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
We were really looking forward to staying at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. It was supposed to be a very nice lodge and we would be visiting Denali National Park while there. Unfortunately we had to say good bye to Tina, since she was taking her bus back south while we were going further north. She had done a great job of taking care of us and making us feel like friends.
The drive was supposed to only be a little over 2 hours. Since we were leaving at 2:00 PM, we would arrive around 4:00 PM, which sounded good to us. The drive was just spectacular. Much better than we had expected. There were beautiful snow covered mountains and the lovely blue glacier rivers and lakes all the way there.
I was particularly enthralled with a mountain that was being blanketed by clouds.
This was a major reason that I wanted to take the cruise early in the season and do the land portion. The landscape was just too gorgeous.
When we arrived at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, I understood why it is so popular. It is set in a beautiful location and just looks like the type of resort you would find in Alaska. It was a huge facility with 656 rooms and quite spread out.
The main lodge is quite large and has two levels. This actually worked out nicely, since it allowed us to not have to climb the hill to get to the main level where the busses left from. We were able to enter on the lower floor and take the elevator to the top level.
The inside of the lodge was much more modern than I expected; which was OK. I had just expected more of the log cabin look that we had experienced in the other lodges.
There was a large store and snack bar in the main lodge; but no restaurants. They were in separate buildings.
In fact, most things were in separate buildings around the grounds. It made it easier for the guests, since they didn’t have to walk to the main lodge for everything. It also spread out the guests where it didn’t feel as crowded as the McKinley lodge, where everything was in one big building. The separate buildings were particularly good for us, since our building was on one end of the grounds. It looked like a long way on the map; but was really just a short walk and convenient to everything. They had quite a few cute specialty shops that had some really nice merchandise.
There were three main dining venues. The largest was the King Salmon Restaurant. It was a huge facility with a large waiting area. It was open for all meals. Unfortunately unless you ate early, you had to wait for a table. When people first arrive at the resort, they rush to the restaurants to make reservations for the more popular times.
Right next door to the King Salmon was the Base Camp Restaurant/bar which was open for lunch and dinner. It was a bit lighter fare. I thought the entry to the restaurant was kind of unusual. It was cute to have a tent for a base camp; but I think a lot of people passed it up because they didn’t think it was a restaurant.
On the backside of the King Salmon and Base Camp Restaurants was a very nice deck overlooking a glacial river. A very comfortable setting and a great place for eating and enjoying drinks.
The other restaurant was a breakfast buffet and dinner theater combination called Music of Denali.
Our room was in Building D. For some reason there were no elevators in the building. This did not make Carol happy. I thought that all hotels had to be handicap accessible. Carol isn’t handicapped; but stairs are not her friends. Our room was comfortable and clean like all the Princess lodges we stayed at. However, this one had the smallest rooms. But a big plus was that we were able to access WiFi in our room.
A strange thing happened the first night we were there. The main room light came on all by itself at midnight and then again at 2:00 AM. It did not contribute to a good night’s sleep. We never solved the mystery, so I guess we will just chalk it up to ghosts.
We woke up early, so that we could catch the free Princess Shuttle to the Denali Visitor Center. All tours entering the park are conducted through the park service. Two tours are sold by Princess but conducted by the park service. The first is the Denali Natural History Tour which is included in your land package from Princess. The second is the Tundra Wilderness Tour which is a $50 per person upgrade through Princess. The Natural History Tour just goes to mile 15 in the park and really doesn’t even get into the real park. The Tundra Wilderness Tour goes to mile 53 and includes a box lunch and supposedly more narrative and cameras that zoom into the animals for showing on the bus TV’s.
Before the cruise, we decided to cancel the included Natural History Tour and book The Eielson Shuttle on our own which goes to mile 66 and sees quite a bit more of the park and takes 8-9 hours. Because we cancelled it before the cruise, we got back $56 each. We then purchased a Shuttle ticket to the Eielson Visitor Center a few months before the visit for $33.50 each. Quite a deal.
