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Alaska Land Tour - Part 1

Departure Date: August 4, 2006

Itinerary: Alaska land vacation – Seattle, Fairbanks, Denali, McKinley, Anchorage


Review of 6-night Alaska Land Vacation featuring the Princess Alaska Wilderness Lodges


This trip was a travel agent FAM (familiarization) trip offered through Princess Tours, with the sole purpose being to show us agents details of the Princess Alaska Wilderness Lodges and overall land experience so we would sell more Princess Cruisetours.  Of course, Cruisetours are wonderful, but I, quite frankly, enjoyed going to JUST the land on this trip.  I have a hard time getting away from my office for two whole weeks in a stretch, so doing the cruise in a separate trip from the land is not a terrible idea.  That’s why I’m writing this review for the land vacation section of my Website.


My reviews generally go in chronological order, as this one will.  Except for the very beginning, our land-only trip was a typical 5-night tour that would precede a Princess Voyage of the Glaciers Cruise if you did a cruisetour.  Or, as I’ll explain at the end, you can book JUST the land.


Also note that Alaska is very casual.  Even in the fine dining restaurants in the lodges, folks were NOT dressed up.  Unlike a cruise, jeans, tennis shoes and t-shirts would be acceptable.  I didn't feel the need to pull put my fancy shoes or my evening purse the whole week!  I wore semi-casual (dockers and a collared shirt) day and night throughout the tour.  There are a lot of gravel and uneven surfaces to walk on, so good walking shoes are a must!


Pre-Tour in Seattle, WA:


Many folks fly from the lower 48 to Seattle, have a stop at the Sea-Tac airport, and then do the “big fly” up to Anchorage or Fairbanks from Seattle.  It makes for a grueling day if you’re coming from pretty far away.  If you’ve got the time, consider a stop-over in Seattle.


My tour actually began in Seattle, as they had us agents fly from all over the USA and meet up at the Seattle Marriott Sea-Tac Airport.  I loved this hotel!  It’s a large square, with a beautiful glass-topped atrium in the center.  Full grown trees, a large pool, and nice decking that you can sit out on were in that central atrium.  There is good meeting space, a nice restaurant overlooking the atrium, a nice bar also with the good view, and very nice décor.  The rooms were large and comfortable, and had SUPER comfy beds.  And, the best part, was that it was only 5 minutes from the airport.  If you’ve not been to Seattle before you should note that even though the Downtown is neat with lots to see, it’s not close to the airport at all.  The transfer is about a half hour.  If you’re just doing a stop-over to rejuvenate, I’d suggest just staying down near the airport at this hotel.  Loved it!


A word about Alaska Airlines.  If you’re going to Alaska, you could fly on one of the other big carriers, but Alaska Airlines will carry most folks.  I fly them often, as they go up and down the West Coast where I live and I take them to catch all of my coastal cruises.  I also do this because my Mom lives in Homer, Alaska, and Alaska Airlines frequent flyer miles are very helpful to me.  BUT, just know that they’re OFTEN delayed.  Go with the flow.  Expect a delay, and be happy if there isn’t one.


Fairbanks, Alaska:


The flight from Seattle to Fairbanks, Alaska, was 4.5 hours, and probably an 8 hour total traveling day for us, considering we hit the airport a couple hours pre-flight to give time for long check-in and security lines.  Of course, our flight out was also delayed, and when we got to Fairbanks, three planes had landed nearly at once and it took a while to get the bags, etc.  This is why I thought the overnight in Seattle was so fabulous.  I also think that since you’ll OBVIOUSLY spend an entire day traveling TO Fairbanks, a two-night stay there is a must.  That’s what I had in my tour.


If you’re on a tour, you’ll go to the Princess Tours desk in the Fairbanks Airport and get your “packet” for the lodge.  This will have your room key already in it, info about Fairbanks, and logistical details about when to be ready to go to the next lodge.  Since not everyone is going to be doing a tour that reads this, I’ll save some of those type of details for the end.


