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Alaska Land Tour

Author: caneable
Date of Trip: September 2007

Once at Seward Bill took us to the Sea Life Centre, which is included in the excursion price. It proved to be thoroughly interesting. The centre was set up in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster. Apart from providing a home to damaged animals, they have a breeding programme for creatures at risk following the massive oil spill. Talking to one of the guides there it appears that they've been very successful, except in the case of the Harlequin Duck. Despite their best efforts, the birds returned to the wild have not thrived and still give a cause of concern after all these years.

Of course the birds and mammals on display are of great interest, especially the Stellar Sea Lion who is very aware of his audience. As soon as he senses a good crowd he cavorts in front of the viewing windows to coil himself into the most complex shapes before floating back towards us as if to say, can you do that? We were fascinated by a series of discovery trays with sea anemones, urchins and starfish inside. We were encouraged to touch them and it was a fascinating experience as they inevitably felt exactly the opposite to what we imagined. Spikes turned out to have a quite rubbery texture, while seemingly soft shells were quite hard to the touch. Quite simply, this big kid was having such a good time that we ran out of time, and had to rush to catch the bus to go for lunch!

Lunch at Ray's waterfront Restaurant was enjoyed by all and we ate quite widely on the menu. I'd certainly recommend it. However, it does detract from the available time. It's not part of the ticket and does take time to get to and from, plus there's service time too. We could have made do with a sandwich when truth be told.

On the other hand I'm not sure what we would have done with the extra time if we'd got it. There wasn't time to get to surrounding attractions such as Exit Glacier or the Iditarod centre that I had read about pre-cruise. Both are well within reach of Seward. The town itself didn't seem that inspiring. It's our fault that we found the museum too late as that might have given us a heads up about the impact of the 64 Earthquake, but their seemed to be little open information about the town. However, it's clear that Alaskans love the place! There were numerous vans and trailers along the waterfront park areas and lots of people playing in the open areas. Of course, on a good day close to the end of season, that's only to be expected.

It fell to Bill to make the tour. He took us to various out of the way places about town, found us the Harbour Creamery (where they do great ice cream) and the Billy Benton Memorial, which commemorates the young boy who won a competition to design the flag so proudly flown throughout the state. As we left town Bill stopped so that we could take a look at an eagle's nest. Amazing structures, but I wouldn't want to be underneath if it ever collapsed! Then it was back to the Seward Highway. It was a bright clear day and Bill gave us plenty of stops for vantage photo shots. Additionally, he was very attentive in answering our many and varied questions.

If you are doing the Princess Land Tour then this is an option worth considering, especially if Bill is at the wheel. If he is say Hi for me. On the other hand I suspect Seward is best visited independently and tucked into a visit to one of the other attractions in the area. If you are travelling with kids the Sea Life Centre is a definite, and if you aren't, well go there anyway because these places deserve all our support!

Monday, September 3

A fond farewell to Kenai Lodge. The manager turned out to say goodbye to us all and several of the staff were at the windows to wave us off. I suppose the fact that there are only 87 rooms at the Lodge means that it's easier to create a homely feel to the place, but we really enjoyed our two nights here. On the northbound land tour the lodge certainly raises the spirits as you contemplate the rest of the journey, and I want to take this opportunity to recognize the great job that this lodge does for Princess tours.

Back into the coach, onto the Stirling Highway and up to Seward Highway. Personally I love the fact that all the highways have names not numbers. It's the "Thomas the Tank Engine" fan in me I expect! Mary continued her narration of the route interspersing with amusing little asides. Halfway up Turnagain Arm we saw the bore tide ripping its way up the bay. Not that high, about 2 to 3 feet, but I'm pleased to have seen it as we have a similar phenomenon on the River Severn, except that it only happens once a year. Not long after the bore Mary informed us that we might see Belugas and sure enough, out at ten o clock, there they are! That wasn't something we expected, and although its only a series of white bumps breaking the surface, it's another bragging right with the folks back home and another foot of video tape! Nearby we pass the aptly named Beluga Point where there are several quirky statues representing the varied beluga profiles that you might spot if you're busy looking for them. Beyond that we pass Potter Marsh Refuge, a great looking boardwalk out into the marshes which, apparently, is great for bird spotting. Sadly, no time to stop, which is another reason to support the idea of an individual tour.

We pass on, and at Anchorage, Mary does a detour from her route to take us downtown. No time to stop but it gives us a chance to see life in Alaska's largest city. Surprised to see a statue of Captain Cook identical to one we saw on Kauai when cruising Hawaii last year. Anchorage succeeds in being a big city without big crowds this day but maybe that's because it's Labor Day. It's certainly the reason why Palmer, our midday stop seemed to be closed!

On the way in to town we pass the Alaskan State Fair and make our way to the Palmer Visitor Centre. We've got an hour for lunch and are given a map complete with restaurants etc. Trouble is nobody's quite sure which ones are open. Fair play to Mary, she had phoned ahead to try to find out, but there were still several mistakes ahead before people could find food. We set off in one direction, found the place closed, turned round and saw nobody had followed us, did a 180-degree turn and headed back into town.

Here we found the Vagabond Blues Cafe where they did us an excellent soup and sandwich and we got boiling water for a cup of tea! Definite recommendation! Actually, my tomato and wild rice soup was beautiful, and Joan enjoyed her Chicken Chowder. As we had a few minutes to spare we decided to have a quick browse at the shops. Joan spotted a couple of quilting shops and set off in one direction, I headed off the other way having spied a bookshop.

Bookshops are among my favorite wastes of time, I can get lost in them! My favorite is Foyle's on Charing Cross Rd in London. Recently they've tried to straighten it up, but it still rambles a bit and you can be in there for hours. In Palmer I came across Fireside Books, a small emporium but with a number of less obvious titles, and what a gem I discovered.

You remember how I commented on the heroic Bentley who photographed all those snowflakes? Well I found a book which is a reprint of a magazine review he wrote. It contained 72 plates of his photos and a brief outline of the photographic process he used. Just over $11 it was a bargain as far as I was concerned, although Joan did a fair bit of eye rolling when she caught up with me!

We were near the end of the motor coach section of our land tour, and after a short stop at the Talkeetna spur road to transfer off some people for excursions or a look around Talkeetna itself, we were on our way to the McKinley Wilderness Lodge. We chose not to bother and folks who did get off reckoned we made the best decision.

McKinley Lodge is a much bigger place than the Kenai Lodge. It's in the wilderness, well away from anywhere, but it can't avoid the big town centre feel. The rooms are little more than motel rooms, but there's a reasonable range of eateries and other public areas. Its shop is probably the biggest of all and it has a small lecture theatre where we heard an interesting Park Ranger talk about dog mushing. Being so much larger it is impersonal and not really in keeping with its surroundings or our expectation of what we were coming to. But it did have one redeeming feature.

I have now seen Denali and I know of some of its ways.

I'm British. Why should I get worked up about some lump of rock in the USA? I remember from my visit to the Grand Canyon a few years ago seeing a quote by a president, FDR I think, that every American should see the Grand Canyon once in their lifetime. Good morning, America, I'm here to tell you to save up a bit more bread!

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