From Seward to Anchorage and Denali National Park

Pier in Anchorage

A morning mist floats around the pier in Anchorage

After a full day at sea, it was good to know we would be disembarking today. We feel we truly picked the best length cruise for us, 7 days was just right. Our next option would have been the 14 day cruise, but we really wanted to get on land and have a chance to explore for ourselves. We were planning on spending the next two days in Denali National Park and couldn’t wait to get there. Holland America made leaving the ship quite simple, we left our bags out for pick-up the evening before and had nothing to do but eat breakfast, grab our carry-ons and leave the boat.

Seward Pier Building

Seward Pier Building

Best lesson I can stress regarding disembarkation, LISTEN to your Travel Agent. The staff on your ship will do their best to make sure you and your luggage get to the right place, but they may not be aware of special arrangements regarding the rest of your vacation. We unfortunately didn’t understand we weren’t to follow the mass of people boarding a bus to Anchorage, we were supposed to have picked up our rental car there in Seward. A few good things came from the mistake however and we did ultimately arrive at our day’s destination, albeit a few hours later than we had planned.

Boarding the tour bus in Seward allowed us to take in the wealth of knowledge our driver had. He didn’t stop talking for a moment, giving us every piece of information he could about the Alaskan frontier, culture, history… little known facts and random stories included. It was actually quite enjoyable, as was the scenery. Traveling up Highway 1, along the Cook Inlet, was remarkable. We even spotted a few whales in the inlet.

We arrived at the convention center in Anchorage within a few hours of leaving the ship. After realizing our error and acquiring a new rental car, we stopped for a bite to eat at Platinum Jaxx . Again we made a great choice, it was priced a little high for a quick lunch but the food was unique and well prepared. I had the Halibut burger and would definitely order it again.

So after lunch, we cabbed to the airport to pick up our rental and get back on the highway. We really wanted to get to Denali as soon as possible, even though we knew at this point we wouldn’t get into the park that day, we wanted to get there during daylight hours for our first view of the great mountain.

Panorama Roadside Trees

Panorama of Roadside Trees - Click to Enlarge

Roadside Portrait of Amy

Roadside Portrait of Amy

Our first siting of Mount McKinley was from a scenic stop / rest stop on Highway 3, about 45 minutes south of the park. It was our first and only chance to see it’s highest peak, making us part of the 15% of travelers that actually get a clear shot of the mountain top. The highest point of Mount McKinley, also called “Denali; the Great One” is usually under cloud cover.

We made it to our hotel by 5:00, tired and hungry but completely excited by everything we had seen on our drive. We were staying at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and had a park’s view from our room. A gorgeous hotel, all the amenities, yet it fit so well into its surroundings. We walked through the grounds, checked out the artwork in the main lodge and opted to head across the street to have dinner at the Overlook Bar and Grill at the Crow’s Nest. We just couldn’t go wrong with our dining choices on this trip. We had some local draft beers, watched Michael Phelps pull out his seventh gold medal and enjoyed an evening out on the deck. Great food, great view; Lonely Planet had it right when they named the Overlook “the best bar in the Greater Denali area”.

Sitka: Eagles, Shopping and Fish Nuggets

Sitka Alaska Welcome Sign and Tender

Sitka Alaska Welcome Sign and ms Veendam Tender in background

Day Six – Sitka, Alaska – No excursions planned as we decided there was enough in the city for us to experience on our own. Sitka was originally the capital of ‘Russian America’, a conglomerate of Russian colonies existing on current American territory. Many of the historic buildings, shops, restaurants still carry their Russian roots aesthetically. Ryan was even able to buy a Russian Tank Helmet for his brother, so fun and well received.

Holland America Line ms Veendam Tender Launching

Holland America Line ms Veendam Tender Launching

So the cruise ship itself wasn’t able to dock at the harbor and we had to take a tender boat from the ship to the shore; it was overcast, drizzling and cold. We were finding though, per usual, the dismal weather didn’t really dampen our excitement at all. Alaska has a way of still being beautiful through the fog and rain.

On cruise ships, lifeboat tenders do double duty, serving as tenders in day-to-day activities, but fully equipped to act as lifeboats in an emergency. They are generally carried on davits just above the promenade deck, and may at first glance appear to be regular lifeboats; but they are usually larger and better-equipped. Current lifeboat tender designs favor catamaran models, since they are less likely to roll in the calm to moderate conditions in which tenders are usually used. They typically carry up to 100 to 150 passengers and two to three crew members. —Wikipedia Ship’s Tender article

St. Michael's Cathedral Sitka, AK

St. Michael's Cathedral Sitka, AK

We started at Baranof Castle Hill, nothing like a brisk morning, uphill trek after a big hot breakfast on the ship. Castle Hill is the site of the transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867. The original forts have not survived battles or fire throughout their past but the site creates a great viewpoint of the surrounding town being on high ground.

We left Castle Hill for Totem Square, the Sitka Pioneers Home, the Russian Block House and Saint Michael’s Cathedral. We found ourselves on Lincoln Street on the way to the Cathedral and were able to wander in and out of several shops and galleries. Sitka’s retail “district” seemed to be centered along this stretch of road. Even with the chill in the air, it was hard to avoid the ice cream and fudge shops!

