Alaska – Every sight is a picture frame

Alaska was on my must see list for a long time and I started researching mid April. TripAdvisor was my go to place. People on the forums are so patient on repeating answers and so prompt on itinerary questions that I became a regular visitor. I picked the best season and dates rather than first deciding when we could get off from work. My original plan was to give it 7 days but after days and days of research I stretched it to 11 – July 1st to 11th. Best decision ever! We were 2 couples on the trip – mid 30s and mid 60s.

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To cruise or not to cruise?

I am not a very happy boat person. I suffered from mild sea sickness in the past on a ship so I was dreading having to fall back on the gigantic cruise liners for a cookie cutter Alaska getaway. I wanted to plan the whole deal on my own. In hindsight, with parents or less than average fit people, cruise is an excellent opportunity to relax and mix in adventure in equal doses. Will recommend that for people traveling with kids too.

Curtailing Expenses

Cruises offer a budget friendly trip to Alaska which can otherwise snowball into a massive vacation spend! To curtail the spiraling costs, I bought the Northern Lights Coupon book after recommendations from tripadvisor gurus. It costs 25$ and I used a couple of accommodation coupons, 2 rail trip coupons, 2 museum and tram coupons which more than made up for the cost of the book. I ordered one more right before our trip. Note, some bookings require you to mail the coupons or inform them beforehand you are carrying one. Highly recommend the coupon book. There is another one which I will add back later that I didnt research so make sure you pick the one that is useful to your kind of itinerary.

Dressing for Alaska in summer

It completely depends on your itinerary. If you have Anchorage, Juneau, Denali or Seward in your trip or you are going to be on a day trip tour boat, rain jackets are recommended. We carried beanies, gloves too and must say we needed them on the Glacier bay cruise since it was chilly, rainy windy all at the same time. Rest of the time it was around 60-70 degrees and we needed just a light down jacket. Carry ponchos if rain jackets are going to be a burden. Umbrellas are not so good because of the wind factor. Couple of times I could have used my sun glasses but never the sun hat. The sun was barely out the whole trip. It was foggy on most days. This is what the forums didnt prepare me for. All the while I expected bright sunny clear days and the rains met us in Denali just on our second day. They were with us till the end 😦 but as they say Alaska rains 300 times in the year. So if you have clear day you are very very lucky. Be prepared to keep your spirits up since even in bad weather the ocean wildlife doesnt care and routinely delights you! Waterproof hiking boots are recommended. If you dont have them, wear sneakers that dry off quickly. If you have the luxury of carrying big checkin luggage, carry rain boots. It gets slushy, muddy on most hikes.

Trip Report

  • Day 1: Anchorage – Flew in late afternoon from San Francisco on a one stop flight. Checked in into Puffin Inn. This was my 20% discount coupon booking. I regretted it. The room was right beside the road, very noisy and with all the extra daylight, our first night was quite miserable. If you go here, request rooms in their newer sections. Dinner was in Captain Cook. What a gorgeous scenery!   Food was ok but who cared, the views, the views is why you must eat here. Booked a car rental with a 2nd day off discount coupon. The daylight at 11p.m was amusing 🙂 even though I knew and had read about it, it was insane to have all this extra light. We walked in Elderberry park till late night.

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  • Day 2: Denali – It started to mildly drizzle. My spirits dropped but lifted as soon as we stopped by Granny B’s for breakfast. What a cute little place with all the memorabilia! The service was quick and food was delicious. Skipped lunch and drove straight to Denali! The road work slowed us down by maybe an hour so account for that. The scenery was gorgeous on the drive. It started to get foggier as we neared Denali. Checked into Mckinley Chalet which is close to the park entrance. Suggest you stay as close as you can to the park. The resort is beautiful with gorgeous views of the mountains but the rooms are average. We drove till the 7 mile stop inside the park and hiked around for the rest of the evening. Returned for dinner at the resort, expensive and average fare, and bought lots of snacks for the long day 3 ahead. There are no food shops inside the park and there are no meals served on the shuttles. Some private tour buses do the whole package and they are expensive. They also have those video camera live feed on a monitor in the bus and they zoom in on the wildlife. I dont know.. I wont pay much for watching wildlife like that but better check for reviews of tour operators before you book them. Also all the way into the Wonder Lake wasnt all it was cracked up to be.. so Kantishna might be better. Who knows I didnt see it all the way there so please read up.