Our shuttle was leaving at 8:30, so we took the 7:00 AM Princess Shuttle to the Denali Visitor Center. It was a nice building and complex with a store nearby. I had wanted to get there early to buy a lunch to take with us. We couldn’t believe the center didn’t open until 8:00 AM. We sat around for a while. Carol even played on a bear statue.
Some other people were also waiting to purchase or pick up their tickets. Finally at 8:00 AM, it opened. I went to the counter and they told me that I was supposed to be at the Wilderness Access Center not the Visitor Center. I couldn’t believe it. They told me a bus was supposed to leave for there just after 8:00 AM. We missed it by a couple minutes. I couldn’t believe that we had been there for almost an hour and were at the wrong place. After a very stressful wait, the Princess Shuttle came by. I told the driver our problem. He said he would take us where we needed to go, even though he had just come from there. We were most grateful.
When we got to the Wilderness Access Center, I ran to the counter to pick up our tickets while Carol bought some sandwiches and drinks. We were on the shuttle in time, but just barely. I could finally relax. It had been a very stressful morning.
Since we were near the end of the line getting on the bus, we knew we wouldn’t be close to the front of the bus. But that worked out really well, since we were able to get in the very last seats of the bus. They were great seats. In addition to there being more room because we had several empty seats next to us, the back window gave us a great view that we couldn’t get from the sides. The bus was like a large school bus; but with comfortable seats that had plenty of leg room. I was very impressed.
We had a great driver/moderator, Wayne. He was so informative and had so many interesting stories. He was a real pleasure. Another main difference between the park tours and the shuttle is that the drivers for the shuttle don’t have to say anything, since they aren’t tour guides. But I think they all do. I don’t know how they couldn’t talk about the wonderful sights we were seeing. Wayne certainly talked and answered questions.
Wayne really didn’t have to spot much wildlife for us, since we had some real observant people on the bus that would holler out to Wayne to stop when wildlife was near. We were enjoying the drive and beauty surrounding us. We quickly saw a moose. It was the only one we saw while in the park.
Our first stop was at the Teklanika River rest area. It was mainly a bunch of restrooms and a scenic overlook. Since we had been in the bus for an hour and a half, everyone was happy to see that there were lots of restrooms.
The blacktop road ended at mile 15, so we were traveling on a dirt road most of the day. It was a good dirt road, so it wasn’t an issue.
Someone spotted some Dall Sheep way up on the hill. Since they stay high on the mountains, they are difficult to see even with them being pure white. Even my telephoto lens couldn’t get that good a photo of them; but at least we have memories. I put a photo of what they looked like from the bus without any magnification. It is difficult to even find the white dotsright in the middle of the picture on the right.
The further we drove into the park, the prettier it got. This was one gorgeous place. I was so glad that we didn’t just do the included tour, since it ended at the pavement and didn’t see any of the park to speak of. We had also picked the correct side of the bus to ride in. The views were best on the port side of the bus most of the time going into the park. I used the term “port”, since it is the easiest way to get the message across.
I was also so glad that the mountains still had snow on them. It just brings out the beauty. We were also getting a lot of sunshine, which had not been expected.
One of the most beautiful places in the park is the Polychrome Lookout. In order to get there, we had to drive on some narrow winding road with a 600 foot drop off on one side. Since there were no barriers, it was a bit stressful for many people sitting on that side of the bus. I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful views. I just wish I could have captured the depth; but some memories can’t be captured in photos. Buy my memories will still be there.
When we got to Polychrome, we got out of the bus to take photos.
Further down the road, someone spotted a Golden Eagle way up on the top of mountain. Wayne was most impressed, since they don’t see them very often.
The scenery was just breathtaking. It was much more than I had even hoped for. We had waited a long time to visit Denali. I was so glad that the weather was cooperating.
Our second stop was at the Toklat River rest area at 11:30 AM. Now this was more like a visitor center than a rest area. They even had a store in a semi-permanent tent. The area around the rest area was just gorgeous.
