Star Princess Denali Explorer, Day 1-2: Anchorage & Mt. McKinley

Exploring the Majesty of Alaska with Princess Cruises

On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
On our way to adventure in Alaska with Princess Cruises! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Yesterday, my Air Canada Rouge flight from Vancouver touched down at Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport, the largest airport in Alaska’s largest city. It’s the starting point for my ninth journey to Alaska, and second outing with Princess.

The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The interior of the Hotel Captain Cook Anchorage is classy and tastefully decorated. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Over the next 12 days, we’ll have the chance to showcase Princess Cruises’ 11-night Denali Explorer Tour. The line actually offers 18 different land tour options in Alaska, with another multitude of possible combinations, including having the land-tour portion happen before or after your cruise. You can also choose your level of guiding, from fully-escorted “Connoisseur” cruisetours to more self-guided options that merely include transportation and accommodations, but leave it up to guests as to what – and how much – they’d like to do.

Our itinerary will take us from Anchorage to Mt. McKinley and then on to Denali National Park for a two-night stay. Following that, we’ll travel by Princess Cruises’ exclusive domed rail cars south to Whittier, where the 2002-built, 2600-guest Star Princess will be waiting for us.

The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska...sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The sun sets over Anchorage, Alaska…sort of. Even at 11:30p.m, daylight bleeds through the atmosphere. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Once onboard Star Princess, we’ll chart a course for College Fjord, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, and the Inside Passage before our final arrival in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s a comprehensive voyage that showcases plenty of Alaska’s natural beauty without burning through all your vacation time – or your money.

Once my baggage had lethargically spun its way to the finish line on the luggage carousel, I made my way to the waiting coach, and was ushered to the Hotel Captain Cook for my overnight stay. Getting in late, I didn’t do much other than enjoy a fantastic dinner at the South Side Bistro. Princess has partnered with this fabulous local establishment run by Chef de Cusine Travis Haugen to provide some of their culinary excellence onboard the Princess fleet in Alaska, and I look forward to seeing how that translates onboard.

Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage's Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Captain Cook himself, in statue form, in Anchorage’s Resolution Park. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, there was also time to sample some local beers (an absolute-must in Alaska) and go for a nice post-dinner stroll along the Anchorage waterfront.

Despite having been this far north in Alaska before, I’m still shocked by the famous Midnight Sun. During the walk, I was shocked – shocked!- to learn that it was quarter past eleven…at night. The sun was, to me, barely in the position you might expect of seven or seven-thirty in the evening.

That sunlight persisted right through the night. The sun itself disappeared behind the silhouette of Mt. Torbert, but the light it emitted never fully went away.

A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, at midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A deserted Anchorage, not far from the Hotel Captain Cook, near midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Anchorage, Alaska...at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Anchorage, Alaska…at 1:30 a.m.! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

On these CruiseTours, Princess helpfully allows you to send any unwanted luggage intended for the voyage straight to the ship – thereby eliminating the need for you to schlep it around yourself. After a good suggestion, I ended up cramming my backpack with enough clothes and toiletries for the next three days and ditching my (heavy) Heys spinner altogether. It took a while to repack, though – particularly when you can’t stop staring at the incessant-yet-beautiful hybrid sunset/sunrise that exists just out the windows.

Princess uses the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, and it’s far better than your average Alaskan hotel. The beds there are, up until this point, the best I’ve slept on in this state: soft and yielding. Rooms have built-in climate control. Amenities are new and well-thought out.

Meals can be enjoyed at the on-site restaurant, which is sadly too small to accommodate all guests. Give yourself lots of time at breakfast! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Meals can be enjoyed at the on-site restaurant, which is sadly too small to accommodate all guests. Give yourself lots of time at breakfast! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

One thing that proved to be problematic, however, was breakfast. After getting up early, showering and placing luggage out by 7:00 a.m., it seems that everyone else had the same idea: the lobby restaurant serving breakfast was mobbed. Food, we were told, would take at least 25 minutes – and just getting to the podium to learn this took us 15 minutes.

A few of us ended up running across the street to a small bistro that serves breakfast, receiving it 15 minutes before the appointed time to be on the coach, and woofing it down and making it to the bus with five minutes to spare. How do you eat pancakes and hashbrowns really fast? Wash them down with liberal amounts of coffee and hope for the best!

