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Friday File: Why Cruisers Go To Alaska

As another Alaska cruise season comes to a close, it’s appropriate to reflect on what draws cruisers in particular and tourists in general to the 49th state. The main attractions — at least from our two visits, the most recent on the Star Princess — are mountains, glaciers and wildlife…and not necessarily in that order. The mountains, of which there are so many that it’s easy to lose track, are headed by mighty Denali, and so is our photo essay of Alaska…


Denali, now officially named after a century as Mount McKinley, at its most majestic.


A different look at Denali, from about 9,000 feet and out the window of a small plane.

Sea lion at rest

A sea lion, relaxing in the sunshine on ice from a glacier, waiting for tourists to leave.

Breeching whale

Juneau’s the hot spot for whale watching tours, and rarely do you not see one breech.

Glacier Bay from pool deck

Almost every cruise ship goes into Glacier Bay, and this is a snapshot of the scenery.

Mendenhall - better
Unique Mendenhall Glacier, seen by thousands from around the world every cruise season.

In the news…

• Carnival achieves $5 million goal for St. Jude's two years ahead of schedule
• No more free lobster in dining room on formal nights during short Carnival cruises

Today at portsandbows.com: WestJet in the mix for Europes

Carnival Triumph
10 nights
November 4, 2015
San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Antigua, Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay, Galveston
Inside: $429
Cost per day: $42

The Denali Debate Known To Cruisers


We’ve been lucky enough to visit Alaska twice, in 2009 and earlier this year, both times while cruising on Princess ships, first the Coral Princess and then the Star Princess

On both occasions, we heard the tale of the Mount McKinley versus Denali name debate, which was new to us. On both occasions, we concluded that the vast majority of the people of Alaska thought the mountain should be called Denali, its native and original name. And on both occasions, we came away thinking the stalemate was such that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime.

Last week, in case you hadn’t heard, it happened.

Denali it is.

As another Alaska cruise season concludes this month, passengers currently extending their time on land tours are the first to see Denali with its “new” name.

This has been a never-ending political debate. McKinley was a Republican U.S. President who never visited Alaska but who had the misfortune of being assassinated 114 years ago. Alaskans started trying to re-instate Denali — “The Big One” to the Athabaskan people — 40 years ago, when the name of the national park became Denali. Through various means, mostly technicalities, it was blocked by a congressman (Ralph Regula) from Ohio, President McKinley’s home state.

In layman’s terms, the statute of limitations ran out on the stalemate, and last week President Obama instructed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to change the name to Denali. Yet the political debate never dies. Yesterday on CNN, there was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, dismissing (or dissing) the loss of the McKinley name.

Palin is, of course, Republican.

Cruise passengers who get to see “The Big One” in person and who listen to guides and Alaskans alike know that last week’s decision was not so much political as it was the will of the people.

They’ve known the mountain as Denali for a long, long time.

In the news…

• Norwegian Epic's winter home to be Fort Lauderdale, not Miami
• Puerto Rico Quality Service Program to enhance tourism service
• Royal Caribbean President's Cruise set back a week to Sept. 18, 2016

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Holland America Zuiderdam
17 nights
December 11, 2015
Fort Lauderdale (return): Half Moon Cay, Aruba, Bonaire, Panama Canal, Colon, Puerto Limon, Fort Lauderdale, Half Moon Cay, Falmouth, Grand Cayman, Cozumel
Inside: $1,360
Cost per day: $80

Princess's Diamond In The Wilderness

LodgeDENALI, Alaska — Of the five lodges that Princess Cruises operates in Alaska, the one on the doorstep of Denali National Park has the size, the reputation and the history that a flagship hotel — or a flagship anything — should have.

At 656 rooms, it is the biggest of the five lodges with which Princess cruise passengers have become familiar. 

At 656 rooms, it is the biggest hotel in Alaska.

The lodge at Denali is a destination. From it, you drive only three miles to see the sights of the park. From it, you drive only three miles to board the train for a nine-hour trip to Whittier, the Princess port in Alaska. 