They also had some caribou and moose horns on display that people were holding and/or trying on. Everyone was shocked at how heavy the moose horns were. Even one side took some effort to lift.
Not far down the road we came upon a group of Caribou. We would see lots of Caribou that day.
Wayne then alerted us that there was a bear walking on the road close to some tour and shuttle buses that had stopped up ahead.
When the bear headed off road, Wayne moved ahead to where he thought the bear might be going to come out. Wayne was right on. The bear just walked around looking for something to eat without paying attention to us at all.
A little later, Wayne stopped the bus and told everyone to be very quiet. An injured red fox was walking down the road in front of us. He said if we didn’t make any noise it might walk right by us. Sure enough he hobbled right by the window. We felt so sorry for him, since he probably wouldn’t live very long without being able to run to catch prey or to get away from being prey.
At 12:45 PM, we arrived at our final destination, Eielson Visitor Center. Now this was a very nice visitor center. In addition to it being a large building, they had various programs and tours that people could take. Had we wanted to take them, we could do that and catch another bus back if there was room on one. No one did that; but it was an option.
The view from the center was also gorgeous. If the weather had been clearer, we would have had a very nice view of Mount McKinley.
You can see in the below photo, what it is supposed to look like on the sign in front of what we were seeing.
But there was nothing wrong with the wide view we did have.
I was so glad I listened to what others told us to do and came all the way to Eielson on the shuttle instead of taking the Natural History Tour. I just can’t imagine coming all this way to Alaska and not being able to see as much of gorgeous Denali as possible. We even got to see some more wildlife there, a ground squirrel. It was different looking from the long bushy tail ones we are familiar with.
On the way back we saw more bears and caribou.
The scenery was ever changing. The higher we got, the mountains had less vegetation; but the views were still beautiful.
We saw some more Dall Sheep before the rains came.
It was really strange that the rains themselves didn’t last very long; but the windows just got covered with dirt from the roads. You literally couldn not see anything through the windows. When we stopped at the last rest areas, there were buckets and squeegees that we could use to clean the windows. It helped for a little bit; but the dirt came back pretty fast. We were so grateful that most of our trip was in good weather, so we could see so much wildlife. We had an incredible day in Denali.
When we got back we went to dinner and had another excellent meal. We had been so pleased with the food at all the Princess Lodges we had stayed at. The prices weren’t that bad for hotel food either. The portion sizes were almost too large; but most importantly, the food was just delicious.
The next day we had a free day, since the white water rafting tour that I booked was cancelled. I figured we could find plenty to do around the lodge or walk across the street to an area known as Glitter Gulch, since there were so many stores there.
I decided to go over to the Denali Visitor Center, since I really hadn’t been able to visit it the previous day. I was glad I did. While on the shuttle bus, a couple told me that they were going to the dog sled show that left from there. They also told me to be sure to go to the movie about the park in the large theater at the visitor center.
Timing was perfect in that the busses for the dog sled show were loading as we arrived. It was a short ride to the kennels. Everyone walked over to play with the dogs. They were very loveable.
A park ranger explained that the dogs in the kennels were larger than the dogs that are used for racing, since they are work dogs, not race dogs. They are built to pull heavy loads and are necessary in the winter to move supplies around the park.
The dogs were hooked up to a sled and they pulled it around for a little bit. Once again we heard about raising dogs. I was getting very familiar with how dogs are cared for. After the presentation, we could look at various sleds they had on display.
When we returned to the visitor center, I finally got to look around. It was a really nice facility. I also was able to see the movie about the park. It was a very nice and pretty presentation showing the park in different seasons.
When I got back to the room, Carol and I decided to try out the pizza restaurant on the lodge grounds, Lynx Creek Pizza and Pub. It was the first pizza we had eaten since we got off the ship and it was really nice for a change. The Alaskan beer, as always, was quite good also.
We had dessert in the main lodge snack bar. We had discovered a delicious treat, Huckleberry Ice Cream. My goodness, it was good stuff. After lunch, I went over to Glitter Gulch to kill some time before we had to catch the bus to the train station.
