Denali

Wrap Up in Anchorage

We wrapped up our epic journey to Alaska in Anchorage, the largest city in the state.  With a population exceeding 300,000, nearly half the state’s residents call Anchorage home. Our hotel, the Westmark, included in our cruise package and owned by Holland America, was well-located downtown. We arrived early in the evening before an afternoon flight out of Anchorage the following day allowing us time for just a brief look around.

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Panoramic view from our balcony at the Westmark Hotel, Anchorage

Dinner at Humpy’s came with outside seating made more enjoyable after the brief shower ended. Jim especially liked his caribou sausage but I had seafood again. Thankfully, salmon and halibut would soon be delivered to our door so it wasn’t my last meal of Alaskan seafood.

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Jim and Sheryl outside Humpy’s

The following morning we got an early start to make the best use of our time. Anchorage plants more than 80,000 flowers in 270 flower beds throughout the city and we were happy to encounter more than a few on our walkabout.

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One of the many flower beds planted around Anchorage each year

Our visit coincided with the Slam’n Salm’n Derby on Ship Creek, an annual fundraiser for the Downtown Soup Kitchen. I was intent on seeing this event so we headed straight for the creek. We overshot the mark, however, and ended up further upstream and found ourselves in a seedier neighborhood than we intended. In retrospect, if we had simply walked directly to the Information Center, we could have explored the area from there. The upside of getting off the beaten path, however, was seeing the Streambank Restoration Project to protect salmon habitat.

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Ship Creek Trail

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Fishing for salmon on the bank of Ship Creek for the Slam’n Salm’n Derby

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More derby fishers at the Bridge at Ship Creek

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Derby fisher weighs his catch

I later read the Derby winner for 2015 was a woman who caught a 37.55 lb king salmon early in the 10-day event.

We visited the nearby Ulu Factory and watched a craftsman work on a traditional ulu knife. With a history over 3000 years old, this tool was fashioned and used by native Alaskans and is still used today. We bought one for ourselves and one for a gift. I especially like it for chopping herbs since I don’t skin many seals.

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Craftsman working at the Ulu Factory

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My Ulu with cutting bowl

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The Ulu Factory and Store

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Jim with a dogsled displayed outside the Ulu Factory

A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center told us there was plenty more than we had time to see, and we would have to be content with the briefest of tours.

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Anchorage Visitor Information Center

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Downtown Anchorage

We decided to spend some of our precious time on an exhibit and video presentation of Dave Parkhurst’s photographs of the aurora borealis.  Photography of his work in the exhibit wasn’t allowed but you can check out his images on his website, The Alaska Collection. We once viewed the northern lights in northern Wisconsin and Jim saw them another time while driving in Iowa on I-35 but this show was phenomenal. As a result, I now want to see the aurora borealis in either Alaska or Iceland.

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Video presentation of images of the Aurora Borealis by Alaskan photographer Dave Parkhurst

Then it was back to the hotel to grab our luggage and catch a taxi to the airport. As we said goodbye to Alaska, we were treated once again to views of Mt. Denali. What could possibly provide a more lasting impression of Alaska?

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Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

 

 

 

Based on events of June 2015.

 

 

Categories: Anchorage, cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

McKinley Explorer

If you’ve followed my posts about Alaska, you’re aware that the name of Mt. McKinley officially changed back to Mt. Denali in September 2015. One of the few remaining references to President McKinley is the McKinley Explorer, the dome railway which we rode from Denali National Park and Preserve to Anchorage, Alaska. I wonder how long it will be until they change the name of the train?

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The McKinley Explorer

 

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Our Conductor and his assistant

 

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Selfie and view of the dome car

It was a comfortable ride through the wilderness of Alaska with endless spectacular views and majestic scenery with wildlife sightings of moose, black bear, and beaver. The train crew was more like bartenders hawking specialty drinks and Holland America merchandise but we enjoyed their friendly banter and tour commentary.

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View from McKinley Explorer

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View from McKinley Explorer

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View from McKinley Explorer

And then, we experienced day 3 of Mt. Denali Revealed. Despite a surfeit of superlative scenery, I believe we all continued to feel awe and reverence at every sight of this majestic mountain. I know I did.

