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Alaska – Exploring the Last Frontier

One of the benefits of being a travel professional is that you can build a never-ending list of travel destinations. As clients request information for locales and adventures around the world, we learn more and more about these amazing places. The challenge then becomes how do we choose from this ever-expanding bucket list!?! One of the destinations that has always captured our imaginations is the 49th state, Alaska. We’ve had so many friends, family, and clients extolling the virtues of this northern gem, that when the chance arrived to visit, we jumped on it! We elected to travel with Princess Cruise Line, the pioneer of Alaska cruises, for this adventure. In order to see both land and sea, we chose a 12-day Denali Explorer CruiseTour, which included five days exploring the vastness of the interior, including Denali National Park, followed by a 7-day southbound cruise through the Inside Passage, including Glacier Bay National Park.

The Interior – Denali

The highlight of the interior portion of our trip was Denali National Park. Princess included a Natural History Tour into the park. One thing we quickly learned is that things in Alaska are BIG! The running joke from all the Alaska natives throughout our trip was how “cute Texas is”, because, no joke, everything you encounter in Alaska is supersized. Nowhere is this on display more than in Denali. From big mountains to big views to big wildlife, this was jaw-dropping Alaska at its biggest!

To protect the unspoiled riches of the park, private vehicles are only permitted a few miles into the park. After that, park-operated buses are the name of the game. Our tour would take us a mere 30 miles into the park. Other longer options are available, but this one fit us just right. One of the first things our driver/guide asked us was for a show of hands of who wanted to see what. Moose? Sure! Caribou? Why not! Dall Sheep? Cool! Grizzly Bear? You betcha! Well, she explained, the great thing about a natural tour in a place like this is that you never know what you’re going to get. So, fingers crossed, off we went!

We were visiting at the very beginning of the Alaskan autumn, which lasts only a few weeks. The tundra was just beginning to show its autumn yellows, oranges, and reds as it prepared for the cold winter. I could hear the voice of Ned Stark, of Game of Thrones fame, “Winter is coming…!” It was a gloriously crisp clear day and dominating the horizon (still over 90 miles away) was Mount Denali itself, all 20,320 feet of it on display! We were told how lucky we were, that only 30% of visitors get to see a glimpse of the tallest mountain in North America, and here it was in all its glory! This was merely the opening salvo in what was to be an epic day!

Not long along the road, our keen-eyed guide pulled over to inspect some distant movement on the hillside, and low and behold, our first target! Three bull moose were gorging on the willows in preparation for the winter! The next encounter didn’t take a keen eye, however. Our bus came to a quick stop and the driver called for all quiet. We watched in awe as a caribou came jogging toward us on the road as though late for a party! It passed us with complete indifference as we watched slack-jawed as this magnificent creature trotted on by! Our next planned stop was an overlook where we were introduced to a native Alaskan who described how her tribe’s way of life is interwoven with the majestic land we were visiting. As we were getting ready to board the bus, I spotted a few Dall Sheep peacefully grazing on the high mountain passes above us. These nimble sheep have the spiraled horns of Bighorn Sheep, but boast a gleaming white coat. And wouldn’t you know it, as we were getting on board, someone spotted something big meandering along an adjacent hillside. You guessed it, Grizzly Bear! We had hit the grand slam of big game in only a few hours! The bus ride back to our lodge was buzzing with excitement on our good fortune. It almost felt like Alaska was showing off!

The Princess Experience

As I mentioned earlier, we decided on Princess for our inaugural visit to Alaska. They have been providing Alaskan adventures the longest, so we wanted to see what they were all about. I can summarize the benefits in three ways:

1. Lodges – Princess has a number of exclusive lodges in the interior. They provide steppingstones along the way, offering excursions from each and they are all beautiful. They each offer diverse dining options based on preference and price. 

2. On-Board Programs – To help improve the Alaska experience, Princess provides on-board naturalists, enrichment programs, and while in Glacier Bay, bring National Park rangers on-board to provide a floating visitor’s center. 3. Organization – With their experience in Alaska, Princess has got the logistics wired. From coaches to trains to their ships, they know how to handle the little things. One of my favorites is the “Meet Me Onboard” program. We simply packed a bag of things we wanted on the ship, but didn’t need for the land portion (such as formal wear), and it was whisked away and was waiting for us in our stateroom! No muss, no fuss!

A Problem of Scale

A state as large and spectacular as Alaska is hard to put it into perspective. One of the stories we heard that sticks in my mind is that of Ansel Adams, who came to photograph the crown jewel of the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay National Park. Arguably the greatest photographer in American history, whose photos of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains have captured our imaginations for decades, Adams came to this area on several occasions, looking to capture the essence of it on film. And yet, you won’t find a single photograph of Glacier Bay taken by him! In the end, he left disappointed that he could not capture this magnificent location in an appropriately meaningful way. If Ansel Adams couldn’t do it, I felt a little silly trying to grab a few selfies and landscape shots with my phone!

The message of this meandering is this: GO! Go experience Alaska for yourself! Feel the cold air whipping through the tree-lined narrow fjords, hear the resonant groaning and crackling of the cobalt-blue glaciers as they continue their endless march to the sea, see the soaring white mountains encased in clouds and the comically-colored puffins dotting the black cliff-sides! One tradition we have upon returning from a new adventure or port of call, is to discuss whether a return trip is warranted, a return for favorite experiences or opportunities yet to be had. In this case, our answer was a resounding yes! There is so much of The Last Frontier still to be explored and experienced! We will return!