With the train station being right across from the Denali Visitor Center, I was quite familiar with the area. It was set up in several covered gate areas with benches. There was also a main terminal, but I never went inside.
The luggage instructions clearly stated that only small bags or backpacks could be carried on the train. Some people who didn’t read instructions were surprised that the standard size airline carry-on bags that they brought to the train had to be taken from them and put in a baggage car. The train arrived at 4:00 PM. Since that was the time we were supposed to leave, that meant we would be running late. We ended up leaving 20 minutes late. The cars were very large and very high up. The views should be good from there. Especially from the open area at the back of each car.
We were able to load pretty quickly to our assigned seats. I must say that this train was first class. The seats were super roomy and comfortable. The glass top allowed for great viewing as we rode down the tracks. It was quite obvious why we couldn’t bring on carry-on type bags, since there was no place to put them. We did have plenty of room under the seats in front of us for what we did bring.
I walked to the back of the car to see what the outside viewing area looked like. It looked larger than it did from the ground. This would be where I hung out.
Our car had a dining room/kitchen on the first level. It could hold 36 people. With that dining room having to support two cars, it meant that 112 people would have to cycle through there. The other car had a snack area that had sandwiches, so some people didn’t need the dining room. We were told around 4:30 PM that the dining room would only take people until 6:30 PM. So they had to fit in a lot of people in 2 hours.
We went down at 5:00 PM and were the last people that were able to be seated. The service was very slow and people were not happy when they came down to get a table. We didn’t get served until 5:41 PM. The food was just OK. We probably should have just gotten a sandwich in the snack car; but we had never eaten in a dining car before and wanted to experience it. Uh, it was not like in the movies.
The starboard side of the train was the best going north, since it was in the shade and the views were of the river, rather than the side of a mountain. The scenery at the first part of the ride was kind of pretty; but nothing like our previous day’s sightseeing. We did get to see a moose way below that was swimming in a river; but he was passed by too quickly to even think about a photo.
By the time we went to dinner at 5:00 PM, the terrain was getting pretty flat and boring. That is why we went down so early. With the train cars being so nice, I was surprised how rough the ride was. We have been on bullet trains that were very smooth; but this train was rocking back and forth for most of the trip. The buses were a much smoother ride.
The terrain started to get a bit nicer as we approached Fairbanks.
We were happy to see the train station. We were ready to get settled in. The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge was of a more contemporary design than the previous lodges.
The main reception area was not that large and it was crowded most of the time we were there. The whole interior was spread out in a way that made it difficult to find where you wanted to get to. They did have a nice store, like the other lodges.
The main restaurant was the Edgewater Dining Room. I liked the large caribou statue at the front of the restaurant. The only meal we had at the hotel was one breakfast. Unlike the other lodges, which had great food, both Carol’s and my food came out cold. Carol’s blueberry pancakes wouldn’t melt the butter, and she had to ask for syrup twice. I had cold oatmeal; which should never happen in my opinion. After all it should be in a large hot container, so I guess that everyone’s was cold.
The lighter fare restaurant/bar was Tracker’s Restaurant. Since we didn’t spend much time in the hotel, we never tried it out. Probably a good idea, since our ship table mates did and they complained about it.
After staying in lodges with beautiful glacier rivers or majestic mountains; the deck along the river just wasn’t that impressive. It wasn’t bad. We had just experienced much better over the prior days.
This was the first room that felt like we were in a regular hotel. I had called ahead and asked about a room on the first floor so Carol wouldn’t have to climb stairs. The lady said that they had elevators, so I didn’t worry. Unfortunately, when we got off of the elevator, we discovered that we were at the very end of a very, very long hallway. It actually looked longer than the hall on a large ship.
The room was very nice though and the WiFi worked great from it. Other than the Kenai Lodge, it was the most comfortable room we had the whole week. With the sun setting at 12:47 AM and rising at 2:53 AM, we were quite glad that the room had very effective blackout curtains.
