July 2022  Alaska/Yukon/Denali

By Carmel Stewart

First of all, not being a member of the Royal family (who never complain and never explain, apparently) I am quite happy to explain why this posting is quite late in appearing. Nothing more serious than life taking precedence over writing. Also Kathy’s name will appear at the top of this article and all our articles  – a quirk of our website. 

Our trip to Alaska was long awaited because, like the rest of the world, we were Covid curtailed. It took a little organising. Inevitably with the passing of time costs had risen – not just hotels, flights and packages but insurance which seems to be heading skyward. 

After a huge amount of research, we settled on Holland America – not an all-inclusive cruise but one where passengers can add-on what suits them. We wanted wi-fi which bizarrely included a drinks package – or did we just select that as well…? It also had a land-based section which included a few days in Denali National Park, which was exactly what we wanted.

We made life slightly more difficult for ourselves by deciding to pack light so that we only had carry-on luggage – some mean feat given that we were away for three weeks. But all the forecasts had Alaska warm and sunny so we were optimistic – falsely as it turned out but more of that later. 

Arriving from different airports at different times from different continents, we arranged to meet at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver airport, not the cheapest option but certainly the most convenient. And they do a mean gin and tonic.

While Covid restrictions were easing up, HA not only required full vaccination certification but also a pre-boarding test conducted in downtown Vancouver which was, frankly, a huge pain. After that the boarding process was the usual paperwork/queuing/waiting about before we actually set foot our chosen vessel. While not being overly spacious, our berth on the Noordam was comfortable and with a balcony, as requested.

Our cabin

Travelling is always tiring and keeping track of days never mind hours is never easy. To ease the confusion HA has a great trick – lift mats with the day of the week, which changed every morning. Such a neat idea.

Sussing out where everything is – places to eat, drink and be merry – took a day or two but was not complicated. The Lido seemed to be the big self-service place with a never-ending supply of food. We usually headed for the dining room which had waiter service and was less of a bun fight. That said, the Lido was great for an endless supply of tea at all hours.

First stop was Ketchikan – the Gateway to Alaska. Trips were available for an additional cost at every port but none really appealed so we spent a (very wet) day walking round enjoying our first taste of Alaska. Found an interesting museum. All very relaxed. 

Ketchikan

Day two took us to Juneau, the capital of Alaska and the only US capital with no road access. Checked customer services to see if any excursions were available. No. Went ashore and made a great discovery – little stalls set up on the quay offering everything HA offered and then some. Booked whale watching and a trip to the Mendenhall glacier, no problem and cheaper than HA – bonus.

Mendenhall glacier

Day three was Skagway. Again, nothing pre-booked but bought tickets for the afternoon spectacular Whitepass and Yukon Railway trip. Spent the morning exploring the town, visited a couple of museums. Back to the Noordam for coffee and cake before our brilliant train journey up into the Yukon hills. Had to contend with an annoying German man with a big camera and small manners but ganged up on him quite successfully.  Back on board made a little headway into our drinks package which allows us an astonishing 15 drinks a day. How many G&Ts can one person drink? Quite a lot as it happens, just pace yourself…

Skagway Curry House

Whitepass and Yukon train

Crossing the border

The perils of pioneering train travel

Spent day four on board ship as we sailed up Glacier Bay. Spectacular views but truly terrible talk by woman who spoke as if we were eight-year-olds on a school outing. She failed to grasp that there were scientists, environmentalists, marine biologists and seasoned travellers on board. Even a cursory glance at a book on the area would have netted more information than she was able to impart. 

Cheers

Last full day on board we sailed up College Fjord. Spectacular views. This day too we tried to find out more about our land-based Holland America tour. Customer services were absolutely hopeless. They had no information bar a leaflet which we already had. All we (and the scores of passengers like us) were told was that ‘it is nothing to do with us. It is run by a separate organisation.’ Eh? A tour we booked through Holland America is suddenly nothing to do with Holland America. Come on fellas, get your act together…

The following day we had no choice but to disembark into the great unknown. Needless to say, it was pouring with rain and blowing a gale as we staggered off the ship and made our windswept way to the Anchorage bound train at Whittier. No rhyming jokes about how the weather in Whittier could not be ********, please.

We were allocated seats opposite train buff Andy and his very well organised wife Nancy. Very pleasant people, thank goodness.

Still raining when we arrived in Anchorage. Had lunch together and took a bus tour. Lucky enough to get a very knowledgeable entertaining driver to lift our spirits in the seemingly endless rain.

