D. Michael Jones
Occupation:Computer Systems Engineer
Number of Cruises: First Cruise
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Sun Princess
Sailing Date: June 1st, 2001
Itinerary: Southbound Heart Of Alaska 11-Day Cruisetour
We landed in Fairbanks around 8:00 in the evening. It was a warm sunny day. I saw several people in shorts. The Princess staff was there to greet us. They told us not to worry about picking up our luggage at baggage claim. They told us they will make sure our bags are in our hotel rooms "before the sun goes down:)". That being said, we boarded the Princess bus and were shuttled to the Fairbanks Princess Hotel. On the way, we were given packages containing room keys, a copy of the Princess Patter (daily newsletter listing the day's activities, tour departure times, etc...), and luggage tags for designating delivery.
The Fairbanks Princess Hotel is a nice, clean property. It is located on the Chena River. The rooms are spacious - a big difference from our ship cabin, but more about that later. We did not do much that evening. We looked around the hotel and then lounged on the deck overlooking the river. It was around 10:30 p.m. and the weather was still very sunny and warm! There were people jet skiing on the river and others just kicking back and enjoying life. We got a midnight snack from on of the small restaurants in the hotel (the food was very good) and then went back to the room to organize our luggage.
Princess recommends that you pack an overnight bag for your stay in Denali National Park and let Princess take the rest of your luggage to Anchorage or the ship. This eliminates the need for you to keep track of a week and a half worth of bags. As mentioned earlier, we were given luggage tags to designate where we wanted our luggage to go. The tags are color-coded to indicate the destination. After tagging your bags, you simply leave them outside your door and the next time you see them will be at the destination you selected. Traci and I marked our luggage to be delivered to Anchorage while my parents chose the ship as their destination.
After tagging our bags we went to bed. I woke up briefly around 3 a.m. to peek out the window. It still wasn't totally dark - just dusk-like.
The next morning, Traci and I got a danish and juice from the souvenir shop, while my parents opted for the breakfast buffet in one of the restaurants. They said the food was okay. It was getting close to our departure time to Denali National Park, so we boarded the bus and were on our way.
I do have one recommendation if you plan on doing the Southbound Heart Of Alaska Cruisetour and desire to do any sightseeing in Fairbanks; and that is, get there a day early! We would have like to have done the Chena Riverboat tour and to have seen the Alaskan pipeline. Unfortunately, our flight had arrived much too late to take advantage of the tours.
Before hitting the road to Denali, our bus driver gave us a quick tour of downtown Fairbanks. There wasn't really much to see. We also stopped for an hour at the University Of Alaska museum. It was a small museum containing Alaskan artifacts and stuffed animals. It was somewhat interesting but we would not have been upset if the driver skipped this stop.
The bus ride to Denali was about 2 hours. Our bus driver told us a lot of interesting facts about Fairbanks and her experiences living in Alaska. She passed around her photo album of nature shots and she also showed videos of Alaska. We stopped about halfway through the trip to take a picture of the summit of Mt. McKinnley which was clearly visible that day. Our bus driver said we should take pictures now because there was a high probability that the summit would be covered in clouds by the time we got to Denali National Park. She was right.
Denali National Park:
We arrived at the Denali Princess Lodge (our lodging for the evening) during the early afternoon. There were a lot of buses crowding the entrance to the property. After a short wait and the distribution of room keys and itineraries, we were allowed to get off the bus.
The Denali Princess Lodge is located approximately one mile from the entrance of Denali National Park and is composed of several buildings including several motel-like lodges, a theater, several restaurants, and a main lodge that houses registration and a souvenir shop. Each of the buildings has somewhat of a rustic look with a wooden exterior and a red roof.
Our rooms were a decent size. However, it was a warm, sunny day which meant our rooms were hot when we first arrived. The rooms do not have air condition so we opened the windows and then left to get a bite to eat. The hotel staff will bring you a fan if you request one. We didn't have a need for this. The rooms were comfortable when we returned later.
We were scheduled to take a tour of Denali National Park at 4:30 p.m.. This tour lasts about 3 hours and consists of a 19 mile school bus ride into the park. Part of the road is gravel and the bus can kick up a lot of dust on a dry day such as the one we had. We were instructed to close the windows while riding on the unpaved portion of the road.