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  • Day 3: Denali – Booked the 6:15am shuttle till Wonder Lake. That would be 14 hours on the bus! That sounded crazy initially but we spent nearly 17 hrs inside the park and they made several stops for restroom breaks and photo spots. This was a gorgeous clear day. Oh what amazing views of Mt Mckinley! We were the lucky ones! Didnt spot much wildlife close up on the way into the park but boy oh boy what a treat on the return. 2 Grizzlies! Many upclose encounters with Caribous. We hiked the Alpine Trail which is very very scenic and took about 2 hrs. It was strenuous with a elevation of 2000 ft so be prepared with water on the way up. Exhausted after the long day our parents skipped dinner but we dined in the the in-resort Denali Trade Post restaurant. Food was excellent!

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  • Day 4: Talkeetna, Anchorage – We drove back to Anchorage leisurely with a hearty in-resort restaurant breakfast. Stopped over at Talkeetna. Decided to skip the visit to Matanuska Glacier and went on a easy long hike with parents to the X&Y Lake trail. This was a tiring hike for the parents, ~6 mile but enjoyable. Spotted some bear scat and some birds but largely bear and caribou free. Luckily we didnt have to go to Puffin Inn on this night in Anchorage. LakeFront was a beautiful location with a view of float planes landing from their restaurant. I loved this hotel and the food in their restaurant was delicious.

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  • Day 5: Seward. Early morning Alaska Rail road coastal classic adventure class train booking to Seward! Yay! I was recommended this by a Tripadvisor guru and I have to thank him because this was something special. The ride is a treat! Even the Adventure class(which is kind of like Economy) was leisurely with big window panes and a shared upper seat 360deg view dome. If the train is not full you can stay up here as long as you want. The views are spectacular. Large falls, sweeping valley views and chance of spotting some wildlife. We spotted some eagles and a moose. Highly recommend the train ride. The meals are served on the train and the menu is average but not bad at all. If you want to save up some money, carry your own brunch. The ride lasts for abt 4 hrs. We kept our luggage on hold at Hotel Seward. Beautiful hotel with taxidermy on display and some old memorabilia. I used my discount coupons here for a 20% off. The only hotel in the coupon book that was bear-able 🙂 pun not intended! Ate at Seward Brewing Company. Interesting local tap beer. I decided on my drink for the trip as Alaskan white and my hubby picked one of the pale ales. Took the free shuttle to Exit Glacier. I liked the small town. The downtown has some nice woolen shops and you can walk everywhere. The shuttle service has a booking for guided tours which we missed but doing it on your own is not so bad. A lot of people plan on the Harding Icefield hike which is strenuous and 8 hrs long. So be prepared with time, food and water if you do this one. We would have loved to but didnt plan nor prepare for it. Dined at Hotel Sewards in-hotel restaurant. The food was terrific. I feasted on the local halibut and salmon most of my trip.

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  • Day 6: Seward. Kenai Fjords National park boat tour. I was looking forward to this one and it lived up to my expecations. Whales breaching and the aialik glacier was the highlight on this boat tour. The icy blue of the glacier and the giant icebergs floating around it make for a striking out of this planet view. What is that exactly.. I cant compare that image to anything I have seen before. The weather cleared about half way into the trip and it was ahmazing. The otters and seals were abundant! Otter became my animal of the week. Their cute upside down glance sideways bit was routine and I never tired of it. I highly recommend the 9 hr tour instead of the shorter 6 hr one. We took the Alaska rail back to Anchorage the same day. If I were to do this differently, I would take a train ride to Denali too and skip the Anchorage leg on Day 4. Spend 2 nights in Seward and do the 9 hr longer Kenai tour. The train ride back had zero wildlife sightings and we were relegated to cabin C. This was a older unit than the cabin D which was allotted to us in the onward journey. Ask to be seated elsewhere at the ticket counter as the seats as well as the window panes are not as comfortable for viewing. Since the train was full we couldnt get it exchanged but spent all of our time on the dome car as everybody else was too tired to walk up to the dome. Ate dinner on the train. It was a average meal.

