From McKinley to Denali

The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Road to Denali is paved by Princess! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Thursday, June 18, 2015

This morning, we entered our second full day on Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour as we awoke in our remote surroundings at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, situated just north of Talkeetna, within the borders of Denali State Park.

Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Where to? The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has plenty of trails to explore on-site. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

For me it was a morning to catch up on some sleep, relax and explore the trails surrounding the Lodge. With Mt. McKinley still in full sun-splashed view, that’s not a bad way to spend the day. It was relaxing, enjoyable, and everything I thought it could be. Sometimes, simply sitting back and indulging in the surroundings of the place you’re currently in can be a reward in its own right. Plus, you don’t want to burn out. Personally, I’m quite adept at burning the candle at both ends…and the chance to take it easy and enjoy the lodge couldn’t be passed up.

Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Exploring the grounds near the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; a great way to start the day! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Others set off bright and early this morning to participate in some of the many optional land excursions that Princess offers here at the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge. A total of 22 optional excursions are offered here, and they range in price, duration, interest and activity level. It’s a perfect combination, particularly for families travelling together.

Here’s what Princess is offering this year to make the most out of your Mt. McKinley wilderness experience:

  • Tour A: Trapper Creek Homestead Tour. 3 hrs, $79.99 per person.
  • Tour B: Alaska Sportsfishing. 5 hours, $239.95 per person.
  • Tour C: South Denali Experience. 2.5 hours, $69.95 per person.
  • Tour D: Sun Dog Kennels 1.5 hours, $115.95 per person.
  • Tour E: Wilderness Gold Panning Adventure. 4 hours, $165.92 per person.
  • Tour F: Backcountry Wilderness Adventure. 8.5 hours; $99.95 per person.
  • Tour G: Denali Wilderness Hike. 6 hours, $99.95 per person.
  • Tour H: Byers Lake Nature Walk. 3 hours. $67.95 per person.
  • Tour I: McKinley Wilderness Trail Ride. 2 hours, $119.95 per person.
  • Tour J: McKinley Discovery Tour. 1.4 hours, $299.95 per person.
  • Tour K: Glacier Landing Explorer. 1.75 hours, $389.95 per person
  • Tour L: Summit McKinley Flight. 5 hours, $364.95 per person.
  • Tour M: Three Rivers Tour. 3 hours, $145.95 per person.
  • Tour N: Devil’s Canyon Adventure. 5 hours, $179.95 per person.
  • Tour O: Chultina River Rafting. 4 hours, $139.95 per person.
  • Tour P: Byers Lake Paddle Trip. 3 hours, $95.95 per person.
  • Tour Q: Wilderness Jet Boat Adventure. 2 hours, $89.95 per person.
  • Tour R: Talkeetna River Float. 2 hours, $85.95 per person.
  • Tour S: Black Bear ATV Adventure. 3 hours, $189.95 per person.
  • Tour T: Talkeetna Zip Line Adventure. 3 hours, $159.95 per person.
  • Tour U: Ultimate Denali Hike & Flight. 4 hours, $525.95 per person.
  • Tour V: Horse-drawn Wagon Ride. 2 hours, $79.95 per person.

Should you do a tour during your time here? It’s up to you. Personally, I had a wonderful time wandering around and enjoying the trails that surround the property. But to truly make the most of your adventure, I’d recommend doing at least one. The tours are expensive, but that’s more of a byproduct of the remoteness of Alaska than anything else. Plus – how often do you get to land on a glacier or zip line across the Talkeetna wilderness? These are very much ‘bucket list’ experiences. You know. The kind you do to propose to someone you love, celebrate an anniversary, or tick-off some other major life event.

Of course, you won’t be disappointed if you choose to hang around your wilderness digs, either.

In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In the afternoon, we reboarded our Princess coach for the drive to Denali. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Service at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge is friendly and exacting. Although the vast majority of the on-site staff are seasonal, that doesn’t mean they’re not professional or totally committed to the job. Many of the staff here came up to Alaska just once. One contract, they’d tell themselves, and then I’ll do something else.

“One contract” has a funny way of becoming 15 seasons or more for many of the on-site staff. More than not have even relocated to Alaska permanently, having fallen in love with the people and the place.