I was initially excited about the tour because I thought this would be my opportunity to observe Alaskan wildlife up close. As we entered the park, our driver stopped the bus so that we could see a female moose strolling along the side of the road. She came pretty close to the bus and I was able to get some good video of her. Unfortunately, these were the last close up wildlife shots I got for the rest of the 3-hour tour. Our driver was good at pointing out animals but they were so far away. We saw Dalls sheep that appeared as white dots high in the mountains - and not much more detail with binoculars. We saw caribou but you needed binoculars to even have a chance at seeing them. We did not see any bears, eagles, or wolves. There was no sign of any ptarmigans, the state bird. Oh yeah, and for those of you who hate snakes, don't worry, there are no snakes in Alaska.
Our driver made a stop part of the way through the tour to allow us to observe a park ranger cabin. We had to walk about a half of a city block on a dirt path through the woods to get to the cabin. We were instructed to stay together and to talk loudly to each other. The noise and the amount of people would be enough to scare off any bears that may be in the area. She told us that the group she escorted the previous week encountered a grizzly bear on the path. However, the bear just looked and walked off into the woods. The cabin was interesting. It kind of reminded me of the fairy tale of "The Three Bears".
To my surprise, this tour was somewhat of a disappointment. However, this was no fault of Princess. The thing to keep in mind when embarking on a tour like this is that the size of Denali National Park is 6 million acres. The tour only takes you 19 miles into the park; therefore, the chance that you will observe wildlife up close is mostly based on luck.
After the tour, Traci and I checked out some of the souvenir shops across the road from the Denali Princess Lodge. Traci was on a hunt for an Alaskan - themed photo album that she could add pages to. She wasn't having much luck though. Meanwhile, my parents attended the dinner theater. They said dinner was okay but they weren't impressed with the show. They didn't stay for the whole thing.
We were up early the next morning. My parents were scheduled for the Husky Homestead excursion. They loved this tour. They visited Jeff King (1996 Iditarod Champion) and his dogs. They took pictures with Jeff and his Huskies. They had a ball.
Traci and I did the float trip down the Nenana River. This trip was a guided rafting trip. There were rapids but the guide avoided most of them. We got splashed a little near the end, though. We also saw a moose grazing at the bank of the river. The tour company supplied us with dry suits to keep us from getting wet. Even though the supplied footwear kept my feet dry, the cold water that sometimes splashed into the raft made my toes numb by the end of the trip. The river is glacier fed and thus, very cold! All in all, this was a nice relaxing excursion.
Traci and I met up with my parents at the Princess Denali Lodge so that we could board the bus to the train station. I enjoyed the 4 hour train ride on the Princess Midnight Sun Express to Talkeetna. All the Princess cars had a glass dome that allows you to maximize your view of the Alaskan landscape. We were once again blessed with a clear, sunny day. The scenery was like an endless postcard. There were snow-capped mountains, miles of spruce trees, lakes and rivers. There were some areas where the ground was still snow-covered. As the train approached Talkeetna, the landscape looked more like the woodlands of the East Coast of the US. We were fed a nice lunch on the train in the downstairs dining area about half way through the trip.
In Talkeetna, we immediately boarded a Princess bus for a two and a half hour ride to Anchorage. Once again, we had a very informative bus driver that gave us commentary for pretty much the whole ride. I was very impressed with every tour guide and bus driver we had the whole time we were in Alaska except for the tour guide in Ketchikan (more about him later).
The city of Anchorage looks just like many other US city. However, it is pretty much surrounded by mountains and it overlooks Cook Inlet. We stayed at the Marriott in downtown Anchorage. This is a very nice hotel with large rooms and a view of the city and Cook Inlet (on the higher floors). When Traci and I entered our room we found that our luggage that we tagged in Fairbanks was already in the room.
I had read many trip reports on the internet before going on this cruisetour and there were many people who recommended eating at Simon and Seafort's. If any of you are reading this trip report - "Thanks for the recommendation!" The food was out of this world! The restaurant was only five or six blocks from the hotel so we were able to walk. We headed back to the hotel after dinner and chilled out for the rest of the evening.
