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6/10: Travel Day to Denali …

June10A-2Monday morning was an early start. It had rained off and on yesterday, but it was just cloudy this morning. Transportation was not an issue today, the Resort Busses were ready to take us to the Train Depot.

If you’ve not been to Alaska, you might be asking, “Another Travel Day?”  This wasn’t just any travel day, this was a whole day of scenic touring, starting with a trip on the Alaska Rail Road from Fairbanks to Denali.


We were at the Rail Station in plenty of time.  In our packet, it said to check in with the Holland America Rep.  It turned out we would not be traveling in an “Official Alaska Rail Car,” but would be going in one of the cars the cruise lines use for their tours.  I think I had figured this out before we left for the trip, but Lou was disappointed – authenticity is important to a Train Geek (I was wishing I had checked this out better before the trip).  The Rail Station was very modern, just like the airports:





They even had a large model railroad set up at one end of the terminal:



I had a sense of foreboding that all might not be well as we were walking … and walking … out to board our rail car:



We walked passed the Holland America Cars and onto the Princess Cars – this wasn’t good.  The Princess Cars are configured with a four top table, and two at each table end up riding backwards the whole trip.  Plus, there’s not a lot of leg room for someone who is 6’5″.  We were seated with a very nice couple who had also been on Week 3 of the Un-Cruise.  Lou didn’t say much at the time, but he did stand a lot of the way to Denali.  Fortunately this was the short leg of the trip – only 4 hours.  I spent a lot of time downstairs in the vestibule between cars taking photos (I thought the description said we’d be able to step out of our Luxury Dome car onto a viewing platform?).  Oh well, it wasn’t all that bad, and there isn’t a lot to see between Fairbanks and Denali anyway.



We passed the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and this is the Alaska Satellite Facility:



The view was mostly trees for a couple of hours:





There was a dining room on our car on the lower level.  Lou wasn’t hungry, but I had a nice breakfast of pancakes:



We had a good view of the abandoned HCCP (Healy Clean Coal Project) – this facility cost about $300 million when built in the late 1990s, only to be abandoned in 2000 … it would make a good backdrop for a science fiction movie about aliens taking over the Satellite Research Center …



A big curve provides an opportunity to capture a photo of the front part of the train. All of the blue and yellow cars are Alaska RR cars, then come the HAL and Princess Cars. Note – Lou and I kept arguing because I said we were not supposed to be in a Princess car, and he said they were all Princess cars … well, he turned out to be kinda right, since I found out that Carnival owns just about everybody, so they are all sister-companies. But, more about the rail car snafu later.



June10A-14We saw some river rafters from the train.

And another view of the train as we turn the corner> June10A-15

There wasn’t necessarily a lot to see on this journey, and some say you’re better off just driving to Denali from Fairbanks, but I enjoyed the train ride and the scenery.



Here’s a partially frozen waterfall, reminding us it’s still cold in this part of the country:



Finally, we could see snow-covered mountains:



We arrived at Denali – you can see the many hotels that provide lodging for Park visitors in this photo – I think part of this area is called “Glitter Gulch” because of all the tourist shops and restaurants:



Once we got off the train, no one knew where to go to get our luggage, or whether it was being transferred straight to our hotel. Finally, we found a RR guy who pointed us in the right direction.  We soon had our luggage, and we watched as most all of the other tourists were picked up …


We knew we wanted to store some of our luggage, so we walked over to the baggage check (near the Visitor’s Center) and took care of that.  Our paperwork said there was a strict 1 bag per person limit for the bus ride to our lodging.  We weren’t going to one of the nearby hotels; we were booked into a “backcountry lodge” located in the heart of Denali National Park, and would have a 95 mile bus ride to get there (those of you who know Lou well are probably having a good chuckle about now – actually, he knew about this because he had been to Denali in 2008, and did this same bus ride).

We waited another 10 minutes or so, and we saw the “Kantishna Roadhouse” bus coming to pick us up.  Kirsty was our driver; she seemed surprised (and not too happy) that the person who was supposed to meet us at the depot didn’t show up.  But, she quickly took charge of loading the luggage and had us on our way.  There were no issues with those who had multiple bags – there were only 20 of us on the bus, so there was plenty of room.  Here’s a photo of our bus – this was taken later in the afternoon, it was all nice and clean when Kirsty picked us up.