Fairbanks – Day 2
This was going to be a very busy day. We were going to go gold panning, take a river boat ride, go to a salmon bake and finish it off with a stage show. I was glad that our flight the next day was going to be a late one, so we wouldn’t need to wake up early. We got on the bus at 9:30 AM to head to Gold Dredge #8. We really didn’t know what to expect from this excursion, since it was one that was included in our tour package. On the way to the gold dredge, we passed by the Fairbanks Carlyle Trucking office; which is the one used on the TV show, Ice Road Truckers. That really made us feel like we were far north; which we were.
When we arrived at the Gold Dredge #8 National Historic District, we were surprised to see that the Alaska Pipeline was right there. I thought the pipe would be wide. It was only four feet wide. But apparently they can carry a bunch of oil the 800 mile length with no problem. We received a nice talk about the pipeline explaining how it worked and some of the safety and environmental procedures that were used. It was interesting.
We then got on a small train for the ride to the actual gold dredge. Periodically, the train would stop and our moderator would tell us about the gold mining process. It was fascinating and quite educational.
The gold dredge itself was a massive structure. It must have been a sight to see when it was actually operating.
He also showed us the bag of gold dirt we would receive and how we would be panning gold when we got to our stations. It looked pretty easy. At least when he was doing it.
We were each given a bag of dirt and a pan and told to sit down at a bench with a bin of water in front of us. Workers would walk around showing us the correct way to do it. Like most people, we were being too careful not to lose any of the gold. Once we listened to and watched what they were showing us and just did the panning more aggressively, we found gold. Not that much; but a lot more than expected. Carol got $16 worth and I got $15.
Now what do we do with $31 of gold flakes? I use the term “we” lightly, since naturally, Carol claimed it all. They had an answer for us! After you got your gold weighed, there was a table where you could buy jewelry to display it. I think it was more profitable for the company to sell jewelry than to mine the gold. But it was a nice souvenir.
The whole operation was much better than I expected. After the gold panning and weighing, there was time to go to their shop as well as pig out on free drinks, cookies and snacks. It was a very nice excursion.
We got back on to the bus at 12:30 PM and took a 40 minute drive to the River Boat Discovery, which was also included in our land package. This looked like a big operation. There were two river boats, Discovery 2 and the newer larger Discovery 3.
There was also a large complex of shops and a restaurant. Since it was after 1:30 PM, everyone was glad we were heading to the dining room first. There were lots of tables laid out with food ready to eat. It was served family style, which was perfect, since everyone could be served quickly. The stew, grilled vegetables and salad were quite good, and you could have as much as you wanted. Much better than expected.
During the meal, we had a special guest, musher Lance Mackey, who had won the Iditarod Race four times. He is also a throat cancer survivor. He told us about mushing and dogs. We had heard much of it before; but he did share his personal experiences; which have been most challenging.
After lunch we boarded the large Discovery 3 which can hold 900 passengers. It was a huge river boat with four levels. There was indoor and outdoor seating. Since it would get up to 70 degrees that day, the outside seats were very desirable.
When we first left the dock, we stopped not far from the main facility. They had someone with a float plane take off and land a couple times to show everyone how it was done.
As we cruised down the Chena River, we were most impressed with some of the beautiful homes we were seeing. I particularly liked the large log cabin looking one.
We then stopped in front of the home of Susan Butcher’s husband. Susan Butcher was the second woman to win the Iditarod and only one to win four of the races, three in a row. She died in 2005; but her husband wrote a book about her and still raises dogs. Once again we got to hear about dog raising and racing. We also got to see the dogs hooked up to sled; but it was actually an ATV without a motor. The dogs pulled it around the property. Susan’s husband was wirelessly able to talk to the boat while the moderator asked questions.
As is always the case of with dog sled and racing presentations, the dogs are the stars of the show. Particularly the puppies. They were just too cute playing with each other and the trainer.
