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Details of the tour part of a Princess Alaska cruisetour

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This is a summary of the Alaskan tour part of a Princess cruisetour we had in August, 2012. If you have any questions, please ask.

The tour was one of the Princess Connoisseur tours. For Alaska this means that most meals are included and there is a tour director that is with you much more than on the non-Connoisseur tours. We decided that a Connoisseur tour was the best way to go after reading the many comments about such a tour here on Cruise Critic.

Also based on many comments on Cruise Critic, we did the tour before the cruise and agree this is the best way to do it.

Our tour included two nights in Fairbanks, two in Denali National Park, and two near Talkeetna followed by a train to Whittier to catch the cruise part of the journey. We booked the August cruisetour in mid-April when we found what we thought was excellent pricing with the cost of the Connoisseur land tour being only $835/person above the cost of the cruise without the tour.

The $835 included:

o Six nights in Princess Alaska lodges

o Transportation from Fairbanks to Denali, Denali to Talkeetna, and from Talkeetna to the ship in Whittier.

o Six breakfasts, three lunches (two of these on included tours), five dinners

o Gold Mine Tour & Riverboat Discovery Cruise tour in Fairbanks

o Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali

o Tips for drivers and guides on included tours and transportation and luggage handling (it does not include a tip for the Tour Director—suggested amount is $5/person/day)

We arrived at the Fairbanks airport after 11 PM the first evening. When you book the cruisetour, Princess offers a transfer from airport to lodge for $14/person, reasonable by Princess standards. Because we were told that was for flights before 11 PM, we did not take that option. Checking in advance, I learned that if you call the lodge from the airport, they will pick you up at no charge.

Whether on a Connoisseur tour or a regular tour, you are met at the airport by a Princess representative that has your welcome packet. This includes your room keys for Fairbanks, a list of pre-booked tours (included and optional) in Fairbanks, departure information, luggage tag information, luggage tags (for that evening and for when departing Fairbanks) and any vouchers for included meals. Our packet also included a welcome letter from our Tour Director with information about a group breakfast in the morning.

Please note that you pick up your packet at the airport whether you had booked a Princess transfer or not.

After collecting our luggage, we were told to put the luggage tags for the lodge on the suitcases and give them to Princess for delivery to our room at the lodge. We were then directed to the bus to the lodge. After explaining that we had not pre-booked a Princess transfer, we were told that did not matter and there was no charge to take the bus to the lodge.

So the lesson learned is do not book and pay for a transfer from the airport to the lodge in Fairbanks. If the complimentary bus is not there when you arrive at the airport, call the lodge and they will pick you up.

The luggage from the airport to the lodge went on a truck, not on the transfer bus. It was an hour after we arrived at the lodge that our luggage was delivered to our room. So, if you are arriving late evening as we did and want to go to sleep instead of staying up waiting for luggage after a long day of travel, forget the free transportation and take a cab to the lodge.

About the luggage handling:

o At the airport you use tags that indicate which Princess property you will be at that night. In our case it was the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge.

o All your luggage goes to the lodge that night.

o For the day you depart Fairbanks, you will have two types of luggage tags. One says “Join me tonight” and is for the suitcase that will follow you on the land tour. Each person is allowed one such suitcase. There will also be a tag indicating the next land destination (different Princess tours will have a different next stop). The other type says “Join me on board ship” and is for all other luggage. When you put your suitcases out on the day of departure from Fairbanks, that is when the luggage is separated for the ship or the next stop on the tour.

o Your luggage may need to be placed outside your room hours before you actually leave the lodge. So your carry-on bag will need to hold items you need between luggage pickup and when you depart.

o Note that the carry-on bag is the only luggage you will have access to while traveling between locations, so it will have to contain any items or clothing you will need before receiving your suitcases at the next stop of the tour. And of course, it should contain clothing you need during the day, any medications, valuables, etc.

o The luggage for your next stop does not accompany you on the bus or train you will be on.

Luggage tags for suitcases to stay on the tour or go to the ship

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Luggage tags for the individual lodges on the tour

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About the meal vouchers on the Connoisseur tour:

o The vouchers are marked for specific meals on specific days.

o They may indicate a specific restaurant, but they can be used at each of the two main restaurants at each lodge.

o The vouchers include a 15% gratuity.

o The vouchers do not include alcoholic beverages.

o Typical wording on a voucher says it includes a three course dinner with service including non-alcoholic beverage, appetizer or soup or salad, one entrée, and dessert. Within each of those categories, you may select any item on the menu no matter what the listed price is. (For one dinner I had, the items added up to $62.50 not including tip. For two people including tip, this would be almost $144.)