The only way to Kantishna is by bus or airplane.  And, the only way to drive further than 15 miles into Denali National Park is to take a bus.  The Park Service runs continuous shuttles that take you to various destinations.  Our bus was more comfortable than a shuttle bus, and it was nice to be able to spread out.

We were soon on our way – here are some of the photos as we drove into the Park:







Soon, we saw our first four-legged animal in Denali; a caribou crossed right in front of the bus:



A couple more foggy view shots:





Kirsty stopped the bus and quietly pointed out something to the port left side of the bus; it was a Ptarmigan, the Alaska State Bird:



I was delighted to see the Ptarmigan, since I’d read about them but didn’t think we’d have any luck spotting them from a bus. Kirsty is a pro at what she does – both driving the bus (I think she had named this one Charley), and spotting wildlife.  It turns out she is a professional photographer as well, but she didn’t even hint that she had photos for sale at the Lodge and the Alaska Geographic Center at the Park.

Right after the Ptarmigan, we saw more caribou – and, we kept seeing caribou.  So many, Kirsty suggested we just wave to them as we drove by, otherwise we would never make it to dinner.



Even though it was cloudy, and it rained off and on, the scenery as we drove deeper into the park was impressive.  Those of you who’ve followed our travels know I enjoy “drive-by shooting” and there were many opportunities from the bus as we drove along. Lou just enjoyed the ride, although he did borrow the camera once in awhile when there was something interesting on his side of the bus.







Hikers wait for one of the shuttle busses to come along:



We saw some Dall Sheep up on the hill, and Kirsty said we’d get a better look soon.  First, we had to wait for one of the Park Shuttle Busses to clear the turn.  We thought about Grandma at this point, knowing she would not like this drive!




Sure enough, after we made the turn, we had a better few of the sheep, and the little ones as well.  Kirsty stopped the bus so we could all get photos of the Dall Sheep:





Continuing on to our first stop for the trip.  We had a 15 minute restroom break at the Toklat Visitor Center – the first of two Visitor’s Centers that are actually located within the Park – you can see the tent like structure with some shuttle busses parked beside it:











We all hopped back on the bus, and Kirsty continued her narration and wild life spotting.  Let’s break for now, and come back to finish up the day in the next post.



6/9: Travel Day to Fairbanks


This will not be a very exciting day to read about, but I’m including it just so we have complete documentation of our trip.  We had to leave the hotel at 4:00am in order to catch an early flight to Fairbanks.  Actually, we were flying

Sitka >Juneau>Anchorage>Fairbanks.

I should back up to explain why we’re doing this.  We tacked on 5 days to the end of our Un-Cruise Adventure in order to see some more of Alaska.  Our primary destination was Denali National Park, and we were also going to get the chance to ride the Alaska Rail Road.  The arrangements for this part of our tour were handled by Knightly Tours.  We will not be totally complimentary about some aspects of this part of the trip.  Even though this was booked as an add-on from Un-Cruise (through an independent travel agent), there were no Un-Cruise people involved.  Un-Cruise offers this as a convenience for their passengers.  We also added an extra day in Anchorage for a day trip to try and see some bears (these arrangements were made by us). Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad, and we’re not sorry we added the Land Tour to our trip.

Back to our travel day from Sitka.  There aren’t a lot of options for flights out of Sitka, which is why we were on the 6am flight. When we stepped outside the Westmark to catch the van to the airport, there was confusion; there’s no way the van was going to hold all of the people waiting (I think there were 14 from Un-Cruise and another 4 or 5).  We opted to pay $10 for a quick taxi trip and avoid the confusion.  As it turns out, Knightly had arranged for a van, and it arrived to pick people up – it’s just that none of us and no one at the hotel knew this.  Not a big issue – we all made it safely to the airport which was about a 7 minute drive!  I only mention it because it’s the start of a few issues along the way …

