by Karen Rubin and David Leiberman
Cruising in Alaska is one of the most marvelous cruises you can take. But a cruise can only come to the edge of a destination – touch the surface, as it were, even if you can take advantage of shore excursions that take you for a few hours further into the interior. For, while cruising Alaska’ Inside Passage is a thoroughly enjoyable way to encounter the marvelous scenery, natural attractions, colorful ports of call, and is one of the most pleasurable cruise itineraries you can take, anyone looking beyond scenery to having a more immersive experience should take the land tour to get to the “heart” of a destination.
We are on Royal Caribbean’s cruisetour, which began in Fairbanks (see story).
It’s late afternoon when we arrive from Fairbanks to the McKinleyVillage Lodge, in a tourist village within Denali National Park that actually only exists in the summer (www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm).
The lodge is very pleasantly rustic and comfortable, and set on a river. We decide to go for a hike, and find a trail into the hills that takes us to some pleasant views of the river and mountain peaks.
We don’t have a lot of time, because we take advantage of an optional excursion available for cruisetour guests, which turns out to be a highlight of our trip: Iditarod Champion Jeff King’s Husky Homestead. (www.huskyhomestead.com)
As soon as we arrive at the Homestead, we are handed new puppies to hold. Jamie, a trainer, describes the process of raising these dogs for the race and how they are ultimately selected for their roles on the team. She explains that we become part of the earliest process – helping to socialize the dogs.
We learn that the image we have of a pure-bred husky is a myth – the dogs are typically not purebred, but are bred to have the best characteristics for mushing. The term “husky” simply applies to any dog that loves to run and pull. They have a double coat and when they are racing, can consume 10,000 calories (the equivalent of 30,000 for a person).
Jeff King (for those of us who didn’t know) is a four-time winner of this arduous 1,000-mile race by dogsled, the last time at age 50 (he was planning to enter again).
He is charming, funny and a sensational storyteller. Like so many we have met, he came to Alaska when he was just 19 for a summer job, and stayed. At one point, he describes the whole process of the race, using his body to animate – he holds a sled and sways his body as if he was going around the turn. We almost can imagine the dogs ahead of him. We get some sense of how arduous it is – even beyond the cold – when he describes how he has to feed all the dogs before he can eat himself, and basically gets an hour’s rest before he has to hit the trail again.
“The dogs are the real athletes,” he says. “We are vet, trainer, psychologist, weather predictor. We have to stay up 10 days.”
They have to ship food to 20 locations – more than 2,000 lbs for each team and there are 80 teams in the race.
“The rules require that each team start with 16 dogs and the minimum is 6. It’s like bringing the ‘bench’ with you. It’s like a space shuttle taking off. The team doesn’t care if the driver falls off,” he says.
“We travel 120 miles a day, dividing the day into four 6-hour shifts. Getting them to rest after 6 hours running is like trying to get a toddler to nap. You have to trick them into resting.” While the dogs rest, he has 4 1/2 hours of work. The race rules prohibit help – so there is no support. He boils the snow into water, prepares the food for the dog. He may get 90 minutes to rest, when he can go indoors.
‘The High One’
“Denali” – the “High One,” the indigenous people called it, before a supporter of McKinley renamed it; the national park was also named McKinley until the “Denali” name was restored in 1980.
We are up at 6 a.m. for breakfast and out by 6:15 a.m. for our four-hour Natural History Tour into Denali National Park.
The biggest surprise is how rare animals are in this incredibly vast 6 million acre park. It is larger, in fact, than Massachusetts. All we get to see are a few hares and an eagle (the six-hour tour really is the way to see wildlife; another tour group spotted several grizzly bears and moose). The tour starts with an 18-minute video about the origins of the park, in 1917, when it was called Mount McKinley National Park (who could have imagined that flightseeing was an activity here in 1923!).
(Though you don’t have to take an organized tour to visit the park, everyone has to take a park bus – there are no private cars allowed in the park.).
Highlights are when the bus stops at a small trail that leads to a historic encampment where we meet an interpreter in the part of an Atlanta woman of the 1940s who describes how she came here. The part this day is played by Stephanie Kubilius who is really from Atlanta, and researched to create a credible character.