Typical food vouchers on the Connoisseur tour

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The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge is a single building with three floors of rooms. We were assigned a room with a good view of the Chena River.

Front entrance of the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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Part of the main lobby of the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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Our room at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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Our room at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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View of the Chena River from our room at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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Some features of the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge:

o WIFI was available at no charge in the room

o There is an ATM with a $3 transaction fee

o There is a luggage scale in the lobby. This is useful for those where Fairbanks is the last stop on a tour and you need to weigh your luggage before going to the airport.

o There is an hourly shuttle available for going to and from downtown Fairbanks. A day pass costs $5. First shuttle to town leaves at 9 AM. The last shuttle returns at 9 PM.

o Vending machines sell cans of soda for $1.50 and candy bars for $1.25. Ice is available at no charge.

o Local calls from the room are at no charge.

o Long distance calls within the USA have a $2 connection fee and a 25% surcharge on the operator assisted rates which are charged.

o The lodge is open all year round. In the winter season there are many tourists from Japan.

The employees we encountered at the lodge (and the other two lodges we stayed at) were as friendly and helpful as you find on the Princess ships.

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Our first day - Fairbanks:

The day started with a group breakfast in a private room at 8 AM for the two SB6 Connoisseur Tour groups at the lodge. For those on regular tours, below are the breakfast buffet sign and the a la carte breakfast menu.

Breakfast Buffet menu

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Breakfast a la carte menu

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Breakfast a la carte menu continued

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At 9:30 AM our group met for the bus to the Gold Mine tour. Shortly after 10 AM we arrived at a section of the Alaska oil pipeline and boarded the tourist train for the gold mine.

Beaver Creek train to Gold Dredge No. 8

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The gold mine tour is interesting. You get to see the equipment (the gold dredge) that was once used to mine and isolate gold, learn how it worked, and, after instruction, you get a bag of dirt with real gold flakes in it and then you get to use a pan to isolate the flakes. Most people were able to get gold worth $10 to $30 doing the panning. Optionally (for a fee), you can have your gold put into a see through locket or tie bar. This can cost more than the gold is worth, but it does make an unusual souvenir.

Gold Dredge No. 8

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Panning for gold

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Panned gold, worth about $18

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Locket with panned gold from Gold Dredge No. 8

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After the panning and free time in their souvenir shop, we went back on the tourist train to the pipeline, learned information about the pipeline, and boarded the bus to go to our next stop, lunch before the afternoon ride on the Riverboat Discovery.

Alaska pipeline near train station for the Gold Dredge

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Lunch at Discovery Dining Hall

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After lunch we boarded the Riverboat Discovery III for a ride on the Chena River

Riverboat Discovery III on Chena River

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The three hour excursion on the riverboat included the following:

o Viewing a float plane take off, fly and land

o Viewing the houses along the river banks

o Seeing (from the riverboat) a demonstration of Alaskan husky sled dogs pulling a sled at Trailbreaker Kennel, once owned by the late Susan Butcher, the second female Iditarod winner

o Seeing the meeting of the Chena and Tanana rivers

o Stop (and go onshore) at an Athabascan village for a little over an hour to view reindeer; a fish wheel; preparation of chum salmon; Athanascan equipment such as snowshoes, baby carrier, canoe; clothing such as a maiden’s dress, chief’s coat and woman’s parka; Athabascan log cabins; and Alaskan huskies from the Trailbreaker Kennel.

The experience was definitely aimed at tourists, but was interesting and enjoyable.

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A house along the Chena River

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Trailbreaker Kennel Alaskan husky sled dogs

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Woman's parka at Athabascan village

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Was this day worth the trip to Fairbanks? Maybe, maybe not, but it was an enjoyable experience which we were glad we did. There really was no opportunity to go and see downtown Fairbanks or any other sights in the area.

That evening there was a special “Wine Dinner” at the lodge for the two SB6 Connoisseur Tour groups. The menu is shown below. Note that the entrees on the menu are not a choice of one item or the other as both items were served to everyone.

Connoisseur Tour group wine dinner menu

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Our second day – Fairbanks, travel to Denali, at Denali:

After the included breakfast at the buffet, the group met at 9:15 AM for the three hour bus ride to Denali National Park.