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  • Day 7: Anchorage. Westmark hotel was our overnight stay choice, partly because we could walk upto the hotel and save taxi or car rental. I had a discount coupon for Anchorage Lofts but didnt use it as my coupon hotel bookings were turning into bad room choices. Hotel Seward was similar but I paid up to move to a quieter section. Luckily the front desk still applied the discount. My experience with hotel bookings using the coupons was mixed. Read up about the hotel before hand and request quieter rooms if you do end up using all of them. We did some walking around in Anchorage downtown. Its so clean and decorated with the floral baskets everywhere. It was a treat! Went down to the Alaska Native heritage center using the free shuttle from the visitor center. I used my discount coupons here which were 1 for 1. Nice! The village sites will be more enjoyable with the tour guide or audio tour otherwise you go in blind. I loved the dance show here. Ate at the heritage centers cafe. Food was expensive and average. In the evening, we took a cab ride to Potter Marsh bird sanctuary. Saw some gulls, cormorants but no moose or bear sightings. Plus it started to rain and there were no seats under a shade so parents were very inconvenienced. The cab drivers were prompt and there is a flat taxi rate in Anchorage so its quite easy to move around. We dropped the parents at the hotel and spent the evening biking the Tony Knowles trail. Beautiful! This was the highlight of the trip for me. Grabbed a quick takeaway from Ginger after downing two delicious cocktails the bartender whipped for us.

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  • Day 8: Juneau. Early morning flight to Juneau. Hint for moving to and from airports, check if the hotel has a free shuttle. Most do. You end up saving lots of monies on cab rides. Also prebook your spot at the front desk so you wont have to wait for the next shuttle slot. Juneau was my favorite city on the trip. I am a city gal and I like a nice downtown with restaurants and shopping. Lots of window shopping and little souvenir purchasing. Juneau was fun! After a heavy delicious brunch at Sandpiper Cafe, we booked a rental car and drove to Mendenhall Glacier. The weather was foggy intially and I didnt enjoy this day as much. The hike to Nugget falls was better. The weather clears away after a few hours and the rain is never a downpour just a light drizzle. We stayed at Westmark Baranof. Nothing to write home about the hotel. It was basic. And oh the shower was not even luke warm it was close to cold. The walls were so thin. Get ear plugs and eye masks for the trips as some hotels might skip on spending for thick curtains and all the extra daylight will confuse your brain. Dinner was at the Indian restaurant Saffron. The food was good. Highly recommend the papad and the chutneys.

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  • Day 9: Juneau. Lazy morning. Took the tram ride up to Mount Roberts. The View was fogged up on the ride up but cleared and got magnificent in under an hour. Heard the Alaskan string band at the auditorium, waiting for the rain to stop. Very cute performance. Watched a documentary on the Tlingit tribe. They were my favorite village site in Anchorage native center so I was thrilled to watch some more info on them. Loved their totem poles and dressing. Rains stopped and gave us a peek at the gorgeous Mount Roberts and the ferry and cruise harbor below. Rode down the tram and had a big lunch at Tracys Crab shack. Yummy! Booked a helicopter landing tour on the Era Adventure group. This is pricey but once in a lifetime experience. We landed on the Taku Glacier and flew past hole in the wall glacier. Stunning views and quirky glacier land. It was not soft or mushy but rugged and not very cold. It was odd and not very pretty but striking and mysterious. My photos from there all look weird and kind of like abstract art 🙂 The ride was 2 hr long and they dropped us back at Mount Roberts Tramway. Time to hike up to Mount Roberts! The parents took off for an encore at the Indian restaurant Saffron (delicious prawn curry) and we two rode the tram up and hiked the GoldRidge trail which was 5 miles in all. It beat my previous favorite hike up until then Mount Whitney by a whisker. The amount of wildflowers up near the meadows was so beautiful.  We stopped a lot on the way and took tons of photographs. Panic set in as the daylight is lesser in Southeast Alaska and the last tram was 9:30p.m. It was clear we wont make it even if we ran down. The trail was very rocky and I chickened out from the dash downwards. If you miss the tram, you have to walk down 2.5 miles in dark without torches. So plan the hike well. Lesson learnt. Luckily the tram stayed up till 9:45 as we ran the last 10 mins shouting “hold up”. It was funny, as we reached I think the guides knew all along that 2 stupid people were stranded. So they stayed on for us and werent very talkative on the tram ride down. Oh did I tell you we spotted many Dall sheep on the hike up. It was so so beautiful. I hope the pictures do justice. This was my most favorite part of the trip.