The next day, we boarded the Princess bus headed for Seward where we would embark on the Sun Princess for the cruise portion of our trip. On the way to Seward, we made a 2 hour stop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. This museum consists of exhibits showcasing the culture of the native Alaskans. I was particularly impressed with the outdoor exhibits. There are replicas of a typical dwelling for each of the native cultures. We were allowed to walk through the various houses and ask questions of the guides. The Alaska Native Heritage Center was an enjoyable stop.
After picking up our box lunches that Princess provided, we boarded the bus and began our 3 hour ride to Seward to board the Sun Princess. Along the way we saw glaciers, huge mud flats, and breath-taking scenery. Our bus driver was an excellent narrator. She gave us a sense of what it's like to live in Anchorage.
Well, at last, we arrived at our ship, the Sun Princess. This would be the first time cruising for Traci and me, so we were very excited as the bus pulled up to this big beautiful ship. My parents, veteran cruisers, were also looking forward to spending the next seven days aboard the Sun Princess. We had pre-registered for embarkation a few weeks before via the Princess website, so the Princess rep directed us to the Express Check-in booth. There was no line. We walked up showed our ids, required documentation for entering Vancouver, Canada at the end of the cruise (passport, birth certificate, etc..), and received our ship credit card. Within 10 minutes we were on the ship.
We had inside cabins. We had heard that the inside cabins were small. They turned out to be even smaller than expected; therefore, Traci and my parents sent me to ask for upgrade. We got a letter from the ship registration desk the next day informing us that there were no more rooms available.
We spent the first evening exploring the ship. The Sun Princess is a beautiful ship and it was always spotless during our stay. We attended the lifeboat drill and then went to dinner. Our luggage was in our cabins by the time we returned from dinner.
There was always something going on on the Sun Princess. During our week on the ship, we attended the shows; played games such as Passenger Feud, Trivia Challenge, and Bingo; watched movies; listened to live music; and sometimes just stood out on the deck to watch the magnificent Alaskan scenery. There was a passenger talent show, a "Not So Newlywed Game" (very funny but the questions were too revealing for me to participate), a Passenger Survivor game, art auctions, ping pong tables, a casino, and many other activities to make sure you were never bored. Traci won a Bingo game which entitled her to $100 and a $50 gift certificate to a jewelry store in Skagway. (She ended up not using the gift certificate because everything in the store was a lot more than we wanted to spend - even with the certificate.) Each of us had our favorite activities on the ship. Traci enjoyed working out in the exercise room and having afternoon tea. My mother enjoyed the Bert Stratton piano act in the Atrium. I enjoyed the live music and nature talks while my father just enjoyed being on vacation and strolling the ship.
There were also photographers all over the place asking to take your picture. You could see the picture the next day hanging in the area just before the Vista Lounge. You could purchase the photos if you liked them. We ended up buying some.
Overall, the food on the ship was good. There are several places to eat on the ship; however, we only ate in the main dining room (1st seating) for dinner and the Horizon Court Buffet for breakfast and lunch. We rarely ate lunch on the ship, however.
The four of us were assigned to a table for six with another couple at dinner. We dined with the couple the first evening, but that was the last we saw of them. There were two formal nights during the cruise. Our waiters, Octavian and Claire were cordial and made every effort to please us. One thing to note about drinks (alcohol or soft drinks) is that they are not included in the price of your cruise. You must pay for them separately. None of us drink alcohol so I can't comment on the price; however, soda was $1.50 per can. You do not need to pay for unsweetened ice tea.
We were at sea for two days before our first port of call. During that time, the ship paused at two observation sites: College Fjord and Glacier Bay.
We arrived at College Fjord early (around 6 a.m.) the first morning on the ship. It was an overcast morning. We were able to see the seven glaciers of the fjord. The naturalist on board the ship gave explanations of the ship's PA system of what we were seeing. She also pointed out some otters swimming on there backs along side the ship. Binoculars were helpful for seeing the otters. There was no calving (large chunks of ice breaking off into the water and forming icebergs) by the glaciers that morning. There were icebergs all around us though. The captain turned the ship a few times to give everyone an opportunity to see the glaciers. After approximately 3 hours in the fjord, the ship was on the go again.
