Alaska: Where Your Adventure Dreams Come True

The majestic Denali Mountain in Alaska

The majestic Denali Mountain in Alaska

It was 90 degrees Fahreinheit when we stepped off the plane in Anchorage, Alaska, during summer 2015—blazing hot in a place we expected to be chilly. Not a good sign when it comes to global warming, but because of that warm sun the land portion of the Princess Cruises trip we took was an absolute delight.

It was the chance to finally visit Denali National Park & Preserve that was the lure of this land-and-sea combination trip, but we almost didn’t make it to that most-visited park in Alaska for there was wildfire roaring across the forests between Anchorage and Talkeetna, the gateway city to the park. And, as usual in Alaska, there was only one two-lane road from here to there. That’s true of just about every city in the Last Frontier—in fact, you cannot even drive to get to Juneau, the state capital, as no roads lead there.

Happily, we were able to take the road up to Denali (which the massive mountain that defines the park is finally also called, no more Mount McKinley) on State Highway A3 in a comfortable motor coach, where we saw the devastation of the fire firsthand. The day before, it had stretched across the road and burned both sides of the forest, reminding us that Alaska is still a wild place where anything can happen.

Talkeetna is a pretty little town and the jumping-off spot for climbers who attempt to tackle Denali. Take a short walk over to the National Park Ranger Station, to see those intrepid mountaineers registering to go out or returning from their climb. Denali is 20,310 feet high and is one of the top 10 mountains in the world that hardcore climbers want to conquer, so when spring arrives in Alaska, so do the climbing crowds.

Seeing Denali Mountain’s summit from a biplane

With the gorgeous weather we had we chose a different way to see the summit, hopping into a six-seat airplane and flying to the very top of Denali (with K2 Aviation in Talkeetna), for a trip that literally took our breath away—we had to wear oxygen masks when we got to the summit. Views of the Alaska Range of mountains spread before us, massive glaciers swept across the gorgeous vistas, and great valleys and rivers lay beneath us. It was spectacular and exhilarating, but be warned: If you suffer from motion sickness, this isn’t the trip for you.

Talkeetna also offers a unique Alaskan tasting experience for beer lovers, as the nearby Denali Brewing Company owns the Denali Brewpub, where you can try flights of different beers that they make locally. Taste the Chinook Pale Ale or the microbrewery’s award-winning Chuli Stout; pair one with the blackened Alaskan cod sandwich or perhaps a wild salmon or Dungeness crab salad for a delicious luncheon. Be sure to stop into Nagley’s General Store as well to meet the mayor (a cat) and see some fascinating artifacts (go upstairs) of the early days of Alaskan history. The store has been there since 1921. From there, we went off to stay at the nearby Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, a beautiful hotel nestled in the forest and featuring spectacular views of the mountains from its massive outdoor deck.

Nagley’s General Store in Talkeetna, Alaska

The next morning, it was on to the epicenter of Denali National Park, staying at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, which is within hiking distance of the main entrance to the park. That huge protected landscape can be visited only by hiking or taking one of the special “school bus” tours tun by the park service into the wilderness; very few private autos and no tour buses are allowed inside the park. Which explains why we quickly saw a huge moose and her two baby calves, as well as bald eagles soaring high in the skies in that vast, still-wild expanse.

Later that day, we boarded an Era Helicopter six-seater (counting the pilot) and headed back above Denali, drinking in its beauty from the sky once again. And this time, we landed right on a glacier and went for a stroll, marveling at the myriad ways the ice exists—smooth, mottled, cracked, fissured, and all fascinating to see up close.

One of Denali Mountain’s stunning glaciers

All too soon, it was time to leave beautiful Denali and travel back down to meet the Star Princess cruise ship docked south of Anchorage in Whittier. To get there, we boarded the Direct-to-the-Wilderness Rail, a luxurious glass-topped train, for a full day’s ride that wended through strikingly beautiful landscapes, some still smoldering from the recent fire—and the train even stopped for animal sightings!

Once onboard the massive Star Princess cruise ship, we settled into our comfortable mini-suite with balcony (the ship has 1,297 cabins) as the seven-day water portion of the trip began. This ship, like most in the Princess fleet, offers a host of fun things to do onboard, ranging from a collection of lounges and bars to a lovely full-service spa, numerous classes, seminars and lectures, live theater and movies, shops, and the obligatory casino. We loved the outrageous Skywalkers Nightclub on the very top deck as well as the spectacular Chef’s Table experience (book that one well in advance), a highlight of the cruise featuring personal service from the executive chef and the ship’s master sommelier as well as ice sculptures, world-class wines, and a trip into the kitchens for the appetizer course.

One of the incredible appetizers served during the Chef’s Table meal on the Star Princess cruise

That incredibly special meal features as much locally sourced food as possible, as do many of the offerings on board. When we traveled, the Princess “North to Alaska” menus featured a fine-dining dish created by the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off winner, Travis Haugen, he of the sublime Southside Bistro in Anchorage, as well as specials including crab cakes from Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau and fish tacos from the Alaskan Fish House in Ketchikan. Even famed Australian chef Curtis Stone is joining up with Princess these days; his localvore “Crafted by Curtis Stone” dishes are now served on all 18 of Princess Cruises’ ships and his “Share by Curtis Stone” specialty restaurants debut on selected ships in December 2015.

