Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Amazing Trip To Alaska

Latest copy is always available at: Detailed Itinerary of Alaska Trip.
And Some Photos here.
It was less than a year ago that I had been on a cruise to Alaska with my family which still stands out as THE BEST family trip we all have ever had.  So much so that my mommy pledged that every family trip has to be Cruise to Alaska :)
So when we decided to take a trip, the expectation that we would love it there in Alaska, even without a cruise, was only natural.  We didn't have much time to plan and parts of Alaska you get to see at ports while taking a cruise ship are quite different than what you can/should see on a air/land trip.
So there was only one big problem ahead of us: Planning

Alaska is huge, incredibly beautiful and every place is worth visiting.  Which means we'll need well over few months if we want to do-it-all.  Not an option, at least not yet.  We had less than a week's worth of vacation to use for this trip, so there were compromises that we were going to make in terms of how much ground to cover without killing or overwhelming ourselves.  So we both started reading tons of websites, printed material, etc. almost to no end.
There weren't any reference itineraries we could build upon, as in nothing from reliable sources known to us.  But AAA's travel planning guide (which btw is excellent!) came to the rescue.  The attendant at the counter who handed me the book gladly told me what are a few "must see"'s.   That was a good starting point.  And so began our, more or less haphazard planning.

So after our successful trip, I thought of writing up my thoughts in the hope that it fills that gap for someone in my position: a first-hand reference itinerary to build and improve upon.  Besides, after coming back from the trip quite a few people asked me to share my itinerary.  So here it is... tips, tricks, hotel reviews, things to do, places to visit, clothes to wear and more.  Whether you follow it to the word, improve it, or experiment with it, feel free to share your thoughts so that I can keep this relevant. 
Alyeska Resort

Rescued Bald Eagle

  • Day 0: Anchorage, landed early AM, so had the whole day to explore Anchorage

    • Visit Alyeska Resort (in Girdwood): Tram ride, lunch at top of the resort
      • Info about resort link
      • Unless you want to stay in the hotel (at the base), no need for reservation in advance
      • There's lot of area to walk on around the resort at the top which is free of ice, you might get some nice scenic shots from here
      • Single tram ticket gives you multiple rides up and down, we did only once though due to time constraint
    • Portage Glacier
      • Drive to the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, link
      • About 45 mins drive form Anchorage downtown
      • You get a good view of the lake and a glimpse of Portage Glacier
      • Folks at the visitor center are good about providing information on what you can do around
      • You can choose to go on cruise form here (Whittier, I guess), but hold on until later, you might have seen enough glaciers later in the trip, esp. if you are visiting Kenai Fjords, which is a MUST.
    • Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
      • Very Close to Begich Boggs Visitor Center, < 10mi
      • Opportunity to view Alaskan wildlife up close, link
      • Bears, Bisons, Eagle, Moose, Caribou, Deer, Lynx, Porcupine
    • Lake Hood Seaplane Base
      • It is the busiest seaplane base in the world
      • We just drove around the lake admiring the beauty and getting of at a spot or two
    • Stay at Extended Stay, not recommended
      • Extended Stay, not a bad hotel, but a little far from airport. You can find better ones, Inlet Tower is a much better choice (see Day 5)
      • You will have to rent a car for this day to cover all of this
    • Clothing: Layered Warm, pretty chilly at a few places
    Days are pretty long, you will have sunlight upto 11pm to 1am in the night, depending on how up North you are.

    Train ride to Denali Princess Lodge

  • Day 1 & Day 2: Denali National Forest

    • Alaska Train Tour: Not only is this scenic, but immensely informative
      • You can choose from multiple source-destination city combinations and also multiple nights option, Princess Lodges is what we had choosen
      • Find the one that fits your needs. We spent just a night there, I recommend spending two nights, so you can do more, esp. the tour to innards of the Denali National Forest
    • We did the Princess Lodge Jet Boat Safari
      • 3 hrs excursion in jet boat for a fun-filled ride on the Nenana River, more info here
      • We spotted a Moose crossing the river, Beavers and saw a few beaver dams upclose
      • After the ride, learn to pan for gold and keep your findings and feed the reindeer
      • This was much better than we expected it to be
    • More TODO
    • We would have loved to do one of these, which would require more time than we had
      • Denali Park Tundra Wilderness Tour
      • Probably the only tour that goes deepest into Denali Forest, 53mi. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond 13mi or so the park.
        More info about this tour here
      • Bus Natural History Tour
      • Slightly smaller tour, compared to above, but is good enough and recommended by our tour guide.
        More info about the tour here
    • Stayed at Denali Princess Lodge (first night), Highly Recommended
      • Nice lodge by the edge of Nenana River and lot of nice views
      • Our lodge reservation was part of the whole train ride package
      • Food at the lodge and on train is NOT included in the package
    • Train ride back to Anchorage
      • The train compartments (both, to and fro) are really nice, two storied, with glass top. One level for general sitting and one level for dining. There are also open areas on compartments from where you can see (and feel) the nature :)
    • Scenic drive to Seward
      • Ride along the Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm (link) was really awesome. Super windy. There's a Beluga point where Beluga Whales are often spotted. We couldn't spot one. But we did spot a bear in the wild, trying to find food on snow covered mountain slope. Even if it is late in the evening, you can enjoy the beauty as the sun is still shinning!
    • Stayed at Breeze Inn, Seward (second night).
    • Mixed feeling about the hotel
    • For the price we paid hotel itself wasn't that good. But it is right in the downtown and super close (literally a hop away!) from the Seward Port. Booking the hotels early might give you option of better hotels.
    • Clothing: Layered Warm, pretty chilly at few places
    Bear Glacier