There was a stop of about 45 minutes in Nenana, a small town on the way, to use rest rooms, see a local museum there, and shop for souvenirs.

Nenana is sort of famous for its annual Ice Classic where people pay $2.50 to guess the time that the ice will breakup on the Nenana River in the spring. A tripod is embedded in the ice and when it moves as the ice breaks up, a winner is declared. The 2012 winner (4/23/12 at 7:34 PM) won $350,000. Some of those on the tour bought tickets and submitted their best guesses for the 2013 ice breakup time.

Upon leaving Nenana, we encountered the first two mosquitoes of the trip, having flown into the bus during our stop there. They quickly met their maker.

Canister for Nenana Ice Classic contest entry forms

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Upon arrival at Denali at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, the bus dropped us off at the lobby to the building the tour group would be staying. We had an official group picture taken and were given our arrival packets.

As at the first lodge, the packet contained room keys for the lodge, a list of pre-booked tours (included and optional) in Denali, departure information, luggage tag information, luggage tags for when departing Denali, and vouchers for included meals. It also had a map of the lodge grounds and buildings.

The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge has a two-story main building with a lobby on both levels, reception desk, tour desk, coffee shop, and souvenir/sundry shop.

Downstairs at the main lodge building

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Our group was assigned to one of two three-story buildings with guest rooms on each floor and a separate, common lobby. These are the newest buildings on the lodge site. There are also 13 other one- and two-story buildings with guest rooms. We were assigned a corner room with good views in two directions.

Our room at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

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Our room at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

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View from our room at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

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Another view from our room at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

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Some features of the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge:

o WIFI was available at no charge in the lobby for the building our room was in. There were also three computers and a printer for use there also. WIFI is not available in the guest rooms. WIFI was also available in the main lodge building. There were two computers there for people without their own WIFI device.

o The lobby for our building also had a snack bar that was open limited hours

o Besides the restaurants at the lodge, there are several restaurants at a strip shopping center across the street. This includes a Subway restaurant.

o There are two main restaurants on the lodge grounds, the King Salmon Restaurant and the Denali Dinner Theater. There is also a Pizza/Pub restaurant.

o There are seven shops on the grounds, selling items ranging from clothing to jewelry to wood carvings.

o There is a scheduled free shuttle to the Denali Visitor Center (near the train station) and the Wilderness Access Center.

o There is an ATM in the main lodge building

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Wood carvings at one of the shops at Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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Available for sale at a shop at Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge

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The afternoon was on your own after getting into the guest rooms. We explored the grounds, bought lunch at a restaurant across the street, and bought a couple of sandwiches to supplement the supplied snack on the next day’s tour.

Dinner that evening (included with the Connoisseur Tour) was the Music of Denali Dinner Theater and included the meal and the show. Normal price for this is $59.

Piano player Blake at “Music of Denali”

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Dan performs at “Music of Denali.” The performers are also the waitstaff.

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Our third day – Denali National Park

The highlight of the day was the Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT). Before the tour we had breakfast. The voucher was good at the Sourdough Breakfast Buffet at the Music of Denali Theater (opens 5 AM) and at the King Salmon Restaurant (opens 6 AM). Because we had to meet for the TWT at 6:55 AM, we ate at the Sourdough Breakfast Buffet. Regular price for the buffet is $13.99.

Sourdough Breakfast Buffet menu

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We met for the tour at 6:55 AM at the main lodge building. This was the fifth TWT of the morning with TWT busses scheduled throughout the morning and into the afternoon. The bus was exclusively for our group.

Although the bus for this tour is often described as a school bus, it is not. It looks somewhat like a school bus on the outside because of the many individual windows that can be lowered to have a good view of scenery and wildlife. There is no rest room on the bus, but rest stops are made about every 90 minutes.

Our driver/guide has done this tour for a number of years and was very knowledgeable about Denali and experienced in spotting wildlife. She had a video camera that she could use to zoom in on the wildlife with the picture being shown on TVs inside the tour bus so even those without good camera zoom lenses or binoculars could see the wildlife. (If you wished, you could purchase a DVD which would have the wildlife scenes from your tour + some standard travelogues about the Park for $34.99. The DVD is delivered about 6 weeks after the tour.)