When we were heading back to the main facility, we docked along the river’s edge to disembark at the Chena Indian Village. I was expecting it to be kind of hokey; but it was a much better presentation than expected. We went to one area and one of the native Indian girls told us about the animals the Indian’s trapped and their furs. The wolf fur in the photo is seven feet long – one big wolf.
At another stop in the village, a different Indian girl showed us a beautiful fur outfit. She said it was valued at $30,000. It was one impressive looking coat; but wouldn’t be worth much in South Florida.
The next demonstration was with sled dogs. I checked out some of the dogs; but didn’t stay to see anything more. I had seen enough dog demonstrations on this trip.
We then came back to the main facility and headed for the bus. If we had started our land tour in Fairbanks, I would have enjoyed the boat trip much more. We had just heard so many of the same stories and seen similar presentations earlier, that it lost some of the appeal. We were looking forward to getting back to the hotel and resting up a bit before our big night out.
We had signed up for the Alaska Salmon Bake, since it only seemed right to have some salmon while in Alaska. Carol and I aren’t big salmon fans. But this tour seemed to be a good one to try it at, since they also had prime rib and other things to eat. When the bus dropped us off, we entered the area through what looked like a gold mine shaft. Kind of cute way to do it.
We then walked into an area that had a bunch of wooden picnic tables and food serving areas.
The food didn’t look too great, except for the salmon. It looked quite appetizing as they were cooking it over a wood fire. The prime rib looked alright too. After we got our plates we went into a large dining room to eat, since it was too cold to eat outside. We sat down at one of the long tables. Since the meal was an all you can eat format, a lot of people had their plates stacked with all sorts of food and the tables were kind of crowded. Once we tried the food, we were very impressed with the Silver Bright Salmon. It was very mild and tasty. Unfortunately, other than the salad, the rest wasn’t very good. The prime rib was very tough and just didn’t taste that great. Nothing else seemed that tempting. Even the dessert, which was a cake that you piled sweet blueberry compote on wasn’t that good. It was a very disappointing meal.
The grounds were the best part of the Alaska Salmon Bake. They had lots of antique farm implements and tractors around the grounds. Seemed like it could be a hazard if small children decided to play on them though.
Right next door to the Salmon Bake grounds is Pioneer Park. It looked like a kind of interesting place; but because it was night time, there wasn’t much going on. The main attraction was that there had been 35 restored buildings from early Fairbanks history.
They also had the 230 foot sternwheeler, Nenana; which is the second longest wooden hull ship still in existence. It is now being used as a museum.
Our main reason for being in Pioneer Park was to go to the show at the Palace Theater. It is part of the excursion when you go to the Salmon Bake. After our disappointing meal, we were worried that the show could be strike 2. The theater was kind of interesting on the exterior and was one of the 35 restored buildings. The interior even more authentic looking and the right size where everyone had a pretty good seat.
The show had four performers and a piano player. It is a lighthearted look at the characters from Fairbanks past and present. It is of course corny by nature; but we really enjoyed it.
They had funny skits, musical numbers, dancing and a lot of history mixed into all of it.
We left feeling much better than when we went in. I had been disappointed earlier, thinking that I had wasted the money on a bad excursion; but the show saved it from being a total waste. Too bad we couldn’t have skipped the salmon bake and just gone to see the show. We really enjoyed it and discussed it on the way back and when we got to the room.
Fairbanks – Day 3
The Princess part of the vacation was officially over. But since our flight to Miami wasn’t until 9:30 PM, we still had a full day to explore Fairbanks on our own. I had booked a rental car for the day so we could have our freedom to go and do whatever we wanted.
Since Princess charged $5 per person for the airport shuttle, I just called Budget Rent a Car to come to the lodge and pick me up for free. With the airport being literally across the street from the hotel, someone was there in less than five minutes. I then drove the car back to the hotel to get Carol. Just too easy.