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  • Day 9: Gustavus. Had a late afternoon flight to Gustavus. So spent the morning in Juneau driving up to Glacier Gardens. The upside down gardens were interesting at first but this was pricey with no coupon deal. Blah really. The view was fogged up and “the legend of Steve” was getting corny after a while. Dont bother to stop here unless the weather is excellent. Our flight was with Sea Port Airlines which are those small single engine planes and the flight to Gustavus is just 25 mins but the views! The views are stunning from the small planes! Wow!! Just Wow!! Stayed overnight at Glacier Bay Lodge. Its right in the national park and the lodge cabins are quite close to the bay! Best choice to stay here! I wish I had planned a day more here. People that kayaked here were raving about the whale breaches all through the dinner. Opportunity missed. Sigh, for next time. Late evening, the two of us hiked near the lodge on a river trail. Narrowly missed a moose running at us. Wow.. close encounter. Lots of bear scat and eagle spotting on the trail. The hike in the rain forest was beautiful. The diffused light gave the green foliage a florescent color. Stunning! Tired parents skipped the dinner. The early morning flights and boat tours were taking a toll on their sleep schedules. We two dined at the in lodge restaurant. They stop admitting seating after 9:30p.m I think and theres a lot of wait time. Gustavus is a really small town and near the lodge there is barely any other restaurant to eat.

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  • Day 10: Gustavus, Juneau. Early morning Glacier Bay boat tour. OMG! This is a paradise for wildlife. Countless otters, seals, puffins and sea birds on the tour. It was a really bad weather day but like I said the wildlife doesnt care. We saw 2 whales breaching. Countless  sea otters went past the boat. I gave up trying to photograph since it was raining and the camera was no good with all the water it had accumulated in the lens. Honestly, you have to give up trying to photograph the whale breach unless you are armed with a tripod. You miss the action trying to get the picture. I spent all of the 9 hrs on the boat deck it was so action packed. Never a dull moment. Then the awesome boat crew spotted a wolf gnawing at a moose carcass. We stayed up watching him have his lunch for a full 10 mins. In a surprising turn of events, the crew announced they will ride up close the Johns Hopkins glacier. The only advancing glacier in the park! The weather cleared up by then and what a treat! Visual drama. The ship crew spend a lot of time there to allow you to photograph the glacier and wait for some calving. These boat crews are awesome and they give a lot of freebies on the ride. Unlimited coffee and drink refills, food was ok but lots of snacky treats. Reluctantly we reached the harbor and deboarded but not before a humpback gave us a little treat in splashing around and breaching 🙂 By then I didnt want to ever leave Gustavus. What a happening place. Wildlife runs amok here. You must, absolutely must be here for atleast 2 nights if not more. We reached Sea port airlines terminal, more like a small coffee shop 🙂 quite early but then our pilot was super late. We were going to miss our connection in Juneau to get to Anchorage. We hurriedly contacted Alaska Air to move us to next day morning flight to Anchorage and cancelled our Anchorage hotel reservations. Expedia customer care rocks! They made sure my flight tickets were moved with a small fare difference and got me a full refund on my Anchorage hotel reservation. Also I quickly booked a Juneau airport hotel with a free shuttle pickup and drop. Luckily there was data signal at Gustavus near the terminal. After reaching Juneau’s GoldBelt hotel, we treated our exhausted parents to another indian food dinner 🙂 at Saffron. I slept a little late that night, promising I need to come back to Gustavus to do it right the next time 🙂 Strange how one rarely does a vacation repeat.