Bus for Tundra Wilderness Tour

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Inside of bus for Tundra Wilderness Tour

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2½ year old grizzly bears on bus TV

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Same grizzly bears seen from my camera

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For our group, it was a great day for wildlife viewing (in addition to the great scenery). We saw moose, caribou, a golden eagle (no bald eagles in this area), a wolf, arctic ground squirrel, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, lynx, ravens and other birds. Besides the driver/guide spotting the wildlife, passengers also spotted some. The driver would stop whenever wildlife was spotted and did not continue on until all on board had a chance to properly view and take pictures.

At the Toklat rest stop there was a visitor center with exhibits and books for sale. There was a ram’s horn, moose antlers and caribou antlers that you could examine and pick up. The antlers were heavy. The moose and caribou must have very strong neck muscles.

Moose Antlers

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A snack box was provided as pictured below. Since many on Cruise Critic had warned it was not enough sustenance for an eight hour tour, we also had the sandwiches which we had bought the day before. There was also a ½ liter bottle of water included.

Tundra Wilderness Tour snack box food

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Reindeer sausage from tour snack box

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The cloud gods were not in a good mood, so we did not get any good views of Mt. McKinley on our tour. There was one point where the driver/guide said there was a glimpse of part of the north face of the mountain, but it was really not a very good view of the mountain.

View of part of north face of Mt.McKinley (bright white in center of photo)

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At the end of the TWT, the driver gave everyone a 49 page picture book with photos one could only dream of taking of scenery and wildlife.

Our bus had left the lodge for the tour at 7:15 AM, reached the turnaround point (Stony Overlook) at 11:20 AM, and was back at the lodge at 3:05 PM.

As many others have posted in the past, the TWT is vastly superior to the Natural History Tour (NHT). The NHT only goes 19 miles into the park while the TWT goes in about 60 miles. Of the animals we saw, only the moose were seen by the point the NHT turns around. (The web site for the NHT says “It may be enough of a glimpse to convince you how pristine and special this place really is.”) The cost of the NHT is $93, of the TWT $149. Again, the TWT is included in the cost of the Connoisseur tour.

Another alternative for Park visitors is to take one of the Park’s shuttle busses. These go 86 miles into the park for $50. They do not leave from the lodge, but you can take a lodge shuttle to the Denali Visitors Center where you can get the Park shuttle. From the description of the Park shuttle trip: the busses are “essentially converted school buses” and “the trips are not officially guided tours. Driver/guides are not required to provide commentary, but many of them do.” You can get off the shuttle at various stops and then get on a later shuttle to continue your journey.

If you do take either the TWT or NHT though Princess, the price includes the Park entrance fee of $10. If you have a National Park pass (such as a senior pass), you can get a refund of $10 by bringing your pass and the itinerary from the welcome packet that shows you had a Park tour (or other proof you were on a tour) to the reception desk in the main lodge building. You cannot do this until after you have taken the tour. This is good for a single $10 refund, even if the pass was good for multiple people in your family.

For dinner that evening we ate at the lodge’s King Salmon Restaurant (voucher included with the tour). The Tour Director has asked everyone what time they wanted to eat dinner and he then made dinner reservations for the requested times.

Some sample prices from the dinner menu:

Appetizer: Sweet Soy Ginger Beef Skewers - $16

Appetizer: Reindeer stuffed mushrooms - $9

Soup: Smoked Wild Alaskan Salmon Chowder – Cup $5, Bowl $6

Entrée: 8 ounce Grilled Cattleman’s Angus Top Sirloin - $27

Entrée: Simply Grilled Alaskan Salmon - $26

Entrée: Bering Sea Crab Legs - $49

Dessert: Mama’s Old Fashion Carrot Cake - $8

Dessert: Alaskan-made Vanilla or Blueberry Ice Cream - $4

Species of Alaskan Salmon

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Our fourth day: Denali, travel to Talkeetna

Although the group’s bus to the train station did not leave the lodge until 11:00 AM, luggage for the next stop had to be outside the room door by 7:30 AM. However, we wanted to take an earlier shuttle into town so we could visit the Denali National Park Visitor Center.

We wanted to eat breakfast at the King Salmon Restaurant (blueberry pancakes $10, vegetarian omelet $13), but time was short and the line was long, so we went to the buffet in the Music of Denali Theater again. The tour breakfast voucher was good in either place.

The shuttle brought us to the Visitor Center where we looked at the exhibits and listened to a lecture by a park ranger about the “Wilderness Journey” which stressed the importance of preserving wilderness areas such as Denali National Park.