We were very pleased to learn that we could check our luggage in for our flight right at the hotel. We were able to pay for our checked luggage and receive our boarding passes with minimal hassle. An added bonus was that we wouldn’t have to worry about it being left in the rental car while we drove around all day. Since the process was very easy, it was also quite popular with the guests. There was no line when I came back with the car; but by the time I went to the room to get Carol and bring the luggage down, the line had built. Fortunately it moved pretty fast.
I had been coughing some the previous days and had worried about getting sick while on vacation. Well with the vacation basically being over, I guess my body decided it was time to get sick. I had a low grade fever; but still felt good enough to run around. I didn’t have as much energy as usual; but I wasn’t worried since this would be a low key kind of day.
I had read that a must do thing while in Fairbanks was to visit the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska (www.uaf.edu/museum). I programmed my iPhone GPS and headed that way. It wasn’t far. The modern white building was easy to find. Unfortunately, we were having a pretty dreary day with occasional drizzle. But since we were at an inside museum, it was a good place to be.
The museum was a very modern style packed full of everything Alaskan. The charge to visit was $12 per person. If we wanted to see the various movie presentations they had there was an additional $5.00 per person charge. Upon entering the museum, we came to a huge Grisly Bear.
There were many interesting displays. It was quite a nice museum and had I been feeling better, I would have liked to visit longer than we did. I had read that from the museum we could see Mount McKinley on a clear day. Our last chance to see McKinley would be a no show.
I had originally planned to visit the Large Animal Research Station ( http://lars.uaf.edu ). But with the miserable weather, I just couldn’t see walking outside in the mud. Plus the facility we visited on our way to Kenai earlier in the trip was probably quite similar to it.
For lunch, we went to a small restaurant in downtown Fairbanks called Soapy Smith’s Pioneer Restaurant. Visiting there was like visiting another museum. There was so much Alaska memorabilia on the walls. The restaurant’s owner was the grandson of the last territorial governor of Alaska, Mike Stepovich. He had lots of stories to tell and was very proud of his heritage. He showed Carol around the restaurant pointing out interesting things. Our waiter was quite flamboyant. A real character; but quite genuine. The food was pretty good. We both had the Alaskan King Crab Burger. They are supposed to be known for their apple pie. I had to try it. They only had one small piece left, so Carol said I could have it. I’m glad she did because it was outstanding.
We decided to take a drive to the North Pole; or should I say the city of North Pole, Alaska.
It wasn’t too far from Fairbanks and even though it wasn’t supposed to be that great, we thought it could be fun. Our bus driver from the previous day had recommended it. She told us about the street lights being decorated like candy canes. I had to take a photo of them. I guess North Pole was a special place, since I have never stopped my car to take a photo of street lights before.
We had seen the main Christmas store while driving in to town; but for some reason it wasn’t that easy to find our way back to it. It was kind of fun to drive around seeing all the Christmas and Santa themed names on buildings. But there was one place that did not look like something we would find in the North Pole. It was the Screaming Weasel Gift Shop. I don’t know why this place was there; but it is on the list of attractions to see in North Pole.
We then headed to the main North Pole Attraction, the Santa Claus House (www.santaclaushouse.com). It was easy to find once we got on the right road, the one with the giant Santa Claus statue next to it.
The exterior was decorated all over with Christmas artwork. Some of it was really nice.
The interior was a giant Christmas store, with everything you could possibly want related to Christmas. It was quite a place.
They even had a live Santa Claus for kids to visit with. Carol got too close to a Polar Bear.
While at the store, we saw our ship dining room table mates John and Virginia. They also had a late flight and had been visiting different places using the public buses. The buses were free for people over 60. Quite a deal. Apparently it was very easy to get around to the major attractions. They told us that we should visit the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center (www.morristhompsoncenter.org). They also said that the area around it was a pretty good tourist area that was supposed to have restaurants. They were going to go back that way for lunch, so we told them we would take them there in our car, and we would visit the Center. The Center building was of a contemporary design with a large mosaic in front of it.