It’s a village unto itself, with shops and restaurants and attractions just moments from your room. It’s a busy place — occupancy is over 90 per cent May to September — and, Bonnie Westlundlike many Alaska tourist stops, it’s a temporary home to a younger demographic of tourist.

“In 1987 [the year the lodge first opened], the average visitor age was 76 years,” says Bonnie Westlund, the resort’s General Manager. “Now it’s 62. We’re now seeing more and more multi-generational families visit.”

In its early years, the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge was a victim of the Curse of Good Friday. On the anniversary of the great earthquake (1964) and the Exxon Valdez oil spill (1989), a fire broke out Good Friday in 1996. It was a major blaze, burning the core of the property, yet the lodge was virtually re-built, opening in time for the annual spring season just six weeks later.

“I’m told they were literally moving furniture in as guests were arriving,” says Westlund.

Across the highway from what locals call Glitter Gulch — a ragtag collection of shops and hangouts that in other locations might be called a strip mall, the classy Denali Princess stretches almost the entire length of the “gulch.” Sitting high above the Susitna River, its Susitnaspectacular vistas on the other side do not include Mount McKinley, which is visible from the park, and give it the look and feel of a five-star cabin in the woods.

The signature restaurant is the King Salmon…no imagination necessary to know what that featured menu item is. There’s also a nightly dinner show at the Music of Denali Theater, built to replace (temporarily) the burned-out kitchen from the 1996 fire and now where Base CampVillageyoung performers double as waiters before singing in a musical, Alaska-style. And a third, pub-style eatery called Base Camp Bar & Grill overlooks the river.

The lodge is a “base camp” for atypical wilderness ventures, from aggressive hiking to helicopter rides to nearby (25 minutes) glaciers, but more than anything it is the entree to the national park.

Princess passengers can plan cruisetours so that they stay three or four days in what is — considering that you’re in the middle of the “last frontier” — a glorious contradiction.

When you’re managing a place like this, that contradiction can be explained by the need for WiFi:

“People tend to forget that we’re in the middle of nowhere,” laughs Bonnie Westlund. “They think the Internet grows on trees!”

In the wilderness, almost everything does.

In the news…

• Natalie Cole on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for jazz club in October
• AIDA ships to offer flat rates to Internet customers

Today at portsandbows.com: All the latest cruise news

Celebrity Millennium
7 nights
July 10, 2015
Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $449
Cost per day: $64

Alaska Cruisetours the way to go

ALASKA — The first thing you need to know about Cruisetours is: Don’t confuse them with shore excursions. Not only are they different, but “shore excursions” are available when you’re on a Cruisetour.

In Alaska, Princess sets the standard for Cruisetours. They are combined with a 7-day cruise and there are four types of varying lengths. The least expensive, called On Your Own, covers hotels only. The most expensive, called Connoisseur, covers everything but “optional excursions.” In between the two is the “Denali Explorer” which focuses on getting cruiser passengers to or from Mount McKinley…and “Off The Beaten Path” which includes one of the Princess properties that’s not “off the beaten path.” The beaten path, obviously, is the ship-to-mountain route. To get you there by express, Princess has its own train cars — sometimes its own train — for “direct to wilderness” service.

If nothing else, this makes it confusing to match what you get and what you pay…until you talk to a cruise agent.

Having said all that, a Cruisetour is — just our opinion here — the only way to see Alaska. And having said that, if you can afford it, the Connoisseur package is the way to go (figure on doubling what you’re paying for the cruise).

Here’s what happens when you go on a Connoisseur Cruisetour:

• Once you arrive, whether on your ship or by flying into Anchorage or Fairbanks, you’re picked up and taken to one of the Princess Wilderness Lodges (there are five, although the one in Fairbanks is more of a hotel).

• There is one tour director for your group, and you travel on the same bus (coach), so whenever you’re on the move you only have to find one person.

• That one person is expert at telling you what you need to know, and at solving any problems you have. He (or she) also takes care of the gratuities.

