Hi Gypsie Mom,
I haven't been to Alaska YET but my husband and I recently booked on NCL Jewel for it's Aug 31,2020 sailing out of Vancouver to Seward and will finish up an additional week in Alaska staying at AirBnbs and doing a self-guided driving tour that will allow us to explore the Seward Highway, Anchorage area, Chugach State Park, the Mat-Su Valley, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks areas.
Being an inveterate researcher, ever since my husband announced "an Alaska Cruise" as my combined Christmas/Birthday present, I've been trolling the internet looking for how we can make the most of our upcoming vacation! Like you, we're a retired couple, in good health, and with an interest in scenery, wildlife, etc. While we can manage a cruise every 2 to 3 years IF we economize as much as possible, we don't have an unlimited budget. Thus I'm always looking to get maximum enjoyment out of our vacation dollars. Plus, doing the research is a big part of the fun!
To the extent it might be helpful, I'm happy to share what we've planned thus far and why.
We chose NCL in large part because of its Freestyle dining. We have cruised on a couple of other lines over the years but keep coming back to NCL... specifically because of Freestyle Dining. We enjoy meeting new people and Freestyle lets us do that quite easily by simply telling the maitre 'd when we go to dinner that we would prefer to join a "shared table" rather than dining alone. Typically we get seated more quickly than those waiting for private tables AND over the years we've met some wonderful folks, some of whom we've kept in touch with on a long term basis. On the other hand, on those rare occasions that we wind up dining with a "bore" - well, it's just for one meal! On other ships, one can get stuck with a table-mate that sets one's teeth on edge for the entire cruise. And when that happens, you're pretty much forced to spend extra money for specialty dining just to avoid the bore! Been there, done that.
Secondly, we're not big on dressing up. And, given that we'll need to pack clothing for outdoor activities in highly variable Alaska weather, I really really really don't want to have to lug around (nor pay extra baggage fees) for an extra suitcase with evening clothes, dress shoes, make-up, etc. just so we can dress up while on board. NCL, which has no required dress up evenings suits us perfectly! I figure a black wool turtleneck, some black jeans and maybe a colorful scarf will do just fine for dressing-up enough for photos. And the clothes will do double duty for layering warmth the rest of our vacation!
I do enjoy a good meal but we never bother anymore with specialty dining on cruises. For us, traveling is all about seeing new places and having adventures that we cannot have at home. I don't care how "great" a cruise ship's specialty dining restaurant is, I I can get just as fine a meal - or a better one - at one of the many great restaurants in my hometown. And those won't cost nearly as much.
We chose to go in early September even tho it IS the rainiest time of year in Alaska, because September is also the "shoulder season," so prices for the cruise, post-cruise accommodations, and airfares to/from Alaska were significantly less that during high summer. The other option for lower prices would have been early spring (late May), but we have a family wedding at that time plus we were worried about there still being lots of snow on the ground making driving more hazardous. So September it was. We were able to find enough "deals" on flights, accommodations, and our cruise and to stretch our travel budget to cover the extra week of land-touring! Earlier in the season, we couldn't afford the additional week!
Silver (Coho) Salmon are still running in September and berries are ripening. Bears and other wildlife will be "feeding up" in preparation for the winter ahead. And fall is mating season for moose, musk oxen, and caribou who often do so in open areas. Birds are beginning their migration south, etc. So I figure our chances of seeing wildlife should be pretty good. And we're hoping for some Autumn coloring .
Also, in early September (our cruise week) the days are still quite long but rapidly getting shorter. By mid-September (when we plan to be in Denali and then in Fairbanks), it should be getting dark early enough that we can have at least some hope of catching a view of the Northern Lights!
I'm in the process of scheduling our "excursions" for our cruise stops but, since we don't enjoy being herded around like sheep on big buses, we won't be doing any of the cruise ship excursions. Because cruise reviewers all pretty much agree that the big cruise ships don't typically get close enough to whales to get a good view, we have booked a 3 hour small-boat whale-watching excursion while we're in Juneau. That is the only "major excursion" we're planning to do and booking it independently saved about 40% over the least expensive whale watch trip offered thru the cruise ship.
In Skagway, we've already reserved a rental car and we plan to drive up the Klondike Hwy towards thru Carcross to Whitehorse (capitol of Canada's Yukon territory) which is 110 miles from Skagway. We'll picnic alongside of the road, and stop to take pictures and/or hike where ever the mood strikes us. The Klondike Hwy pretty much parallels the White Pass scenic railway route - so we should see many of the same views, with the advantage that we can stop and take pictures if we want to instead of having to try to shoot thru a moving train window! Plus, the railway excursion train turns around and heads back to Skagway after only about 25 miles. And our rental car costs less than a single ticket on the train.
Once we reach Seward, we've booked the direct shuttle bus to Anchorage which will get us to the Airport before noon. We'll , pick up our rental car and turn around and back toward Seward to explore Turnagain Arm, the Wildlife Conservation Center, Portage Lake area, and Alyeska Tramway at our leisure instead of on the Tour/Shuttlebus schedule. When it gets dark, or when we get tired, we'll head on to our first AirBnb in the Wasilla area (about an hour northeast of Anchorage.) We'll stay three nights at this AirBnb, spending two days taking day trips to explore Chugach State Park, the Mat-Su Valley (including Matanuska glacier) and Glenn Highway, and the Hatcher Pass area. Then we'll check out and spend a leisurely day driving up the Parks Highway -sightseeing along the way - to our second AirBnb which is about 45 minutes north of Denali. We'll stay four nights at the second AirBnb, allotting two full days to visiting Denali and one day to sightseeing around Fairbanks and the Chena River Recreation Area and possibly dropping by Chena Hot Springs to soak for awhile. If the weather is reasonably clear, we plan to stay out late in the Fairbanks area in the hopes of catching sight of the aurora. If predictions are good for Aurora sighting, we may even drive north or west of Fairbanks to optimize our chances.
Our Airbnb allows a noon checkout, so, if we're out late, we can sleep and still have plenty of time to drive the 5 hours back to Anchorage and have a leisurely dinner before heading to the airport at to catch our 10PM flight home.
BTW, it turns out that google maps has turned into a pretty good resource for finding scenic drives and scenic viewing areas. If you click on the pegman (but don't drag him to a particular road) you'll notice little circles suddenly appear on the map. Those are where users have linked photographs they've taken of the area. You can see the linked photo by hovering your cursor over one of the circles. I've found that when there are lots of little circles clustered in one area, invariably the views are amazing... as verified by dragging pegman onto the road and looking at what google recorded. Sometimes the circles aren't right on or near roads, but going to AllTrails.com usually reveals that there is a "trail" in the area. I've taken note of some of the easier trails so we can hike them.
Okay, probably way more info that you wanted to know and possibly much of it is not on point for you. But maybe it'll give you some ideas.
Best wishes and have fun planning!