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to Denali! Our home for the next two nights: the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One thing especially worth noting for those with early tours: with over 400 rooms and nearly 1,000 guests, breakfast can get competitive. While there was no time pressure today like there was yesterday, breakfast at the Lodge is a strictly menu-based affair. There’s no buffet, so the “quick breakfast for the busy Type-A on the go” is completely out of the question.

Breakfast this morning took approximately 90 minutes from start to finish. Plan on at least that if you’re heading out on a tour, and work your way backwards from there to determine what time you should be eating. On the bright side, my stack (and I do mean ‘stack’!) of Blueberry pancakes was sumptuous.

The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The views from the hotel are magnificent, looking out over Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After a morning of exploration and some time spent outside on the patio admiring the views of Mt. McKinley, we hopped onboard our bright-blue Princess Cruises motorcoach. It’s newer and sexier than you might expect from a North American-based coach, having been built by European manufacturer VanHool. It’s also comfortable: an important point given that we traveled four hours by coach yesterday, and this afternoon spent another two hours in the coach en-route to Denali National Park and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

Click here to continue reading!

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour continues tomorrow as we explore Denali National Park by land – and air! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

Exploring the Majesty of Alaska with Princess Cruises

On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Yesterday, my Air Canada Rouge flight from Vancouver touched down at Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport, the largest airport in Alaska’s largest city. It’s the starting point for my ninth journey to Alaska, and second outing with Princess following a cruise tour I escorted two years ago aboard Coral Princess for Vancouver-based Cruise Experts Travel.

The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Over the next 12 days, we’ll have the chance to showcase Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour. The line actually offers 18 different land tour options in Alaska, with another multitude of possible combinations, including having the land-tour portion happen before or after your cruise. You can also choose your level of guiding, from fully-escorted “Connoisseur” cruisetours to more self-guided options that merely include transportation and accommodations, but leave it up to guests as to what – and how much – they’d like to do.

Our itinerary will take us from Anchorage to Mt. McKinley and then on to Denali National Park for a two-night stay. Following that, we’ll travel by Princess Cruises’ exclusive domed rail cars south to Whittier, where the 2002-built, 2600-guest Star Princess will be waiting for us.

The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska...sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska…sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once onboard Star Princess, we’ll chart a course for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and the Inside Passage before our final arrival in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s a comprehensive voyage that showcases plenty of Alaska’s natural beauty without burning through all your vacation time – or your money.

Once my baggage had lethargically spun its way to the finish line on the luggage carousel, I made my way to the waiting coach, and was ushered to the Hotel Captain Cook for my overnight stay. Getting in late, I didn’t do much other than enjoy a fantastic dinner at the South Side Bistro. Princess has partnered with this fabulous local establishment run by Chef de Cusine Travis Haugen to provide some of their culinary excellence onboard the Princess fleet in Alaska, and I look forward to seeing how that translates onboard.

Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage's Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage’s Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, there was also time to sample some local beers (an absolute-must in Alaska) and go for a nice post-dinner stroll along the Anchorage waterfront.

Despite having been this far north in Alaska before, I’m still shocked by the famous Midnight Sun. During the walk, I was shocked – shocked!- to learn that it was quarter past eleven…at night. The sun was, to me, barely in the position you might expect of seven or seven-thirty in the evening.

That sunlight persisted right through the night. The sun itself disappeared behind the silhouette of Mt. Torbert, but the light it emitted never fully went away.

A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, at midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, near midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Click here to continue reading!

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour continues tomorrow with our arrival in majestic Denali National Park! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

Our Journey With Princess Cruises Is One For the Books

Welcome to Alaska! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Welcome to Alaska! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Today, Princess Cruises’ Star Princess is docked in Ketchikan, Alaska. As you might expect, the city’s famous “liquid sunshine” is living up to its name. But almost incredibly, today is the first day of rain we’ve had here after nine stunning days in Alaska on our Princess Denali Explorer cruisetour that began last Tuesday in Anchorage.

There's nothing quite like enjoying Princess' Ultimate Balcony Breakfast in Glacier Bay! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There’s nothing quite like enjoying Princess’ Ultimate Balcony Breakfast in Glacier Bay! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Princess offers 18 different land-and-crise tour options in Alaska, with another multitude of possible combinations, including having the land-tour portion happen before or after your cruise. You can also choose your level of guiding, from fully-escorted “Connoisseur” cruisetours to more self-guided options that merely include transportation and accommodations, but leave it up to guests as to what – and how much – they’d like to do.