The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge is the most beautiful hotel in Fairbanks.  Very comfortable.  And has lots of amenities.  The hotel used to be something else, and Princess bought it and has made a lot of improvements over the years.  If you can imagine it, the original hotel used to be in an “L” shape.  In 2001 they did a massive expansion, adding on a lot of meeting space (a large banquet room that is the fine dining restaurant in the summer), a LARGE wooden deck near the river, and another “wing” of rooms.  The new wing kind of makes the Lodge a crooked “T” shape.   After the new wing was built, all of the older rooms were re-done, so they all are very nice.


I would not say it’s important to get one of the “newer” rooms (this is a photo of the new wing).  I think it IS important to tell me when I book you how you prefer your bathroom configured though.  The new wing (room numbers in the 1000’s) have a bathroom that is fully contained behind a door.  Kind of a normal bathroom I’d say.   The two original wings have the vanity/sink/hairdryer OUTSIDE the bathroom.  It’s behind a wall from the sleeping area of the room, but there are no doors in between.  So, the light and noise from the sink could possibly disturb a sleeping person.  On the other hand, if everyone is getting up at about the same time, it’s got greater convenience in that one person can shower and get out of the bathroom and steam, and the other person can have privacy in there while the first person is brushing their teeth.  Know what I mean?


There are apparantly a few upgraded rooms, an just a couple of suites in the Lodge, but we didn’t get to see any.  Most of the Lodge was standard rooms, and most folks there are on a cruisetour where you don’t get to pick your lodging in any way.  Supposedly, people who have the big suites on the cruise ships if they’re doing a cruisetour will be assigned the suites in the Lodge, but only if they’re not traveling in a group.  They don’t like to give upgrades to folks traveling in a group, as the others within that group get unhappy.  It’s nearly all standard rooms, which are fine, so it doesn’t matter much.


Dining at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge ~ The best food is in the Edgewater Dining Room.  They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Breakfast is only a buffet until 8:30am, but it’s a good one.  I didn’t try lunch there, but there is also a lunch buffet.  And the dinner is top-notch fine-dining.  Besides that, there is a coffee bar and snacks in the gift shop (that’s a new one for me!), and Trackers Bar & Grill which offers lunch and dinner in a more casual atmosphere.  Right outside of Trackers, they also have a quick service place “The Corner Coffee Cart” where you can get juices, coffee, fruit and pastries if you want something really light in the morning.  For a neat atmosphere, if you’ve got a group of six or less, ask if you can sit I the “birdcage”.  This is a table in the center of the dining room that has wrought-iron trellis’ all around it.


The décor of the Fairbanks Princess Wilderness Lodge is now very “Alaskan”.  Apparantly, before the remodel in 2001 it had a bit of a tropical look.  That would be so WEIRD to see in Alaska!  Anyway, in the lobby there is a massive fireplace, lots of comfy chairs, and 4-person tables all along the wall for playing games or sitting with your computer.  Since all I want to do when I’m on vacation is sit in a comfy chair and read a book, every chair looked SO inviting to me!  And I loved the décor outside.  Flower beds everywhere.  A nice walking path behind the lodge with benches and fountains and other relaxing places to sit.  There are lots of exits on the back of the original “L” buildings to get you out to these tranquil places fast also.  Look for them!


All of the Princess Lodges have FREE internet, both at sit-down computers and free WiFi for those with a laptop.


Special note:  Not everyone who travels on a Princess Cruisetour stays at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge.  When they have more folks on tour than the lodge can hold, they also sometimes have clients at the Pikes Waterfront Lodge and the Rivers Edge.  These two properties are on either side of the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge.  They also seemed nice.  They had little cabins that were the hotel rooms, even though one of them ALSO had a big building.  I forget which one.


Excursions in Fairbanks:


Each Princess Wilderness Lodge is set next to a beautiful river.  Each one has an “Outfitters Desk” (tour desk) that is basically a full concierge that also sells the tours.  The actual hotel registration desk sees very little activity as compared to the tour desk.  I personally did two of the most popular tours:

City of Gold Tour ~ This is a 3.5 hour tour round-trip from the Lodge.  It’s about a 30 minute drive to the El Dorado Gold Mine each way on the coach, and along the way there they stop at the Alaska Pipeline and give an explanation of how it works and such.  They also are talking all about Alaska, Fairbanks, and permafrost and other such natural wonders all along the route.


