Written by Tom Thrun.
At Classic Travel our mantra is ‘we will never run out of new places to go”. No matter how well traveled you are, there will always be an exciting, unexplored adventure waiting to be experienced. I am almost ashamed to admit that after over thirty years in the travel business, Joy and I had never been to the world’s most repeated destination. Alaska. Well, better late than never and thanks to our thriving group business, we had the opportunity and pleasure to escort 96 members of the Michigan Dental Association to America’s last frontier.
Our journey began with a 5-day land tour out of Fairbanks south to Denali National Park and Anchorage then embarking on a week long cruise aboard Holland America’s Veendam. What strikes you first about Alaska is the immensity of our 49 th state and the endless array of activities to be enjoyed. We were determined to take full advantage of our time in the wilderness by way of sea, air, river and rail. We found that all of our excursions were fascinating and educational and even when a sightseeing tour bordered on the gouda side of cheesy, they were always enlightening and done with a sense of humor. I can remember snobbishly rolling my eyes at the thought of panning for gold shoulder to shoulder with hoards of other tourists. But here I was at Gold Dredge #8 hunched over my pan in a cold sweat anxiously awaiting the sight of a few flecks of gold as if the powerball was about to drop in the lottery.what fun! That same day we took a paddlewheel cruise down the Chena River where we visited Susan Butcher’s Iditarod winning dog team. Later that evening we took a bush plane and flew above the Arctic Circle to the remote settlement of Ft. Yukon. This small community holds the record high temperature for Alaska at 105 degrees and the record low at 88 below zero making it the most menopausal town in the state. This was only day one and the adventure was just beginning!
After two days in and around Fairbanks we boarded the luxurious McKinley Explorer for our rail trip to Denali National Park . Taking in the stunning scenery while relaxing in an oversized recliner aboard the world’s largest domed rail car is the only way to go. Observing moose and bald eagles while being served Bloody Marys by attentive waiters is my idea of blazing the wilderness trail. Upon arrival in Denali we took the short transfer to the McKinley Chalet Resort, our home for the next two nights. That afternoon we took a fixed wing airplane trip along the Alaska Range to Mt. McKinley and flew around the summit. Bouncing around the highest peak in North America in a small aircraft was an adrenaline rush beyond compare! Upon our arrival back in Denali we were whisked off to the Nenana River for our first ever white-water rafting experience. The twelve-mile run through class 3 and 4 rapids was a thrilling end to another exciting day. The following day we took the nine hours Tundra Tour into the heart of Denali National Park in search of the local flora and fauna. Along the way we encountered grizzly bears, Dall sheep, golden eagles, moose, caribou and ptarmigan, Alaska’s odd little state bird. The wildlife was more abundant than New York City on a Saturday night.
The next day we were scheduled to depart Denali for Anchorage but Joy was a bit under the weather. I am not going to say how sick she was but due to the noises coming from our bathroom we had more grizzly bears congregating outside of our hotel room than I had seen all week. Then it was off to Seward where we boarded the M.S. Veendam for our Alaska Glacier Discovery Cruise. The first two days were spent at sea sailing through the breathtaking College Fjord and Glacier Bay . Traffic into Glacier Bay is restricted to only a few vessels and we had the added bonus of experiencing it on a beautiful sunny day, something that occurs only three days per month on average. From our verandah we watched pods of humpback whales frolic in the lapis blue waters and fish engorged harbor seals napped on the ice flows drifting by. For an Alaskan cruise I highly recommend cutting back on your children’s inheritance and book a verandah cabin. There are 22 hours of daylight and the view is spectacular each and every day.
Our first port of call was Haines, a small and very authentic Alaskan town. Signs in downtown shops proudly state that they are all locally owned and not run by the cruise lines. We took a ferry to Skagway where the atmosphere was quite different. With five large cruise ships in port, Skagway had the feel of an Alaskan Epcot and downtown was definitely owned by the cruise lines. Here we boarded a motor coach that would take us to Fraser , British Columbia to take the famous White Pass and Yukon narrow gauge railroad that was traveled during the Klondike gold rush. The vistas were stunning as we railed down the pass for the two and half hour trip back to Skagway.
Back in Haines we set out on a quest to find the legendary Spruce Tip Ale brewed by the local brewmeister, Dave. We wandered into the bar at the local hotel where we met Nicki, the establishment’s bartender. As she drew the first pint of this nectar of the gods, Nicki filled us in on the miracle of Spruce Tip Ale. It turns out that brewmeister Dave employs the entire town to harvest the tips of the spruce trees during the one week when they are large enough to pick but not too bitter. He makes only one precious vat of Spruce Tip Ale and pays off his workforce in what else? Beer. Nicki was a wealth of information and entertainment. As we sat there getting tipsy on Spruce Tip she informed us that the reason she originally came to Alaska was the lopsided ratio of men to women.” It’s ten men to one woman here in Alaska ,” she said, “so the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
Back to the ship and on to Juneau where we were going to celebrate Joy’s 29 th birthday… again. On this special day we had arranged a pilot’s choice helicopter trip into the mountains with two glacier landings. Our pilot, Chip, was worth the price of admission. His sense of humor and love of the land made it a very special birthday. He flew us to a place called Glacier King. On one side was the Juneau Ice Field, the size of the state of Rhode Island , on the other side there were three glaciers all fed by this enormous mass of snow and ice. We were in the middle of nowhere a world away from any sign of civilization. Chip instructed us to take a deep breath and not make a sound. I have never heard a silence more deafening; it was an awe inspiring spiritual experience! To break the silence Chip simply said, “happy birthday”. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Upon our return to Juneau we stuffed ourselves on king crab at Tracy ‘s Crab Shack and bought a beautiful Eskimo whalebone carving to commemorate the day. It was a birthday made in heaven!
Our final Alaskan port was Ketchikan, the ‘salmon capital of the world’, where bald eagles seem to outnumber the people. Here we took a traditional Alaskan floatplane to the Misty Fjords. After soaring over bays and inlets the pilot landed the plane in a beautiful mountain lake surrounded by peaks and evergreen forests. Another fabulous day in the Alaskan outback.
As we sailed out of Ketchikan we couldn’t help but feel a little sad that our cruise was coming to an end but we still had one more stop before our trip was over. One of the biggest regrets people have when taking an Alaskan cruise is that they didn’t spend more time in Vancouver and we looked forward to spending a few days in one of North America ‘s most exciting cities. After arriving early in the morning we dropped our luggage at the hotel and immediately took the ferry to Victoria . We visited the famous Butchart Gardens and strolled around the very British feeling city of Victoria. On the ferry back to Vancouver we had the rare treat of watching a pod of orca whales swimming and playing alongside the boat. It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.