The next day, the ship cruised Glacier Bay. It was fascinating to enter the bay because little by little you begin to see icebergs in the water. I was on the lookout for whales and harbor seals because we were told there is a good chance of spotting them while in Glacier Bay. Unfortunately, I didn't see any whales or harbor seals that day. At one point, someone said they saw a whale in the distance, so we all went running to that side of the ship. However, I couldn't tell if I saw a spouting whale or if it was the spray from the sea crashing against the rocks.
The captain sailed the ship to an area where we had fantastic views of Majorie Glacier and Pacific Glacier. The two glaciers look very different. Majorie Glacier is mostly white with blue hues while Pacific Glacier appears black from all the debris it has accumulated as it has been retreating over past thousands of years. We had heard that Majorie Glacier has a tendency to be relatively active as far as calving is concerned. Well, Majorie wasn't very active that day. However, I wasn't discouraged. I was fascinated by just the sounds that I heard while we were there. Every now and then you would hear a loud cracking or popping sound that would echo all through the bay. This was the sound of compressed air being released from the glacial ice. Finally, after almost an hour and a half of standing on the deck looking at the glaciers, I finally caught some video of Majorie calving. Yeah!
This town reminded me of the set of a Western. There were saloons, general stores, and people taking tours in horse and buggy. Skagway is a very small town. It was the starting point for prospectors headed up the White Pass Trail in search of Yukon gold. We had signed up for a tour of the town. However, I don't recommend taking this tour if you don't mind doing a little walking. Skagway is only a few blocks wide and can easily be navigated on foot in a short amount of time. Besides, just about any other excursion you sign up for in Skagway will give you a short tour before you get to your destination.
The tour consisted of a short ride through the town and up a narrow, winding road to an observation area where we were able to get off the bus and look at Skagway from an overlook point. While we were there, I was able to get some nice video of a bald eagle gliding through the air above us. After taking some pictures (or video in my case), we rode back into town and went into a small Skagway Museum. The museum had some interesting exhibits that gave a sense of what it was like to visit Skagway during the Gold Rush days. The tour ended at a "Days Of '98" show that provided a somewhat corny but cute account of the life of Soapy Smith, a legendary con artist. However, I thought the actors were very talented.
Later that day, my parents took the narrow gauge White Pass railroad excursion. They told us they enjoyed the excursion.
Meanwhile, Traci and I did the White Pass trail bicycle excursion. We had a good time with this one. We were driven up the former White Pass trail into Canada and then given bikes to coast 15 miles downhill on a paved road back into Skagway. It was a nice sunny day and the scenery was beautiful. We stopped to take pictures at a waterfall on the way down. There was only one section of the trail that we had to pedal up hill a little but it wasn't too bad. Upon returning to Skagway, we walked around the town, bought some snacks at a grocery store, and browsed several souvenir shops. Traci was still looking for the perfect photo album but had no luck. She also browsed a jewelry store in hopes of using the $50 gift certificate that she won playing Bingo onboard the ship. Unfortunately, most of the interesting items were much more expensive than we were willing to pay, so she never used the gift certificate.
We did our most enjoyable shore excursions in Juneau, the capitol city of Alaska. We started off with the Pan for Gold excursion. I'll admit I didn't have high expectations for this one but I ended up having a ball. The tour guide gives you a short tour of Juneau and then takes you up a hill to Gold Creek. The goal of this excursion is to give you an idea of what it must have been like to be a prospector during the Gold Rush days. When we arrived at the river, our guide gave us a demonstration of how to pan for gold - a simple but tedious process. We were then given a pan of dirt. Each pan appeared to have been pre-filled with a few gold specs hidden in the dirt. We practiced the panning technique in the freezing cold river. The guide gave us small vials to put our gold in after we successfully uncovered it. After that, he took a shovel an scooped up dirt from the bottom of the river and filled our pans. This time I didn't get any gold. However, by my fourth pan I was able to uncover a few gold specs. We spent approximately an hour panning for gold and only found extremely small amounts of it. Our guide told us that people would sometimes pan the river for more than 12 hours per day in the prospecting days and often never find anything. If nothing else, this excursion gave me an appreciation for how determined people were to strike it rich during the Gold Rush.
After the Panning For Gold trip, we headed for the Mt. Roberts Tram, which was a short walk from our ship. We were, once again, blessed with a warm, sunny day. We had a great view of Juneau from the top of the mountain. There was a nice visitor center at the top that showed a video describing the major native Alaskan cultures. The video was very nicely done. There were also some trails at the top on the mountain that you were free to explore. Although it was a warm, sunny day, some of the trails were still snow-covered.