Our bus tour continues – the driver is a naturalist who gives us commentary – and we are brought up to a high promontory with a view, and meet Gabe, an Akabaskan, who talks about how his village of 400 people still maintain a traditional subsistence culture.
“As a rite of passage, a young man has to crawl inside a bear den with flashlight,” he tells us. “We’re the only tribe in Alaska to do that. They tie a rope to his lega nd there is another hunter. As soon as he shoots, he is yoked out of the cave. We put up two poles, in case he missed.”
Though the weather is less than cooperative – grey, hazy, periodic drizzle and a wet cold making this the first real cold we have had (they give us hot chocolate ), the scenery is still dramatic.
The climax of a visit to Denali, of course, is to see Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in the North American continent. The peak is so big – extending from 2,000-feet lowlands to the snowy summit at 20,320 feet, that it makes its own weather. Its vertical relief is actually greater than Mount Everest. Winter low temperatures can plummet to -minus 95, and during storms, winds can gust to more than 150 mph.
We don’t actually get to see the peak. The biggest surprise is that one-third of the visitors who come never do because it is so often shrouded in clouds. Roberta tells us that as we travel south, we might have a completely different weather pattern that reveals the mountain.
I would have preferred to have a lot more time in Denali, but now I have a reason to return.
The Wilderness Express
A short distance from the Denali Visitor Center, we board the marvelous glass-domed touring railcars specially designed and built by Royal Celebrity, Alaska Wilderness Express®, that will take us on a four-hour journey through the park to Talkeetna.
These are among the most luxurious cars on rail – most of the tour companies (Holland America, for example) have their own cars, which are pulled by the Alaska Railroad (which offers regular passenger cars), but Royal Caribbean’s are surely among the most fabulous.
The scenery is magnificent and dramatic – and the rail tour emulates the luxury of the ship, evoking the era of the grand style of train travel. We order drinks and sit in easy chairs with glass-domed windows giving almost 360-degree views.
We enjoy an opulent lunch in the dining room in the lower level of the double-decker. There is a delectable crab bisque; Aleutian seafood salad; penne pasta tossed with spinach, red pepper, water chestnuts and almonds, with Asia-inspired dressing. For dessert, “Fruit of the Forest Pie” prepared with wild berries, baked in a flaky crust, served with ice cream, New York Style cheesecake, and Tiramisu (drinks and lunch are at extra cost).
In the afternoon, the sun still high and warm, we pull into Talkeetna, the Alaskan town that apparently inspired the creators of “Northern Exposure.” It is easy to imagine the town as the setting for the quirky characters and plots.
Our hotel, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, guarantees “the best views of Mt. McKinley” – and that proves true. Set on a promontory, we have a clear view of the mountain – in fact, the whole chain which I see sprawling in front of me when we arrive. I look at and think I see Mount McKinley because of all these tall peaks (it is, after all, about 65 miles away), but Roberta says, ‘No, that’s not it. You will know when you see it.’
You can even leave a “wake-up” call in case the peak emerges in the night.
Several of our group take advantage of the flightseeing opportunity that Roberta arranges that same afternoon (they pick up at the hotel) in order to experience, close-hand, Mount McKinley. Even though we can’t see Mount McKinley’s peak very clearly, the company guarantees a sighting or they don’t take you up. Besides the extraordinary scenery, the trip provides more of an opportunity to appreciate the Alaskan tradition of flying.
Everywhere we go, Roberta does the most marvelous job of preparing us for what we will see – orienting us so that we get the maximum appreciation for places. So, even the few minutes ride (our bus driver has driven from the Park and meets us at the train station) to the hotel, she briefs us on this charming town.
With this in mind, we immediately hop the hotel’s free shuttle for the 1.7 mile trip back to the “downtown” and walk the short distance into the local cemetery, which she has recommended.
“If you get lost in Talkeetna, you have serious issues,” she jokes. That’s because you can stand in the middle of the town and see the whole place.
The town is truly colorful. We visit Negley’s, the town’s only grocery store, a one-room affair (interesting what they stock); the West Rib Pub, named for a climbing route, where they serve Caribou burgers and Ice Ax beer; and the Wild Flower Cafe, whose chef used to cook for President George W. Bush at the White House and Kennebunkport, and the Roadhouse, a historic roadhouse for mushers and their dogs, where you can see old newspaper clippings.