Waiting at the Sitka Airport – notice the bear – this was a common theme in all the airports we visited in Alaska



Our flight stopped in Juneau, but we didn’t get off.  Continuing to Anchorage, here’s a photo out the window (taken by randomly reaching across a sleeping Lou):



We had a 3 hour layover in Anchorage – originally we had a short layover, but they changed the flights.  Lou was concerned our camera gear would not fit in the overhead on a smaller Regional Jet, so we opted to wait for the larger plane (we didn’t know we would be sending stuff back when flights were arranged).  Our long layover turned out to be a good thing – Lou was able to catch up on his internet stuff (he always says it’s bill paying, but this looked suspiciously like a model railroad forum site):



I wandered around the airport, which was actually interesting:







It was a beautiful day in Anchorage, and I was surprised to see so many flowers in bloom:





You can see that the Anchorage Airport is a very modern facility; all of the airports we saw in Alaska were modern and very clean. Not surprising, since air travel is so important to people who live where highways don’t connect all of the cities.

We’ve now reached Fairbanks, and there was another bear waiting for us in the baggage claim area:



We had a short wait for the van to our hotel for the night – we were staying at the River’s Edge Resort.  The Fairbanks Airport reminded us a lot of the airports in Australia – maybe they were designed by the same people:



The River’s Edge Resort was a nice place to overnight – it’s not right in the city, but it is possible to catch a tour bus from there if you want to go see some of the sights.  Since we arrived in the afternoon, we limited our excitement to doing laundry.



We had a cute little cabin on the River’s Edge … I would have taken a photo of the river, but was worried the Gigantic Mosquitoes would carry me away:



Lots of people take their RVs to Alaska, or rent one for their vacation, and the RV park was a happening place.  It was convenient to do our laundry, since there was no way it was going to magically appear in our room like it had the previous two weeks:



We opted for an early dinner at Chena’s Grill – the onsite restaurant.  It was raining off and on, so we elected not to dine on the patio with the skeeters.  The food was not memorable, but we had a nice time visiting with the bartender/manager before dinner. She shared a lot about living in Alaska.



We found out we could have taken a small plane charter, or “air taxi,” from Anchorage to Denali.  That might have been a good idea, but we didn’t really mind chilling on a travel day.

Tomorrow is another early start, so we went to bed early.

6/8: Sitka & The End of our Un-Cruise Ultra Adventure



6am and we are Sitka-bound.  We had a nice morning, with just the occasional sprinkle. The views as we cruise to Sitka:









June8-6At 6:30am, continental breakfast items were available in the lounge as they’d been all week.  The full breakfast buffet started at 7:30am.  A few more photos as we come into Sitka:









The small ship behind us is the Admiralty Dream – the one we saw during Week 2 with the whale right next to it:



At 8:30am, we were docking, and the gals got us safely secured:



Debarkation was smooth, and we had a chance to say goodbye to the crew and thank them for another good week.  We were on our way to the Sitka Westmark Hotel, where we would overnight before leaving the next morning on our journey to Denali National Park.



June8-14Here is some info on Sitka from Wikipedia: It is the largest city-borough in the US, with a land area of 2,870.3 mi2  and a total area (including water area) of 4,811.4 mi2. With a population of 8,881 in 2010, Sitka is the fourth-largest city by population in Alaska.


We went to the Westmark where our room wasn’t ready (and wouldn’t be until about 3pm).  We were scheduled to go on a Small Boat charter to St. Lazaria Island to see Puffins and Otters.  Unfortunately, our charter was cancelled due to problems with the boat.  Disappointed, but it was for the best – we still weren’t feeling great and the weather got worse in the afternoon.


We took care of an important errand first thing; packed up quite a bit of our stuff and mailed packages home.  Lou also sent his camera gear home.  I was worried about this, but it turned out ok.  It did take a month (!) for our packages to reach us, but everything except my Alaskan Fudge was in good shape.



