Alaska Land TourAuthor: caneable
Date of Trip: October 2007
At the lodge I met someone who had travelled from Denali by motor coach. It had taken them two hours. I went to bed!
Thursday, September 6
Last morning and breakfast in the Englewood Dining Room. I had slept well the night before and felt very much more rested. The room was standard layout but a little better proportioned than the previous lodges had appeared. The breakfast was again buffet style and similar fare but not as overdone as at Denali. Simple reason, fewer people. And the service was very good. The young lady in question turned out to be a self-confessed football nut (world style!!!). She supports Arsenal (which is OK), mentions Manchester City before Manchester United (very astute) and knows that Aston Villa has defeated Chelsea the previous weekend (big tip coming up!!). Sorry USA, I know this is inane to you but as a famous English Football team manager once said, "Football's not a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that." Once fed it's out to the coaches for our trip to the Riverboat Discovery Paddle Steamer.
I sniffed tourist trap a mile off and was all set for a second day's grousing, but none of it. This was great fun. The boat is comfortable, the events relevant and interesting and all of the commentary is first rate. They've even got strategically placed video screens so that you can get a good focus on things happening. The whole thing is pulled together by the narrator, whose name I never noted and would love to get from someone if anybody out there knows it. I had the good fortune to spend a few minutes with him. He's a very keen inland waterways man and told me of his hope to come to sail some of the UK canals one day.
The Discovery plies along the Chena River passing some prime Fairbanks real estate encountering some excellent demonstrations reflecting life inland in Alaska. First up it's a pilot who takes us through his repertoire taking off and landing on the river beside us. A little later he swaps his floatplane for a bush plane and shows us his skill in landing his plane on a sandbank.
Next up we pull alongside the home of Dave Monson and the late Susan Butcher, 4 times Iditarod winner, where he puts the current pack though their paces for us. However, it's the small pups straggling over logs that seem to steal a lot of people's hearts. Dave's talk was very interesting and adds to the knowledge we had gained from Jeff King a few nights before.
A little further we come to the Chena Indian Village. From the water we see their collection of reindeer and a reconstructed Athabascan Village masterminded by Dixie Alexander, a lady of no small talent. As we watch she fillets a salmon in about 15 seconds running a commentary all the time! After this we pull into shore and enter the village. We are divided into four parties and slickly move our way around several exhibit areas.
Firstly, one of Dave's staff introduces us to her Husky pack and tells of her Iditarod experience. Next we are taken to a hut surrounded by animal skins. We are told of Dixie's decorative skills with these pelts and see some of her fantastic handiwork. Lastly, we go into an area with several different house constructions each representative of the different types of dwelling the Athabascans might use in different circumstances. In addition there is a canoe and there are a group of reindeer to pet if you can get near enough. I've got long arms! There's just time to pick up a copy of "Granite" by Susan Butcher and Dave Monson, which he gladly signs for our grandsons and then we're back on the steamboat.
On arriving back to the Riverboat Discovery there's a huge shop with all manner of souvenirs. However, there's no pressure to buy and if you just want to walk through to a bus that's just fine. We take a moment to view the exhibit at the back of the store commemorating Susan Butcher's life and achievements, and then it's back to the lodge.
Another trip is planned for the afternoon but we're shattered and feel that this one will be a tourist trap and so decide to spend some time getting our luggage prepared for the route home. During the afternoon we walk round to Fred Meyers, described as an upscale Walmart, and do a bit of grandad shopping for the grandkids. Usual thing, last thing bought is an extra bag to fetch it all home!
When we get back we run in to some people who have done the El Dorado Gold Mine trip that we skipped and they confirm what we suspected. The evening is spent at Pike's Landing for our last Alaskan fish meal (absolutely fabulous) and then it's back to bed. We've got a 3am call and it will be well over 30 hours before we get back to Manchester, but you don't want me to post that now do you?
Next morning we met up with our colleagues from the past week and discover that two of the party went on a flight to The Arctic Circle late yesterday and had a total blast! For a minute I'm regretful but no..
To travel is to never regret, for others will never be there.
We were lucky that the weather was with us 100%. We had better weather than we've experienced for much of the summer up here in the English northwest! The bits of less good weather: the rain in Skagway, mist in College Bay just added to the experience, but I'm sure that it would affect some people badly if bad weather had shut down excursions and limited all the cruise ship passengers to the towns.
The land transport was mixed. Our motor coach was comfortable enough and the driver great, but the need to be in the right place at the right time just makes for an edge which can spoil the experience. The trains were a similar mix. One day great, one day so so. It was near the end of the season and maybe people's eyes were casting homeward so maybe I'm just a touch harsh on the second day's trip, but it wasn't good. Just for future reference anybody, Princess seem to load up each coach in alphabetical order so you're either right at the start of the queue for food or right at the back. To make matters harder to predict we as Cs had one day last up and one day first. If you're MNOP then it'll probably be mid trip, the rest of you - sorry!
My biggest concern would be the land tour. At a combined cost of around $2000 for the two of us, Princess did not give value for money as far as we were concerned. I would not use any of the accommodation or use the restaurants again except for the Kenai Lodge. McKinley, Denali and Fairbanks are just too big to give good service. I appreciate that we weren't there to stay in the lodges, but they don't come anywhere close to the cruise experience, despite being on the same ticket. The service was quite patchy and the front desk approach was off hand to say the least. The need to get up and go every day came as a drag to us and, though we knew beforehand and tried to plan our packing, we still found ourselves scrambling through our case each day a real pain. The one good thing is that it's put us off any idea of doing some kind of extended coach tour.
I should confirm that none of these comments are aimed at Kenai. And there's the rub, the small establishment adds to the experience. Frankly, as I read on another board, do it independently, it's not as though it's a foreign country. Well it is for some of us but they do speak the same language, most of the time!
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