We linger at the historic Fairview Inn where President Harding stayed when he came to Alaska to knock the golden spike into the completed rail line; he traveled with his wife and his mistress and died two weeks later. “The Fairview Inn perpetuates the rumor that the wife poisoned him at the inn,” Roberta tells us.
There is also a Historical Society Museum focusing on the area’s trapping and mining tradition, which has a topographical map (1 inch equals 1000 feet), and a Ranger Station, where every mountaineer is required to check in.
Clearly, Talkeetna has an important role in the state’s mountain climbing and dog mushing tradition.
We see an aspect of this tradition – in the local cemetery, which Roberta has suggested we visit. It is whimsical and good humored, if you can imagine that. There are a number of graves of bush pilots with propellers instead of headstones, mountaineers leave their boots, and there is a more somber memorial to mountain climbers who perished in pursuit of that passion.
While others enjoy the charming restaurants “downtown” for dinner, I have my first bison burger (fabulous, prepared intriguingly with brie) at Talkeetna Lodge’s Bistro – such a pleasant room, with windows with stunning views of the mountain, and an altogether wonderful menu.
The Talkeetna Lodge turns out to be one of many tourism-related businesses of Alaskan Heritage Tours, a company owned by Native Alaskans that has several other lodges and sightseeing ventures. (In fact, if you wanted to return for a different vantage point of the glaciers, you could take their Prince William Sound Glacier cruises or Kenai Fjords National Park Tour from Seward, www.alaskaheritagetours.com).
Determined to get a view of Mount McKinley, I get up at about 1:30 a.m. to see if the clouds cleared. It is late summer so it does get dark at night, but I think I can see Mount McKinley poking through.
I go out again at 3 a.m. and I am rewarded. There is Mount McKinley, a dark form in the shadow of night. Roberta was right: the peak is gi-normous – many times bigger than those other peaks in the chain – and it stands looming, majestic in front of me, even though it is about 65 miles away.
The Big Dipper is brilliant in front of me, too, looking just like the Alaska state flag.
And just below it, I see the green swirl of gaseous light: the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights! I watch for several minutes, the green glow competing with the pink harbinger of dawn, and then it is gone.
I return at 6 a.m. just as the peak, now clearly wearing its white cover of snow, begins to be bathed in that rosey glow.
All morning long, we are rewarded with these incredibly dramatic scenes of the mountain, brilliantly clear. A woman said she had been there for two weeks and this was her first opportunity to see Mount McKinley in its full glory.
We board the bus again to head toward Anchorage.
Our time on the bus is spent pleasurably with Roberta regaling us with stores about Alaska, Alaskans and growing up in Alaska, usually pertinent to what we are seeing outside our window.
No story about Alaska is complete without learning a bit about oil and the pipeline. We have had some sense of how the Gold Rush brought settlement to Alaska. Alaska’s more recent claim to fame has been the Alyeska Pipeline, taking oil from the North Slope. This was an engineering marvel, since the frigid cold made it impossible to transport the oil the 8,000 miles.
The pipeline had to be designed to withstand earthquakes – Alaska is one of the most active areas for earthquakes in the world (who knew?) – so in parts, it is built to shift as much as 24 inches. The other major challenge was to build over the tundra – so in many places, it has to be built above ground, and in other places is buried in the ground. To protect the permafrost, the pipeline has a cooling system that keeps it 60 degrees. Traveling 4-5 mph, it takes seven days for the oil to travel from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez where it is pumped into barges.
The citizens of Alaska benefit from the mineral rights. Royalties are deposited into a fund, which began in 1977 with $734,000. The balance has grown to $29 billion, making it one of the 100 largest investment funds and (incredibly) one of largest lenders to the U.S. government.
Each year, Alaska, which has no income tax or sales tax, distributes a share of the investment earnings to qualified Alaskan residents -as little as $300 and as much as $3200 to each man, woman and child. “Stores advertise Permanent Fund Distribution Days.. It’s an interesting day to shop on the day every resident receives $3000 in their bank account,” Roberta says.
Alaskans have another interesting tradition: The Nenana Ice Classic, the state’s only sanctioned gambling (www.nenanakiceclassic.com), that is based out of Nenana, 65 miles from Fairbanks.