June8-15We weren’t in the mood for a lot of tourist activity, but did enjoy walking around Sitka.  Sitka has a strong Russian Heritage and several of the prominent attractions provide more information about the history of the area.  Sitka also likes bears – they were all around town:








We tried a Mexican Cafe for lunch, and it was tasty – we like to sample Mexican Cuisine in unlikely parts of the world:



One place we did want to visit was St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathederal; it was established in the nineteenth century when Sitka was under Russian rule, and is the oldest Orthodox Cathedral in the New World.  It burned down in 1966, but was rebuilt.  When we inquired about a tour, we were invited to join a tour group in session (from the Admiralty Dream, it turns out), and learned more about the Cathedral and the Orthodox Religion.









Our room was ready when we returned to the Westmark (after buying a few more t-shirts).  Ahhhh – we each have our own bed, and the bathroom seems ginormous compared to the previous 3 weeks!  This will be a welcome relief from having to clamber over Lou to get in and out of bed during the past week (no photos and no video of that adventure!).



We each took a long shower and a nap.  We had dinner plans with Dick & Polly, a nice couple we’d enjoyed spending time with during the past two weeks and hope to see again.  We had a pleasant dinner at the Westmark Restaurant, then hit the sack.  We had an early departure tomorrow for Fairbanks – 4am!!!


Pretty Flowers in Bloom in Sitka:



The view from our room, overlooking Sitka harbor:



Thoughts on Week 3: Glacier Bay and the Northern Passages on the Wilderness Explorer:

June3PM-31Scenery – A :  Spending 3 days in Glacier Bay National Park was a treat, and we would love to go back again.  We didn’t find the final few days as scenic as the previous two weeks, but were probably influenced by the rainy weather and the arrival of our colds.  Overall, we had great weather for Week 3 of the trip – even though we had rain, it wasn’t enough to interfere with activities if you really wanted to get outside and experience Alaska.


Puffin-2Wildlife – A:  How could it be anything less than a top grade?  Sure, we saw lots of humpbacks. But, we added Orcas, Puffins, Mountain Goats and baby ones too.  And how about the wolf, and a few bears?  Of course, we saw eagles and other birds as well.  No one could complain about this week’s wildlife sightings not living up to the marketing brochure.


June3PM-40Life Onboard – B:  We found the Wilderness Explorer to be less comfortable inside than the Wilderness Discoverer – the two areas that affected us were our room and the lounge. The lounge seemed congested at times with a full complement of passengers on board.  The food was good, and we once again got a chance to meet some nice people.   We didn’t get to know the staff as well, only being on the boat for one week. Having Ranger Fay (and Miss Elizabeth) join us for the first three days was a plus.


June3PM-14Off Boat Acitivities – B: We had a couple of nice shore walks, and certainly the chance to visit Bartlett Cove was appreciated. Once we left Glacier Bay, it seemed Skiff Tours were given a lower priority than they had been the previous two weeks.  Our perspective may be clouded by the weather and our colds. Just like in Week 1, there were a few hard core adventurers who would have liked the strenuous hikes to be more difficult, but you will probably always have people at both ends of the spectrum.



Overall: We may have been more nitpicky about some things in Week 3 because we’d had such a fantastic time on the Wilderness Discoverer.  But, don’t get the impression we didn’t have a good time.  Not the case at all – it was a great week.



Thoughts on the whole Ultra Adventure: “You’re gonna spend 3 whole weeks on a small boat?”

Was 3 weeks too long?  No, for us it was just right.  We have spent summers living on a boat a lot smaller than these two ships, and knew we wouldn’t have a problem with being on the boat for so long.  By doing 3 weeks, we didn’t have to worry about missing something. We built in time for bad weather and a few lazy days.


What was the best week? There’s an easy answer to this question … we don’t know!  We’ve gone back and forth and can make an argument for any of the three weeks being the best.  Week 1 touring the Eastern Coves – it was all new and exciting, and seeing both Tracy Arm and Misty Fjords was an unforgettable experience.  Week 2 touring the Western Coves – we were into the ship’s routine, and had a balanced week on and off the boat.  Some of the best early morning views and sunsets happened in Week 2.  Week 3 – Visiting Glacier Bay was amazing, and the wildlife viewing was wonderful.  Weeks 1 and 2 gave us a look into Native Alaskan history and culture, and Week 3 included a visit to a beautiful National Park – it’s too hard to choose a favorite!


