A combination of the Alaska wilderness land tour and cruise make this Princess itinerary a special holiday experience

When Manitoba grandmother, Emily Wilson, turned 80 years old this summer, by her own definition she received the gift of a lifetime. To mark the occasion, her daughter, Donna Rosentreter, and granddaughter Rieva McCuaig, took her on an Alaska cruise, a package offered by Princess Cruises that combines seven days at sea with a three-day land tour. “It was the best present I ever received,” said the young-at-heart octogenarian.

Wilson, along with just over 2,000 other passengers aboard the Coral (myself included), experienced a phenomenal trip whose highlight was the matchless rugged beauty of the Alaskan landscape. As we sailed into deep finger-like fiords and were awestruck by the sight of massive glaciers, or cruised along jagged rock-rimmed coastlines flanked by towering snow-capped mountains and endless wilderness, it was hard to imagine any place on the planet more visually striking. “The scenery is spectacular,” said McCuaig. This was an opinion unanimously shared by her mother, grandmother and other passengers like Randy and Judy Morgan and Joan and Henry Mombourquette, a travelling foursome from Halifax. All four were seasoned cruisers who said the Alaska voyage was the best one they had ever done.

The scenery, of course, is one thing but topping off the humbling beauty of this remote northern land mass regarded as one of the world’s last great frontiers was the wildlife. Few if any passengers on the Coral were without a camera poised to capture unforgettable images of moose, deer, bears, sea otters, whales, seals, mountain goats and bald eagles.

Overall, the land/sea Alaska sailing wasn’t just the trip of a lifetime for a Manitoba grandmother; it was the experience of a lifetime for those of us onboard who had longed to see this remote and unspoiled “land of the midnight sun” whose colourful 19th century Gold Rush history has filled the pages of many a book.

This particular Princess itinerary began by flying into Fairbanks, followed by the three-day land tour before boarding the ship at Wittier, a small community on the edge of Prince William Sound, a protected body of water that opens into the larger Gulf of Alaska. The following seven days were spent cruising along the Inside Passage, an arm of the Pacific Ocean sandwiched between the mainland and a series of large and small islands. These barrier islands that provide protection from the open sea generally make for extremely smooth cruising where land is always within sight. This itinerary can also be done in reverse with a northbound sailing that departs from Vancouver and ends in Fairbanks. In 2008, Princess is offering a variety of Alaska itineraries (for which they are already taking bookings) that vary in duration and port stops. For the purposes of this story I will refer only to the 10-day cruise that I experienced.

Getting a feel for the land

The odyssey aboard the Coral began with a four hour train ride in glass-domed Princess rail cars from Fairbanks to the six-million-acre Denali National Park whose crowning feature is Mt. McKinley, a 20,320-foot massif that ranks as North America‘s highest mountain. Mt. McKinley is often shrouded in clouds and it’s said that only 30% of visitors get to see the entire mountain exposed. Fortuitously, the passengers aboard our rail trip were among the privileged few. Two days at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge were punctuated with opportunities for excursions that included midnight sun golf, hiking, fly fishing, jet boat safaris, airplane tours of Mt. McKinley, white water rafting, heli-hiking and glacier-landing helicopter rides. In addition, the lodge’s wooden buildings are the centrepiece of what amounts to a small, man-made village featuring several Princess restaurants including its brand new, upscale King Salmon dining room and a dinner theatre featuring lively Alaskan frontier entertainment. There are also plenty of charming little shops stocked with everything from fur coats to native crafts, and just across the street is a string of stores selling a vast range of merchandise from small souvenir totem poles to T-shirts.

Next leg of the trip was a bus ride from Denali to Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. With the king of mountains towering in the distance, a one-day stay here essentially offers the same kind of amenities and land excursions featured in Denali. This lodge is a little more remote than the Denali Lodge but the delightful village of Talkeetna is close by.

Conveniently, Princess runs a bus service to this historic little frontier town where it’s easy to conjure up images of the days when it was frequented by prospectors seeking gold in the area. Easily explored on foot, its attractions include a collection of rustic-looking shops selling authentic Eskimo arts and crafts, plus a history museum and a variety of eateries. Talkeetna, in fact, is the train boarding point for the last leg of the land tour that ends with another scenic dome-car ride through pristine wilderness and the Alaska mountain range.

At sea

The voyage began with two days at sea when we experienced the sight of our first glaciers in College Fjord. This fjord has several ice fields but the largest is the Harvard, a 1.5-mile-wide, 225 foot high mass of ice that stretches 24 miles back from its face. Harvard is among Alaska’s “advancing” glaciers that daily calve tons of ice into the fjord. While the College Fjord glaciers were hugely impressive, on our second day at sea we found they were exceeded by those in Glacier Bay. Here, the bulk of them are situated at the end of a five-mile inlet where 18th-century explorer, George Vancouver, once described the sight as a “sheet of ice as far as the eye could distinguish.” Indeed, the voyage into this bay was one of the most fascinating highlights of the trip where, with thundering cracks, passengers witnessed several tidewater glaciers calving off giant icebergs into the sea. Largest and most famous of these ice mammoths is the Margerie Glacier which is one of the state’s most active glacial faces. This colossal river of ice is one mile wide, 25 miles long and 250 ft. high from the water’s surface. It’s the most visually stunning glacier on the cruise,” said onboard naturalist, Barbara Bennett.