When you arrive in the parking lot, you get on a narrow-gauge train and you get a cute little educational tour about the early Alaskan gold-mining.  It stops along the way and talks to “miners” about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.  At the top of the little hill loop, you get out and are met by Yukon Wanda and her husband at a BIG gift shop building.  Everyone goes behind the building and sits by a big sluice and we learn more about gold mining.  And after that you get your own bag of pay dirt and you do gold panning in troughs they have set up out there, and once you’ve panned out your flakes, you take them into the gift shop.  In the shop you can have your gold weighed (I had a few flakes worth $9 total or something), shop, have your gold put into necklace settings if you want, eat free hot and fresh cookies, water, coffee, cocoa.  After a decent amount of time to walk around there, get back on the train and head back to your bus and depart.


I thought it was a very good tour.  Wear comfortable walking shoes, as all of the excursions seem to be on some gravel and uneven surfaces.


My second tour was the Discovery Riverboat Tour.  This 4.5 hour tour is run by the same tour company, and has some of the same features as the rail tour did.  We board a HUGE paddle-wheel riverboat and cruise downstream from Fairbanks.  There is narration all along the route, so you learn a lot.  At a few places along the route the boat stops and we talk to people.  They have a bush pilot take off and land, an Indian woman talk about catching and curing salmon, a sled dog demonstration and a float plane takeoff and landing.  In the middle of all of this educational floating along and stopping, we dock at a make believe “Old Chena Village” where we are split into groups and taught about the Athabascan Indian culture at four learning stations.  After we complete the program, we’re given a little time to wander and look and touch the things that were discussed, and then we get back on the boat for home.


I didn’t enjoy the Riverboat quite as much as the City of Gold, but they were still both VERY good tours.  It’s a good thing too, as many of the pre-organized Princess land tours come with these two tours included.


Other things you can do in Fairbanks is just go to the city itself.  There is lots to see and do there.  There is a “City Circle Shuttle” that costs only $5 per person round-trip that will allow you to venture out on your own as you wish.  The Palace Theatre “Golden Heart Revue Show” got good ratings.  The Palace Theatre is in a very interesting, almost amusement park like area called “Pioneer Park”.  It’s a fund place to go at night, even if you don’t do the show.  The City Shuttle stops there.


Some of my other agent companions did “optional” tours in some locations that I did not do.  A half dozen took the Journey Above the Arctic Circle tour.  This was a small plane flying low and looking for wildlife and such, with a stop in the native village of Fort Yukon where they learned how the natives live now (mostly unemployed).  My compatriots left about 6pm and got back at 11:30pm.  Even though it was pretty light still, they were disappointed in not getting any dinner.  If you’re going to do anything late evening in the land of the midnight sun, be sure to grab a deli sandwich or something if you can before your tour departs.  Time will just fly by and you won’t realize how late it’s getting because of the extended daylight.


Others in my group enjoyed the “Golfing in the Great Land”, another late tour, but fun if you love golf.



Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, Alaska:


Generally, a tour will included getting between the lodges either by luxury motor coach or by rail, but just plain driving yourself is always an option if you’re doing the vacation on your own.  My tour included a motor coach ride from Fairbanks to Denali, so that was a 3 hour ride.


The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is a VERY impressive campus.  Rather than being one big building like Fairbanks is, Denali is a lot of buildings very spread out.  All of the buildings look like wood / log cabin kind of.  The main lodge itself has the registration and Outfitters (tour) desk, again, very comfy chairs and a big fireplace or two.  It’s two-story with the registration on the upper level where you’d drive in, and the gift shop and deli down below.  (It’s built into a hill.)  The rooms are in buildings all spread around, and they’re all slightly different.  We were in building 7, which is right next to the main lodge and very convenient.  In the center of the main campus are little log cabins that are more little gift places, a deli and internet café, and a big building that holds their fine dining (Summit Dining Room) and the Base Camp Bistro & Lounge.