Were there any negatives?  This report has been largely positive and complimentary of both the Alaska Inside Passage and Un-Cruise Adventures.  Alaska deserves the praise, because it is so special – there is a reason people go back year after year.  And, we were treated to spectacular weather. Un-Cruise Adventures exceeded our expectations, and they strive to provide excellent customer service.  The only negative we’ve talked about is the transitional day between each cruise.  We found ourselves waiting around in the afternoon to re-board the ship, and that was tiring.  This wouldn’t be an issue if you are the go-getter-gotta-see-everything type of traveler because you can easily occupy yourself on those days.  We are more laid-back, and would have preferred to have a true “3-week” experience instead of 3 separate 1-week adventures, if that makes sense.  This is a fairly minor “negative.”


Will you Un-Cruise again? Yes, definitely.  I’ve booked us on the Ultra Adventure for next summer.  We’re going to start out on the Wilderness Explorer in Sitka, and I’ve booked a cabin with twin beds.  Starting in Sitka means we’ll end the week on a high note in Glacier Bay.  We’ll switch to the Wilderness Discoverer in Juneau for two weeks touring the Western & Eastern Coves, and have the same cabin we had on this trip.  Switching ships after just one week instead of two will be less disruptive  We’ll be going in mid-July, after having spent a week at Katmai watching the bears fish for salmon with Len, our favorite photography tour leader.


JUST KIDDING, Lou!!! We would like to go back to Alaska, and hope another Un-Cruise Adventure will be part of that trip.  We are still discussing whether we’ll go in July/August or wait to go later to see the fall colors.  But, there are no definite plans, and we’ve sworn off big trips for a year or two.  I outlined a slightly different Ultra Adventure in my fantasy trip, but that’s only because we’ve already done the early season visit.  I wouldn’t change a thing about the trip we just did – going in May allowed us to celebrate both birthdays onboard.  We saw lots of snow on the mountains, had wonderful weather, made new friends, and saw baby animals.  It was perfect.

Up Next:  The highlights of our 5 day Land Tour start in the next post.  

6/7: Marooned in the Magoun Islands

Our last full day on the Wilderness Explorer has arrived – we are at a quiet anchorage in the Magoun Islands. We weren’t actually marooned at the islands, it just sounds more adventurous than “Anchored in the Magoun Islands.” The weather has improved, and the morning views are nice.  The view at 4:30am shows promise:



The lounge is nice and peaceful at quarter to five:



Another look outside at 5:30am:





The clouds are rolling in at 8:30am:



We are on our last Skiff Tour at 9:30am. We didn’t want to miss out on our last chance to see more of the Alaskan shoreline.



It was nice to see a bald eagle on our last Un-Cruise day; we also saw several nests:



The intertidal creatures were colorful and plenty as we took the skiff right up to the shoreline.  I think this was my biggest surprise; never expected to see such creatures in Alaska (Alison, from the Wilderness Discoverer, would be proud).







One of the kayak guided tours was also taking a good look at the cracks and crevices along the shore:



The forests were thick with trees – lots of good bear hiding places but we didn’t see any today:



We’ll count this as a successful last outing – I was out for the afternoon, and I think Lou just took it easy as well.  Here are a few borrowed photos from Un-Cruise to give an idea of the snorkeling adventure today.  It looks like it was the best one yet.  Today was also Polar Plunge Day, but we missed it (once again!).

The evening included the usual final night Captain’s dinner and a slide presentation of photos taken by the guides during the week – there are some excellent photographers in this group!

A few more photos from the evening, taken between 7:30 – 10:30pm:









This really was a beautiful anchorage, and we were fortunate to have the return of mostly good weather.   It may seem like these last two days weren’t the most exciting, but it was a pleasant way to end our 3 Week Ultra Adventure.  Tomorrow morning we cruise into Sitka and we’ll get to see the largest city in the US.

6/6: A Bad Day @ Hanus Bay?