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Mt Denali peaking through the trees

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Mt Denali from the McKinley Explorer

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Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

Our continued sightings of Mt. Denali were all the more remarkable considering the ongoing smoke from the Sockeye Fire north of Willow. As we approached the area of the wildfire, we saw many acres of burned trees and ground cover, continued smoke in the air, and fire-retardant along the tracks.

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Effects of Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska

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View from the train of the Sockeye Fire

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Sockeye Fire effects

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Sockeye Fire, Willow, Alaska

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Firefighter as seen from the McKinley Explorer

At one point, our train stopped and we weren’t sure we’d be able to continue. There were firefighters on either side of the tracks and the fire had jumped the tracks. No announcements were made so it was purely speculation on our part but we suspected danger. We heard that the day before they had to turn off the air conditioning through the fire area and the train cars got unbearably hot. Sheryl later met a woman who told her while traveling on the train the day before us, they were transferred to buses, then transferred back to the train again because the road wasn’t safe. They saw blazing fires and lots of smoke along the way. As I wrote in my previous post, Scenes from the Bus to Denali, the Sockeye Fire, caused by negligence, destroyed 7220 acres and 55 homes at a cost of $8 million.

We finally arrived unharmed in Anchorage but our luggage was not as fortunate. Some of the bags were dirty and seriously damaged. The luggage was transported separately by truck and HAL staff explained that they had to take gravel roads to avoid fire areas. This was an adventure we’d all just as soon have missed but I hope everyone learned the lesson. Do not leave fires unattended.

Based on events of June 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Anchorage, cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Do Not Miss Denali

I have very few travel regrets. I traveled to Belgium and I didn’t visit Bruges. I went to South Africa and I skipped Cape Town and a side trip to Victoria Falls, Zambia. Every time I hear about these places I think, “Why did I miss that?” As a result, I now do better research to find the “do not miss” places in the vicinity of my travel destinations. Do not, I repeat, do not go to Alaska and skip Denali. It was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip for me. I only wish I had spent more time there.

The original name of the highest mountain in North America was Denali, a Native American word meaning high one or great one. It was renamed Mt. McKinley by William Dickey in 1896 when gold was discovered and William McKinley was running for President. The 2 million acre tract of land was named McKinley National Park like the mountain when it was established in 1917. Then in 1975, Alaska restored the name Denali to the mountain but the federal government continued to call it Mt. McKinley. In 1980, Congress expanded the park to 6 million acres and changed the name to Denali National Park and Preserve. Finally, in September 2015, the name of the mountain was also restored to Denali at the federal level by executive order. Confused? Needless to say, all of this was mired in politics but suffice it to say the name of the mountain has been restored to the original Native American name and the national park is named after it.

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Entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve

In spite of the distance to Alaska and the relatively small state population, Denali National Park and Preserve hosts over one-half million visitors each year. To reduce traffic and emissions, the park restricts traffic beyond mile 15 to shuttle and tour buses. Green shuttle buses are the hop on hop off variety but there is no narration provided. Fares vary from $27.50 to $52.50 based on time and distance.  The tan tour buses provide a narrated tour with a box lunch. Prices range from $70.75 to $165 also  depending on time and distance.  We were scheduled and assigned to the Tundra Wilderness Tour by the cruise line as part of our package. If you visit the park on your own, reservations are not required but you can schedule your tour ahead of time here.

Our tour started in the afternoon so we hiked some of the trails and checked out the Denali Visitor Center in the morning. Free courtesy shuttles provide transportation from the hotels to the entrance of the park where various hiking trails begin. We chose the Horseshoe Lake Trail which was moderately difficult but people in worse shape seemed to handle it and the spectacular scenery was definitely worth it.

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Jim and Sheryl setting off for a hike

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Our first view from above on Horseshoe Trail. We climbed down then back up on the hike.

