I'm Going To Alaska: You Tell Me When/How

Hubby and I have talked about going to Alaska for a couple of years now, and we think we’re going to take the plunge next year. I have a few questions, and thought my fellow Dopers could help me:

We’ll probably want to take a cruise there and back, say up to 14 days total. Do you think this is sufficient?

What specific areas to you recimmend for optimal wildlife-viewing? I especially want to see bears and whales, but am unsue when they’re most actvie. What’s the best time to see Glacier Bay where the sheets of ice plummet into the sea?

What cruise line should we take? We went to Hawaii on Royal Carribean and were unhappy. Though people who’d cruised before raved about the cuisine, I found it one or two steps above caffeteria food. (I think people have confused quantity with quality.) Secondly, hubby and I are not into social activities while on ship. We prefer a quiter crowd.

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

I just got back yesterday, actually. My grandparents took me on a ten-day Inside Passage cruise on Princess Cruise Lines. This cruise left from San Fransisco, and really had a lot of at-sea days (5, although one was a detour to look at glaciers and was really neat.) My grandparents said that if they’d realized they were going to bring me when they originally booked it, they would have arranged a different one with more stops.

We only stopped in four places - Sitka, Haines, Juneau, and Victoria, and we cruised up and down the Tracy Arm south of Juneau one day, which was really spectacular. One the sea days, you couldn’t see diddly from the ship, and not being social butterflies, we all read a lot of books. We also found that the stops weren’t long enough - twice it was just enough for me to take one tour and not really get a good look at the town.

That said, I did go on some fabulous tours. I think the Tracy Arm diversion was probably better than the more crowded Glacier Bay. In Juneau, I took a helicopter ride to the Taku Glacier, where we got to get off and look around. I think that was also better than the more crowded Mendenhall Glacier tour too, but I really don’t have anything to base those opinions on.

I went on a good whale and wildlife watching trip out of Sitka and an Orca watching trip out of Victoria. I didn’t get to see anything at all of Victoria because of the time limit and the crowds from a tall ship festival in town, but I could see that it would be a fabulous city to explore.

I never did see any bears or moose, but quite a few different kinds marine mammals, which was pretty neat. I think there are some tours that invovle cruise ships and then going inland for a few days in a hotel in the middle of it - I think that would be good for touring. I also think that I may like to spend a summer towing my trailer up there and really taking my time someday, but that will have to wait until after I’m independently wealthy.

I had much the same opinion on cruise food as your friends did. I learned early on to not order beef or anything else that I can cook really well, because I would just be disappointed. I think it would really impress those of the faded-tastebuds demographic, and I have to say that much (but not all) of the seafood was really very good.

Overall, I had a great time; it was just not the sort of vacation I’d pick for myself. I prefer something a little less choreographed, but my grandparents needed the help and it was good to be there for them. Win-win, in that respect.

The Inside Passage is pretty, and many people like that sort of thing. My personal recommendation would be to stay away from cruises. You have limited time and crowds of people and will end up seeing mostly souvenir shops and other tourists.

If I had only 14 days to see some of Alaska, and had the funds, I would go to Katmai to see the bears gorging on salmon and to visit the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Next, I would take a charter to Aniakchak for a truly remote experience. Thirdly, I would go to Denali National Park and stay at one of the lodges inside the Park itself, rather than one of those ghastly Princess lodges, then drive over the old Denali Highway, which is one of the most scenic areas in the state.

Please rethink your plans. Put the trip off for a year, put some real thought into the vacation, and then see some truly wonderful things on your own.

I want to second Chefguy’s opinion - cruises may be nice, but I don’t think that is the best way to experience Alaska. And if you’re not into the social aspect, then you would certainly want to get away from your fellow passengers.

On the other hand, a trip to Katmai (which is on my list) may be a bit too rugged for your tastes. So I would highly suggest at least planning on a week or so in Denali park (camping or whatever). I think spending time in that park is your best bet on seeing a good variety of wildlife including grizzlies, caribou, moose. Not to mention seeing the mountain.
For sea-going wildlife, perhaps take a tour of the Kenai fjords out of Seward.

So for a not as cush trip as a cruise, yet not as rugged trip as a bush pilotted drop into Katmai, I’d suggest: flying into Anchorage. Renting a car. Drive up to Denali, and spend a week in the park. Drive down to the Kenai peninsula (maybe take in some glaciers off the Glen highway as a sidetrack). Take a boat trip out of Seward (half day).

Alaska is a big state. I hear of so many people who do the cruise deal (with excursions) and have a wonderful time. But to say that was “experiencing” Alaska is like saying visiting San Francisco was experiencing California. To me, sitting at a ranger’s talk near Wonder Lake (in Denali park) at dusk around 10pm, swatting mosquitos, and having a bull moose stroll by is more what I think of as the Alaska experience.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to e-mail me.

I’m from Alaska - the Inside Passage actually.

I’m not sure I’d recommend the cruise deal for anyone who was planning a trip from scratch. It has good points, but for the money you can get a better experience doing it other ways.

There are really four basic areas to Alaska - there’s the Inside Passage, the Interior, the Aleutain Islands and the polar region. They’re not really particularly well connected to each other. The Aleutians and the polar regions in particular can be a major production to get into and out of - even in the summertime. So, while the scenery and atmosphere there is wonderful, I’m not sure it’s right for a shorter vacation period.

