Amazing Alaska! (1) – Overview

I don’t remember when I was bitten by the travel bug but it was probably at that same time that I was struck by the idea of traveling to at least one new place every year. Since then, I’ve had many fun travel experiences, some of them positively blew me away, and the big trip of the year is always something to look forward to. While the idea is to travel to destinations far away and experience cultures different from home, I find myself drawn and go to Europe more than anywhere else. But as it turned out, Alaska is the chosen destination for 2013 and school was no sooner out than my family was journey bound.

Alaska is amazing and here is to share with you my experience in this and subsequent two posts with photos.

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Most visitors to Alaska see it by way of cruising and that applied to almost everyone I knew who had visited Alaska. But once I started reading about Alaska, I realized a cruise itinerary alone would not be satisfactory to me; it does not provide enough land time or opportunity to explore one of those great natural areas that Alaska is so successful in preserving, like Denali National Park. As I looked into options for traveling independently, I however soon came into the impression that although it was doable, traveling in Alaska independently was not going to be as convenient as it would be in other destinations that I had traveled. I decided at the end to go with the land tour and cruise package with Princess Cruise. It worked out quite well. With the land tour we saw much more than we would have with the cruise only option. For the land tour, I chose the itinerary that allowed me more time around Denali for that was what I was most interested in but there are other options available allowing more time at Fairbanks or at McKinley Lodge, etc. Our land tour package essential takes care of lodging and transportation but not excursions. And it is through the excursions, you can tailor your experience to some degree.

With 20/20 hindsight, I now believe visiting Alaska independently is not as painstaking as I had concluded before, and if I go back, that is how I am going to do it. But the land tour package remains an easier option and I would recommend it for first time visitors. By its nature, Alaska is the 4th least populous and least densely populated of the 50 states with most of its three quarter million residents living in the Anchorage metropolitan area. Riding by coach from Fairbanks to Denali on George Parks Highway, traffic was light, few buildings came into sight, apart from those at the tiny village named Nenana that we stopped for a short visit, and I don’t recall seeing any gas station or rest area along the way. On top of that, our Verizon phones were either roaming or on extended network the entire time we were in Alaska. Wi-Fi connection at the lodges/hotels was sporadic till we arrived at Vancouver. The cruise ship did provide internet access, albeit expensive and slower.

I picked the south bound itinerary vs. the north bound because it does the land tour first and I like the relaxing on the cruise ship after the land tour, plus there are nuances associated with the options, traveling by coach or by rail for some certain part of the journey, etc. Our land tour started with one night in Fairbanks, continued on with two nights at Princess Denali Lodge that is a few minutes from Denali National Park, one night at Princess McKinley Lodge about an hour from Talkeetna and ended with a coach ride from Princess McKinley Lodge to Whittier, where our ship, Corral Princess, awaited. During the land tour, we visited Denali National Park and Talkeetna, had a lunch break in Anchorage while on route to Whittier and traveled through Alaska from Fairbanks to Whittier by bus and train. Cruising Hubbard Glacier, Glacier National Bay and visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, the journey from Whittier to Vancouver on board Coral Princess provided further opportunities and ways to appreciate what Alaska has to offer.

And what Alaska has to offer has left an indelible impression on me. Like none others that I had seen before, Alaska is a majestic land of distinctive characters. Snow capped mountain and ranges, including North America’s highest peak, McKinley, frequently grace this vast northern frontier throughout its interior and coastal areas alike. A rich number of glaciers punctuate the scenery as they have been since the ice age and at times they can be seen twinkling icy blue and setting off in uncanny action, thundering, breaking off or calving.

Against this backdrop of wondrous landscape, human stories unfold. You learn stories of the indigenous people, from their migration to Alaska tens of thousands of years ago to how their lives altered by the migration of Europeans hundreds of years ago. You are bound to come into stories of the gold rush era, which turned out not quite romantic adventures or overnight riches but rather times and times over arduous expeditions under what are considered by today’s standards grueling conditions. You hear stories of people who have moved to Alaska and remained. Most of the people you meet though will be seasonal, essentially summer time workers and vacationers.

Most fascinating to me was the opportunity to come in touch with the vast wilderness and to observe wild animals roam freely the way nature intends it to be. Landing on Roof Glacier, I couldn’t help but be moved by the magnificent surrounding that was at once pure, peaceful, powerful and precarious. Touring Denali National Park, I couldn’t help but feel this exciting sensation that I was as close to Mother Nature as I had ever been my whole life and tingled inside me was a desire to deepen that visceral feel, to embrace Mother Nature with abandon!

George and Joy Adamson of Born Free came to mind. Alas, I don’t have it in me to abandon civilization all together, nor have I the ability that true Alaskans possess to cope with the long dark winter days with only a few hours of sun to go by. But I contemplate a week or two’s camping in the depth of the wilderness, provided there is a way to emerge triumphantly at the end.

Until then, I’ll savor my memory of Alaska.

A few tips on practical things. Packing for Alaska can be tricky since the temperature there fluctuates within a big range of lows and highs, with average swinging from the 40s to the 70s. But layering did do the trick. I packed jeans, light weight tops, a couple of sweater/cardigans, a robust REI waterproof windbreaker type jacket. I had the jacket with me most of the days, added the sweater/cardigan for a couple of days (at Hubbard Glacier and Ketchikan). When in Skagway and Juneau, we had low 80s for two days in a row and that was record heat wave for Alaska.

A good mosquito repellant is necessary. Remember to take it with you on excursions, etc. Mosquitoes are huge in Alaska, a few times larger than I am used to seeing in the southeast. Although slower, they come in swarms. We ran into them quite a few times, first at Fairbanks airport lining up to get into our bus to go to Princess’ lodge, next was at a small airport 30 minute from Princess Denali Lodge waiting for our flight seeing tour. The most we ran into was at a musher camp high up in a wooded mountain in Skagway. I had packed but lost my repellant right at the start of my vacation to TSA at Charlotte airport. Luckily I found a replacement at Princess Denali Lodge, a repellant with Deet as one of the ingredients, which was recommended as a must have ingredient by someone we met at Faribanks Princess Lodge. It proved to be effective at the musher camp where the swarms of mosquitoes dispersed the instance I sprayed some on.

Alaska is one of those destinations where cruise and a cabin with balcony can be most advantageous. It is worth investing in a good camera and it can be an easy to use point and click. One that works reasonably fast, for part of the time there, you’d be taking pictures in a moving bus/train/airplane, and one that works reasonably well in cloudy days for clouds and sunshine can alternate quite unpredictably from day to day. In addition, a good pair of binoculars, especially for animal sighting. If you are lucky, you get an encounter close enough but the odd is that you’d be looking from some distance.
More posts on Alaska coming soon.

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