En-route to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the first full day of our Denali Explorer cruisetour with Princess Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
En-route to the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge on the first full day of our Denali Explorer cruisetour with Princess Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In the future, I’ll plan to be down having breakfast two hours before the coach transfer. Getting breakfast with so many people all wanting it at the same time just doesn’t work in these big hotels with unfortunately-small, fixed-menu dining venues that just can’t accommodate the guest load they see in a week.

With breakfast a narrow-but-total success, we set out for our next destination: the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge located in Denali State Park, just north of Talkeetna.

Recent forest fire activity near the town of Willow, Alaska, has left trees blackened on both sides of the highway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Recent forest fire activity near the town of Willow, Alaska, has left trees blackened on both sides of the highway. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Of course, you may have heard about the massive forest fire that is burning out of control near Willow, Alaska. It started as a small brushfire on Sunday afternoon. By dinner, it was officially out of control and had already managed to jump the highway. The highway that is, of course, the only direct connection with Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks further to the north.

The fire is still making the local news...though the headline strikes me as more interesting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The fire is still making the local news…though the headline strikes me as more interesting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

But, our local guide assured us that motorcoach traffic was getting through. Delayed, yes, but getting through. And just after we’d driven through Wasilla – home of Sarah “I-can-see-Russia-from-my-backyard” Palin – we ran into the thick of it.

Stopping to admire the view...and the people training with cross-country skis on wheels! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Stopping to admire the view…and the people training with cross-country skis on wheels! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The fire had scorched trees and earth on both sides of the George Parks Highway. You could see where it had jumped the highway, scorching everything from trees to power poles and leaving nothing more than scorched earth in its path.

At one point, we drove past a curious sight: a collection of a dozen or so bright-green metal triangles lying on the ground, just beyond some trees that were still standing. It’s only after a moment’s comprehension that you realize those are the roofs of houses or buildings that fell to the earth as their wooden walls burned around them.

Fair warning, or tongue-in-cheek geography lesson? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Fair warning, or tongue-in-cheek geography lesson? Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

As we waited for another traffic jam, Alaska’s penchant for the unique and quirky revealed itself. A woman – clad in runners, pink-and-black pyjama bottoms and a black hoodie covered in earth – emerged from seemingly out of nowhere on the other side of the embankment. She looked a bit like the Alaskan version of Lisbeth Salander – if the famous Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had been armed with a rock in her right hand and an iPhone in her left.

She teetered uneasily on her feet, unsure of where to go. Those of us on the coach watched the rock in her hand: was she going to throw it at the coach? Would she fling it at a car? No one really seemed sure.

After a few more moments of indecision, The Girl With The Rock and the Phone darted out in front of our coach and disappeared from view. Like any good urban legend, some say she vanished into the woods. Others swear she was headed for the back of the bus. Personally, I kind of hoped she’d take a page from the Cape Fear playbook and cling to the undercarriage of the coach for the next two hours, but no such luck.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you're in Talkeetna, walk to the end of the street to admire the banks of the Sustina River. Talkeetna is actually located at the confluence of three rivers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you’re in Talkeetna, walk to the end of the street to admire the banks of the Sustina River. Talkeetna is actually located at the confluence of three rivers. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Freed of traffic and our rock-armed friend, we arrived for lunch in the small town of Talkeetna. How small is Talkeetna, you ask? Here’s a clue: the town council elected a cat named Stubbs as the honourary Mayor of Talkeetna. Yep, the local feline resident of the Nagley’s General Store (Since 1921) has proudly served since 1997.

It’s all done in good fun. The people who call this small hamlet home on a year-round basis are a hearty, friendly bunch. As they should be: they can lay claim to having the second-largest brewing company in Alaska after the Alaska Brewing Co.

The small, picturesque town of Talkeetna offers plenty of quaint charms...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The small town of Talkeetna offers plenty of quaint charms…Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Including the honorary Mayor Stubbs - who is, as you might have guessed, feline. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Including the honorary Mayor Stubbs – who is, as you might have guessed, feline. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you're in Denali, you've got to stop in at the Denali Brew Pub. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you’re in Talkeetna, you’ve got to stop in at the Denali Brew Pub. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Denali Brewing has been around now for just a few years, but in that time they’ve managed to carve out a name for themselves as a purveyor of fine craft beers. We were invited to dine at the restaurant for lunch and sample their full lineup of beers. Naturally, I had the “I Can See Russia” burger and paired it with a variety of beer samples, from their two surprisingly bold and sharp stouts to their delicious ambers and fascinating Belgian-style beer infused with local Alaskan blackberries.