Of course, all the astonishing natural wonders off the ship were what we really came to see, starting with the Hubbard Glacier in Disenchantment Bay, the first stop on the cruise. One of the few advancing glaciers in the state, it’s an ice castle built by nature with gorgeous reflections in the waters around it and frolicking seals, peacefully floating otters, and even whales passing by. Shoot photos from your balcony (the captain makes sure both sides of the ship get equal scenic time) or head to the prow, where the winds can be chilly and people are standing three deep. There’s also The Sanctuary, where for an extra charge adults only can enjoy a bird’s-eye view complete with blankets, loungers, hot chocolate, and personal service.

The gorgous vistas in Alaska’s Disenchantment Bay

That’s a terrific place to be when the ship arrives in legendary Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, the bucket-list Alaska destination that allows cruisers to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site up close, where towering glaciers—the Lamplugh, Margerie, Johns Hopkins and Grand Pacific—often calve off gigantic chunks of ice as you watch and listen. There are always guest rangers onboard from the parks service, too, ready to give you all the scientific information you are wondering about, as well as explanations of the flora and fauna you see as the ship nears the massive Margerie Glacier at the far end of the huge bay. It’s almost otherworldly—and especially enjoyable when viewed from your private balcony while sampling the special Deluxe Breakfast served as the ship enters the bay, holding a glass of Veuve Cliquot champagne in one hand and your camera in the other. At that moment, you’ll know exactly why you came on a cruise to Alaska.

And yet there’s even more to love as the ship continues down the Inside Passage and docks at Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and, eventually, Vancouver. In Skagway, we followed the famed Alaskan Gold Rush path via the White Pass and Yukon Route railway, riding the narrow-gauge train rails built in 1898 to carry the thousands of miners north to the Klondike. The train is the same one those hopeful men rode inland, only to find when they reached beautiful Bennett Lake in Canada they still had 500 miles to go before, back in the United States again, they finally made it to the Klondike gold fields. It’s a delightful historical journey, chockablock with incredible natural vistas along the way—and we even saw a black bear near the tracks as we trundled past!

In Juneau, there’s an embarrassment of riches, with so many wonderful adventures to have. Whale watching trips on small boats are almost always a success, while the seaplane trip to Taku Lodge’s Salmon Feast via Wings Airways brings you up close to brown bears (they like to climb on the outdoor grill after the salmon is cooked to look for leftovers) and lets you taste the best salmon you have ever eaten. The trip to the top of the Mendenhall Glacier, where you can actually meet sled dogs in training and drive them for a mush, is almost surreal, right out of a Jack London novel.

Landing on the Taku Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

But the most incredible experience of our Alaska adventure was the double whammy in Juneau that we booked via Princess, the Taku Glacier Adventure. It began with a costal helicopter ride over the mountainous landscape to a landing on the Taku Glacier, a gigantic ice field filled with brilliant colors, huge fissures, and mesmerizing patterns. Then it was on to the dock of Airboat Alaska, where we geared up in some seriously warm waterproof jackets and pants, donned sound-canceling headphones, and whooshed into the Taku River basin on an air boat for a wildly exhilarating ride across the water, zooming right up next to the glacier where a section had just calved off. Massive pieces of ice were all around us, huge trees were submerged in the water, bald eagles soared above against the crisp blue sky—all combined into a noisy, magical, wildlife moment we’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, we also had an unforgettable experience at our last stop on the way, in Ketchikan. After 10 days of fantastic weather, we arrived in that picturesque fishing community in the pouring rain. Scheduled to go on a fishing trip, we hesitated to do it in the inclement weather, but the company insisted they were taking us out and we agreed to go. What followed was the worst six hours of our lives, with icy, needlelike freezing rain constantly pelting us in the open Boston Whaler boat as the choppy waves crashed our bodies over and over into the gunwales. And we did not catch a single fish on that wretched day, either. Lesson learned: When the weather in Alaska looks like it is going to make your life miserable if you stay out in it, it probably will. Pull the plug on the outdoor adventure (even if it costs you money) and you’ll be a much happier person.

Happily, our Princess Cruise ended on a lovely sunny day in the beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, harbor at Canada Place, where we disembarked early and headed straight for the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel just across the street. That luxury hotel with fantastic views of the city is a great jumping-off spot to see this welcoming place. Grab a ticket for the Westcoast Sightseeing Bus and hop-on, hop-off from in front of the hotel all the way through town. Be sure to spend plenty of time in Stanley Park, where the First Nation’s totem poles always draw a crowd, and check out Gastown, Granville Island, the Olympic Stadium, and the rest of this fascinating city. Back in the hotel, give ARC Restaurant a try for some tasty, locally sourced fare, right down to the wines.

 The famed First Nation totem poles in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

We also spent a night at the venerable Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a landmark building right in the heart of the city. Choose that elegant place as a home and you can pick up free bicycles and pedal your way around Vancouver, using the extensive bike lanes the city planners have implemented to make their home a greener place to be. Once you’ve pedaled all over the city, be sure go right next door to the Vancouver Art Gallery, whose collection focuses on talented artists from British Columbia. Finish off your unforgettable vacation with dinner at Notch8 in the hotel, with exquisite tastes of Dungeness crab and wild salmon on the menu it will bring you full circle with sensory reminders of when this remarkable trip began back in Anchorage and the Denali National Park.