Unlike the Museum of the North, this place was free. The museum was dedicated to Morris Thompson who was in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for many years. He retired when he was 61 and took a retirement trip to Mexico. The plane crashed on the way back to Alaska, with Thompson and his wife both dying. The museum was quite different than the Museum of the North in that it was more into the Indian culture and life. There were some large diorama scenes and numerous displays.
Carol had to try out the snow mobile. I don’t know what got into Carol on this trip. First she rides a bear at Denali and now this.
After leaving the Cultural Center, I had hoped to see some of the other tourist attractions in Griffin Park right next door; but the weather just didn’t encourage us to do much there. I was able to walk over to the Antler Arch to get photos. Kind of a strange attraction.
We then got back in the car to see if we could see any other attractions while driving around. Just down the block we saw a large statue, so we pulled into a parking place. I had seen these strange structures while driving around Fairbanks; but assumed that it was for charging for parking. I was wrong about that. When I opened up the top of the box, there was an electric outlet; which I assumed was to be used for plugging in your car’s oil heaters, so the car wouldn’t freeze up. I am sure we will never see one of these things anywhere in the state of Florida.
The statue was the Alaska Siberia World War II Memorial. It honored the pilots who flew from the US to Siberia during World War 2 as part of the Lend Lease Program. It was a lovely statue; but seemed like an unusual thing to be honoring. I guess I am just too young to be able realize the significance of the program. I don’t get to say that too often.
An Alaska specialist that posts on www.cruisecritic.com had told me that if I ran out of things to do while in Fairbanks that I might want to take a ride on the Old Steese Highway. She said there was an interesting sight along the way. Since we had plenty of time to kill, I decided to check it out. After all, if nothing else it would allow us to see more of the area. Along the side of the two lane road was a DC3 airplane. A person had apparently tried to set it up for use as a residence. Carol was not impressed. What can you say?
After the plane, we decided that we had enjoyed enough sightseeing for the day. We had been told that one of the better restaurants in the area was Chena’s Alaskan Grill ( www.chenas.net ). It was very close to our hotel and the airport. It was a much larger restaurant than I expected. It was right on the Chena River with a massive outdoor deck that goes around most of the building. I am sure the place is packed when the weather is nice.
We got there pretty early, so we decided to wait before eating, since our flight was so late. This worked out great, since my iPhone battery was very low due to the heavy GPS use. We were able to sit in the waiting area, charge my iPhone and read our Kindles while we waited.
We had an absolutely wonderful meal. The service was very friendly too. If I lived in Fairbanks, I would frequent this place. After dinner, we went back to the airport and returned the car. We found out that our flight was delayed due to weather in Minneapolis where our flight was coming from and going to. With us having a four hour layover there, we weren’t too worried about missing our connecting flight to Miami. That was until we found out that our flight was now going to be three hours late getting to Fairbanks. We wouldn’t even leave until after midnight. Plus what if it was even later, would we miss our connecting flight? After we finally landed in Minneapolis, we were kept on board the plane until a medical emergency could be evacuated first. It only took an extra 15 minutes, but we were concerned. Red eye flights are bad enough without the added stress; since it makes it more difficult to sleep on the flight. I probably wouldn’t have let the stress get to me except for the fact that I was getting sicker by the minute.
Our worry was for naught, since when we finally did get to Minneapolis our flight to Miami was going to leave two hours late. But everything worked out OK. It was great to be able to get home to our warm climate after three weeks away.
Even though we both were feeling sickly, we had thoroughly enjoyed our Alaska vacation. From visiting with our friends in Redmond, WA, cruising on the Island Princess and taking a fantastic land tour, it was all a great adventure. We counted it up and over the two weeks we saw 4 different kinds of whales, grizzly bears, black bears, bald eagles, a golden eagle, ground squirrel, Dall sheep, puffins, seals, otters, a red fox, moose, and caribou. That was just animals in the wild. We saw elk, buffalo, porcupines and reindeer at the rehab center. We were so glad that we finally had the time to enjoy Alaska by land. It truly helps one to appreciate the magnitude of this incredibly beautiful state.
© 2014 ThePreismans.com • All Rights Reserved