If you want to do the Inside Passage, I would recommend using the ferry system (http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/). This is how most people who live in the Inside Passage get from town to town. The state maintains it primarily for that reason - although more and more tourists are using it as well. You can leave from either Bellingham, WA (Seattle basically) or Prince Rupert, BC. This pretty much is the most flexible and cost effective way to do it. Their website will show you the various packages they offer - but you can also just buy a round trip ticket between say Seattle and Skagway (the terminus) and stop at any number of the towns along the way. If you decide to stick around for a day or two, you can do that. As long as you don’t take a car onto the ferry with you (go as a walk-on passenger), you won’t have trouble taking the next boat along. The ferries have staterooms, sleeping lounges and cafeterias (the food ain’t great, but it works). The ferries also mostly have educational programs and some have onship tour guides. A popular way to do it (and maximize vacation time) either take the ferry from Seattle to Skagway, Haines or Juneau and then fly back to Seattle from Juneau. So a one-way ferry trip basically.

If you’re interested in the interior (Denali, Anchorage, etc) then you almost certainly want to go with a guided package. There are a number of them up in that area, and I can probably recommend a good one if you go that route.

Either way, feel free to drop me an email if you want some more information or have questions.

It’s not at all bad. You fly into King Salmon on ERA Airlines, then take a large float plane to Naknek Lake. There is a very comfortable lodge there (albeit expensive). A FWD bus takes you to 10,000 Smokes, where you can choose to hike down into the gorge or not (I did, and I’m a geezer).

Here is a photo I took of the lake. Nuff said?

I went up to Alaska at the start of May, intending to work for the summer at the McKinley Chalet Resort outside the entrance to Denali. Unfortunately a fight with my employer about pay led to me leaving after just three weeks, but I did have a chance to travel around some and talk with a lot of natives. Instead of giving you an itinerary, let me just share some of the wisdom I picked up.

First of all, Alaska has dived into the tourism industry in a big way in recent years. The upside is that this gives you a lot of choices, but the downside is that many of the most popular areas have become overcrowded and very unpleasant during the summer. Folr instance, Skagway is a small town with restraunts and shops that support the tourists from the cruises. But when three of four cruise ships upll in, then you suddenly have 10,000 people wandering through the town. Of course this means ridiculously long lines for everything. A similar process unfolds at the Denali entrance, where most of the tourists arrive on the daily train from Anchorage. I can testify personally that most people don’t enjoy the Denali experience much if they’re staying at one of the big lodges outside the entrnace. The smaller lodges inside the park are much more enjoyable, though of course they are expensive.

Another problem is the monopoly issue. Many lodges are spread out and face little competition, so there’s no motivation for them to offer good service are low prices. For instance, my ex-employer charges three dollars for a bottle of water. At the hotels run by the big tourist companies, “one or two steps above cafeteria food” is exactly what you should expect.

The recommendation that I got from most of the natives is that renting a car and hitting some of the lesser-known parks and attractions is actually your best deal. I heard particular praise for Wrangell-St. Elias Park in the southeast corner of the state. It’s said to have spectacular landscape and wildlife. More importantly, it can only be accessed by dirt road and thus does not get flooded by hordes of tourists.

Exactly right. The entry businesses are an appalling collection of hotels and t-shirt shops, with a few crappy restaurants thrown in for good measure. It’s tacky and ugly.

Wrangell-St. Elias is HUGE and beautiful.

I would also recommend driving a short way up the Dalton Highway, at least up to the Arctic Circle, if not up to Coldfoot, just to say you’ve been on the road to Prudhoe Bay and have driven across the Yukon River.

Tourism is a lot more long-term sustainable than natural resource extraction as an industry.

But that was part of my recommendation to take the ferry if you’re hitting the Inside Passage. The ferry only rarely hits port at the same time as major tours - if it does, it’s pure coincidence.

I’ll third the recommendations already given for the Interior - Wrangell-St. Elias is as scenic as Denali and less filled with the lamer forms of tourists and tourism related industry. Not so much with the tacky T-shirt industry. The good news is that Alaska isn’t so established a tourism industry that you can go to your tour company and say “Look. I want to see wildlife and scenery and all that, but I’m hoping to avoid major crowds and touristy crap. What can you recommend?” and your chances of getting a helpful response are pretty good. A lot of tour companies will work with you to pick out destinations that aren’t filled to the rim with cheesy coffee mugs and Disney-World-esqe lines. If you plan ahead, there are also a number of attractions that are only available via prior appointment, which must be obtained weeks or months in advance (like the AnAn Bear observatory seen here:


http://www.familyairtours.com/page2_Anan.html and

http://www.sunriseflights.com/charters/anan.htm and


I can recommend the first and third tour company - I’ve known those guys since I was tiny. The second group I know only by reputation and can’t recommend (they are the reason that site is now restricted) but the pictures are helpful all the same :slight_smile:

Another thing to keep in mind is that things are just flat out more expensive in Alaska. More so in the tourist traps of course, but even if you’re not in the traps, things will cost more. I was 18 and in college before I saw a gallon of milk for less than four bucks. Which was over a decade ago. It’s a result of having to have most supplies shipped in - drives up prices. Particularly on perishable items.