The Three Faces of Alaska

Posted: June 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Go  North !

     If anyone would like to take the perfect family vacation this summer, here is a tip: Stay home! Of course, I don’t mean stay home, literally; on the contrary, I mean stay here, in the United States. And if I were pressed to recommend the ultimate destination, the answer would be simple: Go north and visit Alaska, and do it now while it’s still truly the last frontier. Several reasons exist today for choosing a vacation in America versus taking one abroad. However, besides the obvious like a weak dollar which equates to a terrible currency exchange rate for the American tourist, there are also the passport and security issues. Passports can take as long as three months to be issued, and even once they are, a visa may be necessary if visiting an Eastern European or Asia country. And then, there are the security issues that have to be dealt with. Long lines, angry tourist, and the constant fear of a security breach have become the norm, instead of the exception when traveling abroad. Although these derogatory circumstances can be avoided if one were to choose a vacation here in America, the question still remains as to which summer destination offers the most for the money, and that is why I recommend Alaska. Not only is Alaska easily accessible, but it offers great scenery, history, and adventure, plus three different ways to see it: by cruise, land tour, or by motor home. Alaska truly is the ultimate summer destination.

The easiest way to see Alaska is by cruise, for there are now more ships touring the inside passage, Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier, than ever before. Most of these cruises are seven days in duration, and they depart from Vancouver, Canada or Seattle, Washington. After departing, a typical itinerary (for a round-trip voyage) includes a stop in Juneau (the capital of Alaska), Glacier Bay National Park, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria Island. Most round trip voyages follow this itinerary, so if one wanted to save the time and money required in attaining a passport (that is required for Canada departures), I would highly recommend a departure from Seattle. One of the best cruise lines for this would be Holland America , for they now have two ships departing from Seattle, the Amsterdam and the Westerdam, as compared to most cruise lines that only have one ship. Regardless of which method one chooses, expect to encounter seals or whales in Juneau Bay, witness live-calving glaciers in Glacier Bay, photograph beautiful Russian architecture in Sitka, or perhaps experience salmon fishing in Ketchikan. Another option for cruising would be one of the one-way departures from Vancouver. Because these voyages are one-way, they have the added luxury of visiting Hubbard Glacier (the largest glacier in Alaska) or Prince William Sound (the largest concentration of glaciers in Alaska). Some one-way cruises begin in Seward, Alaska and end in Vancouver, Canada; these are called southbound voyages. Northbound voyages do just the opposite; they begin in Vancouver, and seven days later, passengers disembark in Seward. Also, the northbound itineraries are perfect for anyone that wants to add on a land-tour and experience the interior of Alaska.

As wonderful as an Alaskan cruise is, the fact is that they only cover less than ten percent of Alaska. In order to see the rest, including the abundant wildlife, one really needs to get into the interior of the state. The best way to do this, especially for newcomers to Alaska, is a pre-packaged escorted land tour. There are a several companies that offer such tours, averaging ten to fourteen days in length; however, for my money, the one that offers the most unique experiences in Alaska is the “Glorious Alaskan Adventure”, a ten day tour (with an optional 7 day cruise extension) offered by Insight Vacations . The tour starts in Fairbanks and travels south towards Anchorage, with stops in Denali, Talkeetna, Girdwood, and Homer. In Denali, where the tundra wildlife tour is included, clients are fortunate enough to receive a two-night stay (as compared to a one night stay offered by most tour operators). Then guests board the Alaskan railroad and head south towards Talkeetna; for many, this will be the highlight of their trip, for some of Alaska’s best scenery is viewed and photographed from one of the appointed domed rail cars. The Alaska railroad has been in service since 1923 when President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike into the tracks and officially opened what is now known as one of the main tourist attractions in Alaska. Although most tour operators do similar stops, they usually do not offer a scenic glacier day-cruise of Prince William Sound, and this tour does while staying in Girdwood for two nights. Prior to offering this glacier day-cruise, if passengers wanted to see glaciers in Alaska, they were often forced into taking a seven-day cruise. Another great inclusion in Girdwood is a visit to the Happy Trails Kennel, where clients can cuddle an Alaskan puppy while learning about sled dogs from Iditarod Champion, Martin Buser. This is also one of the few tours that travels to, Homer, a sleepy little fishing village at the end of the Alaskan highway. There, guests can enjoy world-class halibut fishing or photograph some unique architecture at the Russian Orthodox Church. The tour ends on day ten in Anchorage; however, touring Alaska often does not. From here, some people continue onto seven day cruises; whereas, some of the more adventurous people often rent motor homes to tour the rest of Alaska.

For those that want to add a little more adventure to their vacation, a motor home is really the way to go. The best motor home rental for this type of adventure is with ABC motor homes. Unlike their competitors, ABC offers motor homes with generators, heaters, and fully equipped kitchens. That can be a big plus if someone wakes up in Denali to six inches of snow (like I did)) in early September! Campsites are available throughout Alaska interior, and there really is not a better way to get close up to wildlife than camping, especially in Denali National Park. There, one can rent a campsite deep inside the park and take hiking trips along one of many hiking trails. In case of a bear encounter, there are even ranger-led hikes for the person that wants to feel a little bit safer in such circumstances. Cars are not allowed inside Denali Parks, so the only way to get around is by using their shuttle buses; the exceptions to that rule are motor homes, for they are allowed a one-time round trip venture to their campsite and back. During their stay, campers utilize the shuttle system to go to and from their daily destinations, such as wonder lake or the ranger station at Eielson. Because there is less traffic in Denali than most other parks, the animals there make frequent appearances. And because there is an average of eighteen hours of daylight per-day, the animals usually do not disappoint photographers, amateur sand professionals alike.

As one can see, Alaska is a remarkable place, and has something to offer everyone. From the towering glaciers to the abundant wildlife, the land is truly amazing. Personally, I believe it is a destination that cannot be beat, and having been in the travel business for over twenty-five years, I can professionally attest to that theory. Too often, however, I encounter destination tourists that never really give Alaska a fair chance; instead, they become engulfed in the idea of a foreign vacation, including forty-seven countries in six days. Often these people return exhausted, and unfortunately, disappointed. For them and everyone else, including the young or young at heart, I have one message: Go north!

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