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Worldtraveler 4727

Trip Review: Connoisseur Land & Sea (RB8) June 19 - July 4, 2018

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A little about us--DH and I have traveled quite extensive throughout the US and Europe, but only began cruising about 7 years ago. Since then we have taken several cruises with Princess and with Regent cruise lines. I am a highly organized trip planner who mostly plans private excursions in small groups.

 

My intention with the review is to pay back CC members whose reviews and comments have been invaluable to planning our trips. One in particular from caribill on this site is a few years old, but much of that info is still current. I hope to bring everyone up to date a bit and will happily answer any questions I can.

 

We are mostly DIY-ers. However, this tour came recommended to us by friends, and in reading about it, we were sold. We chose the longest (most expensive as well) land and sea tour Princess offered. We chose Princess because we wanted to experience their lodges and because Princess has been doing this in Alaska for a long time. This was a 15 day trip: 8 days on land and 7 days at sea.

 

Day #1: Fairbanks June 19, 2018

We used Princess EZ Air (and carefully watched the flights DAILY as they changed times over the course of several months, and that had to be taken care of with calls to Princess and Delta.) We arrived at the Fairbanks airport and were met by Princess reps. This was one of the unanswered questions I still had not been able to find an answer for before we left. Out tour package clearly stated and in capital letters TRANSPORT to hotel from airport. Yet our invoice from our TA indicated a charge for transfers. Two calls to Princess by her and one by me resulted in being told there were no transfers included. Then why does the itinerary clearly state this? No answer for that one. I had the TA remove the charges. Plan A was we'd be met by Princess reps and be taken by coach to the hotel. Plan B was that the Fairbanks hotel has a shuttle (as noted on their website) Plan C was to simply take a taxi the 1.5 miles to the hotel. Plan A worked out. The reps gave us a packet with everything we needed to know for that night and the next day. We were already checked into the hotel. Room keys were in the packet. Info in the packet further explained we would be meeting the next morning for breakfast and that we had this first evening free to wander the property on the Chena River. We had a comfortable room facing the river, and since it was June 19, there was nearly constant daylight. The drapes in the room do the best they can to keep out the light, but there is still an element of light always in the room. Couple that with jet lag and excitement for the trip, and it was near impossible to sleep.

 

We found that on the Connoisseur Tour we were allotted the premium rooms with the best views. A nice perk.

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Nice

 

question for you or others...I have seen post where people say they are 'following'

 

how do you do that, and what kind of notification do you get that there is a new posting?

 

and to the OP - yes, we also read carbill very detailed postings and sure will appreciate yours as well:cool:

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Day #2 Fairbanks June 20, 2018

The weather was beautiful. Sunny and very warm.

This morning we arrived at the Copper Dining Room upstairs at the hotel and were met by our tour guide: Michael Moore. He is a delightful Irishman with a gift of gab, and as you will find out in this report, was without a doubt THE best tour guide we could have ever asked for. Michael has done this for 10 years, and he anticipated our every need well before we even knew we needed something. Simply outstanding.

 

We had a breakfast buffet and met the other 24 people who would be in our particular group. (Interestingly, there was one other tour exactly like ours running simultaneously--same number of people doing the same things--lead by Michael's wife Liz. According to them, an unusual situation. Each group has its own coach bus etc, but we did wind up staying in the same lodges etc. Both groups were great, and it was apparent the other group thought the world of Liz too.)

 

After breakfast and our self-introductions, we were asked to meet the bus downstairs at the entrance to take us to the Dredge 8 Gold Mining Camp. We had a delightful young bus driver named Faith, and she gave us the bus safety information by singing an original song and playing her ukulele. She was an absolute delight the entire day. I can't say enough about the adorable young people who take these seasonal jobs in Alaska. They are cheerful, kind, helpful and lots of fun. And this was truly a constant: everyone we met along the way were exceptionally pleasant and smiling.

 

As we traveled along, Michael provided great information about Fairbanks and how it was founded.