Our hotel room at the Westmark was just about acceptable – rather like Anchorage as a whole. Slightly old fashioned and a little weary. Just two power points, no tooth mug, or shower mat, paper cups, powdered milk, no mini bar, no room safe. Also, no meals included in our package but we found a few places to eat that suited us especially The Glacier Brewhousewhich was excellent and directly opposite our hotel. 

Downtown Anchorage

Westmark accommodation

Sign of the times

No HA pre-booked excursions were offered at this stage so we booked ourselves a tour to the Portage Glacier and the Wildlife Centre from their office at the hotel. Neither of us is keen on seeing wild animals in enclosures but it turns out this is more of a rescue and rehabilitation centre. Not quite convinced but it is what it is. Boat ride to see the glacier was uneventful and a little depressing as it is clearly melting and has retreated several miles over the past ten years. 

Portage glacier

We were cheered up considerably in the evening by our visit to the Brewhouse. We sat at the bar were the lady mixing the cocktails was an absolute joy to watch. So entertaining and efficient. Could have stayed there all evening if beauty sleep not required. 

Up very early – bags out at 6am ready for loading onto the McKinley Explorer to Talkeetna and then by coach to the Denali National Park. Fantastic train, warm and comfortable. Breakfast on board, however, was awful. Cold powdered eggs, bland coffee and really not worth the money – oh, yes. All meals extra! Lunch was slightly better and the afternoon tea and cinnamon roll better still. 

As with all our train journeys, we passed some fantastic scenery and had plenty of opportunities to take pics from the caboose or just stand outside and enjoy the vastness of the terrain. 

For the most part, the staff were just the right side of friendly. However, as we approached our destination our on-board team attempted to entertain us with frankly childish and inappropriate jokes which an eight-year-old would have been ashamed of. We were then implored to ‘show the love’ which is presumably McKinley speak for ‘give us a tip’ – well, my tip is move into the 21st century, drop the stupid sexist, juvenile ‘jokes’ and don’t hold out the begging bowl: it is demeaning and unpleasant.

Our chalet room at Denali’s McKinley Chalet Resort was a great size but with very limited storage. Fortunately, we had a limited amount of luggage so found sufficient places to put things. Initially the wrong cases were delivered. The staff then behaved as if it was somehow our fault and that we had an ulterior motive in holding on to someone else’s luggage. We were not impressed.

Denali accommodation

Our room

Our very fancy coat hooks

The site itself was a little bewildering at first, especially trying to work out where best to eat and how the busses ran. Did not find the staff helpful or welcoming. Most behaved as if we were in the way. We had to ask several times for loo paper, replacement (paper) cups and towels. 

It was very much colder than anticipated although we were told that it had been much warmer the week before! We layered up every day – long-sleeved t-shirt, short-sleeved t-shirt, overshirt, body warmer etc and so survived but on reflection a set of thermals would not have taken up a huge amount of space and would certainly have helped.

The following day we were all booked on a Tundra Wilderness tour. Our bus left the site at 4.30am – I kid you not but we were told that it is best to be out early as we are bound to see more wildlife. We later heard of groups driving through the park and seeing no more than a few moose. Not us though!

The bus was a little crowded so when the wildlife appeared it was difficult to get a good pic but the images have stayed in our heads – a bear chasing a moose and her calf. No grizzly end, thank goodness. It seemed a rather half-hearted chase but it was great to watch. Also spotted other bears, caribou and arctic squirrels as well as the top of Mount McKinley clear as day in the distance. Such a great few hours.

Mount McKinley

Later that day we returned to the park with Andy and Nancy. Checked out the bookshop – expensive – then bus to the sled dog show. Supposed to demonstrate the dogs in action pulling sleds etc. Canines very dozy, commentary back to the junior school level – juvenile, patronising and uninteresting. Report Card: Could do better. 

Tried Karstens Pub for dinner. Very disappointing. Food cold, male waiting staff refused to wear masks. Not a lot of fun.

Third day in Denali and Kathy went off on a white-water rafting adventure which she booked the day before and which proved to be immensely entertaining. She was joined by a couple of teenagers and their grandparents. The GPs paid for the trip, the boys chose all the activities which all four took part in with varying degrees of enthusiasm!

Sussed out washing facilities – big washers and driers, not all functioning. Ate at Canyon Steakhouse. Better choice. Staff not totally engaged but food hot and wine chilled. Nothing else needed.

Final Denali day involved some waiting around once bags had been collected. Settled ourselves at a table in the main Lodge were all arrival and departures take place. Had coffee and buns and used the time to sort out our Antarctica trip. Took the bus to Fairbank where the Westmark Hotel was much nicer than Anchorage and we did not see any homeless people on the streets or aggressive locals which was certainly not the case in Anchorage. Had dinner in the hotel with Andy and Nancy. Long wait in queue but no complaints about the food or service.