People pay $2.50 for a chance to predict when the ice will melt to the exact month, day, hour and minute when the Spring Breakup will take place. This is not as easy as it sounds – the earliest so far has been Apr. 20, 1940, 3:27 p.m., the latest was May 20, 1964, 11:41 a.m.
They erect a 1,500-pound spruce tripod which is frozen into the ice. A rope connected to a downtown clock is tripped when the ice melts. Since 1917 when this tradition began, $7.9 million has been paid out; last year, the jackpot was $280,000.
Enroute to Anchorage, we drive through Wasilla, recently famous because of a certain former Vice Presidential candidate. It turns out our bus driver is from Wasilla and knows Sarah Palin, the former mayor, and her family personally. He deftly parries any political conversation. It takes moments to pass through the town and into its arch-rival, Palmer, where our tour guide, Roberta, is from.
On this afternoon, Roberta tells us moose stories, which establish in our minds just how commonplace these creatures are.
She tells us of the day that a moose wandered onto Anchorage’s Fifth Avenue, into a park which had crab apples that had become so rotten, they fermented. The moose got drunk.
The largest moose anyone had ever seen managed to wander onto a runway at Ted Stevens Airport, delaying air traffic for 30 minutes.
“Everyone has a moose story. Roberta has her story: A moose was in her parents yard. For days. She needed to get to the car, but the moose was between. She tried setting off fireworks but that didn’t stir the moose. Her brother convinced her to fire a paintball gun at the moose, to sting it. “I shot it in the butt 3 times with orange paint. Instead of running, it ran onto my mother’s newly painted porch. Then it slammed the front of my mother’s car, ruining it. I ended up calling Fish & Game. Apparently, it’s highly illegal to paintball a moose.”
“Moose are dangerous; they cause fatalities,” she tells us, seriously, I guess by way of warning us that if we do happen to see a moose walking down Fifth Avenue, to stay out of its way. “They are tempermental.”
I look intently where Roberta says you can frequently see moose, but I am not that lucky.
Native Heritage Museum
Before arriving at our downtown Anchorage hotel, the Marriott, our tour stops at the Alaskan Native Heritage Museum, a phenomenal display that brings together natives from tribes all over Alaska, to demonstrate their culture with performances, artifacts, structures, and conversation with indoor and outdoor exhibits.
It comes as quite a surprise that as much as 22 percent of Alaska’s population is native (indigenous people are “native”; a person born in Alaska is called “Alaskan.”).
It is fascinating to walk through the outside area, cleverly arranged so the exhibits – essentially the lodge structures – reflect the culture of six main tribes of Alaska.
We learn about the Tglinit’s clan system, so that an Eagle cannot marry Eagle, but must marry a Raven. In this matrilineal society, children are educated by the wife’s family.
We see an Aleut Long House, which could be the length of a football field and house 150-200 people in this communal society.
A boy with braces tells us about the healing power of a beehive; how the boys can earn $200 to get a beehive. “A doctor wanted a beehive to cure a man’s leg, bleeding from a motorcycle accident. The beehive healed it in half the time.”
Another tribe separates men and women. The Qasgig – the Man’s house, is where the men work, eat, bathe and sleep; mothers and wives bring food. The Man’s house is twice as big as the woman’s place. Boys are taught to sew, so they can repair a tear in a parka (which could be life-threatening), if necessary. This tribe still has arranged marriages.
“Native peoples are 22% of state… We live very modern lifestyles – we have electricity, TV. But we are connected to the land. In Alaska, we are able to maintain traditions easier – rural, and harsh environment.”
One woman, who is doing beadwork, shares her lunch of dried salmon strips. “there has been a resurgence of culture,” she tells us. “This center’s job is to teach the world we’re here. All cultures of Alaska.
“Fifty years ago, we all traveled by dog sled. Everyone now has TV, phone. We have city government, tribal government, health center, store, post office. You can visit our village,” she says, pointing to a mural-sized photograph of her village. “Just call to the tribal government and ask to stay.
“We used to live the cycle of nature. Now we two lifestyles: American and native, but I prefer native food,” she says.
There are six village sites, a theater where there is a movie every half-hour (highly recommended). You could easily spend three hours (www.alaskanative.net).