Over the winter of 2005-2006 they built a big addition they call Canyon Station.  It’s on the hill above the campus, with comfy trails leading up to it in both the street and river sides of the building.  I actually like the Canyon Station as it’s kind of a full hotel all on it’s own!  It’s got three levels of rooms, it’s own comfy lounge area, patio area, deli and outfitters desk.  Even though there are shuttle vans and golf carts all over that can take those that are able to walk less, I think just staying in Canyon Station could possibly be the most convenient.  Heck, it’s also new!  I thought the walls in building 7 were pretty thin, and even though I was impressed with the whole lodge overall, I didn’t like those thin walls and having a downstairs room.


One thing Denali has that other Princess Wilderness Lodges DON’T is a full-service spa and salon.  If you’re looking for some rest and relaxation time within the middle of your Alaska vacation, this is the only lodge with those kind of services, so be sure to look into it right away when you arrive.


Also, to set the atmosphere, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is in a small town that is Denali National Park or Healy.  There are quite a few hotels, a strip mall that looks like a bunch of little chalets with a Subway and ice cream store and such.  The highway runs right through and it’s a bit busy.  You don’t really feel you’re in the “Wilderness”, unless you just stay in the main campus.


The food choices here were about the same as Fairbanks, and all of the Princess Lodges actually. Always an incredible fine-dining experience, a couple of good delis (I liked the one in the Canyon Station, called Rapids, better than the one in the main lodge called River Run), a pizza parlor that I heard was really good (Lynx Pizza), quick service fruits and yogurt and such in the internet café and the Base Camp bistro for casual sit-down dining.  I suggest the pancakes at the Summit in the morning.  YUMMY!


I personally slept in our only morning at the Denali Lodge and didn’t plan an optional tour away from the Lodge.  I did enjoy a 45-minute presentation called “Climb Denali” for $6 though.  A local mountain climber who has climbed Denali many times and leads expeditions gives a talk, answers questions, explains what it’s like to do a climb.  And then he shows a great slide show of great photos he’s taken, along with music and folks talking in the background.  It was very educational, fun, and not as stressful as another 4 hour tour on short sleep!  Here is his Website to see some of his photos:


Excursions in Denali:


Nearly everyone going to Denali has the DenaliNatural History Tour” included in their packet.  This is a 5-hour tour put on by the National Parks Service where you ride an old school bus with windows you can put down for better photos.  The tour includes a guide that talks constantly about the history of the park, animals, flowers, you name it.  The tour stops at a building where you watch a movie about the history of the park, and then you continue driving.  There are also stops to talk to someone at a log cabin about the old days, and an Indian woman.  Of course, everyone expects to see tons of wildlife, bears, etc. when in Denali.  The reality of it is that bears are only spotted on 10% of all tours, and on ours we only saw a couple of lone caribou and some birds.  Pretty disappointing for some folks with really high expectations.  You need to plan to just look at the trees and learn about the flora and fauna, and go with the flow.  In the middle of the tour, they provided us with a granola bar snack and a hot beverage.


If you’re on your own, I’m not sure if I’d even recommend this tour.  It’s pretty long and tiring, although if it’s your first or only trip to Alaska, I can’t really suggest skipping going into Denali National Park either.   Some tips about timing – our guide said early in the year (May) there is a better chance of seeing herds of Caribou…lots at once…since they’re grouped together in the winter months and they’re only just starting to separate themselves.  On my tour in mid-August, we saw only a few lone ones, but they were certainly impressive!  Another tip our guide gave was that you have a better chance of seeing moose in the fall, September or so.  They’re rutting at that time and are more out and about. 


I would NOT suggest you upgrade to the longer Wilderness Denali tour.  (The National Park offers the Natural History as well as the longer one.)


