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Alaska -- Cruise and Road Trip

Author: Judy P. (More Trip Reviews by Judy P.)
Date of Trip: July 2003

Girdwood -- (Quick drive-through)
When we left Cooper Landing to head up to Anchorage and beyond, we stopped to see Girdwood and the fancy hotel -- Alyeska Prince Hotel. It looked like a typical modern nice hotel, but we did not stop. The area wasn't much to look at. It's probably a beautiful sight when it's covered in snow during the winter, but there wasn't much to see during the summer.

Portage Glacier
We didn't go to Portage Glacier. Bummer. It's supposed to be spectacular. But on the way there, across the main street, we saw another place that caught our eye and lured us away. It was ...

Big Game Alaska -- (Drive and walk-through "zoo?")
This place was a spur-of-the-moment detour during our drive up to Talkeetna. I believe it cost $11 per car. And there was a coupon in our book. In spite of all my research, this jewel had somehow eluded me. Someone at the lodge in Cooper Landing had mentioned it to me when I asked if there was a spot that I might most likely see a moose. I had read that there were 7,000 of them on the peninsula, but I never saw one during our three day stay.

We could have spent hours and hours at Big Game Alaska! It's a refuge for injured or abandoned animals. (Honestly, we couldn't see that any of the animals were injured, so it wasn't a sad experience for us.) There are several different wide-open spaces, sectioned off for different animals. You drive your car around on a dirt road and just pull over when you want to and get out to enjoy the animals. The fences are very tall, but they're constructed of wires that are set five or six inches apart, affording camera lenses glorious, un-obstructed views. There were several bull moose with spectacular antlers, and cows too, in a huge area with dirt, grass, a stream, and some sort of barn structure. With the mountains looming off in the distance, the scenery was so incredible that you didn't realize that you were at a contained area. This was the place of my moose dreams! I have to say that a woman was reaching in through the fence and petting a moose, which I thought was not a good idea, but then when she left with her arm still in tact, I couldn't resist doing it myself! How often do you get to pet a moose?! The grizzly bear's area had a double fence about 10 feet apart, with the inside fence being electrically charged, so that was the only pen that made it difficult to get a good photo -- but hey -- that's o.k.! I would not have dared to stick my hand in there! We had so much fun photographing and watching the big animals -- moose, caribou, deer, bears, elk, musk oxen, buffalo, porcupines, foxes, owls, etc. There was also a large, fabulous souvenir shop. We loved Big Game Alaska!

Talkeetna -- (Small-airplane flight over glaciers, sight-seeing, jetboat ride)
We spent one night at the Alaska Talkeetna Lodge ($213 per night). It was very nice. Our room was great, and had what would have been a spectacular view of Denali, but with the clouds in the sky, we were disappointed that we couldn't see it. The lobby was gorgeous and grand, the coffee shop/restaurant ambiance was o.k., a little loud, overpriced, and the food was quite mediocre. The lodge is located atop a large hill and has a huge deck area out back from which to view the tallest mountain in North America. It's located near the Talkeetna Airport, from which we took a flight on a Cessna 185 airplane. (I made that reservation through www.alaskatravel.com.) ($135 per person) The plane seats four plus the pilot. I was squeezed into the back of the plane, sitting by myself. I kept wondering why in the heck I was doing this, but I knew that I had to see it for myself. The flight was scary, but wonderful! Unfortunately, it was getting quite windy, and a storm was looming on the horizon, looking rather ominous. Darn! The wind prevented us from making our scheduled glacier landing, and the layer of dark clouds ruined our chance of seeing Mt. McKinley. Nonetheless, it was a great ride! (As long as I didn't look straight down! Can you say "motion sickness?!") I'm so glad that I got the nerve to take that ride!

After the flight, we drove around and walked through the small town of Talkeetna, which was rather "different." It's old, run down, and many of the homes have trash and junk piled up in their yards. Some say it's the "real, charming Alaska." We would sum it up as "pretty yucky." To each his own, I guess.

The next day we took a jet boat ride on Mahay's Jet Boat Tours on the Susitna River. (Again through www.alaskatravel.com) ($50 per person) The river looked muddy due to the glacial silt, we didn't see any wildlife, and it started raining hard when we got out of the boat to tour a trapper's cabin. This was not our best time in Alaska. At least the boat was covered and it was very nice. The captain gave us one thrill: a high-speed, hair-pin, U-turn that woke up the crowd!