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  • Day 11: Anchorage. Early morning flight from Juneau to Anchorage. We werent sleepy or tired so we grabbed a quick takeaway at Snow City Cafe after reaching Anchorage. Lines were huge. Missed an opportunity to try out some good breakfast. I grabbed the berry smoothie. Yum! We walked over to the Visitor Center hoping to catch the hour long city tour to the Ulu factory. The very nice guides there told us about the city market fair. I hadnt gotten any souvenirs at Juneau since we did so much in the 3 days we were there, I just didnt find the time. Luckliy everybody in the group was on the same page. The market fair was a huge success for us. We stayed away from buying any fur or ivory or bone jewelry. I got some cute trinkets, lots of berry jellies for friends and family, birch syrup caramel (that is so good.. you cant put them down) and almond brittle. Everything was reasonably priced but Juneau was cheaper. I did find some unique stone jewelry if you are into that kind of thing. Not sure if this fair opens every sunday but if you are in Anchorage over the weekend, wouldnt hurt to stop by for an hour or so. Grabbed lunch at Ginger! Highly recommend the quinoa salad here. Everything was delicious. Strangely by now I got tired of the salmon and halibut. I was craving vegetables 😀 what a turnaround! 😀 Our flight back home got delayed at the stop over in Seattle and it wasnt until the next day early morning that we reached home. Slept through most of the flight but was making mental notes to send across tips for my fellow Tripadvisor forum members. So here they are:
  1. If you know nothing about Alaska and what to plan or how long to plan for, hit Tripadvisor forums. You can be dumb there. Guaranteed patient and prompt responses. I wouldnt recommend what you should be doing or doing it exactly like we did. Everybody wants different things from a vacation.
  2. What to pack? If you are going in summer, downjackets with beanies will do. If you are going to be outdoors, rain jackets or ponchos are a must. Waterproof shoes or boots please. Gloves and sunglasses if you are going to be out on a boat deck. Binoculars are provided in the boat cruises sometimes for 10$ rent. So carry your own if you have a really good one. You will need it!
  3. Will I tire of the Glaciers? No. Absolutely not! All 5 glaciers we went to by boat, by helicopter or on foot were a experience in itself. On boat cruises, if you are a wildlife enthusiast, there is so much to enjoy other than just the sight of the glacier.
  4. Should I do Prince William Sound or Kenai or Tracy Arm or Glacier bay? If you have the time, do all. We did only 2 😦 and I was dying to do one more. Some days the weather wont be the best and you would be glad you have another opportunity. On a bad weather day, cruises get cancelled. If you do or plan only one, you will be majorly disappointed. You can also move or cancel your day tour on a bad day – just a small tip if you are 2 days or more in a particular location.
  5. Plan your hikes in advance. Lots of great hikes and biking opportunities in every city. With all the extra daylight, you can be out until late, so you do get chances to plan one impromptu but we missed longer hikes due to poor planning.
  6. Budget. Coupon books are nice but be wary of the hotel or the rooms they offer for the discount. Check for free airport shuttles from hotels and free city shuttles to tour attractions.
  7. Dont expect balmy weather, clear skies. It clears in sometime but it stays foggy most days so you cant remain disappointed the whole trip.

In conclusion, borrowing from a wise anecdote, you cant make a bad choice in Alaska. Good luck and leave comments if you have questions on what we did. I am not an expert on Alaska yet but maybe I will be next time I head out to see the Aurora Borealis 😀

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