Ask any traveler what destination is on their “Bucket List”, and you can almost be certain the “Last Frontier” – ALASKA – is somewhere near the top. Especially if that traveler is recently retired and raring to go…
I live and own a travel agency in the retirement community of Fairfield Glade/ Crossville, Tennessee, and see a pattern of most folks who migrate to retire here.
First things first…
Get the house in order, tackle the landscaping, join every organization and association imaginable just to get to know people, play as much golf as possible just because you can – Crossville and the resort area of Fairfield Glade are considered the “Golf Capitals” of Tennessee – and then start surfing the web for your first vacation…
Nine times out of ten – ALASKA wins hands down! And, the vacation most typically associated with Alaska is a cruise.
This was definitely my mindset until I got off the ship and began exploring. Even though the most common way for most people to see Alaska for the first time is on an Inside Passage cruise, the most comprehensive and exciting way to see this great land is on a land tour. It’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Now, don’t get me wrong. A cruise of Alaska is wonderful…you experience great scenery, first-class entertainment, delicious cuisine and port calls that provide a glimpse of Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway and sometimes Sitka – places that welcome thousands of cruise passengers a day. But there is no way to embrace the unpredictability and exoticism of a destination than on an escorted land tour.
Begin in Anchorage…
Anchorage is Alaska’s hub of passenger traffic, with non-stop service to West Coast gateways and seasonal service to Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis. The airport is also a world-wide hub of air cargo due to its unique global location.
Anchorage is remarkably cosmopolitan for its size – just under 300,000 people. Surrounded by wilderness and six mountain ranges, Anchorage boasts luxury hotels – Marriott, Hilton and Captain Cook to name a few, delectable restaurants – Snow Goose is one of our favorites – art galleries and specialty shops including those located in 5th Avenue Mall and Diamond Center. Oh, and let’s not forget Nordstrom…
The city is rich in history and culture with a vibrant arts and music scene featuring world-class dance, theatre and Broadway performances. The Anchorage Museum of History and Art showcases an impressive collection of artifacts depicting 10,000 years of Alaska history. The best way to experience the state’s distinctive native culture through storytelling, song and dance is to explore the five traditional villages at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
Visitors can enjoy a wide variety of wildlife within Anchorage, including a resident moose population of 1,600! As a matter of fact, during our first trip to Alaska in 2003, the one and only moose we saw from Fairbanks to Anchorage including three nights in Denali National Park was crossing the street near the Anchorage train station as we were disembarking our train…
Anchorage is also the epicenter of Southcentral Alaska and the jumping-off point for day tours to places like Prince William Sound, Valdez, Eagle River and Wasilla, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters. Wasilla, Wasilla…that rings a bell. Someone well-known comes from there, but just can’t think of who right now…give me a minute or two…
Just a bit south of Anchorage, cruises from Whittier offer access to some of Prince William Sound’s most spectacular sights. Sit in front of a tidewater glacier, kayak a sheltered cove, tide pool or secluded beach. Whittier offers a unique mixture of WWII history and small coastal town charm.
The Kenai Peninsula is a popular trip from Anchorage. In Kenai Fjords National Park, glaciers, earthquakes and ocean storms are the architects. Ice worms, bears and whales make their home in this land of constant change.
Many tour companies help you discover Kenai Fjords via a cruise and wildlife tour, glacier hikes or helicopter hikes. You need to be physically fit and dress appropriately for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it’s not for everyone.
Perhaps a float trip or whitewater expedition is more to your liking.
Ride the rail to Spencer Glacier and steal away on a gentle float tour among the icebergs at Spencer Lake and down the Placer River. Professional guides, rain gear, and rubber boots are provided. Please dress in warm layers. Conditions around the icebergs are chilly. Spencer Lake is full of crumbling icebergs that are so close you can touch them.
Hopefully, the tour you choose includes Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward is also the town in which writer, Peter Jenkins, lived with his family while researching and writing one of the best books I have ever read about Alaska – other than Alaska by James Michner – Looking for Alaska. It’s hard to put down once you’re past the first page…and, if you order it here from Amazon, I’ll make a buck or two just so I can give it right back to Amazon at a later date!