 

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Nary a bear to be found but I was alert, nevertheless

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Quiet, peaceful beauty of the trail

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Horseshoe Lake

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Nenana River

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Horseshoe Lake

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Horseshoe Lake

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Jim on Horseshoe Lake Trail

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Sheryl on Horseshoe Lake Trail

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After the return climb from Horseshoe Lake Trail

After hiking the 3.2-mile loop, it was on to the Denali Visitor Center to check out the informational materials they had to offer. The displays were beautifully presented with lots of mounted animals that are found within the park.

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Denali Visitor Center

The only bear I saw happened to be outside the Visitor Center welcoming visitors. I joined the kids in getting a photo.

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Laura and the bear

After a bite to eat in the cafeteria we caught our tour bus that would take us further into the national park.

Our tour guide, a trained interpretive naturalist, was engaging and well-informed, providing us with natural history details galore while keeping an eye out for wildlife.

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Our tour guide

The “big five” in Denali are bears, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and wolves. We hoped to see them all and the sign below raised our hopes even further.

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Sign on Park Road

Our first wildlife sighting was of Dall sheep high on the far-off slopes but they are just white dots on my photos. Tip: take a good camera with a telephoto lens if you really want to get the shot.

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White dots on the ridge are Dall sheep

Fortunatley, the driver had a telephoto video camera that he showed on a screen in the bus.

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Video screen on the bus to see distant animals

We saw lots of caribou. I can’t tell you exactly how many we saw but by the end of the tour, most tourists didn’t bother to look when one was spotted. The first views were exciting, however. Our naturalist told us that mosquitoes relentlessly torment the caribou. They are literally covered in mosquitoes and they look for snow or mud to bury themselves to escape the misery.

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Caribou

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Caribou laying in the dirt trying to avoid mosquitoes

Try as we might, we didn’t see any bears, wolves, or moose but we did see  beautiful scenery. Many of us tried to capture a bit of it from the bus and each time we stopped.

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Denali National Park and Preserve from the tour bus

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Denali National Park and Preserve

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Denali National Park and Preserve

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Denali National Park and Preserve

And then we saw this. The second day of clear, pristine views of Mt. Denali. Our enthusiasm was not dampened in the least by continued views of this spectacular moutain.

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Mt. Denali (aka Mt. McKinley)

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A shuttle bus on the Park Road with a view of Mt. Denali

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Selfie with Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

 

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Mt. Denali

 

Based on events of June 2015.

 

Categories: Denali, History, natural history, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Scenes from the Bus to Denali

Our cruise ship docked at Seward where we boarded a motor coach to begin the land portion of our Alaskan adventure. The 364 mile bus trip to Denali took all day but the scenery and the narration by our driver made the trip most enjoyable. If you read my previous posts about Alaska, you may think this day was less impressive than previous days. Not so, and you’ll soon see why.

We began our road trip on the Seward Highway, a 125 mile scenic byway which crosses the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Anchorage.

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Kenai Peninsula

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View along Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula

 

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View from Seward Highway on the Kenai Peninsula

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View from Seward Highway on Kenai Peninsula

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While it was great to leave the driving to someone else and concentrate on capturing the beautiful scenery by photo, one of the distinct disadvantages was not being able to stop when we wanted. I usually take a picture of a nearby sign to tell me where my photos were taken which wasn’t possible from a moving vehicle. Consequently, I can’t tell exactly where many of my photos were taken and I can’t label each mountain and lake.

We did hear the story of Moose Pass, however, and I snapped a photo from the bus. The sign on the side of the road next to the waterwheel and grindstone announces, “Moose Pass is a peaceful little town. If you have an axe to grind, do it here.”

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Waterwheel and grindstone on the side of the road

We took a break at a rest area with picnic tables and hiking trails that was especially photogenic.

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Jim enjoying the spectacular view

Near the end of the Seward Highway, we drove along Turnagain Arm. In 1778, when Captain James Cook sought a northwest passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, he named the estuary he found Turnagain River because he was forced to turn around there. Captain Vancouver called it Turnagain Arm in 1794 when he explored the area.