After we descended Mt Roberts in the tram, my parents walked around town and checked out the souvenir shops while Traci and I boarded the bus that took us to the pick up point for our helicopter ride. Traci and I had never been in a helicopter and were kind of nervous about it because of the horror stories we had seen on TV about tour helicopter maintenance. However, after reading several trip reports on the internet about how the Mendenhall Glacier helicopter tour was the highlight of the trip for many people, we decided to push our worries aside and go for it. We were very glad we decided to do this excursion. The TEMSCO helicopter tour company was excellent. They definitely put safety first. The helicopter ride to Mendenhall Glacier was only 15 minutes but the views were spectacular. We landed on the glacier with about a dozen other choppers. When we stepped out of the helicopter, it was almost like we were no longer on earth. The landscape was so different from anything I have ever seen before. There were crevasses (cracks in the ice) that contained streams and waterfalls of dark blue water. Actually, the water wasn't really blue. It only appears this way because it is running over ice that is under so much pressure that only the blue wavelength of light can escape. The guides gave us some information about the glacier and instructed us not to go wandering because there is the danger that you could fall into a crevasse - some of which were over a hundred feet deep. We stayed on the glacier for about 20 minutes and took pictures. The temperature on the glacier was in the upper 30's, but it didn't feel that cold because the sun was shining so brightly. However, I still recommend you bring a jacket, hat, and gloves. The tour company supplied everyone with glacier boots. This excursion turned out to be the highlight of our Alaskan experience.
Later that evening, while we were on the ship cruising to Ketchikan, the day just kept getting better. As Traci and I were finishing a snack in the Horizon Court buffet room, the naturalist announced over the PA system that there was a whale swimming along the shore. Fortunately, I had my video camera with me and was able to get a shot of a spouting killer whale. Soon after that, I took some video of some harbor seals lounging on the rocks. This was the most memorable day of the trip for me.
This was our last port of call before disembarkation. This was also the first time we saw significant rain during our trip. It was raining pretty hard when we got off the ship but this was to be expected considering the annual rainfall in Ketchikan is measured in feet - not inches. The rain stopped after an hour but the sky remained overcast the rest of the day.
As we were heading to the souvenir shops along the dock, Traci spotted a shuttle bus that had a Walmart sign taped to the window. Traci and I hopped on the bus and headed to Walmart. Traci was still trying to find a nice Alaskan - themed photo album. Every souvenir shop we had been in from Fairbanks to Ketchikan all seemed to have the same albums, which were either too small for 5x7s or you could not add pages to them. Unfortunately, Walmart was also selling the same photo albums. However, we noticed the souvenirs in Walmart were a little cheaper so we bought a few things. We caught the shuttle back to the dock and boarded another shuttle for the Totem Pole Tour.
At this point in our trip, we were pretty much toured out. It also didn't help the situation to have a very monotone tour guide who seemed to have very little knowledge of Alaska, the Totem Poles, or the people who built them. During the ride to the Totem Pole Village, our tour guide managed to put most of the passengers to sleep with his unenthusiastic narration.
The Totem Pole Village was interesting, though. There were several totem poles displayed along with a typical clan house of the period. The house was like the ones we had already seen at the Native Alaskan Heritage Center in Anchorage. Part of the totem pole tour required us to walk along a path through the woods. This was where I saw one of the coolest things I had seen on the trip - a bear den. Our guide told us no bears had occupied it in years. However, to me, seeing this den was an unexpected treat.
After the tour, we had about and hour and half before we had to be back on the ship. Traci and I checked out some more souvenir shops around the dock area in hopes of finding the perfect photo album. At one point, we wandered into a 5 and dime store. This is where we struck gold - twice. There was a display advertising some construction paper cut outs of Alaskan themes such as eagles, spruce trees, bears, etc... They were very nicely done and only cost a few cents. Traci's eyes lit up. She decided to buy the cut outs and use them to decorate the cover of an ordinary photo album when we got back to Pennsylvania. The photo album turn out really nice.