Overall, it has been estimated there are 100,000 glaciers in Alaska and that to be qualified as such; they must be at least 25 acres in size. During the cruise we naturally didn’t see all of them but I can say that a day at sea never passed without seeing some—and in the case of College Fjord and Glacier Bay we were treated to up-close viewings.

Ports of call

The cruise embodied three port stops beginning with Skagway, a town once known to thousands of gold rushers as the gateway to Alaska’s Klondike. Today, the town of 1,000 residents retains the flavour of the Gold Rush era and in my opinion was the prettiest of the three port calls that included Juneau (Alaska’s capital) and Ketchikan. Several pretty downtown streets lined with colourfully painted wooden buildings house scores of eateries, saloons, a museum and shops selling jewellery, clothing, original art and souvenirs. One restaurant, the Red Onion Saloon, is said to have once been a popular brothel for miners during Gold Rush days.

Juneau was our second port stop where except for its larger size (30,000 residents and more downtown streets), its shops, attractions, on-shore excursions and restaurants differed little from Skagway. However, the city boasts an unparalleled setting with stunning views of mountains, glaciers and water. Moreover, many artists who have rendered its beauty have deemed it to be Alaska‘s most picturesque city.

Last but not least of the port calls was Ketchikan, a town that has a higher concentration of native Alaskans than any other city in the state. Again, the town’s architecture, downtown core and history do not differ significantly from the previous ports of call. However, this was the last stop on our southbound cruise to buy souvenirs and gifts which were not hard to find. A patchwork of criss-crossing streets is filled with stores selling everything from boxes of preserved smoked salmon to Eskimo bead work and carvings. After the three port stops there were few people onboard the Coral not wearing a shirt, vest, jacket or T-shirt bearing some sort of Alaska logo.

Optional land excursions

The good thing about an Alaska cruise is that shore excursions offer something for everyone ranging from low impact to high energy, historical and cultural. I took two separate golf tours (yes, there are golf courses in Alaska), in addition to an underground goldmine tour that culminated with a chance to do some actual gold panning. I panned nothing but my husband came up with a small garnet and a few flakes of real gold. In addition to these options, passengers could also choose from an assortment of tours that included sightseeing adventures in small airplanes, helicopters, trains, buses and horse-drawn carriages. There were sport and fly fishing expeditions, a visit to an Alaska sled dog and musher’s camp, outdoor salmon bakes, bear sighting tours, sea kayaking, zip lining, river rafting, plus many others. Tours are, of course, discretionary and can be pre-booked online as part of the cruise package. They can also be booked onboard but there’s a risk of encountering fully booked tours.

Bon appetite

Cruise lines will tell you that an average passenger often consumes 5,000 calories daily making it obvious food is a prime attraction on any voyage. Consequently it had better be good and there’d better be plenty of it. The Coral Princess rises to the occasion on both issues. Head chef, Remo Bolis, said everything onboard from soups to waist-expanding desserts are made from scratch in the ship’s galley. In this amazing below-decks kitchen, 375 workers prepare 85 tons of food on an average seven-day cruise during which 10,000 meals are prepared and served each day.

To contend with what has all the earmarks of a feeding frenzy, the ship has several eating spots include an extensive 24-hour buffet restaurant and two main dining rooms that offer five-course personal choice dining which means you can opt to show up anytime between 5:30 and 10 p.m. and sit with whom you please. Alternatively, passengers can choose prescribed seating at one of two evening sittings. In addition there are two specialty restaurants–Sabatini‘s for Italian cuisine or The Bayou Café & Steakhouse for Cajun inspired food. Both are exceptional dining spots that require reservations and a small cover charge. There’s also a pizzeria, a pool-side hamburger/hot dog grill and 24 hour room service. Lunch can be taken in the two main dining rooms where afternoon tea is also served daily.

From a splendid selection of top-drawer food choices, this cruise is definitely the occasion to enjoy king salmon and halibut fresh from Alaskan waters. Certain special food extravaganzas like the Alaskan-inspired buffet laid out on the pool deck are not to be missed events. This particular feast features Alaskan reindeer chili, rockfish chowder and barbecued Alaskan fish together with unlimited side dishes, salads and desserts. Nobody goes hungry on the Coral or–for that matter–thirsty. At least 1,500 bottles of wine and 8,200 bottles of beer are consumed on a single cruise.

Shipboard activities

There’s no shortage of ways for passengers to amuse themselves and the truth is I got tired just reading the activities listed in the ship’s daily newspaper, the Princess Patter. Options included line dancing, trivia contests, putting competitions, card playing, exercise classes, art auctions, spa treatments, ceramic painting, pottery making, current movie presentations and more. There was also an American Idol-style contest and nightly Las Vegas-type shows featuring dancers, singers, jugglers and comedians.

Travel planner

For more information about the Alaska land/sea cruise and other Princess Cruises sailings, see their website at www.princesscruises.com. Alternatively, you can also visit your travel agent or one of the three local CruiseShipCentres that specialize in Princess Cruises. A tip for packing that’s specific to the land portion of the Alaska cruise: this is a destination that calls for casual clothing suited to the rugged outdoors. Even the Princess lodges do not require dress-up clothing for dining.

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