 

Once we got to Dredge 8, we were met by George. He is a full time social studies teacher during the school year and works at Dredge 8 in the summer. I'm sure he is a great teacher as he was very engaging and was able to tell the stories of mining in the area and truly make it come alive. He has written several books on mining, and his latest was available in the gift shop. We boarded a little steam engine which took us to the mine. Before we got off we were given a demonstration on how to pan our "poke" for gold flecks. As we disembarked from the train, Faith and several other young people were handing out the cloth bags (pokes) of dirt and gold. I teasingly told Faith that since it was my birthday that day to please hand me one that had a big nugget in it. LOL We took our pokes to panning area and began the process of trying to use the water and the pan and a certain motion with the pan and water to separate the gravel and dirt and leave the gold flecks--which are heavier than the gravel and sand--on the bottom of the pan. It's harder than it looks, I can tell you that. Cute little Faith came by to see what kind of nugget I got in my poke and helped me and DH sift down to the few flecks we did get. From there you put your tiny flecks into a container much like an old 35mm film canister and take it into the store to be weighed. Together DH and I panned $33 in gold. At this point Dredge 8 would like to see you something to put all that gold into. Many of the ladies were buying charms, earrings and necklaces to put their gold in. We just brought ours home. There really wasn't enough to do anything with. I'm sure it's one of those souvenirs that I'll find years later and wonder again what to do with it.

 

We walked around the complex of gifts shops, enjoyed a complimentary cup of coffee and several of their cookies--chocolate chip, oatmeal or snickerdoodle.

 

enhance

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Nice

 

question for you or others...I have seen post where people say they are 'following'

 

how do you do that, and what kind of notification do you get that there is a new posting?

and to the OP - yes, we also read carbill very detailed postings and sure will appreciate yours as well:cool:

 

Just use the "Thread Tools" button on the upper right and subscribe to the thread. You can choose your notification options - anything from no notification to weekly digest to instant notification by email when there is a post.

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thanks thrak...i'll follow here until the thread really slows down, then maybe opt for the email updates...this is definitely on our "list" - looking like summer 2020 now at the soonest...:(...but will give my wife plenty of planning time amongst the others...:D

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On to the steam ship paddle boat ride....

I had thought (and had read places) that these two activities are a bit hokey. I actually thought they were fine. We had great weather, and it was all pretty entertaining.

 

When we arrived, we were given tickets for both the boat ride and for lunch. Lunch was family style inside an ENORMOUS room with picnic table style tables and benches. Hundreds of people (literally) from Princess and Holland America tours filed into the room and took the next seat available. Our tour group fit at one long table. Lunch was beef stew, salad, bread and a brownie with pitchers of water and iced tea on the table. It was not bad at all.

 

There were several steamship paddle boats and we were assigned to #3. As we boarded we took a seat indoors in the shade on the LEFT side, as was recommended by other reviews I had read. Michael also told our group to sit on that side. This side has a better view of the float plane and dog sled demonstrations. The commentator on the ship had an excellent speaking voice. He was easy to listen to and informative about the houses on the river we were passing etc. By far the most entertaining part of the ride was seeing and listening to Susan Butcher's daughter. She stayed on shore and takes through a microphone. She and her family are continuing the legend her mother was so famous for in the Iditarod. She and the ship's commentator told the story of one of her mother's most famous dogs: Granite. Susan Butcher wrote a book about him, a three time race winner. There are books available on land, and Susan's daughter will dedicate a book to you or someone you wish to buy the book for. Then she tied a team of dogs up and they pulled an ATV without an engine around her land. You can also see the team run on the overhead screens inside the boat. Just as you see on TV and other places, it is so apparent these dogs live for this job! They are so excited to be chosen to run. Every human should love his job like these dogs love theirs! They took a lap around a small lake and then she released them. They all ran into the river to cool off and to get a drink.

 

The boat then left for an Indian village where we disembarked and walked around to various areas where short lectures were given on native housing, clothing etc. It was an absolutely gorgeous day: full sun and 75.

 

(I managed to copy and paste one photo --above--from my MacBook Air, but am not having any luck with other photos. Any help copying and pasting photos from my MacBook Air would be appreciated.)

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We arrived back at the Fairbanks hotel with about 45 minutes to freshen up before dinner. We met in a dining room on the second floor and tables were marked for "Michael's group" and "Liz's group." We were met at the door of the dining room with glasses of champagne. This was to be a set supper with wine pairings. We sat at a table for 8, and they brought out the first wine, a red one with the salad. This was followed by a white one for the halibut course and another red wine for the beef tenderloin entree. The dinner concluded with the chef coming into the dining room to make flaming Bananas Foster.