Sampling the tasty beers of the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna! My favorite: the Hibernale. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Sampling the tasty beers of the Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna! My favorite: the Hibernale. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Of course, no beer is complete without good food. Here, we have the "I Can See Russia" burger, a nod to Sarah Palin's famous gaffe about being able to view Russia from her home in Wasilla. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Of course, no beer is complete without good food. Here, we have the “I Can See Russia” burger, a nod to Sarah Palin’s famous gaffe about being able to view Russia from her home in Wasilla. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

After a delicious lunch and plenty of malty libations, it was time to head off to our overnight digs: the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge, which is nestled just inside the boundaries of Denali State Park fifty minutes north of Talkeetna.

Not to be confused with Denali National Park, Denali State Park is its own separate – but connected – entity. The two literally border each other, but Denali National Park – the more famous Denali – is further north.

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The reason Princess built a lodge here back in 1995? The views, of course! And on a day like today, Mt. McKinley is in all its glory. Frequently obscured by cloud cover, the fact that we got to see the peak of McKinley for the entire day is something of a beautiful accident. It’s estimated that 30 percent of the visitors that come here will never actually see the mountain. Indeed, on my last trip here, I was one of those: Mt. McKinley hid in a veil of fog and rain the entire time.

The Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge is bigger than you might expect: there are over 400 rooms on-site, intimately grouped in just over twenty small outbuildings that are anchored by the main Lodge.

The lobby of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Accommodations are actually housed in several outbuildings. You'd never know the property has 460 rooms at first glance! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The lobby of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Accommodations are actually housed in several outbuildings. You’d never know the property has 460 rooms at first glance! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My accommodations were in the first building directly opposite the lodge. Convenient! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My accommodations were in the first building directly opposite the lodge. Convenient! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

The Lodge itself features a restaurant, a cozy Lounge with a fireplace, both wi-fi internet access and sit-down computer terminals, a magnificent outdoor terrace, and a surprisingly well-stocked gift shop. Hot tubs are featured on the property, as are numerous walking trails designed for those who want to take all that Mother Nature has to offer here.

You can also partake in some spectacular extra-cost tours here, though I opted to take it easy this afternoon – and I’m glad I did. Simply exploring the property and relaxing in the room sounded like a wonderful plan to me! Tomorrow, of course, may hold other adventures.

The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge may be in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn't mean you have to be, too. The lodge is equipped with Wi-Fi and internet work stations. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge may be in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to be, too. The lodge is equipped with Wi-Fi and internet work stations. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Tonight, our little group had drinks around the fire pits before retreating to the Lodge for a sumptuous dinner. The fire pits weren’t really needed today: with daylight running well past midnight and temperatures in the high-80’s (high 20’s Celsius), the Princess Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge feels more like Honolulu today.

There are clever details, like these faux-antler door handles, scattered throughout the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
There are clever details, like these faux-antler door handles, scattered throughout the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The interior of the lodge: cozy in all weather conditions. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The interior of the lodge: cozy in all weather conditions. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Inside, interior spaces are warm and inviting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Inside, interior spaces are warm and inviting. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Plenty of nooks and crannies are available, and the lodge never once felt crowded during my stay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Plenty of nooks and crannies are available, and the lodge never once felt crowded during my stay. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge: far better than I had expected, with comfortable beds and nice amenities. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge: far better than I had expected, with comfortable beds and nice amenities. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Princess has been sailing to Alaska since 1969. They know a thing or two about the region. But what surprised me is how mature and polished their land product is. This is a product that luxury lines could offer to their guests and they’d be quite pleased. That a big-ship mainstream cruise line can deliver this kind of consistent experience on-land is really quite an achievement.

Is doing a land-and-cruise tour worth the extra money? I’ll let you be the judge. As much as I love the ocean, you just don’t get vistas like this at sea.

Of course, the real reason you come here is for the spectacular views..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Of course, the real reason you come here is for the spectacular views..Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...of Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
…of Mt. McKinley! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Star Princess, Denali Explorer

Day 1 & 2Anchorage & Mt. McKinley
Day 3Denali National Park
Day 4Double Denali
Day 5Boarding the Star Princess
Day 6Hubbard Glacier
Day 7Glacier Bay
Day 8Skagway
Day 9Juneau
Day 10Ketchikan
Postcards from Star Princess

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