Alaskan Cruise and Land Tour – May 2019
Land and Sea Travel small group Cruise and Land Tour with Royal Caribbean aboard the Radiance of the Seas Vancouver Northbound to Steward and continuing with a Land tour on the full length of the Alaskan Railroad Wilderness Explorer from Anchorage to Talkeetna to Denali National Park all the way through Fairbanks Alaska. (Cruisetour 8A).
There are pictures in this blog, but they cannot do justice to the scale of the scenery, usually in 360 degrees with vertical elevation changes. The air was crisp and clean and smells fresh and the weather is very dynamic. The environment changed constantly even if you were still, and it was a good thing someone else was driving as it is a lot to take in. You really do have to be here to experience the full effect.
From Raleigh, we flew on Delta to Atlanta and through Seattle to Vancouver. Vancouver airport is a nice airport with beautiful wildlife and waterfall scenery on the stairs down to customs. One note, there are no bathrooms in the Vancouver airport until you clear customs. We were fortunate in arriving earlier and having to wait only 30 minutes, while those who arrived later reported waiting for 2-3 hours before clearing customs.
Vancouver – Arrival MAY 15
After settling in our room in the upscale Marriott in Richmond, located south of Vancouver, with an awesome view of the city below, the view beckoned us to take a walk.
We found ourselves at a beautiful community park called Minoru just about a block away. Beautiful trails, ponds, foliage throughout the park. The Marriott offers breakfast, lunch and dinner at the 75 West Coast Grill that had been recently renovated. We enjoyed our breakfast surrounded by a nice ambiance prior to our tour.
The first night after coming back from our outdoors adventures, we dined with some of those travelling with us at the Pacific Gateway hotel near the airport. We dined at a restaurant setting adjacent to the Pacific Gateway called The Deck Kitchen & Bar. A unique take on traditional West Coast classics from an expansive 7,000 square foot deck that overlooks the Fraser River, surrounded by nature and recently renovated, The Deck Kitchen & Bar is a hidden gem away from the bustle of Downtown.
Others in our group arrived the next day.
The 2nd day, May 16, we took a tour with Shore Trips (www.shoretrips.com) which I recommend for those who like smaller groups and different itineraries offered along with the cruise shore excursions as well. We started early with a drive to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in the town of Delta right by the US border, south west of Vancouver.
The Ferry docked at Swartz Bay on the North side of Vancouver Island. Surprisingly, the city of Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island, which is massive. A bus took us toward the south end of the island, to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where we had a brief bus tour to get oriented on the map before being dropped off at the harbor.
While others chose a high tea service at the Fairmont Empress, a walk through the Chinatown, and shopping, we opted to tour the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. There are beautiful stained glass windows in the Legislature with sayings on industriousness, thrift, and other topics, and since the legislature was at lunch, we were able to get a clear picture into the chamber.
From there, we walked around the grounds and headed to the Streamship Grill and Bar to eat on the patio overlooking the harbor. Waiting to order and then to receive the meal, we had no shortage of activity – a dinner cruise ship was docked by us (reservations are required long in advance) and water taxis were moving all over. Floatplanes were landing and taking off across the harbor and a car ferry docked near enough to see, but not to hear. We had plenty of time to eat, and the food was great, but we had spent all of our time watching the harbor and getting in tune to the rhythm of life here.
As we slowly walked back, just below the street above the dock, we were suddenly aware that the time to meet the bus was upon us. We walked up the stairs and directly onto the bus with 30 seconds to go. Now here is a quick note, when the tour guide says there is a departure time, they mean it – the bus was running and getting ready to go – set an alarm. Have a copy of your itinerary so if you do miss a pickup, you can catch up – otherwise a floatplane would be needed to get back.
Next stop was the Butchart Gardens where a limestone quarry was exhausted and then converted to a garden, which grew and had additional areas reflecting regions in other parts of the world. We had a beautiful day here with even lighting from an overcast, but without rain. The grounds are immaculate and the scale of plantings is immense. There is a reason these gardens are famous for their beauty,
On departing, May 17, our group took an arranged motorcoach tour of the city from the hotel through Vancouver and Richmond (just south of Vancouver) and stopped in Stanley Park in Vancouver then on to Granville Island, which has a vibrant combination of arts and crafts fabrication workshops, dining spaces, and stores. We had lunch at A Bread Affair, a sandwich shop with great food and awesome staff, where we ate outside with quite talented musician combining the musical themes of the First Nations with the sounds of nature.
Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, an observation tower just south of the cruise terminal overlooking the harbor. We saw our cruise ship below, the Radiance of the Seas, awaiting for us and getting ready to sail!
Our final stop was a drop off at the cruise terminal, which was quite convenient. We went upstairs and checked in, then back downstairs to clear US customs as our first stop was to be Ketchikan, Alaska.
Radiance of the Seas is a beautiful mid-size ship that was designed for this destination with 3 football lengths of glass to view the mountains in most areas of the ship. I met a couple from Australia who just got off the newer and larger Ovation of the Seas and although she liked Ovation, she really liked the Radiance of the Seas because of the many activities offered onboard. But this comes down to personal preference and what you want to do on your vacation! (I can help you select the right cruise and itinerary for you). The Radiance of the Seas will be dry docked in 2020 and will be fully modernized, but I found this ship to be a beautiful way to experience Alaska!
Met a new friend at the pool located in the Solarium (adult only section – except a few hours a day they allow families to come into this area) who is a water aerobics instructor so I got my work out in almost every day with Mary! The pool is salt water and every place inside the solarium has views of the mountains on the side and a ceiling (tall mountains). It was wonderful! There is also a full gym with classes at the bow of the ship on deck 12 overlooking the ocean.
Ketchikan – Arrive 19 May
Ketchikan is picturesque, with the colors of the town and commercial fishing contrasting with those of nature. As a comedian during one show put it, “Why does a town of far fewer than 10,000 people need 33 jewelry stores?” Indeed. You can get packed and smoked salmon shipped anywhere from here.
Ketchikan is a fishing port, but is also a point where adventure tours start.
Beyond the floatplanes, there is an airport with regular flights. This was the first stop on the cruise and after a few hours, it became obvious that the scene changes dramatically as the sun moves through the sky, as does the number of docked ships. If you have forgotten something, or need some gifts, there are plenty of places to shop and prices here are very reasonable – as an example ball caps for around $5, with some going up to $15. Jackets and raingear are also moderately priced. Some opted for the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
Later in the evening, we had the first of three specialty dining experiences, eating at the Chops Grill Specialty dining on board. This is a wonderful intimate dining experience with beautiful views. Great way to celebrate a special occasion (celebrated my birthday at this restaurant) and experience a culinary treat. Several of my clients have told me it was worth experiencing too.
Icy Strait Point – Arrive May 20
We woke and went up on deck as the ship docked at Icy Strait Point. The first thing that grabs you here is the isolation and scale of distance.
The 1 1/4th mile long Ziprider with 5 parallel ziplines can be seen from the dock and is an impressive. There is a big discount for buying tickets through the cruise. The end of the line is a spring, so you are not trying to run. They discourage bringing heavy cameras with you. Everyone arriving at the bottom is grinning.
We walked to Hoonah, the nearby town. You could also take a bus (buy a seat by the mini-donut stand). In town, the bus picks up at the marina. Buildings in town are not what you would expect for a tourist area, but they have to withstand harsh winters. As we neared the town, a fleet of kayaks passed by returning to the dock from an earlier tour. Kayaks are rented for the tour, but not apart from one. On the way back, we caught a ride with the bus at the marina where we learned from the bus driver that Frederick, a local brown bear, had been seen several times that day, but we missed him.
Now sitting down to eat, you get an idea of just how aggressive the wildlife can be here. Getting up from the table, you risk having a raven fly off with your lunch – they are big, ready, and waiting (right by you).
Yes, everything is better with Mini-donuts, everything. Or so the guy selling them says – having tested it, I can say it is better – then I tested it again.
Juneau – May 21
Juneau sits at the base of a mountain and has no way in or out by land. You can take a lift to the top of the ridge along the main street to get a view from the top (at $17 each). In the harbor, floatplanes take off and land constantly.
While in Juneau, we went whale watching and visited the Mendenhall Glacier. Everyone was bundled up as we boarded the bus for a ride to go whale watching. It was warm enough outside and we spent a lot of time up on deck. There were quite a few people on board and after the first sighting, it was apparent that once one was seen, everyone would rush to the closest point to the rail. You might only have a moment to capture a fluke, so you get to see more than you might catch on film. However, the whales are impressive and quiet, except when they breathe. There are several boats in the area and there are limits to how long and how close you can approach. The boat crew supplied binoculars but we used the small Bushnell 8×35 with the larger 12×50 going unused (just too heavy and rarely carried). Could have used a compromise of 10×42 (so long as the weight was reasonable).