I mentioned we struck gold twice in that 5 and dime store. Up until now, I never mentioned what type of souvenirs I was looking for. I normally like to buy souvenirs that are unique (or relatively unique) to the places we visit. In most cases, this turns out to be some type of food or music. On this trip, the souvenirs I was seeking were the syrups, jellies, and jams that were made from Alaskan plants. I saw these items in just about every store we entered from Denali to Ketchikan; however, I had no opportunity to taste them - not even on the ship. Fortunately, there was a nice lady in the 5 and dime store that told us about a souvenir shop a few blocks away on Creek Street that lets you taste these syrups and jellies. So, we headed to Creek Street to have a look around and to do some tasting.
Creek Street is a small boardwalk that has souvenir shops, eateries, and a small museum. It used to be a red-light district during the Gold Rush days. We found the souvenir shop we were looking for and began our taste tests. We tried rosehip jam, spruce tip jelly, salmonberry jelly, fireweed jelly, fireweed honey, and birch syrup. My favorites were the spruce tip jelly and salmonberry jelly. My least favorite was the fireweed honey. I bought small jars of the jellies I liked for myself and a few friends. I also bought the birch syrup, which tasted pretty good at the time. However, I tried it on my pancakes when I got back to Pennsylvania and I had to disagree with my earlier assessment in Alaska. It tasted like I had poured Robitussin cough syrup on my pancakes. Yuck!!!
Ketchikan was our last port of call. We were beginning to realize the trip we had been planning for and looking forward to was quickly coming to an end. We had one full day at sea before we reached Vancouver. We used this time to take advantage of the ship activities and to pack. Princess provided disembarkation instructions and colored luggage tags that correspond to you disembarkation time slot. We packed and left our bags outside our cabins as we were instructed to do.
Disembarkation - Vancouver, Canada:
It was an overcast morning when we arrived in Vancouver. We had our final breakfast in the dining room and then waited for our tag color to be called. Princess asked passengers not to crowd the main atrium waiting to be called; however, there was still a mob there.
Our tag color was called about two hours after the first group disembarked. A short time later we were on a Princess bus headed for the Vancouver airport. The bus driver gave us a short tour of the city. At one point, he slowed the bus down so that we could see a coyote strolling through a residential neighborhood. I didn't have my video camera out, so I wasn't able to get any shots. Vancouver looked like an interesting place to explore. Unfortunately, we had a plane to catch that afternoon. For anyone planning an Alaska cruise, I recommend arriving a day early and leaving a day later than the cruise itinerary begin and end dates if you have the time and finances to do so.
In no time, we were on a plane headed for Philadelphia via Detroit. Traci and I ended up getting upgraded to first class from Vancouver to Detroit because the airline had somehow managed to assign us to the same seats as another couple. This turned out to be an unexpected treat. The rest of the flight was uneventful until our approach to Philadelphia International Airport. There was a severe thunderstorm in progress that tossed our plane around like an amusement park ride. The pilot had to abort his first landing attempt and circle the airport until the conditions improved. He was able to put the plane on the ground safely about twenty minutes later. Everyone on the plane began to applaud.
Our Alaska trip had come to an end. It was time to go home and put together photo albums, edit video, and to tell all our friends and family about our wonderful Alaskan vacation.
I would definitely recommend this cruise to anyone who has an interest in nature and/or history. This trip is not really geared towards the party crowd. There were parties on the ship but they were pretty tame. However, there is always something fun to do on the ship no matter what age you are. Most of the passengers appeared to be 55 and older. I saw very few children and almost no one who appeared to be in the 20s and 30s age ranges.
I recommend doing a southbound itinerary if you plan to spend any time in Alaska's interior. The land portion can become grueling with the bus rides and overnights. The southbound itinerary allows you to unpack and relax for seven days onboard the ship after you have done the fast-paced land portion of the trip. Also, if possible, plan to arrive a day early and to stay a day later than your cruise itinerary's begin and end dates.
If you are going to Alaska in hopes of seeing wildlife, I suggest you bring a good pair of binoculars and a good luck charm. Alaska is so big that the chance you will see animals up close, like they appear on television nature programs, is slim.
I would cruise with Princess again. They are very organized, outstanding with luggage handling, and offer many diverse shore excursions. Their online pre-registration is great; although, the site was slow at times. For Alaskan cruises, I believe Princess is the way to go.