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Our Alaska Cruisetour

Anchorage to Fairbanks

I chose the Princess Cruise Line because it was the only cruise line to offer a land tour to Prudhoe Bay. Since this was the only cruise that we have taken, I cannot compare cruise lines, or the various tours available with them.

Our tour started with a flight from Vancouver to Seattle, and then to Anchorage on 20 August, where we spent the night in the Anchorage Hilton. US customs were cleared at the Vancouver airport, allowing us to check the baggage for both parts of the flight. As the plane arrived in the Anchorage area, Mt McKinley was clearly visible to the north. We had a good view from the left side of the plane, but we were not prepared to take pictures from the plane window. We later tried to get pictures from the hotel, but haze caused the mountain to be barely visible. Clouds and haze are apparently present most of the time.

All 25 people booked for the Prudhoe Bay tour were at the Hilton. Note that meals are not included as part of the tour, except for picnic lunches that were part of the Dalton Highway bus trip. The Hilton has restaurants, and several more are within easy walking distance of the Hilton, so obtaining supper and breakfast was not a problem. Be prepared for high prices, though. There are no simple fast-food places, such as McDonalds, within easy walking distance, but there were sidewalk venders of sausages and such. Our favorite restaurant was an deli across the street from the Anchorage Visitor Center, a little over a block from the Hilton. The food there was good, fast, and less expensive than most. However, we did not discover it until until we returned to Anchorage a week later.
Downtown Anchorage is full of beautiful flowers. Hanging baskets and flower beds are common. Some of the flowers are huge compared to those I commonly see. In late August, many flowers were past their prime, but many were still beautiful.

The Princess Line bus driver that transported us to the hotel from the airport told us about cabbages of over a hundred pounds. The summer days are long on sunshine, giving fast growth during their short growing season.

In the same area as the visitor center, there are many souvenir shops. We knew we would be back for another overnight stay after the tour and before the cruise, so we looked, but did not buy this first day in Anchorage. We planned our trip to fly first, and cruise last, so we would not have a problem with trying to fly with souvenirs purchased during the trip. We later learned that most souvenirs were cheaper in the cruise ship ports of call, with coupons given as part of the ship boarding package, giving additional savings.

After the night at the Hilton, and breakfast at the hotel, we boarded a bus for a ride to the train station, where we boarded the rear-most Princess train car. The top half of each car is the normal riding area, and the lower half is the dining, rest room, and gift shop area. The princess cars have windows that wrap over the top, giving a view of the sky, and also sufficient sun to have a hot-house environment. The windows are tinted, and cause reflections that make picture taking almost impossible. Pictures can be made from the smoking platform at the rear, lower half of the cars, but very little except the track behind the train can be seen from there. It is also very windy and was cold for our ride. However, there is really not much to see from the train. Mount McKinley was seen through a haze, and a moose was seen at a great distance. Trees along the track often prevent anything beyond a few feet from being seen. Holland America Cruise Line has their cars ahead of the Princess cars, and  the standard Alaskan Railroad passenger cars are just behind the engines. I have not been in either of these, but they do not have the windows curved overhead.

Seating in the top area is assigned, with four people to a table. Two face forward, and two face the rear. Bar service is available in the top area. Food in the dining car is very limited and expensive. A choice of about four meals was available, with a cost of $20 or more per person.

After a night in the Princess Denali Lodge, we were up early (6:30 AM) for the Denali National History Tour that is standard with most Alaska Princess tours. This tour is mostly a waste of time since it stops just as the opportunity to see bears and other park animals starts. All park tours are by bus with a National Park Service driver. Bus tours of various lengths are available from the park, but Princess has chosen to provide only the shortest tour, with much of the tour time wasted by a visit to a cabin where a park ranger tells some of the park history, and about how the park is at other times of the year. This talk would be much better if given indoors, with seats and slides for illustration rather than standing outdoors. At the end point of the tour, a native (Indian) gave another talk using a map of Alaska as an aid for his talk. Once again, this talk would be much better if given indoors with slides. Such talks are given daily by park rangers in a small cabin in the Princess Lodge compound. After the completion of the bus tour, we had a wait of about 5 hours before the train arrived to carry us to Fairbanks. This tour was the low point of the entire cruisetour. Holland America advertises that they have the longer Wilderness Tour that goes farther into the park, into the open areas where bears are common.

We did see one type of animal on our short bus tour. A small group of caribou were near the road, and the bus driver stopped so that everyone could get a good view and pictures. This picture was made using my 600 mm Sigma mirror lens. Because of the dense vegetation for most of the tour, animals must be very close to be seen. Our tour stopped just past the last of the dense vegetation. Another group of Caribou was visible at a great distance during the talk by the native. We saw many more animals when we visited Denali and took a Wilderness Tour in 1997.

Two nights were spent in the Fairbanks Princess River Lodge. Two standard tours are included that includes a ride on the Discovery River Boat, and a visit to the Eldorado Gold Mine.

The Discovery River Boat is a large, multi-deck boat that easily carries over 500 passengers, and the boat was probably 3/4 full for our trip. The boat trip is narrated, and includes two short shore presentations, and one shore stop.
One short stop was a riverside presentation by Susan Butcher, a four time winner of the Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome, about raising and training sled dogs. She still raises and trains sled dogs.

A second shore presentation was of a short take-off and landing of an airplane on a landing strip beside the river. The strip was less than 200 feet long.

The shore stop was at a native "village" where several different presentations were given. One was about animal pelts and how they were used. The long pelt on the left is from a gray wolf. This beautiful, and very warm coat was made by one of the women giving one of the presentations.

Other presentations were about sled dogs and their training, given by an assistant to Susan Butcher, and another about the native buildings, including a smokehouse used to dry salmon. Visible in the river was one of the traps used by the natives to catch salmon. The building above, on stilts, is a bear resistant store house for salmon and other meats.

The Eldorado Gold Mine is a place just for tourists, but it is educational and was fun. It starts with a short train through a simulated mine where the processes of mining the ore are explained. The train then continues to a large sluice where ore is washed over a series of carpet segments to trap any gold that might be present. The ore is loaded from a large pile into a hopper where screens separate the large rocks from the small stuff. The ore was described as being from an actual mine in the area, but I did not record the name.

Water from a tank on a hill above the sluice is released to wash the ore along the sluice where several small dams trap heavier particles, and lighter rocks and sand are washed along and out the far end. Gold flakes are trapped in the fibers of outdoor carpet. One section of the carpet was removed and washed into a bucket, and then into a gold pan. Panning was then demonstrated.
In the demo, a couple of small nuggets were recovered, along with several gold flakes. Everyone was then supplied with their own pouch of ore, and led to benches with gold pans and a water trough. All pouches are guaranteed to contain gold. My wife and I managed to find enough flakes in our two pouches to total about $16. This was turned into a  charm for a granddaughter.

Gold panning turned out to be more difficult than I thought. I am certain that the trough contains more gold than we recovered.

After the Eldorado, we were on our own for the rest of the day. No meals are included in the land tour part of the cruisetour. There is a restaurant in the Princess Lodge that serves three meals a day, and there was a salmon bake tour available for the evening meal. The salmon bake could also include a play afterward. We decided to have the salmon bake without the play, at a cost of  $22 each, about the same as an evening meal in the Princess Lodge. A bus took us to the bake site. After exchanging our tickets for plates, we had all we could eat of salmon, halibut, and ribs. There was also a salad bar, a desert bar, and ice tea to drink.

The next morning, 24 August, we boarded the bus to Prudhoe Bay.

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