Alaska had been on my Vacation Wish List for at least 10 years. Thanks to the nature shows on PBS and the Discovery channel, I had acquired an interest in seeing Alaskan wildlife in their natural habitat. I was also interested in experiencing 24-hour daylight (21 hours will do) and seeing icebergs and glaciers. We chose the Southbound Princess Heart Of Alaska Cruisetour which consists of 3 days on land (Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage) and a 7-day cruise aboard the Sun Princess.
June 1, 2001, I could hardly believe I was on my way to Alaska! Alaska had been on my Vacation Wish List for at least 10 years. Thanks to the nature shows on PBS and the Discovery channel, I had acquired an interest in seeing Alaskan wildlife in their natural habitat. I was also interested in experiencing 24-hour daylight (21 hours will do) and seeing icebergs and glaciers. Finally, I was on an airplane headed for Fairbanks, Alaska with Traci and my parents.
We chose the Southbound Princess Heart Of Alaska Cruisetour which consists of 3 days on land (Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage) and a 7-day cruise aboard the Sun Princess. We received our excursions brochures and sign up sheets about 2 months before the trip. We registered and paid for our shore excursions via the Princess website. Princess recommended that you pre-register for excursions at least 1 month before departure because these tours sometimes sell out. We ended up making changes once we boarded the ship. Fortunately, none of the trips we wanted were sold out.
We flew Northwest Airlines from Philadelphia to Fairbanks with a short stop in Minneapolis. It was interesting to observe the changing landscape as we flew over Alaska. The scenery seemed to change from miles of green spruce trees to snow-capped mountains to barren land. Occasionally, you could see brown silty rivers snaking their way through the land. All this scenery unfolded beneath us for hours, but there were little or no signs of human habitation until we approached Fairbanks.
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 PM 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 one of the small restaurants in the hotel (the food was very good) and then went back to the room to organize our luggage.
Chena River at 10 PM!
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 AM 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 (tallest mountain in North America) 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.
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.
Denali Princess Lodge
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 PM. 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".
A moose roaming freely in Denali National Park
Denali Park tour bus
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. Continue...
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