Heading North – Denali
The trip to Denali takes a half-day by either motorcoach or the Alaska Railroad. My suggestion…take to the rails for a most memorable trip. It’s true – with train travel, the going is just as important as getting there!
Most tour companies upgrade their groups to Gold Service which includes plush seating in an upper-level dome car, priority seating in the lower-level dining room and a private outdoor viewing deck. There’s simply no better way to take in the mountain vistas, rivers and lakes, flowers and fauna than from the comfort of the Alaska Railroad.
“The Great One”
Denali is home to Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. Consider yourself lucky to see the peak as we were on our first visit in 2003. “The Great One” – or Denali in the native tongue – shows off its summit just 20% of the time. From May to September, about 400,000 visitors experience Denali National Park each year.
Although the park is vast – approximately the size of Massachusetts – automobile access is limited to the first 15 miles for visitors. After a stop at the welcome center, groups hop aboard the four-hour Denali Natural History Tour, or the eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Excursion. Both programs are operated by the National Park Service aboard modified school buses. Certified driver/naturalist guides provide rolling commentary on the history of the park while keeping a keen eye out for wildlife. Several interpretive stops along the way enhance the experience, including the Wilderness Access Center, where the film Across Time and Tundra is shown.
As you can imagine, one night in Denali is just not enough…that’s why so many tour companies choose to stay at least two nights.
There’s gold in them there hills!
In 1902, Italian immigrant Felix Pedro struck gold just 16 miles north of Fairbanks. At the same time, a trading post was being built on the banks of the Chena River. As they say – the rush was on! Prospectors were flooding the area to pan for gold. The quest still continues today.
Visitors can see the largest display of gold at the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North, visit the Pedro Monument in tribute to that first discovery and try their hand at gold panning.
A popular tour while in Fairbanks is a ride on the Tanana Valley Railroad – a two-hour guided tour that takes you through a permafrost tunnel to the gold fields near the El Dorado Gold Mine. Meet and talk with Alaska miners, and after a short course in gold mining, grab a “poke” and try panning for gold.
Whatever gold you find may be turned into a piece of jewelry at the gift shop located next to the mine. Now – that’s where the “real” gold is!
Another popular attraction which is usually on every tour itinerary is an unforgettable ride aboard the Riverboat Discovery sternwheeler cruise – a three-hour journey into the heart of Alaska. See a bush floatplane taking off, visit the home and kennels of the late four-time Iditarod winner – Susan Butcher – and gain insight into the ancient Athabascan Indian culture.
Fairbanks is also one of the best viewing spots for the aurora borealis, commonly referred to as the Northern Lights. These mysterious yellow, green and red lights brighten the nighttime skies in a colorful display as curtains of colored light in the upper atmosphere, caused by magnetic disturbances from the sun, collide with atoms. While intensity varies, the most common yellow-green glow occurs heavily between late August and April.
Alaska…beyond your dreams, within your reach…
Alaska is truly a place where even seasoned travelers are humbled. It will change your life forever…
The people, the places, the beauty – it’s like nothing else on earth. And when you visit, Alaska becomes a part of you forever. In fact, every Alaskan you meet will undoubtedly tell you the story of a personal friend who came to Alaska to visit and never left.
Make 2011 your year for Alaska…now is the time to start planning and booking your tour.
Although there are many tour companies ready to send you to Alaska, two particular companies come to mind when suggesting an unforgettable escorted land tour to Alaska – Tauck World Discovery and Globus Journeys. You won’t be disappointed with either one. I’m here to help you decide…
Call me at 931-484-8228 or Email Me and make that Alaska dream come true!
Thanks for your time…..OH! – just for the record…other than the folks fishing at Ship Creek Overlook in downtown Anchorage (can you believe it?!) all “people” photos are of Elaine & Ed Johnston during our 2003 tour of Alaska. We have lots more – how about our 2004 trip? – but, enough is enough!
You’ll just have to make your own memories when you make 2011 your year for Alaska!
Have a great day!