Music of Denali Dinner Theatre is a dinner show within the Denali Wilderness Lodge campus.  It has it’s own building right in the middle of the campus where you get a family-style all-you-can-eat meal of ribs, salmon, corn-on-the-cob, cole slaw, biscuits, potatoes and strawberry shortcake.  (Cake is more like a sponge cake with strawberry layers than a “true strawberry shortcake.)   You sit at long tables, picnic-style that are perpendicular to the stage area.  The servers are actually the actors, so they talk at us a bit during the first hour (meal time), and then put on a corny show about the first to climb Denali for the second hour.  Although some of the singers were quite good, the food was passable, and the whole thing was tiring.  It costs $49 per person for the dinner and show, $20 for show only, so I’d say skip it (especially if you’re only at Denali for one night).  Although I thought it was important for me PERSONALLY to see it, so I’d know whether to recommend it, for $49 you could enjoy a fabulous dinner at the Summit fine dining restaurant instead.  It will taste a lot better, and watching the river go by is entertainment enough for me!


Nenana River Rafting was a popular excursion choice for some of my traveling companions.  They had only wonderful things to say about it.  You get a “dry suit” that keeps you dry except your hands and feet.  If you plan to try river rafting, they suggested you take along kitchen gloves to keep your hands dry. And I would also suggest extra socks and shoes, as many of them complained about cold feet and hands afterwards.  (The water was only 30 degrees or so.)


Denali Fly Fishing got good marks from one of my other companions who tried that.  It’s a bus ride to the lake and back, not a fly-in type of fishing.


Jet Boat Excitement also got pretty good marks.  The initial drive to the Jet Boat takes a little while, but then it’s a fun ride.  They said they saw some wildlife and enjoyed seeing the trapper’s cabin where the boat stops.


McKinley Glacier Landing by Plane got VERY high marks.  Every person who took a flight seeing tour of Mount McKinley came back gushing.  There are a lot to choose from, so whichever you want to do from either the Denali or McKinley Lodge you won’t go wrong.  Just be sure you have LOTS of film and batteries!


One other person said NOT such great things about the horse-drawn wagon ride.


And, lastly, my tour guide strongly recommended the Husky Homestead Tour.  It was already sold out when we arrived, so no one in my group got to try it.  They have lots of dog mushing type tours offered at the various lodges, but the tour guide said this one was the best, as it’s Jeff King’s establishment (the current Iditarod race champion).


Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, Alaska:


We were scheduled to take the train from Denali to McKinley, but a tanker hit a train track bridge or something, and put the train out of service in that section of the track.  Instead, we took a motor coach from Denali to McKinley.  It was a very quick ride, about an hour and fifteen minutes.  And, for our inconvenience in not getting to ride the train, we were all given $50 vouchers as compensation to spend at the McKinley Lodge.  THAT was pretty nice of Princess. 


I’ll tell you right now that the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge was my favorite of them all.  It was, again, quite a campus of hotel buildings, but the main lodge was definitely the focus.  I also liked it because it was in the middle of nowhere.  If you don’t know what road to turn off, you’d miss it!


Of course, the focus of this lodge is just sitting in the great room or on the deck and staring towards Mt. McKinley, hoping the clouds will shift and you’ll get to see all of it.  It’s truly awe-inspiring and massive beyond belief.  You may think I’m silly for saying you’ll just want to sit there and stare out, but believe me, you might want to also!


The lodge has all the usual things – a large gift shop (all of the Princess gift shops seemed to have the same offerings by the way…only the specialized little separate businesses that were on the Denali grounds were really unique), a fine-dining restaurant with a bar next door, a quick coffee and pastry place, and the check-in desk.  Down a hallway they also had a large game and sitting area with the internet computers set up (all complimentary remember), and then at the end of the lodge the big area for the Outfitters desk and a lounging area around that for you to await your tours.  Downstairs near the tour desk was a theatre where they showed a “photo symphony” of Alaskan photos.  This runs frequently throughout the day, and costs $6.  Sounded a lot like the “Climb Denali” presentation I did at the Denali Lodge, so I didn’t  make time for it.  Of course, the main great room had a massive stone fireplace that was burning brightly.  Also, near the gift shop was a coffee shop called the “Cub Café”.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with it.  I had the buffet breakfast there and it was quite sparse compared to other buffets in the other lodges.


In a separate building they built The Twenty320 Alaskan Grill (named after the 20,320 ft height of Denali/Mt. McKinley).  THIS is the place to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner if you aren’t going to do the fine dining in the Mountain View Dining Room.  It’s new for 2006, and is kind of “hip” and new and great for families.  It’s got a great menu, and a “restaurant” side and a “bar” side of the building.  We tried lunch there on the last day, and everything was good!