• You have x number of nights of deluxe accommodation (and it is deluxe) in the lodges, usually the best rooms in the property, and most of your meals are included…most is a safe word, it’s pretty much all your meals.

• When you get to Denali National Park, you take a Tundra Wilderness Tour, a $149 value.

The last point is pertinent. That’s the only “land excursion” you don’t pay extra for…anything like flightseeing, fishing or whale watching is extra. Think of it as substituting the bus for the boat. It gets you there, wherever “there” is, then you decide and pay for what “excursions” you want to take.

Is the Connoisseur worth the cost?

There’s no correct answer, only subjective ones. How do you attach a dollar value to having an Alaska vacation that’s smooth and probably without problems or issues? What’s it worth to hand over a meal coupon and pick whatever you want from the menu (few exceptions) — a meal package that is probably worth about half of what you’re paying for the Cruisetour?

Having said that…you be the judge.

School Buses for 'Leaf Peepers'

DENALI, Alaska — Passengers on Princess cruise ships have three choices when it comes to seeing the Denali National Park. You can spend 4 hours riding a school bus, 8 hours riding a school bus or 13 hours riding a school bus.

Now, in case you think that sounds like torture worse than being punished for cheating on an exam in the eighth grade, a funny thing happens when your Denali tour ends.

You forget you were on a school bus.

That’s the only way you can navigate the 92-mile road that penetrates this 6.2 million acres of parkland, because those are the National Parks rules. Naturally, Princess Cruisetours play by the rules. The buses come with a guide to explain the landscape and the wildlife. The deeper you go into the park, the more the landscape changes and the more plentiful is the wildlife. Having taken the shortest tour — called Natural History — if we did it again we’d opt for the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 30-mile and $54 tour upgrade, because there’s certain to be more wildlife encounters.

As forgettable as the school bus, do you know anybody who wants to ride one for 92 miles and 13 hours?

You can’t get to the signature mountain (McKinley) from the park but you can see it from here…on a clear day. Like the mountain, the park has undergone a change in name since its creation as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. Originality designated as a sanctuary to protect dall sheep, it’s now home to black bears, grizzlies, moose, eagles, cariboo and foxes, most of which are not available for camera bugs on the four-hour tour.

In lieu of encounters, we settled for “fall foliage” — it’s arguably as impressive as what you see on those east coast cruises, and in Alaska they call you “leaf peepers — and stories on wild encounters from our bus driver. Sara Clyce is a seasoned hiker who had been nose-to-nose with both kind of bears and moose…and survived. She once avoided an angry moose (in Alaska more people are killed by moose than by grizzlies) by jumping into a small grove of trees so the moose couldn’t kick her. That was about as close as Sara came to not being our bus driver.

Besides people, moose don’t like grizzlies. Their only safety from the moose killers is in numbers: 2,500 moose, and 300 grizzlies. Incidentally, no person has ever died from a black bear attack in Denali, yet visitors are coached all the time about what to do if confronted by one.

In addition to the road that took 15 years to build, Denali has other man-made intrusions. One is the Savage Cabin and, while the cabin is authentic, its lone “resident” is not. He goes only by Happy Harry and he’s there to provide a little entertainment for park visitors, and he does it well. There are some scratches in the outside wall that he swears were the work of a grizzly “probably in May” and the nails around windows and doors are to keep the bears out.

“It’s my Anti-Grizzly Entry System,” says Happy Harry, who’d like you to think he’s still back in the ’40s.

Oh yes, we did see a little wildlife. A massive bull moose was partially hiding behind a tree, and there was a (we think) cariboo on its way over a hill at Primrose Ridge Point. You’d need binoculars to see them and a bigger telephoto lens than most tourists carry to take a photo of them home.

So unless you’re heavily into fauna and flora, or trees and tundra, the 8-hour tour is better bang for your buck.

You won’t even remember the school bus.

Our next-to-last blog at Phil Reimer’s Ports and Bows is all about Alaska’s capital city, Juneau.

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