The Mendenhall Glacier was accessible, but you had to walk straight to Nugget Falls and then the glacier to reach it and return before it was time to leave. We had a bus break down and two buses combined on the return – it definitely helped to know what bus is yours. It was resolved by the tour operator without any difficulty.
Back in Juneau, sitting on the dock and zooming in on the steep mountain in the distance, you could catch eagles flying (and paragliders off Mt. Roberts). Here is where the optical zoom with camera made a big difference in being able to pull in the eagle high on the mountaintop a half mile away. Juneau was crowded up to 5pm and cleared out only as ships pulled away for their next port of call.
Tonight we dined at Giovanni’s Table, the Italian Specialty dining, which was outstanding. We were the second to last ship to cast off and caught setting sun as Juneau faded into the distance.
Skagway – MAY 22
With quite a few ships in port, Skagway was busy and loud, with people packing the sidewalks and shops off the main street. It looked like the kind of scene that might just as well have been right out of the Yukon gold rush.
Walking just off the main street on either side, near a museum, we found a quiet sculpture garden near the Skagway Museum on Spring Street between 7th and 8th Streets, with some great bronze pieces ($5 to walk around).
From here, we returned to the dock to board the White Pass Railroad for the trip to where the US-Canada border met and prospectors, who were called “stampeders” had to prove to the Mounties that they had the 2,000lbs of required supplies to enter the Yukon to look for gold. Until the railroad was built, they mostly carried these loads in 100 pound increments up a steep trail for 33 miles, then returned for the next load. Of course, even then, the stampeders did have another choice, an even steeper trail. The railroad is built into the sides of mountains and the views are amazing. The experience of being seated inside and being on the platform at the end of the car was completely different. The ice in a lake at the top of the pass has the bluish tinge of color that you see in glacial ice, and some was under the water… Wild and mysterious place and totally worth experiencing!
As we returned to the ship, helicopter tours were landing and taking off in synchronized fashion. The winds did not seem to play any factor here as each pilot was very smooth in their maneuvers.
At Sea – 23 MAY
The Gulf of Alaska is a part of the Pacific Ocean and you can get some motion in the ocean. Our specialty dining this evening was in Samba’s, a Brazilian Steakhouse on the top deck in the aft – where you feel the movement more strongly than the lower decks. You do have to walk outside to reach it. Walking did require some careful consideration though, and the restroom was also accessed outside. They did serve on a sword and it was reassuring to see sure-footed gaucho put the tip in a ring on the table to cut the delicious meats.
Hubbard Glacier – 23 MAY
Entering the fjord where a part of the Hubbard Glacier is visible, the water is very still and greenish. The captain approached as far as it was safe, but could not approach too closely due to the amount of calving.
It’s hard to image it is as tall as it is or that there would be a native village near it, but the glacier is advancing, not retreating and has cut off Russell Fjord, so you can see less than half of the width of the glacier. The chunks of ice off the 300 foot high glacier have a mix of black coloration from grinding down the mountains as the dense ice advances. The ice is a pale blue with white snow covering, and as it calves you get the sound of rumbling, like thunder. In the water, the ice can be the color of the sea, so it is slow going on the path back to open ocean. This is an experience all would enjoy!
Disembarkation and Land Tour
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines offers the same land director throughout your land vacation. Our tour director’s name was Mike or “Helge” and everyone loved him with all his stories and history. Most cruise lines do not offer the same tour director throughout the land excursions. You may experience several tour directors but we were blessed with our tour director.
You can see a video of Mike singing the Alaska Anthem aboard the Wilderness Explorer on my website at www.mylandandsea.com. There are several other travel blogs on other areas we traveled to as well.
Here are some interesting facts Mike told us…
Do you know what the State Bird is in Alaska? Unofficially, it is the mosquito – that’s right, these are large so make sure you bring your bug spray – it can take several attempts to bring one down! (By going in May, we missed their most active time from mid-June to the end of July.) Do you know the difference between horns and antlers? Horns are permanent and antlers fall off every year. Do you know the difference between a Caribou and a Reindeer? The Reindeer is domesticated. Just a few interesting facts for you … and along the way other Alaskans shared these facts as well.
Seward – Arrive 24 MAY
Departure time arrived quickly and those going onto the land tour were separated into two buses for disembarkation. In Steward, the mountains here on a clear day are very dramatic and close, but the transition between ship and bus occurred so quickly, we didn’t get a lot of pictures. There was no haze in the air and the sky was deep blue. It looked very much like it was painted with no blending of colors for shading. It was like an idealized version of a landscape and the few pictures from the bus did not do it justice.