My FAVORITE thing about the Mt. McKinley Lodge is that they realize we’re only there for a short time, so you can sign up to be on the “Mountain” and/or “Lights” call list.  What this means is that if Mt. McKinley becomes fully visible, they’ll call you at any hour to tell you to come see it.  There is also a call list for the Northern Lights.  In high summer this is not an option, as it has to get dark for the Northern Lights to become visible, but it was about 5-6 hours of dark when we were there I think, so many of us got on the call list for that.  It must have been cloudy, as I never got the Lights call, but I DID get awakened for the Mountain Call at 5:30am.  I hopped out of bed and put my clothes on and scurried over to the lodge to see The Great One.  Boy, was it fabulous.  I didn’t have a super duper camera or anything, but it’s definitely awe-inspiring.  I watched the sun rise and shine on it, and then it was clouded up again by 6:15am and I went back to my room to get ready for the day.  This was my best photo, as it was simply too dark for most of them.


There are three hiking trails right around the grounds of the McKinley Lodge.  If you enjoy walking/hiking, these are a good way for you to spend some enjoyable time.  There is a short scenic one, and a strenuous one and something in-between.  You can get details at the lodge.


As far as the rooms, both Denali and McKinley Lodges had mostly “standard” rooms, with a couple of suites.  We got to look in suites in both places, as well as our own standard rooms, and the suites are nice.  Again, you’re not likely to get one of these unless you are just buying hotel room nights only, and you reserve it well in advance.


For three straight years they have been expanding the McKinley Lodge, and they are excited on property to have NO more construction planned in the near future.  I expect it to be pristine and pretty when folks go there in 2007 and beyond.  As a matter of fact, they are building a very cool water feature there now between two of the new lodging buildings.  It’ll be a mountain waterfall that goes down to a stream, with a walkway over it, and a big bear with a fish it it’s mouth and water coming out of it as well.  Should be an impressive and pretty addition when it’s done.  This will be between buildings 24 and 25.  If you go there in the future, send me a photo of it!


Excursions from McKinley:


There is a regular shuttle to and from the Lodge and the small town of Talkeetna.  Some of the excursions take off from Talkeetna, so you have to take the shuttle to get to where your tour starts.  If not for that though, I don’t suggest going to Talkeetna just for the sake of it.  Not a lot there.  Some of our group had a tour and then a few hours to just hang out waiting for the rest of us to arrive to take the train AWAY from Talkeetna towards Anchorage that evening and they said they were bored senseless.


I actually did an optional tour at this lodge, as we had until 3:15pm to spend at the Lodge on our own.  There were no pre-planned group activities.  No excursions that came pre-packaged within the tour.  I did the Iditarod Sled Dog Kennel Tour.  This is a personal look into the training life of Bill Hall who has run the race many many times.  There is another “doggie” tour at McKinley, but it leaves from Talkeetna rather than our own lodge, so this one was suggested out of the two by our tour guide.  Anyway, you take a van ride for about 45 minutes out to where Bill has the dogs chained to his doggie-carrying truck, and he’s got the 4-wheeler and the harnesses all laid out and ready.  He speaks to us briefly, and then we get to help him hitch up the dogs to the line.  (I volunteered to do one.  This is a photo of me hooking up Mad Max.)  We then proceeded to drive the van down a dirt road as he wove the dog team around us on both sides (we stopped and started the van frequently).  Following that display, we all just met him, shook his hand, got a signed baseball-like trading card of him, and then sat down for punch and listened to him while he gave a discussion on the race and procedures.  I thought it was pretty interesting and very educational about how the Iditarod race goes, but I’m not sure if it was worth $50.  He didn’t have any puppies this year and we didn’t get to actually do any mushing like you do on some of the glacier excursions out of Juneau and such.  Fascinating, but maybe not the total best choice.  I did like the fact that it was only 3 hours.


I heard a great review about another jet boat tour called the Three Rivers Tour.  And, of course, lots of gushing about more flight seeing tours of McKinley.



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