Visitor Center exhibit depicting a wolf kill

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The train station for the trip to Talkneetna is about two blocks from the Visitor Center. On the way we saw some Fireweed which we had seen many places while in Alaska. Fireweed got its name because it is among the first plants to grow again after a forest fire.

Fireweed

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At the train station we met up with our group again for the four hour (121 mile) train to Talkeetna. The Midnight Sun Express is composed of cars owned by various companies. The last four cars on the train were owned by Princess. The two groups that were on the Connoisseur Tour were assigned to the last car.

Our Tour Director distributed the train tickets. The domed car has tables for four people. Two ride facing forward and two ride facing the rear. The ticket indicated which table you were assigned to. If you want to ride facing forward, try to be the first people to get to your assigned table. Although the boarding pass said a photo ID would be required to board the train, we did not have to show one.

Ticket for the train to Talkeetna

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Princess car we were assigned to

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Upstairs on the Princess train car

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A table for four on the train car. Storage for your carryon is under your seat.

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The train has an outside viewing platform downstairs on the rear of the car and also downstairs between it and the next car forward. For those who like to take pictures, this is the best place to be as pictures through the car windows by your table tend to have reflections in them.

Viewing platform between the last two cars

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Beverage service (for a fee) is available on the upper level. The train has its own version of a soda card. For $10 you can have all the soda and juice you want. Without this promotion, a soda costs $3.25.

There is a kitchen and dining area downstairs on the train car. Because of limited seating space there, people at tables are called to go downstairs as room is available. This was the second meal on the tour that was not included in the cost of the Connoisseur Tour or an excursion. Not including beverages, a sandwich and a salad cost us $25.

Dining area on the Princess car

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Example of a view from the train on the way to Talkeetna

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A view from the rear platform on the Princess car

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The train station in Talkeetna is an hour by bus from the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. We arrived there about 6:00 PM.

While on the bus after reaching the lodge we were given the packets for the Lodge. As at the other lodges, the packet contained room keys for the lodge, a list of pre-booked optional tours, departure information, luggage tag information and vouchers for included meals. It also had a map of the lodge grounds and buildings. No luggage tag was needed for the next stop as that would be the ship and the luggage tags from the Princess web site are used for that transfer.

The Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge has a main building with the reception desk, tour desk, coffee bar, regular bar, gift shop and the Mountain View Restaurant. There are 22 buildings on the grounds with rooms for guests.

Front view, Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge main building

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One of the buildings with guest rooms at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

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Some features of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge:

o WIFI was available at no charge in the main lodge building which also had five computers for guest use there. WIFI is not available in the guest rooms.

o There are no outside shops or restaurants within walking distance of the lodge grounds.

o There are two main restaurants on the lodge grounds, the Mountain View Restaurant in the main building and the 20320 Alaska Grill in its own building.

o There is a scheduled shuttle to Talkeetna for a $10 round trip charge, but is free if it is part of an excursion or when you are departing for the next stop on the tour.

o There are several films about Alaska shown in the main building for $8/person. There are also free lectures by a naturalist who also leads an on-site walking tour three times a day.

o The front desk will take a list of people who want to be called if Mt. McKinley should appear in view.

After dropping off most of the group near the buildings with their rooms, we were the only ones left on the bus as it made its way back to the main lodge building. Once there, we discovered that there is an Upgrade Fairy for cruisetours as we had been assigned one of two suites that were in the main building (the only guest rooms in that building).

The suite consisted of two main rooms, one the bedroom which also had a couch, dresser, desk and TV, and the other which had a couch, dresser, dining table, TV and a wet bar area (no beverages provided). There was a bathroom for each of the two main rooms, but only one of them had a Jacuzzi. The view out the windows of the second room would be of Mt. McKinley if it were to become visible. We had no idea why we were assigned a suite. The people in the other suite, not part of our group, also had no idea why they were assigned a suite.

Although WIFI is not supposed to be available in rooms as mentioned above, our suite was close enough to the lobby area with WIFI that we did have WIFI access in the rooms.