There were museums and places we would have liked to visit at Fairbanks but we arrived after most of them had closed and no free time was allocated during the following days.

Our Riverbank Paddle Steamer Cruise today was one of the best we had had all trip. Doughnuts and coffee on board, stopped at home of the late Susan Butcher who won the annual 1,150-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome four-times and had a positive influence on the training and care of dogs in the sport. She was also the first person to summit Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, with a dog team.

We saw a sea plane taking off and landing close by and visited native village. All good stuff. Lunch provided on return then off to Gold Dredger 8 by coach and an old-fashioned open train. Truth to tell was not expecting much from this but it turned out to be really good fun. We were each handed a bag of dirty and then all panned for gold over raised beds. It was pot luck as to the quantity we found. My little bag netted $6,Kathy’s yielded a far more attractive $36. We pooled our findings and had them made into a locket – all on site and easily done. The winner in our little group was the lady we dubbed Miss Canada who found a chunky nugget worth $70.

Our little pot of gold

From there we took the train back to our starting point and walked over to the Alaska pipeline where we were treated to our first grown-up talk of the trip. Our commentator was knowledge and intelligent which made for a thoroughlyenjoyable 20 minutes.

Our very knowledgeable guide

Returned to the hotel to the news that we were required by Holland America to take a covid test. This despite the fact thateveryone was fully vaccinated. It was not a US requirement nor a Canadian one. No one was happy about this – especially the two people who tested positive, Kathy being one of them. It was clearly a false positive and thankfully we had our own testing kit which proved it so but there were many manywords exchanged and outraged telephone calls before we got the all clear. Our fellow traveller was also found to be clear so a lot of fuss and upset for no good reason. Nil point for that one Holland America.

So instead of two weeks isolation in our hotel room, we Joined everyone else for the transfer to the airport and our uneventful flight to Dawson City. Westmark accommodation once again. Adequate rather than sparkling but the weather improved considerably.

Our room in Dawson City

Dawson City, home to the Klondike Gold Rush, comprises dirt roads and wooden boardwalks. There are a few shops(including a very popular ice cream parlour), a couple of tourist type activities, a museum (with an off-putting asbestos removal van parked outside) and not much else. For me a maximum stay of 24 hours would have sufficed. We booked ourselves on the Dawson City walking tour through their tourist board which was really very interesting and excellently conducted by our suitably costumed guide. 

Main Street Dawson City

The Post Office with the colourful school in the background – painted in colours elected by the children, apparently

Our suitably dressed city guide at the Post Office

Dawson City bar 

We were held at Dawson for three days. The attraction for some was the casino with dancing girls and a disgusting ritual known as the Sourtoe Cocktail Club – not something we were remotely interested in so we were more than ready for the off when we finally boarded the coach back to the airport and flight to Whitehorse, capital of Yukon.

Mount McKinley from the air

Slight change of venue here – the Western Gold Rush Inn – again adequate and again not a particularly attractive town. Seems we were only there as a hop off to the Caribou Crossing – the highlight of our final day. Here is where some of the many dogs used for pulling sledges are housed by way of a tourist attraction.

A short hop on a sled round the area was one of the bookable activities. We were content to visit the dogs and the museum.Lunch was provided – trestle tables and benches so a utilitarian setting but food filling – pizza, baked potatoes, fried chicken followed by coffee and doughnuts. 

Modern dog sledding 

This was the minimum anyone wanting to make their way to The Yukon was expected to carry 

Then bus back to airport, easy flight to Vancouver and back to the Fairmont Hotel with all of our co-travellers. Needless to say, the promised rep who was supposed to meet our flight and escort us to the hotel, did not materialise. A surprise to us but not to the hotel management who told us he/she never meets the flight.

This leads to a little note about our rep – sorry, Tour Director – who met us as we disembarked the Noordam and travelled with us all the way to the airport for our return journey. We dubbed her Miss Perky because she was. She handed out tickets and itineraries and list of recommended things to do and places to eat – this latter should be approached with caution. Our Whitehorse pizza was inedible. While we couldn’t say she was stunningly efficient, she was unfailing cheerful and enthusiastic which most were fine with. We could have done with it dropping a few notches. But we were very surprised when it came to tipping at the end. $110 per person was the recommend amount. Suddenly people who had been singing her praises were seriously backtracking when it came to the tip. These were people who were happy to cough up for eating, drinking, gambling and gifts but not for someone who had steered us through the previous 11 days.

Back in Vancouver we took the terrific train to the city centre and to a shopping mall close by. The weather was warm and sunny. A relaxing day or so before heading home. 

ENDS