 

It was an exceptionally full day as were many that came after. It was 9pm when we got back to our room, and the sun was still quite high in the sky. As we prepared for bed, I asked my DH, "Was it just THIS morning that we met our tour guide, had a buffet breakfast and met the others on this tour? It seems like three days ago!"

 

Day two was to be no less busy, and we set the alarm for 5AM.

Edited by Worldtraveler 4727

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Fairbanks to Denali June 21, 2018

Our luggage needed to be tagged for suitcases that were to be sent to the ship and suitcases that were going to follow us to the next lodge at Denali. All was to be in the hallway by 6AM. We decided not to send anything on to the ship and to keep our two pieces of luggage with us as went went lodge to lodge. We also had a regular sized backpack that we carried along with us on the train and coach busses. There is very limited space to store things, and this was the recommended piece of "luggage" to take with you daily. In it we carried a bottle or water, granola bars, binoculars and the paperwork you need for that day. (With all the food provided, you do not need any granola bars etc)

 

Note: You will normally get to the next lodge by 2Pm or so, but your luggage will not show up until at least 5PM, so take what you'll need till about 5 in your backpack.

 

We were to meet the bus at 7AM to take us to the train depot. Interestingly, Princess had made an error. In our packet of info for today, there were breakfast vouchers for anywhere in the Fairbanks hotel--either the buffet breakfast or the small coffee shop inside the gift store. Also included today was breakfast in the dining car on the train. Some people opted for two breakfasts--the buffet in the hotel and on the train. DH and I got coffees in the gift shop and opted to have breakfast on the train. Michael jokingly said this double breakfast situation was training preparation for the cruise. Ha!

 

We reached the glass-domed train and were seated in a Gold Star car (we even got Gold Star train pins). Our train tickets assigned us to specific seats. All seats were comfortably padded and ALL seats faced forward on the train. None with forward and backward with a table between them like I had seen and read about. One of the conductors came aboard and introduced us to the bartender in our car and told us that he would be beginning at the front of the car and moving backward asking those of us who wished to have breakfast to go to the lower level of the car where dining was available. We received two drink tickets each for the trip. DH and I got a Bloody Mary and a vodka and orange juice and settled into our seats to watch the Alaskan scenery go by and to wait to be called to the dining area for breakfast. Meanwhile, Michael walked around with our packets for the Denali lodge. This included room keys and vouchers for the King Salmon restaurant for lunch and for dinner there the next evening. There were also instructions for breakfast, for the Tundra Wilderness Tour (included in this Connoisseur Tour) and for the Denali Music Theater dinner.

Michael had previously asked us what time we preferred to have dinner: 5 - 6:60 or 6:30 - 8. We chose the later time slot. In order for everyone on the tour to try to get to know the others, Michael assigned us with two other couples for dinner that evening. He made reservations for our groups every evening in every restaurant.

Everything on this tour is extraordinarily orchestrated and exacting. We were not quite sure how we would react to all of this shuffling from bus to bus to train to bus to ship on an organized tour like this, but it was truly lovely and delightful and relaxing to be able to sit back and have it all laid out and taken care of.

Michael also sent around a questionnaire regarding room assignments. For example: Are you able to climb stairs if no elevator was available? DH and I had to reply "no" to that question on this trip. DH is struggling with needing knee replacements, and I am set for hip replacement #1 this month. Michael made sure we had ground floor rooms.

 

When the first set of people finished breakfast, they came back up to the top of the train in the observation car, and more people were called down. We were seated with a couple we had dinner with the evening before. A delightful couple from one of the Chanel Islands between Britain and France. Three of us ordered the stuffed French toast. It was excellent and our very first experience in a dining car on a train. We went back to the observation car after breakfast and continued the train ride to Denali. Along the way we saw four cow moose. After about 4 hours, the train went around a corner, and there was the Princess Denali complex. Michael pointed out that we would be staying in the newest of the buildings on site and that the Denali Princess Lodge is the largest hotel in all of Alaska.

 

Our room was beautiful (and if I can figure out how to post pictures I'd like to show you the room and the view). It overlooked the Nenana River. It was warm again today--mid 70's--and this hotel, unlike Fairbanks-- does not have air conditioning. Fortunately, the large windows opened up providing a lovely breeze.