    Orca and her Calf

    Calving: Huge chunk of ice falling off a glacier
    Sea Lions

    Matrix Bullet-Time with Harbor Seal :)

    Jelly Fish

  • Day 3: Seward, Cruise to Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park

  • Most cruises will start early in the morning, around 8am, so it is good to drive to Seward the night before to avoid traffic delays. Anchorage-Seward is 2.5hrs - 3hrs drive.
    • Day long Cruise to Northwestern Glacier, 9-10 hrs, starting at 8am
    • One of the MOST important excursions is a cruise that takes you up close to the glacier. The ship captain will narrate all the information relevant about glaciers, wildlife, marine life, sea, etc. Very well organized.
    • We took the Northwestern Glacier in Kenai Fjords cruise, check this out.
    • Food is served on board, but if you are a vegetarian, I recommend you get your stuff to eat.
    • But don't stuff yourself, the ride up through Gulf of Alaska is quite bumpy
    • We saw Humpback Whales, Porpoises, Orcas, Sea Otters, Stellar Sealions and lots of birds.
    • But the MOST breathtaking view was that of the glacier standing hundreds feet wide and tall, a stone's throw away, where you see icebergs calving out at the lip of the glacier.
    • More Cruises
      • There are a few other day-long cruises to choose from, but not all will visit the glacier, so choose carefully, link
    • Alaska Sealife Center
      • Very close to the Seward port where you take the cruise from, totally worth visiting. Just takes about an hour or so to take the tour of the whole center, don't miss it
      • Sometimes they are open through late evenings, so better to check it off your list the same day you do the cruise. It is not so tiring, check info here
    • Clothing: Dress in really warm layers, inner thermals are highly recommended, it gets very cold out in the sea
    Drive to Seward: Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm

  • Day 4: Seward: Downtown and Huskies

    • Meet the Huskies
      • Take a ride on sled pulled by huskies, take a tour of their kennel and most fun part, play with the little husky puppies!
      • You can choose to skip the sled ride (because it is NOT on the snow) and just take the tour of the kennel, meet some dogs (there are about about a 100!) and meet the puppies.
    • Exit Glacier
      • Short of landing on one, this is as close as you can get to a mammoth glacier. Take a short 1mile hike up to the Edge of Exit Glacier. The rangers have free hour-long guided tours, I suggest take that. It is better than walking clueless about surroundings. You can check if there are any ranger guided walks, here on the NPS website
    • More TODO
      • Harding Icefield Trail
      • If prepared, gear-wise (and fitness wise!), we would have loved to do this. This strenuous 8+mi hike with about 1000ft elevation gain per mile offers most spectacular view of the glacier. Takes anywhere between 6 to 8 hrs to complete. Trail info here.
    • Stayed at Inlet Tower, Anchorage.
    • Nice hotel, close to airport and in the downtown.
    • Drive in the evening back to Anchorage, and stay at Inlet Tower
    • Clothing: Not too warm, we had nice warm sunny weather, check weather beforehand
    The Exit Glacier

    Exit Glacier

    Exit Glacier

  • Day 5: Anchorage Tour

    • Earthquake Park
      • Park explaining the wrath of 1964 earthquake that changed Alaska forever
      • Do the 5mi loop that offers more opportunity to explore the park, we couldn't due to timing constraint
    • Decision Time!!!
    • Time to decide... if you choose not to stay back in Alaska, you have to fly back home!
    • Clothing: Light, can get very hot on a sunny day 

  • More Information & Tips:
    • Hotel Shuttles
      • Most hotels have shuttle service to-from airport. They will even pick up and drop you around important points, like railway station. So don't be shy to ask them whether they have one you can ride on.

  • Bookings

    • Of all the things, you need advance booking for the train ride to Denali National Park and the one day cruise to Kenai Fjord. Or at the least I recommend that you do it, so that you have important activities covered. Also felt that the hotels in Seward were out of rooms pretty fast, so good to take a lead on booking them sooner than later. Rest you can manage on the fly. If you take train ride, you will have a rep walk around and offer to book you on some excursions for Denali National Forest. If you don't have time to research in advance, they also give an informative pamphlet you can look through and quiz them about the tour, they generally are quite knowledgeable. Used and for all flight and hotel bookings. Costco Travel for car rentals.

  • Camera

    • On the cruise, get a raincoat for your cam if you can. This is important if you have an expensive camera or are carrying a DSLR or are just not sure if your cam fares well in light drizzle of water. I personally didn't take one, but would have if I knew it in advance. I saw a few people have plain plastic like covers slapped on their cams, I guess you should get those for pretty cheap. Goes without saying, have a raincoat on yourself too :) But come what may, DO NOT forget to get camera on cruise (with batteries well charged and ample space on memory card). If you have a DSLR, choose a fast lens, helpful for continuous shooting. Don't be afraid to carry a change of lens, I shot with 50mm f/1.8 (landscapes) and 70-200 IS f/4 with 1.4x extender (wildlife) Come to think of it, it won't be that bad an idea to rent a telephoto lens or an extender for your trip. Don't have info on lens rental in Alaska, but know a few places here in Seattle.

  • Mosquito Repellent

    • On open marshlands or wetlands you come face-to-face (quite literally!) with a lot of mosquitoes, and flies, so be prepared with some arsenal to combat them, repellent would work best.

  • Transportation

    • If you want to go places, you will need your own transportation. Other than at Denali National Forest, it is recommended you have your means of transportation most other days, that way you can cover more of Alaska.

    The version on my website is going to be most up-to-date, so head there if you want the latest information.  And More Photos here.


    Anonymous said...

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    Anonymous said...

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