Bedroom area of Ridgeline Suite

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Living room and dining area of Ridgeline Suite

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View of Mount McKinley that evening (behind the clouds)

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We made reservations for dinner at the Mountain View Restaurant in the main building. Again, a voucher was included for this meal. We found the dinner service to be slow and the food was not as good in our opinion as at the King Salmon Restaurant at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

Examples of pricing at the Mountain View restaurant:

Starter: Baked Goat Cheese - $12

Entrée: Alaskan King Crab Au Grautin - $29

Entrée: Jump Curried Sea Scallops - $31

Entrée: Beer Battered Fish n’ Chips - $15

Dessert: Triple Berry Cobbler - $8

Dessert: Alaskan Chocolate Mousse - $7

Triple berry cobbler with blueberry ice cream

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Our fifth day – Talkeetna

We started out the day with breakfast at the 20320 Alaska Grill. This is located about 300 feet from the main lodge building.

Blueberry sourdough pancakes

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No excursions at Talkeetna were included as part of the Connoisseur Tour, but we had pre-booked two for this day in advance. Excursions on the tour part of a cruisetour can be booked on the Princess web site in the same manner as excursions from the ship can be booked. One difference is that all excursions booked for the tour part will be charged to your credit card about two days before the cruisetour starts. You can also book excursions at the tour desk in each of the lodges on the tour.

Our first excursion of the day was Chulitna River Rafting with a start time of 8 AM with return to the lodge about 1:30 PM. About 3.5 hours of this time were actually spent rafting on the river.

A short ride from the lodge brought us to the riverbank where we donned the appropriate gear. This included an almost full length rain coat, waterproof boots, and a life jacket. On the riverbank getting ready was the second time we had seen mosquitoes. It was also the last time we saw them on the tour or on the cruise.

There were three rafts with three guides for the group on this excursion with about 8-10 passengers in each raft. The river is relatively calm (no whitewater or rapids) and 100% of the rowing was done by the guide. Since we were going downstream, there was no fighting the current, but much of the time the guide was rowing back and forth across the river to avoid areas with hazards (such as trees), sandbars and islands.

Raft for the rafting excursion

E27980701780712RaftfortheraftingexcursionDSC00761.jpg

One of the three rafts on the river

E99980701980712OneofthethreeraftsDSC00762.jpg

Edited by caribill

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Rafting in the Chulitna Canyon

E30980702080712RaftingintheChulitnaCanyonDSC00763.jpg

Rafting in the Chulitna Canyon

E34980702980712RaftingintheChulitnaCanyonDSC00773.jpg

 

Rafting on the Chulitna River

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One of several bald eagles we saw on or near the Chulitna River

E45a980705680712BaldeagleontheChulitnaRiverDSC00804.jpg

There was one point about mid-way that the three rafts pulled over to a riverbank so anyone who need to could make a pit stop among the trees and bushes.

Once we reached the end of the excursion in Talkeetna, we walked a few blocks to the excursion office (rest rooms there) and then walked another several blocks to take the next Princess shuttle for the hour bus ride back to the lodge.

Back at the lodge, lunch was on our own again, this being the third and last meal (all lunches) that was not included as part of the Connoisseur Tour.

Our afternoon excursion was a three hour Byers Lake Nature Walk start started at 3:30 PM. A short van ride brought those on the excursion to the start of the walk.

Start of Byers Lake Nature Walk

E56980709480712StartofByersLakeNatureWalkDSC00844.jpg

Guide McKensie and poisonous Devil's club plant

E57980709580712GuideMcKensieandpoisonousDevilsclubplantDSC00845.jpg

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A poisonous red mushroom

E64980710280712ApoisonousredmushroomDSC00852.jpg

Byers Lake

E72980711080712ViewofByersLakeDSC00860.jpg

 

 

Poisonous Monk's Hood

E78880703680712PoisonousMonksHoodDSC07110.jpg

Loons in Byers Lake

E82980712580712LoonsinByersLakeDSC00875.jpg

Poisonous Amanita Muscaria

 

E95880705080712PoisonousAmanitaMuscariaDSC07124.jpg

 

At the end of the walk, the van returned us to the lodge.

Mt. McKinley looked about the same as the day before.

View of Mount McKinley this evening (behind the clouds)

E99D980716080712MtMcKinleyisbehindthecloudsDSC00915.jpg

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On this last evening of the tour, our Tour Director hosted a casual cocktail get-together before dinner near the Grizzly Bar in the main building. We used this as an opportunity to give our tip to the Tour Director.