 

We had a voucher for lunch, and there are several places on the property to use the voucher. One is the King Salmon restaurant, another is Lynx pizza. We decided to try the pizza since we were going to King Salmon that evening for dinner. DH and I each had a small salad, sodas, and shared a medium vegetarian pizza.

 

Note: Each of the vouchers entitles you to an appetizer, or soup, or salad--an entree--a non-alcoholic drink--and dessert. We did not find out until the final dinner in the final lodge that you can ask to "trade" one for another. For example, if you don't want dessert, you can choose a soup AND a salad. Or skip dessert and have an appetizer AND soup. Etc.

 

After lunch we walked up to the main lodge and waited for the bus to the park's Visitor Center. Once there, we caught another bus to another part of the park to see the dogsled demonstration put on by the National Park Service rangers. The dogs train during the summer, and they work all winter with the rangers patrolling the park. It never gets old seeing their exuberance and love for their job. We were able to walk among the dogs and pet the ones closest. Such sweet animals. After the demonstration, we caught the bus to the Visitor's Center and then another one back to the Lodge.

 

Note: Each of the lodge properties is huge, and each provides a on-site shuttle service to take you where you need to go. Even though Kenai is the smallest, there is still a shuttle service. We only had one problem with any shuttles and wait times and that was at McKinley when the shuttles were having some mechanical problems.

 

Michael had made reservations for us at the King Salmon restaurant for 7:30 with two other couples from our group. DH and I left for the restaurant area a little bit early and stopped at the Grizzly Bar for a couple drinks. One of the other couples we were meeting for dinner was out on the deck overlooking the river and we joined them. Stunning setting overlooking the river. The four of us the walked over to the King Salmon restaurant right next door to the Grizzly bar and met up with the other couple from London joining us for dinner. We were seated and within 10 minutes placed our order. Two of us chose the Crab Trio; one chose the king salmon, and one chose the halibut. On my Crab Trio was one king crab leg half, one Dungeness crab and one Opilia carb. All three crab were room temperature at best when they arrived. The small pot of melted butter was just room temperature as well. I asked the waiter to bring another one, and that one too was just room temperature. I am not a huge fan of crab, but from other reviews, I had wanted to try the Crab Trio. As it turned out, it was my least favorite of all the dinners we had all 15 days. The King Crab was small, and the rest took a great deal of work for very little yield, in my opinion. The salmon and halibut were all reported as very good. We were all quite full but wanted to give some of the desserts a try. I saw another table with an interesting chocolate cake. I don't remember the name the restaurant gave it, but by its size we all agreed it should have been called Denali Mountain Chocolate Cake! It was TALL, moist and chocolatey.

 

Dinner concluded just the second full day in Alaska--and what a full day it was again!

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A note about mosquitoes. There weren't very many. The tour guides suggest repellent if you are going out hiking. They can be very prevalent in woodsy areas. If you aren't hiking, you can leave the repellent at home and save some space.

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Oh wow - loved reading your review as it brought back such great memories of our trip to Alaska four years ago - Michael Moore was also our tour guide. We found him amazing too and he made our holiday so memorable.

 

 

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Day #3 June 22, 2018

Another very early day.

We set the alarm for 4AM as we needed to grab a cup of coffee and bit of breakfast before meeting our group at the main lodge for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Our voucher was good at the buffet at the Denali Music Theater, or the small grab 'n go spot in our A/B building, or the slightly larger one in the lower level of the main lodge. We grabbed a cup of coffee and croissant at the little counter in the A/B building. We took the shuttle down to the main lodge, and only a few minutes later Michael showed up. He was not going on the tour with us, but he met us there early that morning to be sure all went well for us. (Have I mentioned how hard-working this guy is??)

 

Our bus arrived at 6AM and we were very lucky-- as we found out as we made our way through the 63 miles of Denali National Park-- that we scored Lisa as our driver. She told delightful stories of life in Alaska since she moved there in 1981, her life and home on Kodiak Island, and of all her various jobs including commercial fishing (which her husband still does). She displayed vast knowledge of the park, its founders and provided nuggets of history that kept us entertained the entire way. She was extremely conscientious about stopping at each possible rest stop. The bus was better than a school bus but not quite a coach bus (no bathroom onboard). Our bus was one of the newer park models wth padded seats. The seats were small and close together. Lisa shared with us that this new bus had a better camera system than the older ones, and the drop-down screen worked well.