Sitka Crab on Beach HAL MS Veendam Anchored

Sitka Crab on Beach, HAL MS Veendam Anchored


Totem Pole in Sitka

Totem Pole in Sitka

Our ultimate goal was to spend as much time as we could at the Sitka National Historical Park . We continued along Lincoln, passing several historic homes and a marina along the way. The museum at the entry to the Park houses several original Tlingit and Russian artifacts, depicting the struggle between the two cultures two hundred years ago. The building is also home to several totem poles, both inside and outside the structure.

We left the center to take ourselves on the self-guided tour through the forest behind the museum, the accessible trails available total two miles of peaceful serenity. Along the trail we found several hand carved totem poles, and ended at the site of the original Tlingit fort. Not being two people who love to stay on marked trails, we wandered off a bit and wound up oceanside, walking towards a small inlet to the Indian River that seemed to be a favorite playplace for a large family of American Bald Eagles.

Looking up in the forest with rain on the lens

Looking up in the forest with rain on the lens

Amy with Starfish at the Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery

Amy with Starfish at the Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery

Leaving the Park, we walked back up Lincoln Street towards town and stopped at the Sheldon Jackson Fish Hatchery. Originally funded by the Sheldon Jackson college up the street (closed by the state in 2007), this small hatchery and aquarium seemed fully supported by volunteers, a bit run-down, but fully loved and enjoyed.

We watched some sea otters play in the ocean behind the aquarium, were astonished by the quantities of salmon in the tanks out back and were very impressed with the open tanks of sea life we were able to touch and hold inside the aquarium. Although small, it was much more interactive and educational than your typical big-city aquarium. I really hope that it acquires the funding it needs to continue.

At this point we were extremely hungry and wanted to find some local cuisine. Fish nuggets and homemade chowder at the Westmark Raven Dining Room, along with a local draught brew. Perfection! I can’t explain the difference between eating fish fresh out of the ocean, compared to the selection we have here in Chicago, but Ryan and I were both convinced we’d never eat farm-raised or frozen again.

We stopped in at a few more shops and made our way back to harbor for the short trip back to the ship. Still convinced we had done the right thing by leaving our plans open in Sitka, you should too.

A Morning in Juneau: Mendenhall Glacier and Salmon Bake

Juneau, AK

Juneau, AK

Our next port of call was Juneau, the state capital. Oddly enough, Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane, there are no roadways coming in our out of it due to its location. The Borough of Juneau itself is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island put together, but is surrounded primarily by ice fields and mountains. Residents of Alaska have petitioned multiple times to have the capital moved, but as a new location could never be agreed upon, the government remains there.

Our travel agent arranged for one excursion compliments of her agency while we were on our cruise. The “Mendenhall Glacier & Alaskan Salmon Bake” was not an excursion we would have booked for ourselves as it sounded pretty tame, but we were both so grateful to get to experience both.

Mendenhall Glacier Panorama

Mendenhall Glacier Panorama, click for full size.

“Travel through Juneau’s picturesque downtown to the mighty Mendenhall Glacier, a moving river of ice with rugged crevasses. Stroll the many walkways or enjoy some time at the Visitor Center, then you’ll board your motor coach for your tour to the traditional Alaskan salmon bake at Salmon Creek. An Alaskan feast, this salmon bake features Alaskan-caught wild salmon grilled over an open alder wood fire. Also enjoy Cheechako baked chicken, Bonanza barbecued ribs; Chilkoot baked beans, wild-rice pilaf, a variety of fresh salads, corn bread and lemonade, coffee or tea. (Beer and wine are available for an additional charge.) Dine beside Salmon Creek in Southeast Alaska’s rain forest and listen to a local musician–a translucent roof protects you rain or shine. After dining, toast marshmallows over a crackling campfire and walk to view the beautiful Salmon Creek waterfall. Remnants of the historic Wagner Mine are evident here. Return to the ship by shuttle bus.”

Kayakers approaching Mendenhall Glacier

Kayakers approaching Mendenhall Glacier

The bus trip through town to Mendenhall Valley was about fifteen minutes and again our route was narrated by the driver. We arrived at the glacier and were immediately in awe. From the bus itself we could already see the vivid blue color of the ice. Glacial ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue, which it transmits. You have to see it to truly grasp the crisp clarity and beauty of the ice.

We did quite a bit of quick hiking around Mendenhall. Detoured by a sign warning us of bears in the area, the ground littered with half eaten salmon, we never quite made it to Nugget Falls. We did witness the salmon frantically swimming up stream in the river surrounding the Visitors Center however, so bizarre. We were also able to video some calving of the glacier while we were there.

Wood Grilled Glazed Salmon

Wood Grilled Glazed Salmon

Salmon Creek Abandoned Mine

Salmon Creek Abandoned Mine

We left Mendenhall in the same tour bus and soon found ourselves at the Salmon Bake. Wow… mmmm… The description of the menu above does do it justice and we couldn’t get enough to eat. We may have been joined by 100 other tourists, but really there was plenty to eat, the folk band was very entertaining and the hiking trails were beautiful.

We found ourselves alone by the abandoned mine and were able to forget that we were with a large tour group. After being awarded the ceremonial Salmon Bake baseball hat and herded back on the bus, we were on our way back to downtown Juneau for the part of the trip Ryan was most looking forward to; a glacier landing via helicopter.