We woke up to find ourselves in Hanus Bay.  We had two days left in our last week of Un-Cruising.  It didn’t seem possible for the rest of the week to live up to the days before, and ……………  it didn’t!  Again, that’s ok.  We had already had 5 great days, with just a little bit of rain.  Glacier Bay National Park and Icy Strait were astounding.

On top of waking up to rain and fog, I’d come down with a cold and it was working its way to Lou. This wasn’t a big surprise, because a number of passengers and crew had been sick during the week. I ended up sleeping the day away, waking just for meals and a brief time in the evening.  It was a bad day in Hanus Bay, but it was a great day overall.  Why?  If we had to get sick, this was the perfect time to do it.  We wouldn’t be missing out on much, and it would also give us a chance to recharge for our Land Tour starting on Saturday.

Even though it rained off and on all day, that didn’t stop the hikers and the kayakers …



Here are some photos from the Un-Cruise photo share that give an indication of what today’s hike was like – looks like they saw some interesting flowers and critters while traversing some tough terrain:


June6-5After lunch of spaghetti and garlic bread, we pulled anchor and were going to pass through the Peril Strait and Sergious Narrows, to get us closer to Sitka.

This is one of the narrower passageways, and is often a place to see wildlife along the shore and in the water.  Not so much today – it was, again, rainy and foggy.  Lou was kind enough to brave the elements to get some photos for our scrapbook:


My dinner selection was outstanding – it was fish, and was very tasty (can’t remember exactly what it was).  I forgot to take a photo, but our server managed to get a picture of the last serving.  I thought the food was very good on this ship, but Lou gives the nod to the Wilderness Discoverer.  It may be that I stuck mostly to the fish entrees and they were almost all excellent.



Dessert was a favorite, as well (you can see the cold is not affecting my appetite):



The evening’s entertainment was by Gabriella, the Wellness Instructor.  She is also a singer, and she entertained us with folk songs and ballads – she is very good, and it was an enjoyable evening.  Ellie, an expedition guide, accompanied her (as did another member of the crew – I think his name was Dan).





And, that is it for this short review of Day 6 of our last Un-Cruise Adventure week.  The weather had cleared by late in the evening:



Even More 6/5: “We are Just a Crouton in a Bowl of Whale Soup…”


Dick made the comment in the title of this post as we were surrounded by humpbacks; he said he’d heard one of the guides use the phrase last week. It was most appropriate this evening.

It was now 6:20pm, and no one was thinking about dinner.  We watched the line of humpbacks, not sure how many there really were; Three? Four? Five?  At times, maybe six.


Oops, there’s one close to the ship:



Remembering to check out the scenery, and not just the whale show:



We also saw a barge toting boats, trucks, and other goods – probably the only option for some, since so many areas in Alaska are not connected by roads:



One thing that stood out about this evening’s adventure was how often we saw at least two whales close together.  At times, it looked like they were playing follow-the-leader.





It was time to go in for a quick bite to eat, and then hurry back outside.  Another quick look at the mountains and the blows against the shoreline:



Wait a minute?  What’s that?  Ha!  You didn’t get away this time:



Let’s straighten you up:



We kept scanning for another breach – sometimes a humpback will breach more than once – and rarely more than a hundred times! That didn’t happen, but that’s okay.  Scientists don’t know for sure why whales breach – it may be to wash off parasites, to communicate, or just because they’re feeling frisky.

We enjoyed the next hour watching the fun.  And, in case you’re wondering, I did put the camera down every so often to just enjoy the sights.  A few more photos:






At 8pm, we saw the Island Princess arriving.  They were late to the party, but maybe they’d seen whales elsewhere, since there seemed to be so many.



No time to worry about the cruise ship, we had more buddy activity to watch:






The Island Princess came close enough so we could see they were watching the new Disney “Oz” movie on their big screen. There weren’t a lot of people out on deck or at their balconies.  One good thing about this interruption – Lou said we did get a cell phone signal while they were in the vicinity.



It was almost 9pm when we said good night to both the Island Princess and the whales.



A goodnight shot from the last dynamic duo of the evening:



Another day exceeds expectations! Thank you, Lou – this has been the best birthday present ever.


I went to bed with visions of leaping whales …