 

When we boarded the bus the seats already our box lunches on them, which included a sausage stick, a granola bar, some crisp veggie chips and cookies. Bottles of water were passed out as well. Although there is a Subway across the street from the Denali lodge (as well as a liquor store if you care to have drinks in your room), no one brought any other food onboard, and the box lunch proved to be quite sufficient for our time on the road.

 

I took careful notes on all aspects of this trip from multiple CC threads, and one bit of advice was to sit on the left side of the bus. As it turned out, the left side did have more open areas and thus more of an opportunity to spot animals. The situation was, of course, reversed on the way back. Bottom line: it didn't matter too much.

 

Lisa instructed us to watch for animals and to shout STOP, quickly say either left or right and an approximate direction, such as 3 o'clock or 10 o'clock. If the command came from the back of the bus, it needed to be relayed to the front so Lisa could hear what was needed, what direction we were all to look, and animal we were all to look for. She then trained the camera on the area, and it showed up on the pull down tv screens in the bus. On our 63 mile journey, we saw 6 - 7 caribou, and several groups of Dall sheep, but by far the most exciting were the three Grizzly bears! Since Grizzly bears do not roam in packs, Lisa explained that the three were likely a mother and two cubs who were already a year or so old. Grizzly cubs stay with their mother for 2 - 3 years. It was hard to discern the difference among the three of them, all were pretty big. None of these animals were particularly close to the bus/road, but almost everyone had binoculars and some sort of camera to capture whatever images they could. Some people took photographs of the television screen since Lisa was able to zoom in on the animals.

 

The tour lasted between 7 and 8 hours. We had fairly good weather with a good deal of sun and temps in the 60's. But weather in Alaska and particularly in the mountainous/tundra areas around Denali, the weather changes by the minute. As we approached the turn around point where we might've been able to capture a glimpse of the mountain, clouds and drizzle developed. So although we felt we had a successful day in seeing animals, the mountain herself eluded us.

 

This evening Michael had our group scheduled for the 5:15PM Denali Music Theater dinner program. It consisted of six hard-working young people who served dinner and then provided a musical show about the first men known to scale Denali. We were seated in a large room at log tables with chairs. The six young servers/entertainers really hustle to get the food on and off the table and then perform the show. I wondered out loud if the same group of six do all three shows and servings for dinner every night, or if there are several groups of six. It would be pretty exhausting for the same six to do all that serving and clearing and entertaining. The food was okay. It consisted of thinly sliced beef brisket with some barbecue sauce, salmon with a sauce over it (by far the best of all the offerings), succotash, salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and pitchers of iced tea and water. All was served family style, and while you could request more of whatever the table may want, the service was rather rushed and there was little opportunity for that. Dessert was baked apple crisp and coffee.

The dinner and show sells for $69.95 per person and $34.95 per child. It was included in our Connoisseur package. It was an interesting addition to our day, but if it had not been included in the package, we would not have done it. I would have preferred a dinner voucher for the main restaurant as the food there was excellent.

 

It was only about 7:30PM when the dinner and show concluded, but these early mornings and long days and set lag are all catching up to us. We turned in early and were happy to fall asleep once again listening to the rushing rapids in the river outside our window.

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Oh wow - loved reading your review as it brought back such great memories of our trip to Alaska four years ago - Michael Moore was also our tour guide. We found him amazing too and he made our holiday so memorable.

 

 

Sent from my iPad using Forums

 

 

Thanks so much! I've spent hours typing today and just posted day 3--;p long ways to go, but I know how much I enjoy the detailed reviews from others of places I wanted to visit, so this is pay back.

Isn't Michael just the best?? I agree, he was a huge part of making the trip as wonderful as it was for us. I don't know if you can request a certain tour guide, but if I were to go again, I'd sure try to get Michael.

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Thanks so much for taking the time to give a current report on the connoisseur tour. Looking forward to the rest of your report as doing a 6 day connoisseur tour the end of August. Although several things will be different for us finding your report very informative.

 

 

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World Traveler, Great info. First time I've seen advice for the paddle wheel boat. We will be having lunch on the train. Are there only 4 items at lunch or were their any additional items on the next page. No worries if you don't have that info. :D

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