Roberta tells us, “Native peoples are struggling to maintain subsistence lifestyle, and if they leave the village, lose their culture and language. There is a big effort in Alaska to keep the tradition alive. Native life is instilled in school. In school, we play native games in phys ed, we had Eskimo ‘ice cream’ – actually whale blubber mixed with berries. Now they use Crisco instead of whale blubber.”
As we leave, a stirring juxtaposition, as F-22 raptor squad training flights scream overhead from nearby air force base.
We have some time in Anchorage to explore before our farewell dinner. There is a bike rental shop to take advantage of a 25-mile-long coastal trail, but I opt for exploring the downtown.
Our group’s farewell dinner is at the Snow Goose, on the water, where we still can see the faint outline of Mount McKinley in the distance, some 250 miles away.
The Royal Celebrity “cruisetour” does an excellent job of showcasing what makes Alaska a unique destination, providing authentic experiences in a compressed space of time in a state that is so vast, it is more than twice the size of Texas. You come away with an appreciation for dog mushers, Gold Rushers, natives and Alaskans, in a land of extremes of temperature and temperment.
Royal Caribbean’s cruisetour is a seamless experience that packages the very best of a destination. The program maximizes your time, so that in a really compressed period, you really do get a very full experience.
You can take the cruisetour either before or after the cruise, but if possible, do the land tour before the cruise – and book early. Even with all that they do to make your trip as comfortable and stress-free as possible, this is the more exerting part of the trip – you get up early to visit Denali and have to leave early to get from one place to another (though you just slip your bags outside the door and don’t see them again until they magically appear your next hotel room). then, when you get on the cruise, you can relax and enjoy as you are conveyed from one destination to another, while also having a much enhanced appreciation of what you are seeing, and arrive home feeling as if you have truly had a vacation.
There is a three-day land itinerary, but you should take the four-day in order to experience Fairbanks, Denali, and Talkeetna (a five-day itinerary gives you an extra day in Fairbanks).
Is it worth it? I did a rough calculation and the per diem is about $200/day per person for both the cruise and the land tour. This is very much worth it – especially since traveling in Alaska is expensive and difficult. If you could rent a car and get yourself place to place, you would be taking terrible risk; the hotels we so enjoyed seemed to be booked up by the various tour companies; even getting on the tours of Denali seemed to be booked up in advance.
You would have to invest considerable time researching all the sights. Unless you have a lot of time to devote to planning and traveling and are adventurous (that is, you regard mishaps as adventures), the cruisetour is a great idea. And very possibly, it would cost more than the cruisetour – the nightly rate at the Talkeetna Lodge, for example, would be $450, if you could even get the tickets to the tours and attractions or have the hotel accommodations.
People don’t necessarily realize the challenge of traveling in Alaska. They don’t recognize what they are getting into. “A family wanted to go to Denali thinking it’s an afternoon drive, and it’s not, and if you haven’t timed right and if there is no gas station open, you can be in a world of hurt,” Roberta reflects.” Some think they can land in Fairbanks, rent a car, and drive to the Arctic Circle – the next gas station is 160 miles away, and may not be open…You need to take rations, have bear spray.”
The Alaska cruise season is mid-May to mid-September. Book early to have the best choice of dates – August can be rainy, but the first couple of weeks can be the best to see wildlife; the best weather is in May and June. Peak pricing is in June and July; the beginning and end of the season offers the best value and least crowds. Prices don’t tend to drop on the cruisetour, and if there would be some value-added, it would be in the form of on-board credits, perhaps an upgrade, rather than lower prices.
Royal Caribbean books the “cruisetour” together – the land package is not an add-on, like a shore excursion, and if you would book the cruise and then decide later to do the land tour, you would have to rebook the cruise.
Royal Celebrity, Royal Caribbean’s in-house tour company, operates the Alaska program. The quality of Royal Celebrity’s tour product is unmatched, especially for the price, affording excellent value. Royal Celebrity is the only one, apparently, which has an tour director and driver accompany the group the entire trip.
For additional information or to make reservations, call your travel agent, visitwww.royalcaribbean.com/plan/cruisetours or call 800-ROYAL-CARIBBEAN.
Wednesday, 10 March, 2010
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