Seating area near the Grizzly Bar in the main building

E99B980709180712SeatingareanearGrizzlybaratmainlodgeDSC00840.jpg

Mud slides (vodka, Kahlua, Bailey's, etc.) from the Grizzly Bar

E24980715080712MudslidevodkaKahluaBaileysetcDSC00904.jpg

After the cocktail party we went to dinner. Having been disappointed by the food and service in the Mountain View Dining Room the previous evening, we decided to use our voucher at the 20320 Alaska Grill.

Some of the items on the menu:

Starter: Stuffed Potato Skins - $7.99

Starter: Crispy Ravioli Bites - $6.99

Salad: Side salad - $4.99

Entrée: Reindeer Lasagna - $14.99

Entrée: Blueberry Birch Glazed Alaskan Salmon - $23.99

Dessert: Alaskan wildberry pie - $5.99 (add ice cream for $3.99)

Dessert: Tuxedo Layer Cake - $6.99 (add ice cream for $3.99)

Also available

Sandwich: The Big Alaskan Burger - $12.50

Pizza: Double Pepperoni personal 7” pizza with side Caesar salad - $8.99

Both the food and the service were an improvement over the previous evening’s dinner in the Mountain View Dining Room.

Crispy Ravioli Bites starter at the 20320 Alaska Grill

E99C980715380712CrispyraviolibitesDSC00907.jpg

Our sixth day – Talkeetna, train to Whittier to board the Island Princess.

We were asked to put our checked luggage outside the room door by 6:30 AM. Not wanting to get up that early, we put it out before going to sleep. Of course this meant any night clothes and morning toiletries would have to be in our carryon for the day.

We woke up just before 7 AM to a great surprise. Looking out the suite window we saw Mt. Mckinley in all its glory, so we quickly dressed and went outside to view and to take pictures.

Mt. Hunter, Mt. Huntington, Mt. McKinley

F07980803180812MtsHunterHuntingtonMcKinleyDSC00948.jpg

Mt. McKinley

 

F09880801880812MtMcKinleyDSC07150.jpg

 

By 9 AM, our suitcases were still outside our door, so we were able to add the night clothes and morning toiletries to them instead of carrying these items with us all day. Soon after that we received the call from the front desk that Mt. McKinley was out from behind the clouds. I do not know why we did not receive that call two hours earlier.

We went to breakfast again at the 20320 Alaska Grill, and we were seated at a table right by a window where we could gaze at Mt. McKinley while we ate.

Mt. McKinley viewed from near the 20320 Alaska Grill

F03980804780812MtMcKinleyandfireweedDSC00964.jpg

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The tour group was scheduled to meet at 11:15 to take the hour bus ride to the train depot. However, we decided to take the lodge shuttle bus earlier into Talkeetna so we could see some of the town. We left on the 10 AM shuttle expecting arrival about 11 AM which would give us a little over an hour until the group would meet us at the train depot. (When we left our room for the shuttle, the suitcases were still outside our door.)

What we learned when our shuttle reached Talkeetna is that the train depot would not be the one in town that we arrived at two days earlier, but one several miles from town. We would have to meet with others going to the train at 11:45 to take a bus from town to the depot. Thus our visit to Talkneeta was limited to about 45 minutes.

At the top of our list in town was to try the fireweed honey ice cream at Shirley's which was near the shuttle’s drop off point. It had been recommended by one of the shuttle bus drivers. Turned out it was fine, but did not really taste that special.

Shirley's food shack in Talkeetna

E53980805380812ShirleysselleroficecreamTalkeetnaDSC00970.jpg

Shirley's fireweed honey ice cream

E54980805880812ShirleysfireweedhoneyicecreamDSC00975.jpg

We ended up only having enough time to see a handful of stores before we had to meet to get the bus to go to the train depot.

Actually, it really was not a train depot in the normal definition. It was a clear area covered in gravel by the side of the tracks a few miles from town. No buildings, but if the weather had been bad, we could have waited on the bus until the train arrived.

Princess busses arriving at the Talkeetna train depot for the trip to Whittier

G01980805980812TalkeetnatrainstationfortriptoWhittierDSC00976.jpg

This time the train cars were owned by the railroad, not by Princess. We were assigned to a car in the middle of the train.

Car number 5 for the two Connoisseur groups

G02980806280812Carnumber5forMikesgroupDSC00981.jpg

The ticket this time again said there was a need for photo ID in order to board the train, and this time it was actually required.

