bath.
Near our room building was a waterfall on a built up mound. The water ran down to a bear statue that looked like the bear was fishing in a river. I was very surprised to see that the mound had been allowed to grow weeds all over it. It didn’t appear that any effort had been put out to keep the area looking good. In fact the grounds were pretty ratty in many places.
The shuttles were on a schedule to take guests from their cabins to the lodge; rather than on call. Since our room wasn’t that far from the lodge, we were able to just walk there.
The attendant that got onto the bus when we arrived at the lodge told us to register for a “Mountain Call” should McKinley be visible. This meant that our room would get a phone call if the clouds cleared in front of the mountain. I did register; but since we were going to be there for less than 24 hours and it was very cloudy, I wasn’t worried about being awakened in the middle of the night.
McKinley – Day 2
With the McKinley Lodge just being an overnight stop before going to the Denali Lodge, we had a few hours to kill before getting on the bus at 2:00 PM. We had decided to take the Wilderness Jet Boat Adventure. Most tours started at the small town of Talkeetna an hour away, since there wasn’t anything to do close to the lodge other than looking at the mountains. We took the bus to Talkeetna, where we checked in with the Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventure office. We were told to come back in a half hour to catch the bus to the jet boat. This gave us a chance to look around. There wasn’t that much to see right right near the Mahay’s office. There were a few stores and a train station.
When the bus came to pick us up, we drove through the main part of Talkeetna. Not a lot there either. Although there were a lot more stores than this photo shows.
Since the river was low, we couldn’t go to the normal docking location. We instead had to walk through the woods to a temporary location to board the boat. It was a large boat for not a lot of customers. There was plenty of room. The front windows opened up to get on and off the boat. They were also opened when we stopped at several points along the route. The side windows also opened easily.
The boat had a driver and a naturalist. The naturalist was supposed to look for wildlife; but she spent most of her time talking to the driver or looking at her cell phone. There wasn’t too much happening on the river. The driver pointed out a tributary where salmon would run later in the season.
We stopped along the bank to get out for a walk to a trapper village. Since the path to the trail was rather steep, Carol decided to just stay on the boat.
The naturalist carried a shotgun in case we came across an unfriendly bear. She then proceeded to take us down a trail while telling us about the various plants and wildlife in the area, including an unusual type of rose.
I had forgotten to get the Off insect repellant from Carol before I got off the boat, so the mosquitos were rather disturbing. I was hoping the shotgun was loaded with mosquito shot.
The naturalist showed us a trapper’s camp and cabin; as well as some of the pelts they would obtain. The cabin looked pretty cozy inside.
I was interested in what she referred to as a “dead fall”. It was used to kill beavers. When they chomped on the small branch, the big log would fall on the beaver and crush it.
They also had one of the types of bear traps that are no longer being used.
When she was finished telling us everything about the village, everyone was ready to get away from the mosquitos and back to the boat. Carol had been talking with the driver while we were gone and had been having a good time. The driver told Carol that she was pregnant for the first time and expecting twins.
We continued down river and finally saw something interesting, a duck with a bunch of chicks. The driver came back and we followed them for a short time. We also saw an eagle; but after seeing so many already, it was starting to be a normal sight.
The jet boat ride was OK; but there just wasn’t much to see. Our driver did provide some interesting commentary; but we were looking forward to our next destination. The Princess bus arrived shortly after our return from the boat. On the way back to the lodge the driver said that the clouds were clearing and we might be able to see Mount McKinley when we got back.
I went to the lodge deck when we returned and there was no mountain. Some people thought they could see some of it; but I believe it was wishful thinking.
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