There are two fascinating features of Turnagain Arm. First, one of the largest bore tides in the world occurs here. So what is a bore tide? Dictionary.com defines a tidal bore as, “an abrupt rise of tidal water moving rapidly inland from the mouth of an estuary.” Translated, that means while the water in the Turnagain Arm is flowing out to sea, the tide rushes into the estuary from the ocean. The resulting waves are high enough that surfers actually ride them. For more information and to see a video, check out Alaska Public Lands Information Centers.

The other feature is the mudflats which are composed of glacial silt that act like quicksand. The suction created when the mud is displaced is virtually impossible to break without help. Warnings advise hikers to steer clear because getting stuck in the mudflats with the tide coming in is a recipe for disaster.

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Mudflats on Turnagain Arm

After a quick stop for lunch at a restaurant at the edge of Wasilla, we continued toward the town of Willow on Parks Highway where we saw two more amazing sights. First, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Denali, then called Mt. McKinley. Second, we saw smoke. These two sights would dominate the rest of our Alaskan adventure.

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Smoke rising in Willow with snow covered Mt. Denali to the right in the background

Let me tell you first about Mt. Denali. We knew we would be very lucky to see the elusive highest mountain peak in North America. It’s more often obscured by clouds than not which is why people lucky enough to see it are called the 30% club. When we got our first glimpse, I started taking photos and didn’t stop. I have pictures taken from far enough away that you wouldn’t know it was Mt. Denali; I have photos of Mt. Denali barely visible behind other mountains; I have pictures taken through the bug-covered windshield of the bus. When I experience a rare event, I capture every minute with great enthusiasm before it disappears. Little did we know we would see Mt. Denali four days in a row. I wonder if there’s a club for that?

Here are a few more views from day one of Mt. Denali.

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Mt. Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley)

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Mt. Denali

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Proof we were there

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Mt. Denali

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Mt. Denali

The other sight was the fire. We would see and hear more about this event, called the Sockeye Fire, throughout our stay. The blaze was reported at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, June 14, 2015. The seven photos I took as we drove through the area were taken at 1:16 and 1:17 p.m. By early the next morning, the blaze was out of control, Willow was under an evacuation order, and the road we had traveled was closed. We heard the fire was the result of fireworks but the cause was later determined to be an unattended illegal burn pile. In the end, 55 homes were destroyed, 7220 acres were burned, and the cost to fight the fire was $8 million. We would see more results from the Sockeye Fire when we left Denali.

We arrived at the McKinley Chalet Resort late in the afternoon and found our assigned room in the Cottonwoods Building.

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McKinley Chalet Resort

 

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Sheryl and Jim outside our hotel building

After exploring the grounds and grabbing some dinner, we were ready to call it a night and prepare for our tour of Denali National Park the following day. Thankfully, we had room darkening draperies because it never really got dark at all.

 

Based on events in June 2015.

Categories: cruise, Denali, Travel, Uncategorized, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

North to Alaska 2015

I’ve known since 2012 it was time to go to Alaska. That was the year Jim and I went to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine bringing to 49 our total states visited. Prior to that, my state total was 46 and Jim’s was 43. Honestly, Alaska was never really on my short list but when it’s the only state in the U.S. you haven’t visited, it’s time to make a plan.

I sent for the Alaska Official State Vacation Planner at TravelAlaska.com to begin my research. The sample itineraries in the planner were invaluable for narrowing the options. Many friends cited their Alaskan cruise as their best trip ever so I began exploring cruises. Most itineraries depart from Seattle or Vancouver and typically include the inside passage. A cruise seemed like a pretty efficient way to start to see our largest state but frankly, it looked like we’d barely scratch the surface of this vast area. That realization caused me to look at a combination cruise and land tour. The cruise tour would add a land trip by coach and train to Denali National Park with possible views of Mt. Denali, aka McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

Recommendations and research led me to Holland America, the largest tour operator in Alaska. I knew I wanted to go in June and I wanted to get the best price for a stateroom with a verandah on the starboard side, hoping to spot wildlife as we cruised north. I didn’t have a preference for a particular ship or whether the land portion was before or after the cruise, but I did prefer a cruise starting or ending in Vancouver. We’ve never cruised Holland America before but Norwegian, my usual cruise operator, couldn’t beat their price so I booked with HAL.