Denali (Jeff King's Sled Dog Kennel tour, bus tour of park, Cabin Nite Dinner Theater, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing)

Denali National Park was amazing. We stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort for three nights. ($268 per night) (Again I used my coupon for one free night.) I loved this lodge. Somehow our room reservations were not as planned, but we finally persuaded the manager to re-arrange things and we got our requested room for our second and third nights. Our room for the first night was kind of old, but kind of neat. For our last two nights, we were transferred to a much newer, nicer room with a balcony overlooking the banks of the Nenana River (which is very silty also and not necessarily so pretty). The lodge consists of many buildings scattered throughout the vast property, nestled amidst the forested hillsides, offering shuttle service for each building. (It's quite a climb to the front desk!) The whole complex was very charming. Their Cabin Nite Dinner Theater was great. ($38 per person) (Again, I made this reservation from the coupon book and got one person free.) It was fun and informative; bringing to life the history of Alaska with energetic actors, all of whom had amazing singing voices. They performed their musical while eliciting comical audience participation. And I actually got to have barbequed food! (Best dinner for me during the entire trip!)

The night we arrived in Denali, we took a tour of Jeff King's Sled Dog Kennel. ($20 per person.) (He has won the Iditarod four times, including the most recent one -- 2006.) I made the reservation for this tour through www.alaskatravel.com. The kennel sent a van to pick us up at our hotel, and drove us there -- about a 25 minute ride. It was neat to hold the precious puppies, watch them run on their giant hamster wheel, to see the dogs' houses and exercise area, and interesting to hear from Jeff King himself about racing in the Iditarod. While we were there it started snowing. It was the first time it had snowed there during July in twenty-some years! It was Dan's first time in falling snow. Ah, what memories.

The next morning we were lucky enough to see a winter wonderland during our shuttle bus tour ($15 per person) of the park, which later cleared to blue skies in the afternoon, granting us a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley! (Only one-third of visitors actually see the mountain.) The night before our bus tour of the park, we stopped at a small grocery store across from our hotel and stocked up on sandwiches, snacks, and drinks to take with us on the bus ride, since there are no restaurants inside the park and we would be on the bus for eight hours. During our bus ride we stopped to watch a mother grizzly and her cub for about 10 minutes. We also spied numerous animals that were just a little too far away for us to photograph successfully. The shuttle bus seems to be the ride to take through the park because you can get off of it at any time and catch another one at any time to go back. They stop to look at wildlife, but won't let you exit the bus and disturb the animals at that time.

I reserved our tickets for the shuttle bus ride only a few days ahead from Talkeetna. I called the park and reserved the tour time I wanted, which was the first bus out in the morning (I think 5:15 a.m.), so that we would hopefully see more wildlife -- as they tend to come out more in the early morning and evening. Our bus driver was very knowledgeable about the park, and very friendly. I was glad I sat up front so I could hear what she was saying. There are loudspeakers on the bus, but with other people talking and poor-quality speakers, it wasn't always easy to understand what she was saying. The busses are not exactly luxury -- they're old school busses. Beware that some of the bus ride can get a little scary, driving on narrow, dirt, winding roads with some steep cliffs. I just kept telling myself that they do this all the time!

To top off our Denali visit, one night around midnight, Dan and I took a drive as far into the park as we could (which isn't very far since a special pass is required for car travel inside the park, which isn't available to the general public) hoping to catch a glimpse of my revered "wild" moose that had so far eluded me during this whole trip. We just happened upon a bull moose and three females (cows) within twenty minutes of each other! It doesn't get any better than that! (Well, maybe if it had been light enough to get THOSE pictures -- photos of glowing eyes in the darkness are not my favorite!)

On our last day we went horseback riding at the Tumbling B Ranch ($65 per person) and enjoyed more incredible scenery. (I made those reservations through www.alaskatravel.com ahead of time.) You can't actually ride in Denali, but we went about 10 miles north of the park in a green, hilly area that was very pretty. Luckily we had slathered on insect repellent before the ride -- the mosquitoes along the trail were slightly smaller than your typical Boeing 747! (That was the second time we had a mosquito encounter of the bad kind; the other incident occurred while we were walking through the trees at the banks of the Kenai River during sunset -- duh!. Those bites swelled up like golf balls -- o.k., a slight exaggeration.) Mosquitoes aside, Denali was totally awesome!

After driving from Denali to Anchorage and stopping along the way for photos here and there, we were so exhausted that we just went to our hotel and crashed out. (Coast International Inn, (907)243-2233 near the airport -- pretty decent, but hard to find in a strange, maze-like area -- $160.) Dan woke me up about 10:30 p.m. to see a beautiful sunset outside. We ran out and took a couple of photos to serve as closing shots for our soon-to-be Alaska photo album. Perfect. The next morning we flew home. (We flew from LAX to Vancouver and then from Anchorage to LAX on American Airlines -- total for both of us was $1376.) Unfortunately, we didn't really spend any time in and around Anchorage. Maybe next time. There will be a next time, I'm sure!

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