I arrived the Fairbanks airport and was warmly greeted by a Royal Caribbean representative that took my luggage and directed me to the waiting area for our group. Next was a brief drive to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge – which was to be our host for the first night.
I honestly can’t say enough about the hospitality of this property. What it lacks in the grandiose landscapes of some other Alaskan towns – it makes up for in personality. It was absolutely adorable; with tons of fun activities for travelers of all ages. The owner, Jay made us feel like family and this was hands down the best stay during our tour. My hotel room was very nice with a little balcony overlooking the Chena River.
We were treated to an unexpected dinner at the onsite restaurant next door which was delicious. It’s a great dining option for weary travelers arriving (and for locals too!)
We spent the morning on the Riverboat Discover Tour which is included for all guests on a RCCL and Celebrity tours that include Fairbanks. This is a must do! So much more was included than I expected. In addition to the ride on the old fashioned Sternwheeler, you get to stop off for 3 different educational areas meant to recreate some of the Native fishing camps, home steads, a small recreation of a Husky kennels and more.
We arrived at Grande Denali Lodge which is perched high into the Cliffside which makes for a winding, scenic drive up. The view rooms overlook “Glitter Gulch”, the tourist area of Denali.
Next we visited the McKinley Village Lodge. This complex is HUGE so they do have a golf cart operating from the main lobby to each building for those who may have mobility issues. It was clean and comfortable, with a log cabin décor throughout.
I chose the Husky Homestead for my optional excursion and would recommend this tour for any animal lover. We spent time touring Jeff King’s kennel. He is a three time Iditarod champion and has competed every year for the last 24 years! Fun fact: it costs him approximately $100,000 every year to participate in the Iditarod. We got to meet with the Husky puppies (too cute!) but also hear about his experiences in raising sled dogs and the competition.
The tour concluded around 830 pm and with our 5 am bag pull coming the next morning – I called it a day and headed off to bed. We were scheduled on the 6 am Natural Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park. To say that it was worth the early wake-up call would be a complete understatement. It was breathtaking. In terms of wildlife, we encountered a grey wolf, a moose, caribou, and an artic squirrel. The rarity of these animal sightings was a great learning opportunity.
We then boarded the Wilderness Express for lunch and transportation to Talkeetna. This was one of the best parts of our tour. The drink and dining menu was excellent and delicious. The staff onboard was charming, comical, and informative. The 3 ½ hours just flew by with a great combination of laughter and learning.
We arrived into the “big city” of Talkeetna in the early evening for a site inspection at our host hotel, Talkeena Alaskan Lodge, which was located only 10 minutes away from town, with a shuttle running every ½ hour.
The hotel was very nice but it was the least authentic “Alaskan” experience we had up until that point. The sales director made it clear that the locals did not much like having this big corporation in their backyard. The hotel was making conscious efforts to repair this relationship by featuring local influences in their restaurant, shops, etc. Rooms were very clean and well appointed – the lobby was beautiful with picture windows and a stunningly huge stone fireplace.
The town is home to the climbers who come to tackle Denali. It is SMALL – walking the downtown stretch takes about 15 minutes. It has whimsical little restaurants and shops, and a few offices for tour operators. And that’s really about it!
We had plenty of free time during this stop – both on our arrival evening and the following morning and afternoon. I spent many hours bumming around town. I enjoyed warm, reasonably priced coffee at the organic “Conscious Coffee”, pizza by the slice at “Mountain High Pizza Pie” and locally made brew at “Denali Brewing Company”. All were excellent, authentic experiences. Unfortunately, in all my wandering – I never stumbled across the “Mayor” of Talkeetna. Mr. Stubbs is a cat who apparently has a stubby tail, only drinks water from wine glasses, and has retained been voted mayor of this quirky town for the last several years. This sort of randomness is everywhere in Talkeetna – and I think they like it that way.
ALYESKA / GIRDWOOD
The drive from Talkeetna to Alyeska was along the Skagway Highway and was breathtaking. This highway is often voted as one of the world’s most scenic drives.
Fun Fact – While our original itinerary listed our next stop as Alyeska; that is not the name of the town. I learned upon arrival that the town is called Girdwood and that Alyeska refers to the ski resort at the base of the mountain of the same name. The Hotel Alyeska was our host hotel for a mere single night, although I think both our tour guides and the rest of the agents would have been happy to stay here the remainder of the trip! It was just gorgeous!
I can’t gush enough about this resort – 5 stars all around. Arguably one of the most luxurious I have ever seen or had the pleasure of staying at. Rooms were well appointed and comfortable. Meticulously decorated with no expense seemingly spared – it was high end while still being warm and welcoming. The hotel is home to the Alyeska Tramway and our stay included tickets to the top. The ride up takes just about 3-7 minutes and the views are stunning. There is a bar and gourmet restaurant at 2,300 feet up called “Seven Glaciers”.
The hotel had a number of mid to high end shops so it was easy to fill the remaining hours right onsite. They also host a number of fun events and festivals throughout the year. We happen to arrive during the celebration of the Fiddlehead Music Festival. They had a large outdoor stage area set up, live folk music, food and beer tents, and locals selling their goods. It was fun to have this type of activity available to guests.
The biggest city in Alaska, Anchorage is home to 400,000 residents. It feels very much like any other US city with big box stores like Cabela’s and Targets now peppered throughout. It still retains its charm with many great independent, small businesses mixed in as well.
We started off the morning at the Anchorage Museum – oh my goodness, what an experience! This Museum is an official Smithsonian affiliate and boasts an endless amount of Native Alaskan relics. By and large the most impressive museum I have ever visited. We only had about a 1 ½ hour here and it didn’t even crack the surface of all there was to see and learn. The museum includes the most impressive children’s area – the “Imaginarium” with larger than life bubbles, physics stations, dioramas, marine life stations, and much, much more. This would be a must see for families visiting Alaska. A traveler could easily fill an entire afternoon here. The museum also offers a surprisingly gourmet restaurant onsite that served a lunch that was to die for!
Next up was the Alaska Native Heritage Center. We added this tour last minute and I am so glad we did. They had some Native dancers sharing their traditional song and dance, recreated and authentic totem poles, homes, tools, garments – and so much more. They also have a small sled dog kennel, with an opportunity to experience a sled dog ride for an extra $10. It’s a good stop for any guests who may have a couple of free hours in Anchorage.
Here we had a bittersweet farewell reception. I can’t say enough how much we enjoyed our team. Aimee Price with Royal Caribbean, Jocelyn with Premier Alaska Tours, and our driver, Marilyn were all so lovely and managed our group so efficiently. Their patience and thorough explanations allowed us all to learn more than we could have imagined. Their warm personalities made all of us feel comfortable. It was a great group of travel agents from all over the country, in all different types of travel agencies. I learned much from them as well.
After our goodbyes, the majority of us decided to go into town for one last dinner (and a few drinks of course!) together. After a few unsuccessful attempts (it is apparently very hard to seat medium and large size groups in Alaska!), we ended up at McGinley’s Pub – a little Irish bar and restaurant a few blocks from the Marriott. Service was great with a large variety of local, Alaskan brews on tap. We laughed and recapped our adventure for hours before bidding each other safe travels home.