Holland America

Holland America Cruise Line Logo

Our original price was just short of $2500 per person but then a friend, Sheryl, decided to go with us so with three in the cabin the price went down to $2035 each.  Then the closer we got to our departure date, the more emails HAL sent us offering upgrades and the lower the cost was for the upgrade. With three in our cabin, we decided to spring for the suite upgrade for an additional $100 each which gave us considerable extra space both in the cabin and on our verandah plus two sinks and a whirlpool tub in the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship. The total for the three of us for the 11 Day Double Denali which included the 7 day cruise, coach to Denali, 2 nights lodging in Denali, tour of Denali, domed rail trip to Anchorage, and one night of lodging in Anchorage was $6400 or about $194 per person per day. I tell you this for reference purposes in case you want to go to Alaska. I do believe I got the best deal available at the time.

Here’s our itinerary from HAL’s website:

Day/ Port
1 Vancouver
Sail from Vancouver, glide under Lion’s Gate Bridge, and enter the scenic wonders of the Inside Passage
2 At Sea
Relax and enjoy a full day of scenic Inside Passage cruising and immerse yourself in Holland America Line elegance
3 Ketchikan
Explore this uniquely Alaskan port, famous for its rich native culture, salmon fishing, and scenic Misty Fjords
4 Juneau
Enjoy a full day of exploring Alaska’s capital-choose from exciting shore excursions and still have time to shop
5 Skagway
Step back to the days of the last great gold rush-choose from exciting shore excursions and still have time to shop
6 Glacier Bay
Cruise the ice-studded fjords of this national treasure for a full eight hours as a Park Service Ranger narrates
7 At Sea (Gulf of Alaska)
Enjoy a leisurely day of cruising
8 Denali National Park
Disembark and enjoy deluxe motorcoach sightseeing to Denali National Park for a two-night stay at this majestic national treasure (lunch included)
9 Denali National Park
Venture deep into Denali on the Tundra Wilderness Tour (snack included), the best way to see wildlife and hopefully Mt. McKinley too
10 Anchorage
This morning, board the luxurious domed rail cars of the McKinley Explorer bound for Anchorage
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Your Land + Sea Journey concludes this morning in Anchorage.

Map View

Itinerary Map View

The cruise began in Vancouver, B.C, and ended in Anchorage, so after booking the cruise, my next goal was to find and book reasonable “open jaw” airfare. (Open jaw means your roundtrip is from different airports, e.g., the departure is DesMoines to Vancouver and the return is Anchorage to DesMoines. I searched on Kayak but I’ve since learned about ITA Matrix and I’ll try that, too, next time. As long as we were going to be in Vancouver, we wanted to explore the city a bit but the less expensive flights were mostly red-eye or arrived late in the day. I found two one-way tickets actually offered the best times and rates in this instance. Orbitz offered a one way from DesMoines to Vancouver on Air Canada for $291.59 and Delta had a return from Anchorage to DesMoines for $404, bringing the roundtrip total to $695.59. It seemed high but summer flights to Alaska are expensive so I booked it.

Finally, we needed two nights accommodations in Vancouver to allow plenty of time before the cruise in case we had flight delays and to properly see the city. Hotels there are very expensive, as I soon found out. I found a Hampton Inn at $260 a night and booked it but canceled it when I found a darling bed and breakfast, the Barclay House, in a great walkable neighborhood for $230. That rate changed when we added Sheryl to our room, but it was still lower than the hotel would have been if we added a third person.

Barclay House

Barclay House

So, with all the arrangements made, we were ready to set sail to visit our 50th state in June 2015.

Next time I’ll show and tell you all about our departure port, Vancouver, B.C.

Based on events from June 2015

Categories: Anchorage, Canada, cruise, Denali, inside passage, open jaw, Travel, USA, Vancouver | Tags: , | 10 Comments

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