On the bus ride to Anchorage, it was surprising to see a gathering of more than thirty eagles waiting for the fish in the tide. A few minutes later, the tide came rolling back into the river, with a sudden rise of a few inches and wave at the front.
Anchorage – Arrive 24 May and Depart 25 May
We arrived a little before the hotel check-in time and decided to go for lunch at the Hard Rock Café then browsed some stores on the way back to the bus pick up. From there, we went to the Native Cultural Center to see how people lived without modern conveniences in a place where temperatures and the wildlife can be a little on the more extreme side. It was surprising to find they used earth shelters and construction. It was also surprising to find that while the stone, jade, is associated with Asia, Alaska with all its other mineral wealth is a huge producer of jade as well.
The Marriott was a little different than other hotels – the corridors are wide and the rooms are quite large – with a great shower. Walked to a large central park visible from the room. The park had kids flying kites and a veteran’s memorial – Alaska has the highest percentage of veterans in the country. As we walked toward the water, it was amazing how hot it felt as the sun was so strong.
We rejoined some of our party and walked to eat, we found Ron Perry – Sled Dog Musher from the 1st Iditarod outside with books and a 2 furry friends – one with 4 legs. Talked with Ron a little as he pointed out the building in a book showing the starting line for the Iditarod. He has several books of his own as well. Then I joined the others in the party settling into Tequila 31, a Mexican restaurant recommended by our local guide. They served fajitas in a tripod cauldron – guess it stays hot no matter what it’s doing outside. Then we tried for ice cream and the line was around the corner – found out that Alaska also leads the US in per-capita ice-cream consumption, suddenly realizing it was quite late, even though the sun was still high in the sky, we returned to the hotel to sleep.
Early in the morning we had a short bus ride from the Marriott to the Alaskan Railroad depot a short distance away. We enjoyed breakfast on the train in the restaurant in the lower part of the rail car – the food was excellent. As we passed by JBER – the military Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson the largest employer in Anchorage, we saw our first bear, a small one with a dark coat was running beside the train briefly.
Talkeetna – Arrive 25 May and Depart 26 MAY
By train, on a clear day, a view Denali suddenly appears through gaps in trees and as the train approaches Talkeetna, the view gets more and more clear, and breaks into the open with views at a bend in the track catch a reflection of the mountain on the river. Asking the local guide, he advised that he could not say that the views would be as clear when we arrived at the lodge because the weather can change so rapidly. But there was a spectacular view of Denali on as we pulled up next to the building, then departed for town. By now, the pattern was clear, we would get our bearings with a quick trip to the hotel and then get out into town, then return to check in to sleep.
Talkeetna seems to have a standing crafts fair in the tourist season and is also a base for climbers getting ready for the ascent of Denali – some hotels cater to the climbers and large packs and other gear can been seen everywhere around these. Now. Alaska is different, but you don’t expect to have to make way for a steamroller on a gravel street – but we did.
We found pie and ice cream here, but really liked the burgers. Returning to the lodge, we found the mountains was shrouded in clouds – weather really does change very quickly here – and a check of the weather confirmed it was actually snow falling (in May) on Denali and the top of the mountain was no longer visible. In Talkeetna, it was warm and comfortable.
The lodge was beautiful and the odd numbered rooms had direct views toward Denali. We enjoyed a meal in the Bistro and service was excellent even though our server changed twice.
At the lodge, you are in nature. A moose came out of the woods to nibble on trees and slowly wandered around giving time for lots of photos. Now, we had seen a couple running out of the woods and found later that they had surprised a moose and young ones and the moose had started pawing the ground. May is a time of newborns, so you do see more of them and their vigilant and protective moms; especially the Mama Bears!
Leaving Talkeetna, we were back in the Wilderness Explorer rail car in comfortable and roomy leather seating under the glass dome on the upper level enjoying the scenery, as the bartender took orders. For accessible/special needs travelers, the rail car has a lift both inside and outside, otherwise there is a narrow circular stairwell to come up to the upper level. I am a certified accessible/special needs travel advisor and enjoy helping everyone to travel and experience new horizons. You can get really great views and photos on the lower viewing platform outside. The best views are when you are on the last car. Check out my videos on my website at www.mylandandsea.com. The dining section in the lower area is spacious with a large picture window to see the passing scenery and wildlife. Had a great Lunch on the train to Denali National Park.