Our journey began with an overland tour of Alaska, starting in Anchorage and continuing on to Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our journey began with an overland tour of Alaska, starting in Anchorage and continuing on to Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Our itinerary has taken us from Anchorage to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge and then on to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Denali National Park for a two-night stay. Following that, we rode the rails aboard Princess Cruises’ exclusive domed rail cars south to Whittier, where the 2002-built, 2600-guest Star Princess was waiting for us.

Say hello to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Say hello to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We didn't need the fire pits at the Mt. McKinley lodge - temperatures pushed 90 F. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

We didn’t need the fire pits at the Mt. McKinley lodge – temperatures pushed 90 F. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we indulged in the beauty of Denali National Park...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we indulged in the beauty of Denali National Park…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

...and even took a fixed-wing airplane excursion to land on a glacier near Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

…and even took a fixed-wing airplane excursion to land on a glacier near Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Glacial Landing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Glacial Landing. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once onboard Star Princess, we set sail for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, and now Ketchikan. In two days’ time, we’ll dock in Vancouver, and our Voyage of the Glaciers will come to a close.

To reach the Star Princess in Whittier, we took one of Princess's exclusive rail cars on a fabulous nine-hour train trip straight to the ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

To reach the Star Princess in Whittier, we took one of Princess’s exclusive rail cars on a fabulous nine-hour train trip straight to the ship. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Surrounded by comfort and scenery on the Alaskan Railroad. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Surrounded by comfort and scenery on the Alaskan Railroad. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

It’s been a heck of a journey. The continuity between ship and shore has been better than I expected. If you’ve sailed with Princess in the past to Alaska – as I have – you’ll no doubt be interested in the line’s new North to Alaska partnerships. There’s a renewed focus on locally-sourced food onboard, and locally-inspired spirits, cocktails and beers. There are Klondike Festivals and Midnight Sun parties out on deck. Real Alaskans – from Iditarod Musher Libby Riddles to storyteller Steve Hites – come onboard to entertain and enrich guests. You can even participate in a Deadliest Catch-style crab sorting tournament in the atrium!

Onboard Star Princess. The 2,600-guest ship launched in 2003 looks spectacular. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Onboard Star Princess. The 2,600-guest ship launched in 2003 looks spectacular. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Speaking of the famous reality TV show, Princess’s new Discovery at Sea partnership plays a huge part in the new Princess experience in Alaska. There’s Discovery Channel-themed shore excursions, recommended for their historical or local interest potential.

But Princess is also pulling out all the stops for another reason: they’re celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year. Fifty years is a long time in the cruise industry, and Princess has been sailing to Alaska right from the start.

New carpeting and colour schemes in the forward stairwell and elevator lobby. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

New carpeting and colour schemes in the forward stairwell and elevator lobby. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Even the Star Princess is in tip-top shape. There are a lot of things onboard that impress me, from the newly-laid carpeting in the stairwells and atrium that sports a brand-new colour scheme that gives the ship a younger and more modern appearance; to the redesigned Princess Patter daily programs; the installation of do-it-yourself onboard account kiosks; and the gorgeous refit work conducted a few years ago that saw the addition of Vines Wine Bar, the International Café, and the reconfigured Piazza Atrium.

A Princess Favorite: the Champagne Waterfall is held in the Piazza Atrium on the first formal night. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

A Princess Favorite: the Champagne Waterfall is held in the Piazza Atrium on the first formal night. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There’s been a lot to see and do over the course of the last week and a half- and the honest truth is we just can’t seem to find the time to sit down and post it all! But our regular day-by-day posts will begin this coming Monday, June 29, where they will run continuously for 12 days. And there’s a world of adventure out there to share with you.

It’s my ninth voyage to Alaska – and I’m continually finding new places and experiences that move me in this great state. If you’ve never been to Alaska before, stay tuned. If you have – well, chances are good that I’ll be preaching to the choir.

Click here to continue reading and to view the rest of the photos!

Our Live Voyage Report from Princess Cruises Denali Explorer CruiseTour will kick off in earnest on Monday, June 29, 2015! Read along by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.

 

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