McKinley Express boarding pass

G04McKinleyExpressboardingpass.jpg

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What a fantastic review! Thank you very much. There is so much information here that you don't find in the Princess brochures.

We sailed from Vancouver to Beijing a few weeks ago and fell in love with Alaska. The ship docked at Whittier and lots of people left the ship to do the land tour. We have now booked the Grand Princess next year with a pre cruise stay in San Francisco then 10 days cruise to Tracy arm. Really looking forward to it

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The train car was domed as on the previous train, and we again were assigned to tables of four. However, there were several differences in the two trains.

o There was no dining area downstairs. Lunch was prepared in a kitchen downstairs, but served and eaten at the table you were at upstairs.

o There was a club car on the train with a bar and a seating area. Very few people knew about and found this car.

o The viewing platform between cars was much smaller than on the first train.

Upstairs on car number 5, McKinley Express

G05980806480812Insidecarnumber5McKinleyExpressDSC00983.jpg

Club car on the McKinley Express

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Viewing platform on our McKinley Express car

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Lunch, included with a voucher on the Connoisseur Tour, was ordered at and delivered to the table.

Some of the items on the menu were:

Sandwiches (served with Alaska Thunder Chips):

Smoked turkey BLT - $11.25

Veggie Garden Delight sandwich - $11.00

Desserts:

Islander Key Lime Pie - $7.00

Flourless Chocolate Torte (gluten free) - $6.25

Smoked turkey BLT on McKinley Express

G10980807080812SmokedturkeyBLTonMcKinleyExpressDSC00989.jpg

 

 

The train trip took about 5 hours from Talkeetna to Whittier including a stop at Anchorage where our Tour Director left us. Earlier on the train he had passed out the copies of the group picture that had been taken at the Denali lodge. Also at Anchorage, several Princess representatives boarded the train to do the check in procedures for the ship as we traveled on to Whittier.

Princess check-in personnel joining the train at Anchorage

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The Princess representatives distributed and collected the normal health forms where you indicated if you were healthy or not. They also collected, scanned and returned passports as would normally be done at check-in.

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The scenery on the trip to Whittier was better on the Anchorage to Whittier part than on the part to Anchorage.

Airplanes at a house near Anchorage

G24980808180812AirplanesatahousenearAnchorageDSC01003.jpg

Mud flats (like quicksand) near Anchorage

G23980808080812MudflatslikequicksandnearAnchorageDSC01001.jpg

Between Anchorage and Whittier

G25980808380812BetweenAnchorageandWhittierDSC01005.jpg

Kenai Mountains

G36980809480812KenaiMountainsDSC01018.jpg

 

 

We reached the car/bus/train tunnel in time for the 6:30 slot for trains to Whittier. We reached the dock area about 6:45 PM. Additional Princess representatives came onto the train to pass out the cruise cards

Since we had checked-in on the train and now had our cruise cards, all we needed to do was go through the port security and then onto the Island Princess to start the 7-day voyage to Vancouver.

Island Princess docked in Whittier

G39980810580812IslandPrincessdockedinWhittierDSC01030.jpg

Covered walkway from train to cruise terminal to the ship

G41980811780812WhittierAKDSC01042.jpg

Additional pictures from the tour may be found at http://share.shutterfly.com/share/received/welcome.sfly?fid=0354b2ce1f2da993&sid=8Acs2rVy0csnmA

Once in the album, select the “full screen” option for the best view.

Edited by caribill

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Thank you for taking the time and detail to do this blog! It was so interesting and full of so many great pictures and helpful details, that I was sad when it was over. My husband and I live in Alaska so would not normally do a full tour like this, but you've made me want to do the full Connoisseur tour with our usual cruise!

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What a wonderful review. I have to start saving for a cruisetour like this.

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Great review.

 

We have taken 2 Alaska cruises with no land tours. We were thinking of taking this tour next time. Do you think it was worth the extra cost for this type of tour compared to the normal land tour with Princess?

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Great review.

 

We have taken 2 Alaska cruises with no land tours. We were thinking of taking this tour next time. Do you think it was worth the extra cost for this type of tour compared to the normal land tour with Princess?

 

Yes. The inclusion of all meals except for three lunches along with the upgraded Denali tour to TWT and the inclusion of the Princess Tour Director all along the way made this worth it.

 

Of course, my opinion is based on the great pricing available at the time we did book this cruisetour. (I have no notes on what the non-Connoisseur tour cost at that time, so I do not know the cost difference.)

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